How to improve My Brother’s Keeper: Emphasize a content-rich curriculum

Lisa Hansel

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The ninety-day report features six “universal milestones” that are the heart of the task force’s work and recommendations:

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

I have one more to place on that list: learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, recognize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood and the early grades.
Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to the Common Core standards, which—if properly understood—offer sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT test-score data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are behind academically to catch up—and therefore how crucial it is to intervene early.

In his most recent brief, Dougherty shows that at least half of fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic and African American students in the states whose data he analyzed are not doing well in reading—and almost none who are doing poorly catch up by the end of high school. Using longitudinal student-outcome data, ACT has established benchmark scores that indicate college readiness (or, for younger students, being on a trajectory to complete high school ready for college). Students who score at or above those benchmarks are “on track,” while students who score more than one standard deviation below them are “far off track.”

Drawing data from Dougherty’s new brief, let’s look at fourth- to eighth-grade results in reading on ACT Explore.
 

 
 
 
Fourth graders
who are
“far off track”:
“Far off track” fourth graders who caught up by eight grade:
Non-low income: 29% 10%
Low income: 53% 6%
Hispanic: 56% 5%
African American: 64% 3%

Note: These data are from Arkansas and Kentucky; see the brief for details. 

As Dougherty shows, the story is just as depressing as students move from eighth grade to the end of high school. Worse, keep in mind that these results are for both boys and girls, though it’s no secret that girls tend to do better in reading. In draft working papers, Dougherty and his colleagues have broken out results by gender, finding an even greater challenge for the boys and young men of color who are the focus of My Brother’s Keeper.

Knowing that being ready for college means having acquired an enormous store of academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills, Dougherty’s first recommendation for school and district leaders is to

Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. Ensure that all students receive a content- and vocabulary-rich curriculum beginning in the early years, spanning a range of subject areas including not only English language arts and mathematics, but also science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.... Such a curriculum—the basis for preparing students long term for college, careers, and informed citizenship—is valuable for all students but is likely to be especially beneficial for students from at-risk demographic groups, who are more likely to arrive from home with limited knowledge and vocabulary.

Let’s assume the task force heeds Dougherty’s advice and adds “teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades” to its list of recommendations. Where could it find out what that looks like? Answer: the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy. Not in the individual standards but in the narrative that accompanies them. There, the task force will find something absolutely essential but so far AWOL from its report: an understanding that reading comprehension comes not just from mastering reading skills but also from learning a great deal of academic subject matter and vocabulary.


The task force emphasizes having parents talk to their children more (and in more encouraging ways), improving reading skills instruction, and having children read more. These are necessary but insufficient recommendations. To accelerate knowledge and vocabulary acquisition, which will greatly boost the odds of meeting the task force’s milestones, parents and educators need to be as efficient as possible and start as early as possible.

The Common Core explains how. Start with the standards’ research appendix:

Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster…when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts….Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks.

Then, take a look at Common Core’s blueprint for a coherent course of study in K–5, where we learn that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period.” Even better, we learn how to build knowledge before children can read: “Children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing.”

Everyone on the task force is busy, so I’ll boil it down. Parents shouldn’t just talk more; they should also read aloud more. And parents and teachers shouldn’t read aloud just one book on a topic; they should pick a topic and spend a couple of weeks reading aloud and discussing several books on that topic. If they do, many more boys of color will enter school ready to learn and will then come to read at grade level.

Lisa Hansel is the communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. A version of this article originally appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog.

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