No, I do not refer to the Common Core standards.
I mean the Core Knowledge program that unfolded in U.S. schools in the decade following the 1987 publication of University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.
The book, the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation and subsequent publication of curricular sequences across academic subjects taught in elementary schools produced a reform that again brought to the surface the historical struggle over what kind of knowledge and skills are worth teaching and learning in tax-supported public schools.
Hot embers of previous traditional vs. progressive wars in the early 20th century and then in the 1950s over the importance of phonics vs. whole language in reading, exposure to disciplinary knowledge rather than students creating their own meaning re-ignited in the last decade of the century after Hirsch’s book and the spread of Core Knowledge programs in schools.
What Problems Did the Core Knowledge Program Intend To Solve?
According to Hirsch and advocates for Core Knowledge, the current concentration on building skills–“student will be able to do…”–has handicapped children and youth by ignoring the importance of teaching systematically sequential knowledge as a way of developing reading comprehension, problem-solving, inquiry, and most important understanding the world. Core Knowledge tries to solve this endemic problem in U.S. schooling. As one description put it:
The Core Knowledge Sequence identifies that knowledge base in the core subjects. For example, the American history portion of the Core Knowledge Sequence includes specific events and aspects of history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Underground Railroad; it does not include an objective such as “identify a sequence of events in history.” The Core Knowledge Sequence does indicate study of significant people, stories, and issues, including William Penn and the Quakers, Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, Cesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers, Dorthea Dix and the treatment of the insane, Sojourner Truth and women’s rights, and Chief Joseph and the ordeal of the Nez Perce Indians. The American history sequence does not include an objective such as “explain how various cultural groups have participated in the development of the United States.” As the students learn about specific people and events, teachers can guide them to deeper understanding and teach them to apply problem-solving and other analytical skills to what they have learned.
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues that educational Progressives such as Dewey wanted children to construct their knowledge, learn by doing and come to understand the world. Such Progressive ideas have ruined American schools, according to Hirsch, by ignoring the importance of children having intellectual capital, that is, a broad and deep base of knowledge to understand core ideas and the present moment.
Diane Ravitch, a member of the Core Knowledge Foundation board, reviewed another of Hirsch’s books in 2006 and located his place in the historic struggle between Progressives and traditionalists:
In his assault on the precepts of progressive education, Hirsch enters a battle that has been waged for over a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every high-school student studied Latin. Teachers and parents believed that the study of Latin taught certain skills that could be transferred to any other pursuit or activity, such as precision, judgment, logical thinking, clarity, and so on. It was, in the words of its defenders, a valuable form of mental gymnastics, intended to improve one’s faculties. The same argument was made for algebra and other areas of advanced mathematics. The first generation of education psychologists (such as Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College) took aim at this belief and sought to demonstrate through their studies that “transfer of training” was a myth, and that there was no reason at all to study Latin or any subject that was not immediately useful.
Progressive educators were heartened by Thorndike’s work and concluded that “you study what you study, and you learn what you learn.” In other words, what was the point of learning Latin or algebra or even history since they had no demonstrable utility? ….
In this century-old debate, the great error of traditionalist educators was their failure to defend cultural values in education, that is, the importance of knowledge. By making the case for Latin or history dependent on “transfer of training,” they lost the debate. The culturally important studies such as literature, history, and foreign language never should have been defended for their value in “training the mind,” but for their importance in shaping an educated, civilized human being.
Hirsch now makes that case, and it is a very important contribution to American education. He shows that research is now firmly on the side of those who advocate knowledge as the goal of learning….
What Does a Core Knowledge Program Look Like in Practice?
In elementary schools, Core Knowledge is used for part of the day. Scheduled times are allocated to lessons in language arts, science, social studies, and math. For the rest of the school day familiar activities including art, drama, and physical education occur.
Deanna Zarichansky, Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School in Hartsville, TN, describes the program.
Our district adopted Core Knowledge [Language Arts] at the beginning of this school year . This has been the single most powerful curriculum implementation I have seen in my 16 years of education. We are a small district with a high rate of poverty, with many students who enter school with little to no experiences with literacy. Our school is charged with the difficult task of educating students who come to us with little vocabulary and limited knowledge of the world around them.
At first glance, many teachers were rather skeptical that their students could be successful with themes such as The War of 1812 and Astronomy. These same teachers soon became strong supporters of the program. The students began to use vocabulary and content knowledge they were being exposed to by Core Knowledge in conversations and in writing. Walking down the hallways of our school, you can hear chatter about the Earth’s atmosphere, Rosa Parks, Machu Picchu, and paleontologists. Many second grade students wanted to dress as gods and goddesses for Halloween. They collect rocks on the playground and discuss how they were formed. Parents often tell stories of their children combing through the cabinets and discussing what is healthy and what they shouldn’t be eating, catching their children peeking out of the window looking for the North Star, and rousing dinner conversations about the Civil War. Our librarian shared that students are choosing to check out more nonfiction than ever before.
The walls of our school used to be decorated with holiday items and have now been replaced with diagrams of constellations and descriptive paragraphs about Human Body Systems. This curriculum has changed the culture of our school. It has allowed equalization for students who are now exposed to deep knowledge building about the world around them.
Bridgit McCarthy, a third grade teacher at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina, describes her unit on Rome.
Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!
My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.
How mean! Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.
JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.
These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.
Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.
These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.
Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content….
The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.
I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.
The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.
In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.
As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.
Do Core Knowledge Programs Work?
As for many school reforms over the past century, answering the “effectiveness” question–does it work?–is no easy task. The first major issue is answering the question of whether Core Knowledge was fully implemented in classrooms. If not completely implemented, then judging outcomes become suspect. Many of the early studies of Core Knowledge in schools were mixed, some showing higher test scores and some showing no positive effects (see here, here, here, and here). The Core Knowledge Foundation has a list of studies that they assert show positive outcomes. What is so often missing from research on reforms such as Core Knowledge are descriptions of the contextual conditions in which the reform is located and researchers saying clearly: under what conditions does this program prove effective? That is too often missing including the research on Core Knowledge schools.
What Has Happened to Core Knowledge Programs in Schools?
There is now a network of 770 schools using the Core Knowledge Program (there are about 90,000 public elementary schools in the U.S.).
When the Common Core standards initially were published in 2010, Hirsch criticized the standards as having insufficient content. After reviewing the next set of standards and grade-by-grade sequence, Hirsch decided that there was sufficient content and the Core Knowledge Foundation aligned its sequence to the Common Core Standards.
Hirsch commented on this alignment of the program to Common Core Standards:
“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of. We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”