Changing the Face of American Education

A Behind the Scenes Look at the Core Knowledge Foundation and Charlottesville’s Cale Elementary by local writer and Charlottesville mom Melanie G. Snyder

The Core Knowledge Foundation knows what your child needs to know. The Foundation’s back-to-basics approach is changing the way students learn and teachers teach in many schools throughout the country. And it all begins right here in Charlottesville.

Nothing about the outside of the brick house on East High Street indicates the far-reaching impact of the educational philosophies developed inside. A sign out front with a circle of children holding hands piqued my curiosity. I stopped for a visit and discovered this quiet building housed a Foundation credited with changing American education. Mr. Gerald Terrell, Sr., VP of Personnel and Development, showed me to his office. Education books were piled everywhere. “Think Different” posters and easel pad sheets covered the walls.

“We’ve just returned from a strategic planning retreat,” he explained. Even seventeen years after the non-profit, non-partisan organization was founded, “we’re continually evolving,” Terrell says. The Core Knowledge Foundation originated from the research of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and his book: “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” (Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

“Literacy is more than a skill,” says Hirsch. “Being able to comprehend what you read and being able to learn something new depends on your sharing assumed knowledge with other educated people in your society.”

Just as important to the Core Knowledge mission as this broad definition of of literacy is the notion that, “Broad shared knowledge . . . is the keystone of democracy and community.” (Hirsch, Common Knowledge, 2002)

The Core Knowledge Foundation provides parents and teachers with specific, sequenced content to give children a common set of “broad shared knowledge” in the interest of equal opportunity for all children, regardless of socioeconomic or ethnic background. The Core Knowledge Sequence was developed through research in top performing elementary schools around the world and by working with parents, teachers, scientists and others to develop a consensus about what every child needs to know. Seven CK books titled “What Your (x) Grader Needs To Know” cover Language Arts, Geography, World Civilization, American Civilization, Fine Arts, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences topics for grades K-6.

For homeschooler Theresa Willingham and her children, these CK books “guide us in our studies throughout the year, supplementing as needed with library, discussion and hands on material.”

In the classroom, the CK Sequence “brings teachers onto the same page, reducing gaps and repetitions,” says Shep Barbash, who coordinates Core Knowledge support for schools in Atlanta.

Terrell agrees. As former principal at Charlottesville’s Cale Elementary, he saw that, “before Core Knowledge, each teacher chose what to teach, based on their own interests and what they knew best. If you had twins in separate first grade classes, at the end of the school year, your two children could come out of first grade having learned entirely different things.”

But aren’t the SOL’s supposed to bring consistency to what children are being taught in every grade? How does Core Knowledge relate to the SOL’s? The key difference, says Terrell, is that Core Knowledge is sequenced. Every topic in the Sequence builds on every previous topic. “The SOL’s aren’t sequential at all,” he says. “SOL’s are just a sampling of the kinds of things kids need to know. Core Knowledge provides a broad, comprehensive base of knowledge.”

“CK is better because it is specific, well-sequenced and well-chosen. CK is solid, common sense stuff,” says Barbash. “The problem is teachers must follow state guidelines, which were created after CK's and are not as clear or well-thought-out.” Critics of Core Knowledge say that dictating curriculum to teachers takes away creativity and flexibility, leading to “cookie cutter” classrooms and an emphasis on rote memorization.

Terrell disagrees. “Core Knowledge doesn’t tell HOW to teach – just what to teach. All of the teachers’ creativity and flexibility show in the educational methods they employ to help the children learn that material.”

“Educators have to be willing to step out of the box to adopt Core Knowledge,” says Terrell. A large number of Albemarle County educators were introduced to the concepts of Core Knowledge almost ten years ago. Cale Elementary, certified as an Official Core Knowledge School in 1997, is the only local school that adopted it.

A delegation of educators from Chile visited Cale last year to see Core Knowledge at work. What would they have seen in a Core Knowledge classroom that was different from any other classroom?

In one second-grade classroom studying the CK segment on Ancient Greece, children may be engaged in a role-play about democracy in the city-state of Athens versus totalitarianism in Sparta, and exploring the impact of forms of government on the way of life in each of these city-states.

In another second-grade classroom, also engrossed in the CK Ancient Greece segment, children may be reading quotes from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and discussing their influence on the development of a democratic society in Athens.

“The critics have said children need to be taught how to think – not what to think. But children need something to think ABOUT – they need rich content and a broad base of knowledge. THEN they can think critically about that content,” asserts Terrell. Despite the critics, several recent independent evaluations have shown positive results in CK schools. A three-year national study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that, “. . . students in the [CK] program read more, liked the curriculum, and showed significantly higher scores on Core Knowledge tests versus a control group . . . a great deal of cooperative learning, …Teachers felt more professional and enjoyed their jobs more. . . And, parents were happy with the changes in schools.” (Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1999)

Locally, Cale Elementary achieved full Virginia State DOE accreditation two years ahead of the deadline and well ahead of many more affluent schools, despite the fact that half of Cale’s students come from low-income homes.

Terrell credits Core Knowledge for Cale’s outstanding results on nationally normed tests and SOL’s. “Since we implemented Core Knowledge, our scores for all students have consistently gone up, especially in social studies, science and math. We are scoring well above the national norms.”

Obviously, Core Knowledge is only one factor in school success. Terrell cautions, “Good teaching, good curriculum, positive climate in the school, parent involvement - all must be present in order to successfully educate our children.”

He adds, “School climate must be conducive for learning before a school can successfully implement Core Knowledge or any curriculum. We sometimes see our work being negated by school discipline issues.”

While the Core Knowledge Sequence does not include “character education”, the Foundation is researching character education programs, to make knowledgeable recommendations to CK schools that need to address school climate issues. Other future plans include forming nationwide teacher advisory groups, working with university schools of education, continuing to conduct education conferences and research, and spreading the word about Core Knowledge in the US and other countries. “I think local people would be surprised at the contributions the Core Knowledge Foundation is making to American education,” Terrell says.

In 48 states across the US, over 1000 schools are using Core Knowledge. Internationally, schools in three other countries have approached the Foundation to request translation of Core Knowledge books into other languages. “Whether they agree with us 100% or not, we’d like [local citizens] to know what we do here,” Terrell adds. The Foundation is planning an open house for local parents and educators soon.

Meanwhile, “If they want to know what goes on in this little brick house on East High Street, I’d tell them to come on in and find out,” Terrell says with a smile. (For more information see )

Melanie G. Snyder is a Crozet based freelance writer, with published work in Cricket, Guideposts for Kids and a variety of other publications. She teaches character education and personal development classes for children and youth.

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