In the early grades, U.S. schools value reading-comprehension skills over knowledge. The results are devastating, especially for poor kids.
At first glance, the classroom I was visiting at a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., seemed like a model of industriousness. The teacher sat at a desk in the corner, going over student work, while the first graders quietly filled out a worksheet intended to develop their reading skills.
As I looked around, I noticed a small girl drawing on a piece of paper. Ten minutes later, she had sketched a string of human figures, and was busy coloring them yellow.
I knelt next to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”
“Clowns,” she answered confidently.
“Why are you drawing clowns?”
“Because it says right here, ‘Draw clowns,’ ” she explained.
Running down the left side of the worksheet was a list of reading-comprehension skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, making predictions. The girl was pointing to the phrase draw conclusions. She was supposed to be making inferences and drawing conclusions about a dense article describing Brazil, which was lying facedown on her desk. But she was unaware that the text was there until I turned it over. More to the point, she had never heard of Brazil and was unable to read the word.