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Core Knowledge schools

Is a Core Knowledge school right for your child? Learn what this rigorous academic program is all about and the pros and cons it offers students preK to 8.

By Linda Jacobson

A class of fourth graders gathers on the floor in Debi Madsen’s art class at Peach Hill Academy — a Core Knowledge school in Moorpark, CA. Before dispersing to desks to work on their own architectural models, the students discuss some key points that they have learned about cathedrals: the difference between a symmetrical and an asymmetrical design and why one spire on the Chartres Cathedral in France is more streamlined and modern-looking than the other.

A hand shoots up. “Do you know if there are any cathedrals nearby?” a girl asks.

Their study of Greek architecture in second grade and of Roman architecture in third has prepared the students for their current look at architecture around the world. Madsen expounds on the length of time it took to complete the stained-glass windows in the cathedral.

“Imagine working on the same art project for 50 years — the perseverance,” Madsen says, interjecting one of the “core values” emphasized in Core Knowledge schools.

Building on prior knowledge like this is a daily occurrence at Peach Hill, one of over 750 schools across the country using the Core Knowledge program.

The birth of Core Knowledge schools

Decades before “Common Core” became a familiar term in education policy, in the late 1970's, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., then a professor at the University of Virginia, posited that there was a core body of knowledge that students need to acquire — and that the more students know, the more they are able to learn (One of the Core Knowledge's mottos is: "Knowledge builds on knowledge.”). Further, Hirsch suggested that students — being given specific guidelines on what they learn at every grade level and making them more "culturally literate" — would receive a more equitable, fair, and rich education.

In 1986, Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville, VA, that publishes the Core Knowledge Sequence. Addressing the subjects of language arts, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and visual arts, Core Knowledge covers a specific body of knowledge for students in preschool through eighth grade. Hirsch also wrote "The Core Knowledge Series," for parents of primary school children, covering what students in a particular grade should know, such as, What Your First Grader Needs to Know. (Learn more about the Core Knowledge curriculum.)

Hirsch's work has received particular support from political conservatives, who applaud his belief that students need to learn specific facts, theories, ideas, and events in order to become thoughtful, informed, and educated adults. Hirsch noted in his book, The Making of Americans that while he is a political liberal, "I was forced to become an education conservative." Hirsch continues: "Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.”

Intense standards, rigorous curriculum

What sets the Core Knowledge curriculum apart from the curriculum in a traditional school is the specificity of the standards. The curriculum is intensely rigorous. Instead of just learning how to write, students are, for example, writing about the founding fathers or important rivers in India.

Another difference between a Core Knowledge school and what children might experience in another school is that art and music are essential elements of the Sequence, not add-on subjects that are sometimes squeezed out because of funding cutbacks or other priorities.

While it might be easy to confuse the Common Core State Standards — which most states have now adopted — with a Core Knowledge curriculum, foundation leaders are quick to note that there is a clear distinction between the two. Standards state what children should know and be able to do at the end of each grade level. A curriculum is what children need to learn in order to meet those standards.

Even so, Peach Hill Principal Vicky Yasenchok believes that there is a close match between Core Knowledge and the Common Core, which will make the school’s transition to complying with the standards much easier. For example, the Common Core increases students’ time spent on “informational text.” Core Knowledge already emphasizes non-fiction work.

Linda Jacobson is a freelance education writer who lives in Southern California.