Students Need Deep Exposure To Content Knowledge. This New Project Can Help.

Some of the best teaching advice I ever received came from an undergrad professor I really admired. “Don’t try to teach the standards,” she instructed me. “Teach to the standards.”

Hidden within that pearl of advice was an important caveat. State standards only tell us what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, but they don’t tell us how to go about achieving those goals. If learning is like a road trip, in other words, then standards are simply the destination. The GPS that gets us there — the different activities, core concepts, and texts that students will be engaged with — is the curriculum. And lately, there’s been quite a stir over how schools districts can tell if their curriculum is effective at helping students meet the standards.

Thanks to a new project, we’re closer than ever to finding out. In partnership with Chiefs for Change, a coalition of district and state education chiefs from around the nation, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy has just launched a project that will help analyze school districts’ English/Language Arts (ELA) curricula. It’s called The Knowledge Map, and it’s designed to help district leaders better understand if their schools are delivering the kinds of deep content instruction that students need.

The project comes at a time when schools across the country have embraced “skills-based instruction,” in which students work on developing literacy skills like “finding the main idea” of a passage or “citing evidence from the text.” But the creators of the Knowledge Map instead argue that it’s content knowledge, not skills, that schools should be developing.

The Case For Content, And Why The Knowledge Map Can Help

“America’s reading gaps are not caused by skills shortages but by knowledge vacuums,” Johns Hopkins professor David Steiner laments. “Our students need less of Franklin’s wit and more of Madison’s wisdom.”

That’s consistent with what research has shown about student literacy. Students who perform highly on skills-based reading tests aren’t necessarily better at skills like “finding the main idea,” they simply have more background knowledge than their peers. American high schoolers would naturally perform better on a reading passage about college football, for example, than Icelandic students would. It doesn’t necessarily mean American students are better readers; they’re just more likely to know who Benny Snell is.

The Knowledge Map helps districts determine how content-rich their curriculum is by “mapping” the different knowledge areas that are featured in a curriculum’s texts. That helps schools better understand which content areas are or aren’t getting covered. Here’s an example from the Johns Hopkins webpage.

This unnamed elementary school’s Knowledge Map shows that science content is, at least generally speaking, pretty well covered in their ELA curriculum. But looking at more specific knowledge domains, we can see that some areas, like “Matter” or “Chemistry,” are barely present at all.

It’s also helpful that the Knowledge Map tool reveals content exposure not only within a single grade level, but across different grade levels. As Janise Lane explains, districts that have partnered with Johns Hopkins and Chiefs for Change can see how content knowledge is being built in their schools from Pre-K to 12th grade. That’s a tremendous win for knowledge-based curriculum.

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