The Knowledge Matters school tour: A visit to seven schools adopting high-quality English language arts curricula

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Barbara Davidson

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on CenterPoint Education Solutions’ blog.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting a group of schools across the country distinguished by their embrace of high-quality curriculum. The tour was sponsored by the Knowledge Matters Campaign, which seeks to lift up the stories of schools that use knowledge-rich English language arts curriculum to promote educational excellence, provide equity, and inspire in students a passion for learning.

The campaign is particularly interested in drawing attention to schools and curricula that bring a joyous, knowledge-filled schooling experience to students of poverty, as they have been the ones particularly harmed by a skills-based approach that is arguably one of the most significant factors in reading scores remaining flat over the past twenty years (see this article published by the Campaign last month), to say nothing of driving out a love of learning in our young people.

Most of the schools we visited on the tour had adopted a curriculum highly rated by EdReports, the independent non-profit organization that, for the past four years, has served as something of a Consumer Reports on Common Core-aligned curriculum. Three key instructional shifts: regular practice with complex texts and their academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts; and building knowledge through content-rich curriculum, underpin the Common Core standards in English language arts and are what guide the reviews on EdReports.

The schools included on the tour employed a variety of instructional approaches and represented different geographic locations, demographic diversity, and governance structures. The common feature was their commitment to knowledge-rich schooling and their faith in comprehensive, high-quality curriculum, implemented school-wide, as a means of achieving it.

So, what stood out to us as we visited these schools? Without a doubt, the most salient feature—which was, in fact, a distinguishing feature (as it was in stark contrast to our experience in schools last fall that had not embraced the importance of knowledge-building)—was the fact that all students were engaged with grade-level complex texts. While we certainly saw the full range of student reading levels one would expect of a school serving high-need students (including typically large numbers of English learners), in each classroom we visited, texts were interrogated communally, thus exposing students, who may not have been able to read all the words on the page, to key vocabulary and content knowledge. Importantly, all kids got to discuss, amongst themselves, the ideas in the text. This is huge. As Jaden, a previously struggling reader at Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, told me, “I like it when we read it (a book) together because you can get others’ opinions. I like being in book arguments.”

Another profound experience of the tour was the amount of content knowledge these students were exposed to. A recent survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that 56 percent of ELA teachers worry, “not enough attention has been paid to building students’ general knowledge,” with 46 percent saying their curriculum and/or instructional materials “do a poor job of building students’ general knowledge.” A brief review of the travel blog associated with the Knowledge Matters School Tour will reveal a very different story, with topics—mind you, for K–8 students—ranging from the War of 1812, Athenian governance, medieval Europe, the lost colony of Roanoke, Galileo, animal anatomy, patterns in nature, Greek mythology, etc.

It’s no wonder, given how much kids like to “learn stuff,” that a final standout feature of the schools we visited was virtually no disciplinary problems. The look and feel—what some would call the school culture—at Maryvale, a classical school in Phoenix, and Detroit Prep/Detroit Achievement Academy, which both use EL Education 2.0 (formerly named Expeditionary Learning), were studies in contrast. But the level of student engagement was uniformly high. In both cases, and indeed in each school we visited, there was a palpable sense—among kids and adults alike—that real learning was taking place, that knowledge was expanding.

The word I most associate with the Knowledge Matters School Tour is “confidence.” While teachers told us that learning the new curriculum was the hardest thing they’d ever done in teaching, they’ve also report it being among the best things to have happened to them professionally. After years of floundering, knowing they weren’t really meeting their students’ needs but not knowing what to do about it, they report now being more certain that they’re preparing their students for academic success in the future.

When we asked the teachers to give advice to colleagues around the country who might be at the start of their journey with a new, high-quality curriculum, we generally got some version of, “have faith in the curriculum.” For many, it wasn’t until they’d gone through the school year that they developed a full appreciation. “I had to see the whole picture” says a second-grade teacher in Dayton who added, “This is by far my best year of teaching in seventeen years.”

More importantly even than these teachers’ journey to professional confidence was what we saw and heard from the kids. As Aurora, a fifth-grade student in Riverside, California, told me, “We learn higher level things and we are not afraid to share what we learn.”

The enduring images of the Knowledge Matters School Tour are of deep and shared engagements with a wide range of quality informational and literary texts; a high volume of reading; students receiving far more science, social studies/history, and art instruction than is currently seen in the average public school; and near universal confidence among students—from the smallest kindergartners to students ready to advance on to middle or high school—that they were in good hands, and that their school was preparing them for the academic challenges that lay ahead.

Would that every child could feel this way about their school…

Barbara Davidson is president of StandardsWork, Inc. and executive director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.