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Q&A: Is General Knowledge the Key to Improving Student Learning?

New evidence from UVA researchers suggests that focusing on building students’ general knowledge about the world could significantly boost reading scores and narrow achievement gaps.

Laura Hoxworth

The most recent reading and math scores for U.S. students have ignited passionate debates about how to boost student learning post-pandemic. New research suggests a surprising answer: focus on general knowledge.  

Elementary school students often spend a fraction of the time in subjects like science and social studies compared to mathematics and English Language Arts. But a new working paper published this spring reported impressive effects of an elementary school curriculum designed to build knowledge across subject areas. The long-term, randomized controlled trial, led by UVA’s David Grissmer, showed that a school-wide focus on general knowledge increased reading scores and nearly eliminated income achievement gaps. 

Grissmer, a professor at the School of Education and Human Development, shared the study results and what researchers, parents and educators should do next. 

Q: What is “general knowledge,” and why did you want to study it?  

General knowledge is a measure of the breadth and depth of knowledge across a wide range of topics. It is measured by “simple” questions that can only be answered if the student has a broad understanding of a topic. For instance, how many bases does a batter pass after a home run? Answering this requires that a student has some experience in playing or watching baseball games.   

Previous research has shown that general knowledge predicts a wide range of long-term outcomes (including later achievement, educational attainment, and labor market success) better than early measures of mathematics or reading proficiency.  

David W. Grissmer
David W. Grissmer is a research professor at UVA EHD's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Q: How did this study measure the impact of general knowledge on test scores?  

This study tracked two sets of students using two different K-6 elementary school curricula: the standard, widely used curriculum and the Core Knowledge curriculum. The Core Knowledge Curriculum is based on the ideas and research of E. D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and former UVA faculty member. The curriculum has been in use since the 1990s and is currently used in some 2,000 schools in the US. It centers on a sequence of topics that integrates knowledge from seven subject areas – Language Arts, History and Geography, Visual Arts, Music, Mathematics, and Science – across K-8 grades to systematically build their knowledge and comprehension of the world. 

The six-year study used a lottery methodology: 2,310 students applied to attend one of nine charter schools in Colorado that use the Core Knowledge Curriculum. The 688 students selected in the lottery were compared to unselected students who attended school elsewhere.  

Q: What were the results? 

Results show that the Core Knowledge curriculum had a large beneficial effect on state reading test scores. This study suggests that the Core Knowledge curriculum would improve Reading/English proficiency measured by state achievement tests in 3rd-6th grade by an average of 16 percentile points. The size of this effect is one of the largest, if not the largest, effect ever measured in the educational intervention literature that includes students from all income levels.  

In addition, the effect sizes were much larger for students from low-income families, and the size of these effects were large enough to eliminate the achievement score differences between high- and low-income students.  

For more than 50 years of educational research, the topic that probably has most engaged researchers is why there are achievement gaps between students from low- and high-income families. Experimental evidence now exists that provides an evidence-based, completely unexpected answer to that question: achievement differences between low- and high-income students originate in the differences in their general knowledge about the world. 

Q: Why might general knowledge play a significant role in reading scores? 

General knowledge plays an essential role in a student’s comprehension of what they read.  Understanding what is being read requires the brain to continuously draw from and link to existing stored knowledge. The more stored knowledge that a student absorbs and links to previous knowledge, the better that student can comprehend future reading material. Measuring the range of topics in which a student has sufficient knowledge to answer simple questions provides the best measure of how well the student will comprehend questions on a reading exam that may cover several topics.        

Q: What is the next step for researchers? 

The current evidence is from a single, long-term experiment, which may be insufficient to widely implement the kind of redesign of elementary education suggested by the results. Major research funding should be directed toward replicating these results and achieving a better understanding of the causative mechanisms underlying these effects. 

Opening up a major new direction in educational research is a difficult undertaking. Efforts are needed toward widespread promulgation of these results and their implication for educational research and policy and for initiating and building a completely new research infrastructure that supports this research. 

Q: What advice would you give to parents or educators? 

The essential message for parents and educators is that future learning depends on the range and depth of children’s current knowledge about the world they live in. This accumulated knowledge arises from the student’s actual experience in navigating their world, as well as their conversations with adults and other children and what they read and watch on TV. The role of parenting appears to be exposure to a wide range of age-appropriate experiences together with assistance in extracting and transforming these experiences continuously into the child’s accumulated stored knowledge. 

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Laura Hoxworth