The Knowledge Gap


Natalie’s new book THE KNOWLEDGE GAP is “a compelling critique of American elementary schools” that “highlights pervasive problems,” according to Kirkus Reviews. Publishers Weekly calls it an “illuminating” and “thought-provoking” take on education reform. And in a starred review, Library Journal says: “In this compelling work, journalist Wexler pinpoints the underlying issues that plague the American public education system, provides context to recent educational reforms, and offers possible solutions.”

Reviewing the book for Education Next, Robert Pondiscio says: “Wexler’s work … is praiseworthy, and … she has made a first-rate case for content. … If you are among the uninitiated on the value of content knowledge for kids, buy a copy. If you’re already among the true believers, buy two copies and put them in the hands persuadable educators.”

Writing in Quillette, Greg Ashman says: “Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap is not just a scholarly work. It pulsates with vivid detail as it winds its way through the strange terrain of the Educational Upside Down. Anyone who seeks to understand the quixotic state of educational ideas in American schools and beyond should place it on the top of their summer reading list.”

And in the British publication tes, Daisy Christodoulou writes: “Is it possible to create a more inclusive and fairer education system? The Knowledge Gap shows the way.”

The book focuses on a long-overlooked issue lying at the heart of what is known as the achievement gap: the failure of most 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.

Excerpts from the book have appeared in The Atlantic, Chalkbeat, and MindShift.

Click HERE to order The Knowledge Gap through the publisher’s website or HERE to order from Amazon.

Listen to an excerpt from the audio version, read by the author, below. To order the audio book, click HERE.