Future of Learning

How gaps in content knowledge hold students back

The Knowledge Map project helps districts identify content gaps and close them

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In Baltimore City Public Schools, where about 80 percent of students are black, educators have long tried to incorporate African-American culture into their teaching. In a recent review of the curriculum, however, district leaders discovered that while students spent a lot of time reading about the African-American experience, they read too few high-quality texts, and the majority of the content is focused on things like police brutality, oppression and slavery.

“We never had the opportunity to celebrate the rich culture,” said Janise Lane, executive director of teaching and learning at Baltimore City Public Schools.

That’s changing now, thanks to a districtwide effort to systematically close gaps in what students learn – not just about the African-American experience, but across the entire curriculum. The tool that helped identify the gaps in the first place is called the Knowledge Map, developed at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy based on the value of content knowledge.

In the United States, schools tend to focus on helping students develop concrete skills, like finding the main idea in a paragraph. Systemwide, there’s not much emphasis on what students read to practice that skill. This isn’t the case in countries with the highest-performing education systems, according to Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. In those countries, schools are expected to teach all students common content. They develop similar skills as those that U.S. teachers focus on, but do so using a common curriculum that ensures all students – regardless of class, race or geography – get exposure to a similarly broad set of ideas and facts.

This is important because students need background knowledge about a topic to be able to understand a text about it, and the more background knowledge they have, research has shown, the more likely it is that they will be able to demonstrate the skills that U.S. schools assess. If students have never heard of the game polo, for example, a passage about polo on a test will likely confuse them so much that they flounder when asked to summarize the passage, even if they know how to summarize.

Related: Opinion: How our youngest, neediest learners benefit from deeper phonics and other reforms

In Baltimore City Public Schools, district leaders see “knowledge gaps” as an equity issue. More than half of the district’s students are categorized as low-income. The conversations in their homes, their travel destinations, their cultural excursions too often fail to provide learning opportunities that their wealthier peers have.

Lane said the district created its own English language arts curriculum to match up with the grade-by-grade expectations detailed in the Common Core State Standards. But over the last seven years, revisions here and there created gaps in content over the course of a student’s entire educational trajectory. The Knowledge Map, by cataloging what topics students cover each year, revealed these gaps. District leaders can now see clearly when individual topics are introduced and how frequently students return to them to build deeper knowledge over time.

“If students learned something in kindergarten, we weren’t intentional about what they’d learn in first grade, how that would cycle back in second, how that would build the foundation for what they would need to graduate from high school with,” Lane said. Now, that is a top priority.

Then there’s the question of high-quality texts. The researchers at Johns Hopkins have helped Baltimore City teachers ensure students read accurate, appropriately challenging material. Last year, following the knowledge mapping project, the district adopted a comprehensive K-8 English language arts curriculum, called Wit and Wisdom, to avoid the piecemeal approach to content often taken by teachers across grade levels and subject areas. Curriculum teams are supplementing this with additional units built with Baltimore students in mind – helping them understand their local history, for example.

Already the district sees some anecdotal evidence that the changes are helping students. The new curriculum requires students to talk about the content more, and Lane said their vocabulary and writing have both improved. Their ability to talk about what they’re reading, citing facts across texts, shows they’re going deeper into certain topics than they used to, she added. Before, teachers might use one text to practice a given skill and an unrelated text to practice a different skill in the same class period. Now, related texts give students opportunities to build their content knowledge while developing skills.

It’s a profound change, and one that district leaders hope will translate to greater student success in the years to come.

This story about Knowledge Map was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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