The answer, unfortunately, is all of the above—and more. But perhaps the place to begin is with the last point. The education establishment, including schools of education and textbook publishers, have largely “pooh-poohed” the idea of knowledge, observed panelist Sonja Santelises, chief executive officer of the Baltimore public schools.
“It doesn’t take the place of other things,” she said, “but to say it’s a side dish, to say content doesn’t matter, is professional malpractice.”
In Baltimore and a few other places, leaders like Santelises are trying to turn things around by adopting curricula that build knowledge in history, science, literature, and the arts. That’s the kind of knowledge that can ensure academic success, and children from more educated families generally acquire it outside of school. Children from less educated families—like the majority of those who attend Baltimore’s public schools—often won’t acquire it unless they get it in school. And most don’t.
Santelises, a member of a group of top state and local education officials called Chiefs for Change, began her efforts by evaluating Baltimore’s homegrown literacy curriculum. Using a “Knowledge Map”—a tool developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy—she discovered gaps in coverage and weaknesses in the approach teachers were supposed to take. Last year the school system adopted a content-focused literacy curriculum called Wit & Wisdom for kindergarten through eighth grade that includes challenging books along with related works of art for students to analyze. Santelises says she worried teachers would say their students couldn’t handle the work. Instead, “teachers are saying their kids are eating up the content” and parents are thrilled to see how much their children are learning, she reported.