If America is serious about wanting kids to become better readers, our elementary schools need to spend more time teaching social studies rather than doubling-down on “reading comprehension.” This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the key takeaway from our new study. It’s also especially important for girls and those from lower-income and/or non-English-speaking homes.
If America is serious about wanting kids to become better readers, our elementary schools need to spend more time teaching social studies rather than doubling-down on “reading comprehension.” This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the key takeaway from a groundbreaking study the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released last week.
Mind you, we’re not the first to find that devoting tons of time to English language arts (ELA) instruction does not improve student reading. But we are the first to find that literacy gains are more likely to materialize when students spend more time learning social studies.
This underscores the crucial insight that E.D. Hirsch set forth in 1987 in his path-breaking book Cultural Literacy. Writers and speakers typically make assumptions about what their readers and listeners know. They have to do that, as they don’t take time to explain historical references and literary allusions or to resolve ambiguities. They can’t provide all the background knowledge, either. Which means that when their readers and listeners already possess a body of such knowledge, language comprehension comes much easier.
Think of it this way: Virtually all middle schoolers can “read” the words “Berlin Wall.” They surely can sound out the letters and all three syllables. But only some of them will instantly recognize the phrase and have a sense of what it implies. They will know that Berlin was the capital of Germany during World War II, after which it was divided between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. They will know that the wall was built to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. And they will know that those East Germans wanted to escape because of the lack of freedom and economic opportunity under Communist rule. So those students will be able to comprehend a passage that alludes to the Berlin Wall, while their less knowledgeable peers will not.
Over the years, a small but growing body of research has shown that focusing on academic content in the early grades—not on generalized reading skills and strategies—equips students with the background knowledge (à la the Berlin Wall) that they need to comprehend all sorts of texts and make them truly literate by the time they reach middle school, thus laying a solid foundation for further learning.
Moreover, this focus on knowledge has the potential to lessen socioeconomic and racial/ethnic gaps in literacy. If we acknowledge that more affluent and white students often have greater access to knowledge-building opportunities and resources at home (often including better-educated parents), we can make education more equitable by teaching knowledge-rich content to those who arrive in school with few of those advantages.
Yet rather than spending the past several decades making sure that all students—especially poor children and children of color—got a strong dose of social studies and science instruction in order to build this content knowledge and advance equity, American elementary schools mostly spent ever more time on the “skill” of reading comprehension. Instead of learning about the world, students were told to “identify the main idea.” And as any serious analysis of reading achievement can tell you, that hasn’t worked. It can’t. As Hirsch has tirelessly pointed out, language comprehension is not a “skill” at all: content is comprehension.
So what if elementary schools simply spent more time on social studies, science, and the like? Would their students end up becoming better readers? That’s the question that birthed Fordham’s new study, Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.
To investigate, Fordham’s associate director of research Adam Tyner and early childhood researcher Sarah Kabourek teamed up to better understand how classroom time is currently spent in U.S. elementary schools and how it might be better utilized to promote literacy. They plumbed nationally representative data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K: 2011), which sampled thousands of students in their kindergarten year and followed them through fifth grade. This long view is important because knowledge and vocabulary accrue slowly. Their primary analysis examines how much classroom time is spent on different subjects, whether students who spend more time on certain subjects make greater progress in reading, and how these effects differ by student characteristics. Their analytic models control for a host of student-, teacher-, and school-level factors to further isolate the relationship between time use and reading growth.
Here's what they found:
- Elementary school students in the U.S. spend much more time on ELA than on any other subject.
- Increased instructional time for social studies—but not for ELA—is associated with greater progress in reading.
- The students who benefit most from the additional social studies time are girls and those from lower-income and/or non-English-speaking homes.
The authors offer three important takeaways for policy and practice. First and most obvious is that elementary schools should make more room for high-quality instruction in history, civics, geography, and the other knowledge-rich—and engaging—subjects that comprise social studies. Excessive amounts of time spent on ELA appear not to yield the additional reading gains that well-intentioned educators hoped for, that the country needs, and that equity demands.
Second, teachers should use their ELA block to build student knowledge, ideally by adopting one of the well-regarded knowledge-rich curricula now on the market.
Third, policymakers and administrators should align reading assessments with curricular content. Daniel Willingham, a distinguished cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, once penned this simple yet profound statement: “Reading tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.” That means that we need to get serious not only about how we teach students knowledge but also how we test it. It calls for a much more deliberate approach to how we sequence particular content across grade levels and how we sample from it to inform new tests that reward and prioritize knowledge development—such as what Louisiana is doing with its middle-school English language arts assessment.
The poorly utilized ELA block has become a barrier to progress in reading, especially for poor kids and children of color. The best elementary teachers direct students’ gazes not toward the mirror, under the mistaken notion that children can only be engaged by texts about their lives and experiences, but out the window where they can glimpse a smidgen of the wonders and fascinations that our globe has to offer.
Spending so much time in elementary school on the “skill” of reading comprehension at the expense of teaching content may sound like a good idea, but it actually works against the very outcomes we’re trying to achieve. So let’s stop doing it!
A new study published last week by Fordham, Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, suggests that to become better readers, elementary students should spend more time on social studies. Using a nationally representative sample of thousands of students who were followed from kindergarten through fifth grade, co-authors Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek unearthed several key findings, none more eye-opening than strong reading progress (“clear, positive, and statistically significant”) for students who received an additional thirty minutes a day of social studies instruction.
Amid a renewed focus on curriculum and the link between background knowledge and literacy, the report challenges the conventional wisdom—and standard practice—of most elementary schools, where English language arts (ELA) holds an outsized place in the daily schedule. Indeed, the authors found—paradoxically—that additional time spent on ELA was not associated with reading improvement, buttressing arguments made by E.D. Hirsch and others that a myopic focus on reading skills and strategies can even undermine reading progress.
The well-timed and well-done analysis offers two other recommendations: (1) infuse more content-rich texts and topics into the literacy block and (2) align reading assessments with curricular content à la Louisiana. The overarching theme is clear: Knowledge acquisition is the hidden-in-plain-sight lever that policymakers have seldom thought to pull. Based on the report’s findings, they might do well to get cracking! As Daniel Willingham often says, “Teaching content is teaching reading.”
At the same time, Tyner and Kabourek’s oeuvre comes with a couple of key caveats. The first is that no data on specific curricula or teaching practices were available for the analysis. The second is that other factors, such as teacher quality, could be driving the correlation between class time usage and student learning (more on that below). These are two important points to consider because, as we urge more time on social studies, states and districts would do well to look under the hood and see what’s actually being taught.
To wit, as an earlier Fordham study concluded, social studies today is a “muddled, ineffectual curricular and pedagogical wasteland.” Tyner and Kabourek acknowledge as much by conditioning their recommendations to specify high-quality social studies instruction:
Unfortunately, social studies has long been neglected in American primary schools.... When schools do teach social studies, it is often so watered down or devoid of controversy that it neither builds knowledge nor captures student interest.
Ironically, social studies’ biggest shortcoming is that, as implemented in today’s elementary classrooms, it is largely free of content and coherence. As a former elementary school principal, I’ll admit that social studies was low on my priority list in part because of the curriculum’s utilitarian emphasis on “community helpers”—limiting instruction to institutions with which my students were already familiar—rather than the more engaging but controversial study of heroes and history.
Critics often charge that No Child Left Behind caused schools to neglect social studies (among other subjects) owing to the law’s narrow focus on reading and math. The truth, however, is that very little time (5 percent) was devoted to social studies in elementary classrooms even before NCLB. I suspect it has much to do with the teacher quality hypothesis raised by Tyner and Kabourek. Good social studies requires both knowledgeable teachers and sound curricula. Absent that, there’s not much point to devoting more time to it.
Before tacking on additional curricular time for social studies (or any other discipline), states and districts should lift the veil on present classroom practices. We still have an inexcusably poor understanding of how schools and systems spend billions of dollars on educational materials at a time when the country is correctly fixated on better civics and history education. Without this information, the effort to improve the civic knowledge and attitudes of our students will remain artificially hamstrung.
So yes, a diet rich in content is just what the doctor ordered for our youngest learners, but it’s amazing that the authors found such a strong effect given the “wasteland” that is elementary social studies. Imagine if we taught social studies well instead. The impact could be even greater.
There used to be two sureties when it came to American K–12 education: Kids would attend school, and school leaders would demand more money. This fall, with half the nation’s schools shuttered and school districts paying bus drivers to drive empty routes, the first is no longer a given. But the budgetary demands continue unabated.
Indeed, this summer has been filled with school and teacher-union leaders demanding billions to help schools weather Covid-19. But it’s not like these demands are anything new. More than a year before the coronavirus struck, United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl urged teachers to strike in order “to get the basics for [Los Angeles] students.” He neglected to mention that the district was spending $18,788 per student, average teacher pay was $78,962, and the cost of employee benefits had grown an astounding 138 percent between 2001 and 2016.
In May, New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza told the city council, “We are cutting the bone. There is no fat to cut, no meat to cut.” He failed to mention that his district spent an extraordinary $28,900 per student in 2019, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office, or that he had added 340 positions to the central bureaucracy and borough offices in 2019.
In truth, the U.S. spends more than $700 billion on K–12 education a year, or about $14,000 per student. That’s 39 percent more than the average OECD nation. And many big-city districts spend considerably more, with per-pupil outlays of more than $20,000 per year in places such as Washington, D.C., and Boston.
While teacher-union leaders and Democratic politicians frequently suggest we’ve just been through two decades of “school disinvestment,” after-inflation funding actually increased by 27 percent between 2000 and 2016. But it’s not clear that we’re spending all of this money in effective ways. For instance, as researcher Ben Scafidi has documented, the ranks of non-instructional staff have grown more than twice as fast as student enrollment over the past thirty years.
In any event, the combination of school closures, plunging enrollment, and economic dislocation has made this an extraordinarily good time to rethink school spending. It just so happens that, last fall, we recruited a double handful of sharp analysts and budget thinkers to explore how schools could spend smarter.
There are at least four places where such efforts should start:
1. Pensions and benefits: Across the land, some big-city school districts will soon be spending a third or more of their annual outlays on retirement and benefits. In Los Angeles, to take one instance, benefits are projected to consume fully half of all school spending in a decade’s time. Schools should start enrolling future teachers in new retirement vehicles, while asking new staff to pay a share of their health-care costs more similar to that paid by other workers. Such an approach could permit states and districts to shift billions out of future obligations into today’s classrooms, boost actual take-home pay by 15 percent or more, and make teachers active participants in containing costs.
2. Staffing: Schools spend too much on employees who work outside of classrooms and too little on the teachers who actually educate students. They should shift away from the one-teacher-one-classroom model, and toward a model where educators fill a variety of crucial roles, led by the most experienced and accomplished staff. These leaders would split their time between teaching students directly and doing what many of those out-of-classroom hires do: overseeing, aiding, and directing the instruction of their colleagues. This could be an opportunity to routinely pay veteran educators six-figure salaries with the dollars recaptured from bloated bureaucracies.
3. Technology: American schools have a long-running, unrequited love affair with education technology. And, of course, technology has been front-and-center during Covid-19. But, too often, the focus is on gadgetry rather than impact. What’s needed is an inclination to use technology to augment and complement classroom teaching. Technology can give students the opportunity to practice new skills, perform experiments in virtual environments, and have one-on-one visits with teachers and counselors—even when the logistics don’t permit in-person contact. Schools must be redesigned to take advantage of these tools.
4. Operations: In education, faddish enthusiasms and “ambitious” reforms leave too little time for sweating the small stuff that can add up to a big difference for students. Whether it’s reducing outlays for substitute teachers, controlling line-item construction costs, outsourcing janitorial services, or streamlining procurement, there are myriad opportunities to bring outmoded district routines into the twenty-first century. Miami-Dade, for example, used the Great Recession as an opportunity to trim administrative staff by 55 percent—without any adverse impact on student achievement. That kind of leadership should be the norm.
It’s a truism that more money generally helps in life, and there are surely schools and school systems where more funds are needed. At the same time, especially in public bureaucracies, new dollars often double as a convenient excuse to avoid hard choices. Whether or not more aid is coming, it’s time for educational leaders to focus as intently on how they spend each dollar as on how many dollars they get.
Editor’s note: This was first published by National Review.
Modeling the effects of a global pandemic while it’s ongoing seems like a prime example of “inexact science.” It’s also sure to depress. But it’s happening. A group of German and American economists recently added to the bleak parade with a working paper that looks at the consequences of Covid-19-mitigation school closures on current students’ human capital over time.
The analysts built a “heterogeneous agent partial equilibrium” model with a human capital production function at its core. The model’s inputs are time and monetary investments into education made by parents via several avenues (everything from academic enrichment to home purchases to college savings accounts) and by governments through the provision of schooling. They estimate that current closures are equivalent to six fewer months of schooling. Parents respond by adjusting their own investments in their children, thereby potentially mitigating the effects of school closures. In the model, parental time inputs rise by 4.3 percent and monetary inputs by 5 percent, but the global recession is also at work on parental resources.
The model’s outputs are children’s human capital as they progress through high school and college choice, subsequent earnings, and, ultimately, welfare as adults. In short: their futures.
Other recent research predicted that so-called “school shock” will reduce average lifetime earnings at the individual level by almost $10,000. This new prediction is in the same range. On average (across children aged four to fourteen when the shock occurs), the new model implies a 3.8 percent reduction in high school graduations and a 2.7 percent reduction in college degrees. Eighty-seven percent of those losses are directly attributed to the school closures, the rest to parents’ reduced capacity to mitigate the school shock.
Negative effects will be felt most keenly by the youngest children (ages six to ten at the time of the school shock). Older children have already accumulated more of their human capital and thus, the shock is less severe. Low-income families suffer more, both because a greater percentage of their educational inputs come from the government and because their parents have more constraints on how much time and money they can realistically muster to cover the loss.
All of this may sound abstract, but similar alarm bells are ringing among professionals in education, the private sector, psychology, and others in the research community. It is still early, however, and the direst predictions here are based on a total loss of six months’ worth of education. Yet the 2020–21 school year has dawned with many schools, districts, and families looking to kickstart learning and change the equation for their kids. For them, the “Covid slide” may prove remediable. Those who do not break free of their own form of “school shock” to focus on student achievement and growth will see their students end up being weighed down by grim inevitability of the math.
SOURCE: Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Dirk Krueger, Alexander Ludwig, and Irina Popova, “The Long-Term Distributional and Welfare Effects of Covid-19 School Closures,” NBER Working Papers (September 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Aaron Daly, COO of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the network’s innovative reopening recommendations. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines the long-term ramifications of the Covid-19 crisis.
Amber's Research Minute
Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Dirk Krueger, Alexander Ludwig, and Irina Popova, “The Long-Term Distributional and Welfare Effects of Covid-19 School Closures,” NBER Working Papers (September 2020).