Read an Excerpt
General Introduction to the Core Knowledge Series
I. WHAT IS YOUR CHILD LEARNING IN SCHOOL?
A parent of identical twins sent me a letter in which she expressed concern that her children, who are in the same grade in the same school, are being taught completely different things. How can this be? Because they are in different classrooms; because the teachers in these classrooms have only the vaguest guidelines to follow; in short, because the school, like many in the United States, lacks a definite, specific curriculum.
Many parents would be surprised if they were to examine the curriculum of their child’s elementary school. Ask to see your school’s curriculum. Does it spell out, in clear and concrete terms, a core of specific content and skills all children at a particular grade level are expected to learn by the end of the school year?
Many curricula speak in general terms of vaguely defined skills, processes, and attitudes, often in an abstract, pseudo-technical language that calls, for example, for children to “analyze patterns and data,” or “investigate the structure and dynamics of living systems,” or “work cooperatively in a group.” Such vagueness evades the central question: what is your child learning in school? It places unreasonable demands upon teachers and often results in years of schooling marred by repetitions and gaps. Yet another unit on dinosaurs or “pioneer days.” Charlotte’s Web for the third time. “You’ve never heard of the Bill of Rights?” “You’ve never been taught how to add two fractions with unlike denominators?”
When identical twins in two classrooms of the same school have few academic experiences in common, that is cause for concern. When teachers in that school do not know what children in other classrooms are learning on the same grade level, much less in earlier and later grades, they cannot reliably predict that children will come prepared with a shared core of knowledge and skills. For an elementary school to be successful, teachers need a common vision of what they want their students to know and be able to do. They need to have clear, specific learning goals, as well as the sense of mutual accountability that comes from shared commitment to helping all children achieve those goals. Lacking both specific goals and mutual accountability, too many schools exist in a state of curricular incoherence, one result of which is that they fall far short of developing the full potential of our children.
To address this problem, I started the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986. This book and its companion volumes in the Core Knowledge Series are designed to give parents, teachers—and through them, children—clearly defined learning goals in the form of a carefully sequenced body of knowledge, based upon the specific content guidelines developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation.
Core Knowledge is an attempt to define, in a coherent and sequential way, a body of knowledge taken for granted by competent writers and speakers in the United States. Because this knowledge is taken for granted rather than explained when used, it forms a necessary foundation for the higher-order reading, writing, and thinking skills that children need for academic and vocational success. The universal attainment of such knowledge should be a central aim of curricula in our elementary schools, just as it is currently the aim in all world-class educational systems. For reasons explained in the next section, making sure that all young children in the United States possess a core of shared knowledge is a necessary step in developing a first-rate educational system.
II. WHY CORE KNOWLEDGE IS NEEDED
Learning builds on learning: children (and adults) gain new knowledge only by building on what they already know. It is essential to begin building solid foundations of knowledge in the early grades when children are most receptive because, for the vast majority of children, academic deficiencies from the first six grades can permanently impair the success of later learning. Poor performance of American students in middle and high school can be traced to shortcomings inherited from elementary schools that have not imparted to children the knowledge and skills they need for further learning.
All of the highest-achieving and most egalitarian elementary school systems in the world (such as those in Sweden, France, and Japan) teach their children a specific core of knowledge in each of the grades, thus enabling all children to enter each new grade with a secure foundation for further learning. It is time American schools did so as well, for the following reasons:
(1) Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more effective. We know that the one-on-one tutorial is the most effective form of schooling, in part because a parent or teacher can provide tailor-made instruction for the individual child. But in a non-tutorial situation—in, for example, a typical classroom with twenty-five or more students—the instructor cannot effectively impart new knowledge to all the students unless each one shares the background knowledge that the lesson is being built upon.
Consider this scenario: in third grade, Ms. Franklin is about to begin a unit on early explorers: Columbus, Magellan, and others. In her class, she has some students who were in Mr. Washington’s second-grade class last year and some students who were in Ms. Johnson’s class. She also has a few students who moved in from other towns. As Ms. Franklin begins the unit, she asks the children to look at a globe and use their fingers to trace a route across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to North America. The students who had Mr. Washington look blankly at her: they didn’t learn that last year. The students who had Ms. Johnson, however, eagerly point to the proper places on the globe, while two of the students who came from other towns pipe up and say, “Columbus and Magellan again? We did that last year.” When all the students in a class do share the relevant background knowledge, a classroom can begin to approach the effectiveness of a tutorial. Even when some children in a class do not have elements of the knowledge they were supposed to acquire in previous grades, the existence of a specifically defined core makes it possible for the teacher or parent to identify and fill in the gaps, thus giving all students a chance to fulfill their potential in later grades.
(2) Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more fair and democratic. When all the children who enter a grade can be assumed to share some of the same building blocks of knowledge, and when the teacher knows exactly what those building blocks are, then all the students are empowered to learn. In our current system, children from disadvantaged backgrounds too often suffer from unmerited low expectations that translate into watered-down curricula. But if we specify the core of knowledge that all children should share, then we can guarantee equal access to that knowledge and compensate for the academic advantages some students are offered at home. In a Core Knowledge school, all children enjoy the benefits of important, challenging knowledge that will provide the foundation for successful later learning.
(3) Commonly shared knowledge helps create cooperation and solidarity in our schools and nation. Diversity is a hallmark and strength of our nation. American classrooms are often, and increasingly, made up of students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and those different cultures should be honored by all students. At the same time, education should create a school-based culture that is common and welcoming to all because it includes knowledge of many cultures and gives all students, no matter what their background, a common foundation for understanding our cultural diversity.
III. THE CONSENSUS BEHIND THE CORE KNOWLEDGE SEQUENCE
The content in this and other volumes in the Core Knowledge Series is based on a document called the Core Knowledge Sequence, a grade-by-grade sequence of specific content guidelines in English, history, geography, mathematics, science, art, and music. The Sequence is not meant to outline the whole of the school curriculum; rather, it offers specific guidelines to knowledge that can reasonably be expected to make up about half of any school’s curriculum, or perhaps a little more, thus leaving ample room for local requirements and emphases. Teaching a common core of knowledge, such as that articulated in the Core Knowledge Sequence, is compatible with a variety of instructional methods and additional subject matters.
The Core Knowledge Sequence is the result of a long process of research and consensus building undertaken by the Core Knowledge Foundation. Here is how we achieved the consensus behind the Core Knowledge Sequence. First we analyzed the many reports issued by state departments of education and by professional organizations—such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—that recommend general outcomes for elementary and secondary education. We also tabulated the knowledge and skills through grade six specified in the successful educational systems of several other countries, including France, Japan, Sweden, and West Germany. In addition, we formed an advisory board on multiculturalism that proposed specific knowledge of diverse cultural traditions that American children should all share as part of their school-based common culture. We sent the resulting materials to three independent groups of teachers, scholars, and scientists around the country, asking them to create a master list of the knowledge children should have by the end of grade six. About 150 teachers (including college professors, scientists, and administrators) were involved in this initial step.
These items were amalgamated into a master plan, and further groups of teachers and specialists were asked to agree on a grade-by-grade sequence of the items. That sequence was then sent to some 100 educators and specialists who participated in a national conference that was called to hammer out a working agreement on an appropriate core of knowledge for the first six grades.
This important meeting took place in March 1990. The conferees were elementary school teachers, curriculum specialists, scientists, science writers, officers of national organizations, representatives of ethnic groups, district superintendents, and school principals from across the country. A total of twenty-four working groups decided on revisions in the Core Knowledge Sequence. The resulting provisional Sequence was further fine-tuned during a year of implementation at a pioneering school, Three Oaks Elementary in Lee County, Florida.
In only a few years many more schools—urban and rural, rich and poor, public and private—joined in the effort to teach Core Knowledge. Based largely on suggestions from these schools, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been significantly revised: it was extended to seventh and eighth grades; separate guidelines were added for kindergarten; and a few topics in other grades were added, omitted, or moved from one grade to another, in order to create an even more coherent sequence for learning. A Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence was first published in 1997. The revised edition of this and other books in the Core Knowledge Series reflect the revisions in the Sequence. Current editions of the Core Knowledge Sequence and the Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence may be ordered from the Core Knowledge Foundation.
IV. THE NATURE OF THIS SERIES
The books in this series are designed to give a convenient and engaging introduction to the knowledge specified in the Core Knowledge Sequence. These are not textbooks; they are resource books, addressed primarily to parents, but which we hope will be useful tools for teachers, too. These books are not intended to replace the local curriculum or school textbooks, but rather to serve as aids to help children gain some of the important knowledge they will need to make progress in school and be effective in society.
Although we have made these books as accessible and useful as we can, parents and teachers should understand that they are not the only means by which the Core Knowledge Sequence can be imparted. The books represent a single version of the possibilities inherent in the Sequence. We hope that publishers will be stimulated to offer educational videos, computer software, games, alternative books, websites, and other imaginative vehicles based on the Core Knowledge Sequence.
Although sixth graders should be able to read this book on their own, you may also wish to read some passages aloud. You and your child can read the sections of this book in any order, depending on your child’s interests or depending on the topics your child is studying in school. You can skip from section to section and reread as much as your child likes.
We encourage you to think of this book as a guidebook that opens the way to many paths you and your child can explore. These paths may lead to the library, to many other good books, and, if possible, to plays, museums, concerts, and other opportunities for knowledge and enrichment. In short, this guidebook recommends places to visit and describes what is important in those places, but only you and your child can make the actual visit, travel the streets, and climb the steps.
V. WHAT YOU CAN DOTO HELP IMPROVE AMERICAN EDUCATION
The first step for parents and teachers who are committed to reform is to be skeptical about oversimplified slogans like “critical thinking” and “learning to learn.” Such slogans are everywhere, and unfortunately for our schools, their partial insights have been elevated to the level of universal truths. For example: “What students learn is not important; rather, we must teach students to learn how to learn.” “The child, not the academic subject, is the true focus of education.” “Do not impose knowledge on children before they are developmentally ready to receive it.” “Do not bog children down in mere facts, but rather, teach critical-thinking skills.”
Who has not heard these sentiments, so admirable and humane, and—up to a point—so true? But these positive sentiments in favor of “thinking skills” and “higher understanding” have been turned into negative sentiments against the teaching of important knowledge. Those who have entered the teaching profession over the past 40 years have been taught to scorn important knowledge as “mere facts” and to see the imparting of this knowledge as somehow injurious to children. Thus it has come about that many educators, armed with partially true slogans, have seemingly taken leave of common sense.
Many parents and teachers have come to the conclusion that elementary education must strike a better balance between the development of the whole child and the more limited but fundamental duty of the school to ensure that all children master a core of knowledge and skills essential to their competence as learners in later grades. But these parents and teachers cannot act on their convictions without an agreed-upon, concrete sequence of knowledge. Our main motivation in developing the Core Knowledge Sequence and this book series has been to give parents and teachers something concrete to work with.
It has been encouraging to see how many teachers have responded to the Core Knowledge reform effort. If you would like more information about the growing network of Core Knowledge schools, please call or write the Core Knowledge Foundation at the address given on p. xvii.
Parents and teachers are urged to join in a grass-roots effort to strengthen our elementary schools. Start in your own school and district. Insist that your school clearly state the core of specific knowledge and skills that each child in a grade must learn. Whether your school’s core corresponds exactly to the Core Knowledge model is less important than the existence of some core—which, we hope, will be as solid, coherent, and challenging as the Core Knowledge Sequence has proven to be. Inform members of your community about the need for such a specific curriculum, and help make sure that your local school board members are independent-minded people who will insist that children have the benefit of a solid, specific, world-class curriculum in each grade.
Share the knowledge!
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Chairman
Core Knowledge Foundation