A few months ago, an education analyst asked me why we need to focus on improving the quality of educational experiences for young children. From what he had seen on international tests, it looked like American children were scoring well on tests in 4th grade compared to their counterparts in other countries. It was in the later grades, he said, that Americans' test scores started to look so lousy.
A column today by Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, provides part of the answer.
As Willingham wrote: "U.S. fourth graders have typically scored above the mean of participating countries, and typically rank somewhat above the middle of the pack, usually about 10th." By the time they are in 10th grade, however, their scores are below the middle of the pack.
What explains this decline? Knowledge of content, Willingham says. In the younger grades, he writes, international tests (PIRLS and TIMMS) are picking up on whether a child has learned to read in a basic way -- i.e., whether the child has learned to de-code. (PIRLS is the Progress in International Reading Literature Study and is given to fourth graders. TIMMS is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and is given to both fourth and eighth graders.)
By the later grades, tests are more about content and critical thinking skills that use knowledge of that content. (The test in the news recently is called the PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment that is given in high school.)
"All that time spent on decoding in the early grades, (and time not spent on history, geography, science, music, art, etc.) comes back to haunt kids in 10th grade and beyond," he writes.
Exactly. Content knowledge is often given short shrift when people talk about providing high-quality programs for young children. Educators need to give children introductions to rich content -- science and early engineering, history, geography, art, music, good literature and early mathematics -- in their pre-k and elementary school years. This sets them up not only to be strong readers but also sparks their curiosity and love of learning. That's why we need to beware of dumbed-down curricula for young kids. Even at young ages, they can, and want to, absorb new concepts about the world around them.
Of course, that robust educational experience and immersion in rich content must continue through the middle and high school years. We have to keep pushing for engaging and intelligent introductions to subject-area content throughout the full continuum of learning, starting before children enter kindergarten and all the way through their schooling.
Kudos to Willingham for highlighting this point.