As an avid bibliophile and concerned educator, I try to make an effort to engage with education-based publications to examine potential connections to the school library field. One recent publication I found to be of great interest is The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. I became aware of this book when I happened to see an interview with the author, Natalie Wexler, on CSPAN’s BookTV series. I was immediately intrigued by Wexler’s (2019) proposition that the lack of progress in student achievement in America’s K-12 schools may be due to a “knowledge gap” in the content areas. After spending two years immersed in the education system and engaging with research and a variety of experts, Wexler concluded that elementary schools’ primary focus to teach reading comprehension skills in isolation has prevented students from building the body of knowledge needed to truly comprehend new material. She posits “…what if it’s possible to provide all students, including the neediest, with the kind of education that enables them to enjoy learning, understand and retain what they read, become responsible citizens – and even increase test scores? What if it turns out that the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to focus on comprehension skills at all but to teach kids as early as possible, the history and science we’ve been putting off until it’s too late?” (22-23).
In the book, Wexler spends a full chapter examining the history and impact of the Common Core State Standards. What is particularly eye-opening is her discussion about the primary misconception that the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA)/Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects require specific content. On the contrary, the standards were intended to be implemented in conjunction with content-area standards such as history/social studies, science, and other disciplines. The purpose of this was for students to “build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (Common Core 2010, 10).
Wexler also highlights that effective professional development “has to be part of a cycle of continuous improvement, and it has to be embedded in specific content – preferably content that is part of a coherent, cumulative curriculum” (2019, 113). What is unfortunate is that much of today’s educational curriculum is focused on preparing students to develop specific skill sets to pass annual standardized tests. In addition, “curriculum has been seen as a script administrators impose when they don’t trust teachers to do a good job. As a result, some educators are hostile to the idea of curriculum, period” (Wexler, 2019, 115). It appears that educators need an alternative to a scripted curriculum if they hope to effectively build their students’ knowledge base.
Considering how all of this relates to the school library, what if it turns out the best way to boost reading comprehension and overall student achievement is for school librarians to partner with classroom teachers to collaboratively design and deliver inquiry-based units of instruction that focus on using the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards to build knowledge in history and science and other disciplinary areas across all grade levels? What if these units were designed to fully engage students in the learning process according to their needs and interests? And what if schools fully enabled their school librarians to do what they are trained and certified to do: provide embedded professional development via collaboration with teachers to design a comprehensive, multi-grade level continuum of curriculum? This just might be the solution to closing the knowledge gap.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2010. “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.” http://www.corestandards.org/wp-content/uploads/ELA_Standards1.pdf.
Wexler, Natalie. 2019. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It. New York: Avery.