It was first tested in Fort Myers, Florida, in 1990. Based on the premise that a shared body of common knowledge is crucial for citizens of a democracy, "core knowledge" has gone from a philosophy to a growing phenomenon that has revolutionized over 350 schools across the country.
"Our children now enter an educational system in which each classroom follows its own sequence of study. No teacher can know with any certainty what specific knowledge incoming students have. Teachers must therefore engage in 'review' for several weeks before going forwards, and thereafter must constantly backtrack to fill in knowledge gaps that should not exist. This glacial slowness of academic progress in early grades immediately strikes foreign observers of our schools."
So writes University of Virginia Professor E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need, and the force behind the core knowledge movement. Without a shared body of knowledge, says Hirsch, society falls into two unequal classes of people: those who know world history and geography, who understand references to literature, the arts, and the world at large -- and those who don't; those who can speak and write in the standard language system of the marketplace, and those who can't. In other words, a lot of kids out there are being cheated -- kids who are unlikely to catch up and compete in the workplace.
With that in mind, Hirsch and two groups of teachers developed a structured body of knowledge for grades K-6, based on an outline called the Core Knowledge Sequence. Teachers at each grade level teach the same content to their students. As kids go to a higher grade level, they build and expand on the content of the preceding year.
The jury's still out
Kathy Ursic, a former 7th grade science teacher and current parent at Tatuxent Elementary in Lusby, Maryland, reports, "Last year, my first grader and my third grader had the core curriculum. I like the idea that certain themes are introduced at one level and reinforced a year or two later, in another grade. . . but I think a lot depends on how each individual teacher implements the curriculum. It's been in place for only two years here, so I think the jury is still out."
Accolades for core knowledge
Tatuxent's PTA president, Ann Trainor said, "I've nothing but accolades for core knowledge. My seven-year old daughter, Anneliese, started it in kindergarten and this year she's entering second grade. The topics are well-rounded and well-developed. Anneliese always wants to learn more, so we end up going to the library to pursue subject matter she's interested in. Last year she learned about American history, and when we visited Philadelphia, she really understood the historical tour we took. When my older children were in elementary school, geography and history were combined into social studies, and I think they were cheated out of a lot of necessary information."
"The great benefit of core knowledge is its specificity." says Connie Jones, Director of School Programs at The Core Knowledge Foundation. "Teachers and parents are all on the same page. It gets around the problem of repetition or gaps in instruction as kids move from grade to grade or school to school." Designed to constitute about 50 percent of what's taught, the core curriculum allows teachers the freedom to develop their own knowledge goals as well as to foster understanding and respect for every child's ethnicity and home culture.
Critics and supporters
Nevertheless, core knowledge has its critics in the education establishment. Detractors say the curriculum stresses Western culture and thereby shortchanges minority and low-income children. California educator and author Herbert Kohl labels the curriculum a `white idea' designed to "keep people of color in their place." Yet prominent multicultural advocate, Henry Louis Gates, supports the idea of a common, school-based culture and has joined the Core Knowledge Network. Like Hirsch, he believes the curriculum opens doors rather than closes them. Other supporters point out that a common body of knowledge is precisely what poor kids need most, since more affluent students are likely to have parents who are able to make up for inadequate education.
The content standards
To qualify as a core knowledge school, 50 percent of the school's curriculum should be core curriculum, in six areas: history, geography, math, science, language arts, and fine arts. The other 50 percent typically centers around the skills required by local or state curricular guidelines. Guffrie Smith, Director of Elementary Education at Maryland's Calvert County Public Schools talks about the early days of core in his district: "The first year was full of turmoil! Teachers didn't know what to expect, so we focused a lot of energy on bringing them up to speed with the curriculum. Not surprisingly, there was lots of doubt, but that has disappeared now. This curriculum raises expectations. It involves parents -- often as resources. And it has stimulated us to develop content standards for each grade level."
This fall marks the seventh year since core knowledge was introduced to public education. As of yet, not one school that has adopted the curriculum wants to give it up. And coincidentally, at the July `97 conference of the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman, the union's president, reminded its 940,000 members that Albert Shanker, their longtime former president, was an enthusiastic advocate of a curriculum of common knowledge for all students. She then presented the union's annual award to E.D. Hirsch.