Core Knowledge Schools Now Top 1,000

Published November 1, 2000

Core Knowledge schools are proving popular with parents who want their children to learn essential facts in a structured, sequential fashion. Moreover, early research shows the Core Knowledge approach works, particularly by developing rich vocabularies on which children can build for further learning.

The Core Knowledge movement debuted in 1991 at Three Oaks Elementary in Ft. Meyers, Florida under the leadership of its principal, Constance Jones, who now serves as president of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

By this fall, the number of full-fledged Core Knowledge schools topped 1,100 in 46 states. Hundreds more schools use elements of the Core Knowledge Sequence, a plan for imparting those facts and skills children should master at each grade. The Sequence was an outgrowth of the 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, by University of Virginia English professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., a critic of progressive education and its anti-academic disdain for the teaching of “mere facts.”

Core Knowledge Works

According to Hirsch, the widespread cultural illiteracy that results from such a teaching philosophy is stunting young Americans’ capacity for learning. How can pupils think critically about the Civil War, for example, when they go blank at references to “the Missouri Compromise,” “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” “Bull Run,” and “Appomattox”?

About 15 percent of Core Knowledge schools are public charter schools, and another 15 percent are secular or religiously affiliated private schools. The remaining 70 percent are public schools that have decided to adopt the curriculum, often at the urging of interested parents and teachers.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools are engaged in research that over time may establish conclusively the impact the Core Knowledge curriculum has on student achievement. The first-year results compiled by Gracy Taylor and George Kimball were promising.

Taylor and Kimball carefully controlled their study so as to compare pre- and post basic-skills test scores for 300 Core Knowledge pupils in grades 3, 4, and 5 with 300 other pupils having virtually identical characteristics but not taking the Core Knowledge curriculum. The variables were grade level, pre-score on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, sex, race, and eligibility for free lunch, Title I services, and special education.

Creating a fair match between Core Knowledge and regular students worked like this: If the experimental group had a third-grade, black female who met the poverty guidelines for a free lunch, and who had a reading comprehension “pre” score at the 42nd percentile, the researchers would use the computer for a random search of the district for a student who had exactly the same numbers and traits. If no match could be found, then the experimental-group student was dropped from the analysis.

With such near-exact pairing, it would be reasonable to expect that achievement results for the two groups would continue to be similar after just one year. In fact, however, Oklahoma City’s Core Knowledge pupils out-scored the control group with “highly significant” gains in reading comprehension, vocabulary, and social studies. The Core Knowledge gains were “marginally significant” for math concepts and science, while for math computation, language usage, and overall language the differences between the two groups were not statistically significant.

The Core Knowledge students’ gains over the control group were 3.0 Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE) for reading comprehension, 4.5 NCEs for reading vocabulary, and 4.9 NCEs for social studies. NCE is an equal-interval test measure that, unlike percentiles, allows performance on one test to be compared with that on another, and also permits averaging of scores to compare groups of students.

Taylor and Kimball noted that “the implementation of the Core Knowledge scope and sequence is intended to provide and develop a broad base of background knowledge that children utilize in their reading. According to Dr. Hirsch’s cultural literacy theory, the more background knowledge a child has, the greater facility in reading the child will have. The initial results of this study do appear to support that notion.”

The researchers added, however, that questions remain to be answered about long-term effects. Additional longitudinal studies will be conducted by Oklahoma City Schools in cooperation with RAND, the research organization.

Restoring Academic Substance

To develop its Core Knowledge Sequence, which draws from the content and structure of the highest-performing elementary schools in the world, the Core Knowledge Foundation convened academic experts in 24 different working groups. The Sequence specifies what children should learn at each grade in core subjects so they can build on that knowledge base when they advance to the next level.

For instance, first graders have a world history unit in which they study ancient Egypt and learn about the importance of the Nile River, hieroglyphics, and pharaohs, pyramids, and mummies. In third-grade math, students learn geometric concepts, such as how to compute area in square inches and square centimeters. By sixth grade, language arts pupils are studying such classics as The Iliad and The Odyssey and Julius Caesar.

A central purpose of Core Knowledge’s founder is to bring equity to education by restoring academic substance to the education of all children. Hirsch is convinced that low-fact education progressivism–the century-long influence of which is tracked by historian Diane Ravitch in her new book, Left Back–has done a particularly grave injustice to minority and disadvantaged children. This is because school is about the only place where such children can acquire cultural literacy. By contrast, children whose homes are rich in books and other educational materials still may acquire a significant amount of cultural literacy from the home environment even though their schools may neglect the teaching of facts.

In Hirsch’s view, a content-rich curriculum would do most to level the educational playing field between advantaged and disadvantaged children. But one of the “tragic paradoxes” of our times, Hirsch recently observed, is that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision was handed down just as “romantic progressivism finally succeeded in abolishing the emphasis on traditional academic content in the early grades.” By the time disadvantaged children finally got an opportunity to get a good education, the curriculum being taught was virtually devoid of content.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].