(Kathy Willens/AP)
Columnist

Ken Cuccinelli II, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, responded to reporters’ questions recently about Emma Lazarus’s famous poem “The New Colossus.” He wanted America to welcome only those tired and poor “who will not become a public charge.”

Did he know that the poem on the Statue of Liberty was used in a lesson aligned with the Common Core State Standards? The Common Core is anathema to many conservatives. But the power of the poem and other complex works to engage students has gained new respect for the Common Core — and for the content knowledge it demands.

I thought the poem was too obscure for kids. But education writer Natalie Wexler, who has written the best book I have seen on improving elementary schools, convinced me I was wrong.

When Nevada teacher Linnea Wolters presented the Lazarus poem to her fifth-graders, she worried about passages like: Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand / A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning. Wexler quoted a 2014 NPR story in which Wolters said to herself, “You gotta be freaking kidding me.”

Still, Wolters respected the teachers who suggested using it. Her students read it on their own, then read it aloud. They figured out the rhyme scheme when a girl diagnosed with a learning disability called out, “It’s a pattern!” Finally, Wolters asked them what it meant.

There was silence. Wolters asked no leading questions. She had agreed to let them grapple with it. Two boys, both struggling readers who spoke Spanish at home, raised their hands. “It’s about the Statue of Liberty,” they said.

Wolters asked for evidence. “It says it’s a woman with a torch,” they said. Classmates chimed in: “She’s in a harbor!” Other teachers at the school had similar experiences. “They were shocked to realize they had been vastly underestimating what their students were capable of,” Wexler said.

In her book “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System — and How to Fix It,” Wexler said teachers such as Wolters eventually realized a cold read was not enough. They adopted a curriculum that taught topics such as immigration, giving students a better chance to understand the context of “The New Colossus” and to write about it.

The content students get in typical reading classes is often below their grade level. The Common Core was intended to change that, Wexler said, but in many places it has been misinterpreted. If teachers read aloud complex texts, she said, kids are able to handle more sophisticated material on their own later. But many people still doubt than any child can handle “The New Colossus.”

Wexler showed how researchers E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Daniel Willingham illustrated the power of content. She reported much teacher success with that approach. Yet, she concluded, “I have yet to see an American school that consistently combines a focus on content with an instructional method that fully exploits the potential of writing to build knowledge and critical thinking abilities for every child.”

Why? She found many examples of resistance to change. In one case, an educator who had spearheaded a district’s effort to have teachers introduce more content gave up and returned to classroom teaching because he had gotten so much pushback. In other cases, the Core Knowledge curriculum, praised by educators who want more content, was dropped because new principals arrived at those schools and wanted to try something they were more familiar with.

The Common Core is not easy. It needs good teachers armed with smart curriculums and perseverance, as well as pushy people like Cuccinelli. His wife home-schooled their seven children until sixth grade. I don’t know if they read “The New Colossus,” but if they did, I am sure their father’s views on the text would only have made their discussion of it more engaging.