The Campaign for Knowledge-Rich Curricula is Winning

This column was originally published on Fordham’s Flypaper blog on May 31, 2024.

May 31, 2024 — Barbara Davidson

The drumbeat for a more nuanced treatment of the Science of Reading got louder last week with a hard-hitting new Fordham Institute monographThink Again: Should Elementary Schools Teach Reading Comprehension? In it, author Daniel Buck chronicles the recent history of efforts to teach reading comprehension, concluding—and here I’m using distinguished researcher Hugh Catts’ words, not Buck’s—“Reading comprehension is not a skill someone learns and can then apply in different reading contexts. It is one of the most complex activities that we engage in on a regular basis.”

Many have worried that the SoR movement could disappoint if it too narrowly focuses on phonics alone. The famous image of Scarborough’s Rope weaves together both word recognition (e.g., phonological awareness, decoding) with language comprehension (e.g., background knowledge, vocabulary, verbal reasoning), arguing that “skilled reading” requires both in equal measure. The problem is that the “top of the rope” can’t be taught in the same way word recognition is. I am grateful to have Buck’s piece that so efficiently lays out all we’ve learned about why that is so.

Natalie Wexler notes that the brief breaks no new ground. I find this encouraging. Thirty-seven years ago, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy ignited much controversy with his argument about the importance of knowledge to reading, writing, and thinking. That those arguments are now largely understood is reason for hope. It’s evidence that the importance of knowledge is reaching a greater number of teachers, administrators, and policymakers, and that we can shift our focus from persuasion to how all this gets put into practice.    

And even on this front there’s reason to be optimistic. For example, Meredith and David Liben, who—together with Susan Pimentel—led much of Student Achievement Partners’ work to advance the field’s understanding of college/career-ready ELA standards and the instructional shifts involved in implementing them—have recently written a new book: Know Better, Do Better: Comprehension—Fueling the Reading Brain With Knowledge, Vocabulary, and Rich Language. Part of Scholastic’s Science of Reading in Practice series, the book is replete with ways in which teachers can create the conditions for students to become successful reading comprehenders. Shameless plug: the Libens are hosting Season 2 of the Knowledge Matters Podcast later this summer to discuss this work!

In terms of how the importance of knowledge can make its way into policy, Buck offers four recommendations, the common thread among them being the importance of high-quality curriculum across the disciplines to support improved literacy results.

The timing of Buck’s paper couldn’t have been more prescient, for it dropped a day after reading researcher Tim Shanahan penned a rather perplexing piece expressing his concerns about review tools currently being used to define ELA curricular quality. Shanahan’s article left many of us scratching our heads and, in my opinion, has done a disservice to the field by suggesting there isn’t an individual or an organization out there independent enough to make judgments about curricular quality.

Shanahan misses the point, which is that review tools can serve an arguably more important role than passing judgement; they can actually help to advance the field’s understanding about issues and even begin to build consensus around what’s important. When we released the Knowledge Matters Review Tool last fall, I told Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz, “It’s much less important to us that there would be some sort of numeric or calculable outcome. What I’m hopeful of is that this can create a conversation and cause people to be curious.” I called it an “invitation to discernment.” I suspect that EdReports and the Reading League join me in ruing any state’s or district’s desire to make their tool the Holy Grail. 

The Knowledge Matters tool attempts to organize for the field the complexity that is reading comprehension and suggest that this complexity cannot be ignored in efforts to review ELA curricula for quality. Reading comprehension is highly nuanced, fostered by multiple skills and competencies. We have attempted to bring order to that complexity, and to suggest that all of these layers must be considered in efforts to review curriculum for quality.

Rather than authoring formal curriculum reviews, the Knowledge Matters Campaign holds up the strongest curricula as exemplars, because experience tells us that educators can most easily understand how to bring the essential components together when they are offered a model for doing so. We seek not to pick winners and losers, rather to “find the good and praise it.” The warm response from district leaders across the country confirms our sense that this sort of curation is helpful.

Amidst the sometimes-distracting noise about which review tool is better and why one curriculum or another didn’t make it on this or that list, Buck’s piece provides a welcome opportunity for those of us inclined toward optimism to reflect on how very far the field has, in fact, come. Perhaps it even represents an opportunity to pause and celebrate.

I remember 15 years ago, when StandardsWork—the organization I run that sponsors the Knowledge Matters Campaign and supports the Curriculum Matters Professional Learning Network (PLN)—put itself into fallow in part because we had a hard time finding people interested in supporting the kind of work we wanted to do. As one influential thought leader and funder said, “Barbara, no one cares about curriculum.”

Well, we’ve come a long way, baby!

Balanced literacy and readers/writers’ workshop are on the wane. Three-cueing is out. Phonics is in. And we see ever-growing awareness of the important role of content knowledge to literacy success.

The hours and hours that teachers were made to believe they had to spend creating curriculum are being repurposed for collaboration and better understanding how to use high-quality curriculum. These represent monumental shifts in how teaching and learning is happening across public education.

As I talk to educators across the country—many of whom I’ve met in the nearly 50 school districts we’ve toured over the last five-plus years—they share with me their enthusiasm for how curriculum-based reform is transforming their schools, about how it’s all “coming together.”  As we close out SY 2023-24, let’s take some time to celebrate how very far we’ve come and the positive direction in which we’re headed!

Sign up to receive In The Know columns and related updates.