Giving Compass' Take:

• Tara García Mathewson explains how contextual knowledge gaps can hold students back but Baltimore is working to identify and fill those gaps.

• How can funders help districts to identify and address these gaps? 

• Learn about bridging the achievement gap between students of color

In Baltimore City Public Schools, where about 80 percent of students are black, educators have long tried to incorporate African-American culture into their teaching. In a recent review of the curriculum, however, district leaders discovered that while students spent a lot of time reading about the African-American experience, they read too few high-quality texts, and the majority of the content is focused on things like police brutality, oppression and slavery.

“We never had the opportunity to celebrate the rich culture,” said Janise Lane, executive director of teaching and learning at Baltimore City Public Schools.

That’s changing now, thanks to a districtwide effort to systematically close gaps in what students learn – not just about the African-American experience, but across the entire curriculum. The tool that helped identify the gaps in the first place is called the Knowledge Map, developed at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy based on the value of content knowledge.

In the United States, schools tend to focus on helping students develop concrete skills, like finding the main idea in a paragraph. Systemwide, there’s not much emphasis on what students read to practice that skill. This isn’t the case in countries with the highest-performing education systems, according to Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. In those countries, schools are expected to teach all students common content. They develop similar skills as those that U.S. teachers focus on, but do so using a common curriculum that ensures all students – regardless of class, race or geography – get exposure to a similarly broad set of ideas and facts.

This is important because students need background knowledge about a topic to be able to understand a text about it, and the more background knowledge they have, research has shown, the more likely it is that they will be able to demonstrate the skills that U.S. schools assess. If students have never heard of the game polo, for example, a passage about polo on a test will likely confuse them so much that they flounder when asked to summarize the passage, even if they know how to summarize.

In Baltimore City Public Schools, district leaders see “knowledge gaps” as an equity issue. More than half of the district’s students are categorized as low-income. The conversations in their homes, their travel destinations, their cultural excursions too often fail to provide learning opportunities that their wealthier peers have.

Read the full article about contextual knowledge gaps holding students back by Tara García Mathewson at The Hechinger Report.