The Knowledge Gap


THE KNOWLEDGE GAP—to be published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin/Random House—focuses on a long-overlooked issue lying at the heart of what is known as the achievement gap: the failure of most American elementary schools, and especially those serving low-income children, to systematically build knowledge of the world.

Every school day, elementary teachers spend hours drilling students on comprehension skills and strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences,” in an effort to boost their reading ability–and their scores on standardized reading tests. Subjects like history, science, and art have virtually disappeared from the curriculum in many schools.

In fact, these schools are doing the exact opposite of what can actually turn students into good readers. Comprehension strategies can be useful–when delivered in limited doses and connected to specific content. But cognitive science has shown that the primary factor in whether you’re able to understand what you read is whether you possess relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.

The prevailing narrow, skills-focused approach to literacy instruction can hold any child back, but its effects fall hardest on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum. Children from more educated families often absorb knowledge about the world at home. But those from less educated families have to rely on schools for the kind of knowledge that will equip them to do well on tests—not to mention in high school, college, and life. Every year they spend in school without getting that knowledge puts them farther behind their more affluent peers. By the time they get to middle or high school, it’s often too late for them to catch up.

Through the stories of educators, students, and parents, The Knowledge Gap examines what elementary literacy instruction currently looks like, how it evolved to this point — and how it can be changed so that all students receive a meaningful, rigorous education.