I was recently reading a NASA article with my 12-year-old child about the dynamics of flight and was struck by the important role content knowledge played in helping her make sense of the text. She needed basic content knowledge (like what a "plane" or "wing" is), not only to conceptualize the author's point, but also to help her figure out more specific aeronautical terms, like "yawing" (very different from yawning), the meaning of "pitch" (very different from what you do in baseball), and where to find the "nose" of the plane (and why it's quite different than the nose on your face).
This brief exchange so vividly illustrated how giving children access to content knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, a connection supported by decades of research. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explained, "teaching content IS teaching reading." After learning to decode fluently, he says, "reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. By failing to provide a solid grounding in basic subjects [such as science and social studies] we inadvertently hobble children's ability in reading comprehension."
Yet across the U.S., we are systematically denying children—especially those living in poverty—access to literacy and the content knowledge in which it is grounded. We must teach all our nation's children to read as part of our fight for civil and equal rights.
For children to build this "solid grounding," their teachers must be steeped in content knowledge that is relevant, robust, and aligned to content standards for students. There is widespread agreement in the field that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. A 2020 NCTQ survey found 83% of teacher preparation program leaders and 95% of state education agency leaders agreed with this sentiment. Yet in surveys of elementary teachers, fewer than half of respondents report feeling well-prepared to teach science or social studies. If we assign children to teachers who do not have content knowledge, we could indeed "hobble" students and endanger their ability to read.
Giving children access to content knowledge—especially in the disciplines of science and social studies—also builds a foundation for later grades and supports students' postsecondary choices. Experts anticipate early exposure to STEM subjects increases students' interest in pursuing those careers, and this is particularly important for encouraging underrepresented students to pursue high-demand, high-paying STEM jobs. And having endured a global pandemic, we all know the critical value of science in solving global crises. But no less importantly, students—and our society—will be left vulnerable if they lack knowledge of U.S. and world history, unprepared to meet the challenges of our global world and unable to engage in the kinds of debates, discourse, and understanding of diverse perspectives that a democracy needs to thrive.
Teacher preparation programs play a critical role in giving aspiring teachers the content knowledge they need to teach their future students. So, are preparation programs achieving this goal?
Next month, NCTQ will release a new report, Teacher Prep Review: Building Content Knowledge, which is an updated analysis on the extent to which teacher prep programs are preparing aspiring elementary teachers to teach social studies and science. To determine the essential science and social studies content aspiring teachers need to know, NCTQ engaged with practitioners and content experts from the field and reviewed all 50 states' and DC's elementary student content standards and many states' teacher licensure content tests. We identified common themes and specific topics within those themes to develop the new Building Content Knowledge standard.
Importantly, one of the themes that emerged was culture and identity, and within this theme, the topic of diverse perspectives appeared repeatedly across state standards. This theme is particularly relevant to underscore right now, as we see some policymakers eliminating courses that provide students with access to rich content knowledge, such as the recent decision by the Florida Department of Education that a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies will not be included in the state's course directory—denying students access to diverse perspectives in history and creating shallow curricular experiences.
The need is clear: to end inequities we must ensure that students have access to the essential content knowledge that supports their growth as readers and their future impact as members of our communities. Meeting that need starts with the programs that prepare our aspiring teachers.