The Wall Street Journal
The first step to fight income inequality: Do a better job of teaching kids to read
By E.D. HIRSCH JR.
For all the talk about income inequality in the United States, there is too little recognition of education's role in the problem. Yet it is no coincidence that, as economist John Bishop has shown, the middle class's economic woes followed a decline in 12th-grade verbal scores, which fell sharply between 1962 and 1980—and, as the latest news confirms, have remained flat ever since.
The federal government reported this month that students' vocabulary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have seen no significant change since 2009. On average, students don't know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.
All verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests. To predict competence most accurately, the U.S. military's Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.
Yes, we should instruct students in science, technology, engineering and math, the much-ballyhooed STEM subjects—but only after equipping them with a base of wide general knowledge and vocabulary.
Students don't learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that "annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming," he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words "annual" and "fertile" if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.
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Yet in the 1930s, American schools transformed themselves according to the principles of "progressive education," which assume that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but "how-to" skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on. Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary. Little surprise, then, that students began scoring lower on tests that probed knowledge and vocabulary size. The decline became alarming in the 1970s, as the federal report "A Nation at Risk" pointed out in 1983.
The focus on the "skill" of reading has produced students who cannot read. Teachers cannot cultivate reading comprehension by forcing children to practice soul-deadening exercises like "finding the main idea" and "questioning the author." Students would be better off gaining knowledge by studying real subject matters in a sensible, cumulative sequence. Instead, elementary schools are dominated by content-indifferent exercises that use random fictional texts on the erroneous assumption that reading comprehension is a formal skill akin to typing.
Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words. Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability—there are no shortcuts. The slow, compounding nature of vocabulary growth means that successful reform must lie in systematic knowledge-building. That is the approach used in South Korea, Finland, Japan, Canada and other nations that score highly in international studies and succeed best in narrowing the verbal gap between rich and poor students.
In the U.S., 45 states have recently adopted the Common Core State Standards for language arts. The standards have been denounced for various pedagogical and political reasons, but all sides in the debate should accept one key principle in the new standards: "By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge . . . to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation . . . [through] rich content knowledge within and across grades."
Opponents of Common Core's new nonfiction requirement ought to recognize that good, knowledge-enhancing nonfiction is literature that helps students gain the knowledge and words they need to understand fiction and everything else.
The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: "Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?" When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it's fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.
Mr. Hirsch, a former professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, is founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. This op-ed is adapted from an essay forthcoming in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal.
A version of this article appeared December 13, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results.