Assuming all goes as planned, we should have a new federal education law by the end of the year. Dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), this version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would greatly increase states’ options for evaluating schools and teachers. As this ESSA cheat sheet explains:

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

Or access to, support in, and success in a knowledge-rich, well-rounded elementary curriculum.

Under pressure from high-stakes accountability and as a result of misconceptions about the role of knowledge in developing skills, elementary schools have reduced science and social studies to just 16 to 24 minutes a day. That’s the average time allocation, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers, which means many schools spend even less time introducing children to our world. Worse, the kids who are least likely to have opportunities to learn science and social studies outside of school are the most likely to attend schools that narrowly focus on reading and math—with the bulk of the day devoted to language arts.

It is not working.

The notion that nothing is more important than reading is understandable, but it’s also self-defeating. Kids who don’t get to study science and social studies—especially in the early grades—don’t become great readers. They become, as Susan Neuman says, “word callers.” They learn to sound out words, but then they don’t know what those words mean. Science, history, geography, music, and art, if rigorously and enthusiastically taught throughout elementary school, are the cure. These are the subjects in which children acquire academic vocabulary, not to mention the essential conceptual knowledge that prepares children for more in-depth studies in later grades.


Democracy- Shutterstock
“Democracy” is relatively easy to sound out, but relatively difficult to understand. To develop real readers, in the early grades we must teach science, social studies, the arts, and how to sound out words. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

With ESSA, states could strategically develop indicators that incentivize building knowledge and vocabulary. Even a simple indicator—such as requiring at least 150 minutes per week on science, another 150 on history and geography, plus 60 on music and art—could send a strong signal on priorities. That signal would be even stronger if schools had to ensure that all students met these minimal time requirements. Right now, far too many schools pull students out of science, social studies, and arts classes for remedial reading and math.

States that want to go further could specify a grade-by-grade core of topics to be taught in elementary school, and then ensure that the passages on the reading comprehension tests in grades 3–5 were on those topics—and only those topics. Radical though that sounds, it’s actually pretty similar to what happens in our most revered tests, Advanced Placement, in which detailed course syllabi leave no guessing as to what will be tested. That’s inherently fairer than the current state assessment regime, in which the topics of reading passages are a complete mystery, thereby privileging the children with the broadest background knowledge.

It’s also more likely to narrow the knowledge gap, which ought to be the number one goal of America’s elementary schools. But even mandating and testing a rich array of topics won’t get the job done. States and schools must do far more to address disparities in opportunities to learn outside of school. Every single day, some kids get an extra dose of academic knowledge and vocabulary at home; others don’t. To actually close the gap, the further behind a child is, the more time he needs in school and the more access he needs to weekend and summer enrichment. Wise states would offer preschool for three and four year olds, require full-day kindergarten, and extend the school day, week, and year for our neediest children. They would also increase funding for libraries, museums, book mobiles, and programs that encourage parents to read to their children every day.

For far too long, our neediest youth have not found out how far behind they are until they are pushed into remedial courses in community colleges or turned down for apprenticeships. This must stop. In the elementary years, the gaps are still small enough to tackle. ESSA gives states the flexibility needed to show real courage—or cowardice. How many will step up?


17 comments on “Dear Chiefs: This Is Your Chance to Close the Reading Achievement Gap”

  1. 1
    Robin on December 2, 2015

    Actually ESSA does not give states the kind of flexibility you describe. The cheat sheet is not the law and as an attorney who read all 1,059 pages over 13 hours Monday and yesterday and the author of the book Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became a Weapon I was ready to read that language just like it was Latin and I was Cicero.

    What is so fascinating to me Lisa about your post is how ably you described precisely how closing the achievement gap is already set up to work. It’s how the Gates-funded Achievement Standards network works. From the Common Core’s Enduring Understandings and Understandings by Design to the Next Generation Science Standards stipulation of CDIs-Core Disciplinary Ideas and CCCs-Cross Cutting Concepts and Themes to AP courses’ Conceptual Frameworks, specifying the precise ideas that will now constitute the lenses to be knowledge are how Preschool through college are now to work. (Been reading how those ETS measures of college outcomes work too).

    The only way to close the achievement gap is to psychologize education and circumscribe what it means to know. In the name of social justice, we are about to find out what happens to society when the only things known are the ideas, words, and principles politicians want to allow. ESSA amounts to essentially uninventing the printing press in how it actually works.

    Orwell just wasn’t imaginative enough.

  2. 2
    David J. Krupp on December 2, 2015

    I agree that part of the solution is have the neediest children attend school for more years, days and months. I think that a more important objective would be to train the parents to reinforce their children’s curiosity. Explain to the parents how important it is to constantly talk WITH their children. Parents should let their children know that they expect them to work hard in school and do very well. Parents do not have to be teachers. They do not have help their children with their homework. They do not even have to read to their children. The key is the attitude the parents communicate to their children about learning and knowledge.

  3. 3
    Robin on December 3, 2015

    Daniel-the actual language of ESSA is chockful of references to engaging and training parents. In some instances there will be grants available to train them starting at birth and there is an envisioned public-private partnership to create videos for parents.

  4. 4
    Nicole Houghton on January 16, 2016

    I also agree that the neediest children need more time to learn the material needed to be successful, not only in school but in the real world. Teachers are only a portion of the children’s education. Parents are the key, however, what do you do when the parents don’t speak English? I run into this problem often, and explain to parents that it’s okay to speak in their native language, as long as they are talking with their children, asking them questions, telling them to summarize their reading, etc. As long as the parents communicate to their children that education is important and necessary for their futures, then our students can have the attitude that they will and can succeed. We need to communicate to parents more often about their children’s education.

    I also agree with you when you said elementary schools don’t emphasize science and social studies like they do reading. As you said, this does teach students to “word recall” rather than think critically about new topics learned. I am a 5th grade teacher and when students come to me, they often explain to me that they really didn’t have science or didn’t know what social studies was. We heavily teach science in our building, because in fifth grade they are tested, but typically they are far behind. We are lacking in teaching social studies as this is not a tested standard in fifth grade, though we do teach it. It is important to be mindful of these subjects starting in the very early grades.

    I understand that the idea behind ESSA is to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes. It is designed as equal opportunity for all students regardless of income, race, language, etc. I do think that the parents are key to helping their children succeed beyond what teachers can do. I am curious to know more about ESSA and look forward to reading up on it.

  5. 5
    Kim Manning on January 21, 2016

    I agree with you as well. We do not focus on science and social studies as much as we should. Every year the state raise the bar on how must student should critically think on the standardized test. I feel that if you really want to close the achievement gap in your school and raise they rigor they must see example of all subjects in every class. You must teacher reading, science and social studies in your math class. Why is it so hard for teachers to do cross- curriculum lessons?

  6. 6
    Julie Hawley on January 23, 2016

    In addition to taking classes to complete my Masters Degree, I am also in the midst of completing two required reading courses for recertification. The information that has been presented to me in my reading course focuses on not just teaching reading during the allotted block of time, but to also focus on teaching reading in all content areas. In order to develop critical reading skills, students need to be taught how to read for comprehension in all subject areas. Math time should not specifically focus on how to teach multiplication and division, but should also focus on how to read and comprehend word problems. The math resource teacher at my school was just commenting yesterday about several students who knew all of their facts, but were unable to solve a word problem because they were unable to read and comprehend it.

    Reducing science, social studies, and other subjects such as music, art, and media to focus on reading are not helpful to closing the reading achievement gap-it is instead detrimental to the students. Students need to be able to read and comprehend text in all subject areas in order to be college and career ready. They need to be able to understand word meanings in science and social studies. They need to be able to perceive internal organization of content, understand writing patterns used to structure content, and understand the material at their cognitive level for all subject areas.

    While I am not a classroom teacher, I still try to teach critical reading skills in my elementary general music classroom. We spend a great deal of time reading the text to songs out loud before we learn them, and using critical thinking skills to determine the meaning of the text. In the older grades (4th and 5th) we discuss the meaning of song lyrics. Students who are not exposed to other subject areas (or have reduced time in them) will not become better readers, and they will not be able to reach their fullest potential as students.

  7. 7
    Gisela Delgado on March 14, 2016

    As a third grade teacher, I see that closing the reading gap is challenging. After my finding through Walden University, I encountered different strategies to close these gaps. Learning about how students learn is imperative. As the Dr. J.Willis explains, understanding the brain and researching how the brain works bring to us as educators a different perspective about learning. In a nutshell, making the lesson meaningful and having the students engaged will create a long term memory gain. Also teacher leaders, create high levels of engagement, collect data, apply what they learn in trainings and collaborate with other teachers. As a teacher leader, closing the reading gap comes in naturally by applying what they learn. Good leaders listen well and motivate other teachers to do the same and this as a result benefits all students. Reading is crucial and as we incorporate technology our students will benefit as well. I found recently that reading novels is essential as this creates high levels of comprehension. When we read outloud to our students they acquire vocabulary and comprehension. Addign CPQ questions and modeling also enhances reading skills. I work at a low socioeconomic school and we just received the honor for being on of the best performing urban schools in America by the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST). We close gaps and working as a family is one of our strenghts. We need to create a positive learning evironment for all students.

    Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2007). Dynamic teacher leadership: Thoughts and perspectives. Baltimore: Author
    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009m). Reach, Attitude, Develop (RAD) teaching [Video file]. Retrieved from

  8. 8
    Ashley on March 18, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your ideas. I understand the importance of teaching the subject areas in the younger grades to help prepare them for future success in those core classes in secondary schools. Although we can help decrease the achievement gaps in elementary schools, there are many other practices we can use to help shrink the gaps. It is important for teacher’s to find effective strategies that are inclusive of our diverse learners. We need to provide equal access to the curriculum. We can also help reduce the achievement gaps by implementing multiple assessment opportunities. Students need equitable opportunity to be successful in their classes. I am also in the master’s program at Walden University (see above). We have been focusing on learning how the brain functions, and use this data to guide our instruction. We can promote learning by using activities that are meaningful, exciting, and challenging. The more pleasant the learning experience, the more learning that will take place (Laureate Education, 2009).
    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). Reach, Attitude, Develop (RAD) teaching [Video file]. Retrieved from

  9. 9
    Amy Cataline on March 19, 2016

    As one of the readers pointed out much of this starts with the parents. The students I work with in 3rd grade already have huge gaps in their learning. Some of this started early on. They didn’t attend preschool and attended half-day kindergarten for only part of the year. Many of these students came into school not knowing any letters of the alphabet, how to write their name, and had no idea how to hold a pencil. As hard as the K-2nd teachers worked with these students they are significantly behind. I am now teaching third graders who read at a first grade level with no support from home. I have had to reduce the time spent on Social Studies and Science in order to spend more time teaching them to read. I try to use books and materials that are non-fiction for this remedial Reading. The reality is the government and states need to come up with a plan to do a better job with mandating early childhood education and providing ways for parents to pay for it.

  10. 10
    Sharon on May 7, 2016

    I agree with Amy! I taught kindergarten for several years in a small, rural, high poverty area, and it would amaze you (maybe) to realize just how many parents do not help their children learn the most basic concepts. How a parent cannot think to teach their child color names… How hard would it be to say would you like to wear the red shirt or blue shirt? Or count to 10 (on two hands) or at least to 5 (one hand). I have had students walk through the classroom door for the first day not knowing names for the primary or secondary colors, unable to recognize their name in print (as on a folder or a cubby), or count to five. Many thought their real name was Bubba or Sissy. They were shocked to learn they have another name. They have never been allowed to hold a crayon, much less a pencil. And alongside them, many of their peers can do all these things and much more. It’s always a struggle to make room in the day to help these students catch up while providing challenging learning experiences for those who are already where they need to be to be ready to learn. More needs to be done to involve parents of preschoolers on how to help their children long before they get to be school age! Too bad we can’t make parents more accountable…

  11. 11
    Trisha Brown on May 17, 2016

    I agree with the much of the information provided in the initial blog, as well as in the comments. It is imperative we close the achievement gap, however we must do so across all subject areas. Reading is greatly incorporated in all areas of learning, and we must find a solution to help students become successful. I feel with the implementation of the ESSA, students are better prepared across the board. As mentioned in the initial blog, students are pulled from science and social studies for interventions. I understand the interventions are beneficial to students, especially students with dyslexia, however there has to be a better solution. Students are falling behind in multiple areas of their studies due to the current program.

  12. 12
    Albert Chavez on July 13, 2016

    I agree we need to focus on Science and SS because students are coming into high school not knowing the basics of the two subjects. Actually, once we get to the testing months we are told to quit teaching subjects and teach the strategies to pass the test. I think this is ridiculous that we have to stop everything just for the test. Where has teaching turned to? There is a huge achievement gap because schools are being pressured into doing well on the test and not worried bout our kids learning the basics of all core areas.

  13. 13
    keisha Evans on July 15, 2016

    I agree with about stopping ever tying just for the test. We need to stop worrying about the test and worrying about shaping our students into becoming a well rounded student. Teaching is suppose to be imaginative, exciting, exploring and fun. Now we are like robots working to teach to the test and meet the standards. We are not helping the students at all.
    Keisha Evans

  14. 14
    Danielle on July 18, 2016

    I definitely believe that the focus of science and social studies need to be longer in the class. Students are losing focus of history and science. Both the subjects are being offered once a week in the school that I am in The subjects and be cross-curricular and the more we read, the more we become fluent. We cannot close the achievement gap if we are not using covering basic content in all content areas. Politicians have not realized that these standardized test are not allowing the teachers to really teach because they are teaching to test and not teaching to the kids understanding. Because the standardized test, the only content we are really teaching is ELA and Math.

  15. 15
    Natalie S. on September 18, 2016

    It is clear that Science and Social Studies are needed. It is a shame how students are not aware of history and understand things that have happened in the world because of those events. Or how they are able to have privileges that others did not have before until an important event happened. Also, many students love science and love social studies and this is a way to engage them in learning. Overdoing reading and math has made many students resent reading, which has made it worse. ESSA can help or can damage, it all depends on how each district takes it, and if they actually use it for the advantage of the students, or if they use it to have more control over schools and worsen the situation.

  16. 16
    Jennifer W on November 9, 2016

    I understand that closing the gap is imperative to our students and their future. I also believe that there is not a one fit all solution to the problem. Thinking about integrating science and social studies more into the reading and math content is one way to do so. The issue that we have at my school is finding the appropriate grade level resources for students to use. Currently I am teaching about the weather and types of clouds. We have one big book that came with our science curriculum, but not many other resources that get grade level text in students hands to help students continue to build on their reading skills. As many districts have begun to move away from textbooks for these subject areas, I struggle with where to find materials. If you know of any good, cheap or free resources, that would be applicable for second grade students, I would love to hear about them.

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