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Supes Corner: Schools must build background knowledge
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In my "Letter from the Superintendent" (CN, Aug. 15, 2010), I suggested that when all is said and done, instruction itself has the largest influence on achievement. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, instruction is not always as effective as it could be, but could improve swiftly and significantly through ordinary and accessible means.

As professional educators know, and moms and dads too, classroom learning is also a function of what the student is interested in, how the student prefers to learn, and the "background knowledge" he or she possesses for any given topic.

Ah, background knowledge! What is it? According to researcher Robert Marzano, it is "what a person already knows about the content." Duh! How important is this in school? It is one of the strongest indicators of how well students will learn new information relative to a topic.

But, what if Newton’s economically disadvantaged students (approx. 12,000) — as defined by free and reduced lunch statistics — lack background knowledge as with so many disadvantaged students nationally? Then what?

Well, we can rely on the family. Or can we? In so many homes of the economically disadvantaged, there is but one parent, often working more than one job, if they are employed at all. Is it any wonder that the children of such homes come to kindergarten knowing not even half the words that their middle class peers enjoy?

One way to build background knowledge is through what Marzano calls "direct approaches."

Direct approaches increase the variety and depth of out-of-class experiences, such as field trips to museums, art galleries, the Georgia Aquarium, or the Bodies exhibit in Atlanta. Such experiences are powerful when the teacher "prepares" the students for what they should look and listen for.

Another type of direct approach helps students establish a mentoring relationship with members of the community. The Newton Mentoring Program provides a structured weekly format for students to connect with a caring adult. I would encourage community members to visit or give Director Margaret Washington a call at (678) 381-7948. Mentors are screened prior to entering our schools and are exposed to workshops devoted to such topics as youth development, goal-setting, conflict resolution, cultural activities and learning about jobs and career choices.

Marzano says: "The most direct ways for schools to enhance students’ academic background knowledge are to directly provide academically-oriented experiences as a regular part of school offerings and to forge mentoring relationships between students and caring adults under the assumption that such relationships will provide more academically oriented experiences."

However, he also notes that in light of the monetary constraints schools have, it may prove more practical to focus on "indirect approaches" to building background knowledge. Indirect approaches can be fostered within the regular school day. They cost less money than direct approaches and can be readily available if implemented by school professionals.

Here’s what Marzano recommends in his book, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (ASCD, 2004):

• Implement a program of Direct Vocabulary Instruction (DVI) that focuses on the terms and phrases that students will encounter in their academic subjects (and on such tests as Georgia’s CRCTs and GHSGTs).

• Implement elementary, middle, and high school Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) that focuses on nonfiction and fiction materials in a variety of forms inclusive of the internet. (kids love and learn from technology!)

As for Direct Vocabulary Instruction, I would dare say that nearly every lesson should begin with related words in mind for students to master. Failing that, too many students are lost from the beginning! Besides, vocabulary development is not only important for students who lack background knowledge for academic learning, it is also equally critical for the student scholar who desires enrollment in the nation’s very best universities. So, whether preparing for the ACT, SAT, or AP exams or Georgia’s CRCTs or GHSGTs, vocabulary development is indispensible to student achievement.

For the disadvantaged, we feed the "achievement gap" when we presume they know what "perpendicular lines" are in geometry. We must use words that shape that meaning; provide opportunities to see graphic representations; give descriptions, not just definitions; teach and use word parts; use varied instructional techniques; and make sure students talk to others about the words they are learning.

As for Sustained Silent Reading, it isn’t a free-for-all. Instead, it calls on students to make choices, according to their own interests, that will have them reading, writing, drawing, reflecting, and discussing what they’ve learned with other students. In this twice-a-week or more 20-to-30-minute session, students read books of appropriate difficulty, write about their thoughts and participate in structured dialogue with classmates. Academic background is gained from a systematic and deliberate "seminar of ideas" on many topics.

Students who participate in SSR for more than a year, Marzano says, score in the 81st percentile in vocabulary achievement, compared to the 50th percentile for students who don’t take part.

How important is it for schools to build students’ background knowledge? It is a must!

Just ask the kindergartner who struggles to know colors, shapes and numbers, or the doctoral student who sits for all-day comprehensive exams!

Dr. Gary Mathews is the Superintendent of the Newton County School System. He can be e-mailed at