A Promising Start for Core Knowledge Early Literacy Program

by Robert Pondiscio
September 23rd, 2009

One year after announcing a pilot program to test a new Core Knowledge Early Literacy program in ten New York City Schools, Joel Klein Tuesday announced very strong early results.  As a news release from the New York City Department of Ed puts it: 

The progress of students in the ten participating schools was more than five times greater than the also-significant performance of students at ten peer schools with comparable student populations, and was reflected among students at all levels of literacy.  Additionally, teachers surveyed as part of the pilot rated the program highly, and nine of the ten participating schools have selected to use the Core Knowledge program with their new kindergarten classes in addition to continuing the program with their first graders, who remain in the pilot.

Speaking at a press conference at a South Bronx elementary school — one of the pilot schools – E.D. Hirsch noted thatwhile the initial results were gratifying, the bigger payoff could come later, since the program is designed to build broad background knowledge across the curriculum, which pays off in improved reading comprehension in the years ahead:

Kindergarten is just a start.  There is always the danger of fade out in later years, as we know from Headstart research.  Elsewhere in the nation, and right here in New York, schools have made noticeable progress in raising reading scores in the early grades according to NAEP, the Nations Report Card.   These improvements reflect better teaching of decoding.   But the improvements in scores are still confined to the early grades.   Verbal scores in the later grades of NAEP have stayed unacceptably low.   Yet these later verbal scores are the ones that predict a student’s ultimate success in life.     

The program consists of two strands: a phonics-heavy decoding strand, and a “listening and learning” strand to build content knowledge.  “Assuming that we will get funding to develop materials for the later grades,” Hirsch noted, “I am predicting that even more dramatic results will show up further on. Instead of the current flat or even declining verbal scores among middle and high school students we will see in students who follow a program like this significantly higher scores, and we will see a narrowing of the language gap between races and ethnic groups. ”

More coverage of the pilot program results can be found here and here.


  1. Wow, I’m excited that this experiment is taking place. If the CK schools continue to be a success, maybe NYC will apply the curriculum widely. If that happens, I can see it spreading across the US.

    Comment by Ben F — September 23, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  2. Congratulations!

    Comment by Claus — September 23, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  3. This is very good news. And I heartily agree with E. D. Hirsch about looking at the long term.

    What makes this program stand out (from what I can see) is the combination of phonics and listening/learning. The children are learning all sorts of interesting things as they begin to associate sounds with letters. And the emphasis on listening is very important. At the last CK conference I asked whether students became better listeners over the course of the year, and teachers on the panel replied that they did. I imagine that gives them a great advantage.

    I look forward to seeing where this goes. I imagine it will do well if it grows slowly–it takes real dedication and understanding on the part of the school. It wouldn’t work as a citywide mandate. But I can see it appealing to a lot of students, parents, teachers, and schools.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 23, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

  4. Diana,

    Why do you think that it wouldn’t work as a citywide mandate?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — September 23, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

  5. Because when things are mandated on a large scale they are often dumbed down, miscommunicated, poorly taught, etc. And teachers lose some of their professional autonomy.

    This pilot program is different from the CK sequence–this is both a pedagogical approach and a curriculum. I believe strongly that teachers should decide how to teach. When a particular established approach seems to be working well, teachers should be given the opportunity to use it–by joining schools that use it, by bringing it into their school, etc. But it would ruin the program, I believe, to tell all kindergarten teachers, “this is how you must teach now.”

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 24, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  6. P.S. Welcome back, Erin, from wherever you have been! (Or maybe it’s me.) I haven’t seen you on the blogs for a while.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 24, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  7. Diana,

    I concur. Teachers need to retain their professional judgement.

    But if the kindergarteners were doing so well (95% reading well above grade level as they entered 1st grade), how do you think NYCDOE should encourage or support schools/teachers in choosing this program?

    P.S. Thanks for the welcome back. Day job has been taking up most of my time.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — September 24, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  8. Erin,

    I think it would grow through popularity and reputation. The DoE need only allow it to grow and make opportunities for teachers to show it to others.

    There are far too few opportunities for teachers to visit other schools. This should be a part of PD. Teachers should have two or three school-visiting days a year, and they should choose schools that interest them for a particular reason.

    I may be optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on the angle), but I think the program can and will grow on its own merits.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 24, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  9. I’m reluctantly with Diana. As much as I believe in the approach and the overarching goal of building background knowledge (there IS a reason I work for CK!) I’ve seen too much resistance to flavor-of-the-month quick fixes and would be loath to see this program perceived that way. Enthusiastic implementation makes a lot of difference; I would rather see the program well implemented and build its reputation than mandated and done poorly. The latter would be self-defeating.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 24, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  10. Agreed. It would be horrible if this program were lumped in with “the flavor of the month quick fix” type of implementation. Quality implementation is critical.

    But quality programs rarely proliferate on their own merit as there is little data/communication for teachers/schools to really evaluate the programs, let alone support for quality implementation.

    A good example of a quality program not making headway into schools is Singapore math. It is an outstanding program that has completely failed to make a dent into how students learn math. Why? How will CK Reading be any different?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — September 24, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  11. Interesting, Erin. I would love to know what the implementation numbers are on Singapore Math, but I’ve been carrying around this idea that it’s an example of a program (the IB program is another) that has cult status and great word of mouth. My assumption is that over time, there’s a tipping point for such programs and then widespread adotion happens. I’d foresee something like that for the CK reading program. But before that happens, a whole lot of silliness has to be shaken out of education, from hostility at ed schools to an accountability system focused exclusively on short-term results. My article of faith is that everything gets the reputation it deserves eventually.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 24, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  12. Well, I would love to see implementation numbers on Singapore math as well. But there are only a handful of schools around the country that advertise its use.

    Washington State recently revamped their math standards. Singapore math did not match the new standards and was not recommended for adoption in schools. Significantly inferior programs that did technically match the standards were recommended for adoption. The biggest criticism of Singapore math was that it was presenting material too early (in lower grades) than was written in the standards. So the sequence of instruction did not match the standards.

    But probably more importantly, the approach that Singapore takes is significantly different than what is usually seen in math instruction in our country and so it “feels” very different to teachers. But it is that difference in approach that makes all the difference to the students learning math.

    So despite the well-documented success of the materials/approaches/sequence used in Singapore math, it has not make much headway into our schools.

    How would even the most professional/eager teachers take up a program that looks so much different without tremendous support from the school/district?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — September 24, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  13. Robert,

    Reputation is earned over time as you observe.

    But as Kayes once said “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” I’d love to see kids learning real knowledge while I’m still alive, thanks very much.

    If, as has been said, one of the early weaknesses of the current “reform” movement in New York City was a failure to understand that structural reform alone would not succeed without equal attention to pedagogical or curricular reform, then letting CK’s moment in the sun slip by would be a shame.

    Some observers are critical of what they perceived to be the Kool-Aid drinking habits of some charter school advocates (cf the current debate on the latest Hoxby study). The tendency of some to drive their outlook by ideology or “strongly held belief” rather than data sets that are proven over time is not to be encouraged.

    But if there is one critique to the so-called reform agenda (I know it’s not a monolithic movement) it is the lack of a commitment to pedagogical reform. So if CK believes they have strong evidence of the benefits from implementing their approach, I’d re-work Barry Goldwater and say “extremism in the defense of knowledge is no vice.”

    I imagine that part of the reason relativist math has hung on as well as it has is (ironically) that as a nation we’re weak at math and therefore uncomfortable taking on self-appointed panjandrums from Chicago who developed Everyday Math. But I’d dare guess that if Tweed put as much effort behind CK as they have being Writers Workshop, you’d reach the tipping point a lot sooner.

    Comment by Matthew — September 24, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  14. There are many ways Tweed could put effort behind the CK reading program without mandating it citywide.

    They could hold informational meetings for teachers interested in learning more about it. They could look for schools ready and willing to adopt it. They could make sure new teachers were aware of it. They could set up a training program for interested schools and teachers. They could find ways to let teachers see it in action.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 24, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  15. Diana,

    Do you see that happening?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — September 25, 2009 @ 2:03 am

  16. Congratulations!

    Comment by john thompson — September 25, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  17. Here in the UK, our Sound Foundations decoding and spelling programmes have won the support of a number of local authority advisers, and this has proved very useful. Quite rightly, they have no legal powers to force any school to use any programme. But the schools that are using our materials are so enthusiastic about them that they have spread quickly to other schools in the area. In many areas, they are used in 80%-90% of primary schools.

    After the next election, we are certain to have a lot of friends in high places. However, I would be horrified at any suggestion that our materials should be favoured. We have argued, successfully I should think, that other programmes like Reading Recovery should not receive ring-fenced funding.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — September 25, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  18. I LOVE CK, however, my most favorite language arts program is Sing, Spell, Read & Write. We use it here in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This is a carefully designed 36-Step program which incorporates the fun and power of music along with games to teach reading, writing and spelling. The program is excellent and brings every child to literacy. Now once the kids learn to read, I love the components of Core Knowledge and agree that kids ought to be taught a wide variety of information. Unfortunately, early childhood classrooms have become “reading and math” factories (because of poorly written curriculum which is NOT effective) rather than places of true hands on learning and exploring. Example there are NO: sandboxes, blocks, play kitchens, dress-up areas, trucks, cars, train tracks, art areas,(no fingerpainting!), dancing (including folk dancing), instruments, pianos….Not to mention the fact that many NYC schools don’t have gyms!
    Therefore the kids are NOT really experiencing any of the vocabulary necessary for true comprehension. A good early childhood classroom ought to have all of these and lots and lots of trips.
    Teaching kids to read is NOT hard with Sing, Spell, Read & Write, it’s the other stuff, the experiences that broaden a kids knowledge base. All the vocabulary and pictures in the world cannot make up for the hands-on learning that is lacking in our classrooms. If the CK curriculum is instructing the early childhood classrooms to consist of lots of experinces then more power to it, however, if it’s just another reading program, which we have MANY of that work now, including Reading Reform Foundation, Linda-Mood Bell and more, well then, I for one, will stick with the award winning Sing, Spell, Read & Write, which unfortunately has gotten little press, but is actually the best, according to Bob Sweet, Deputy Director of the National Institute for reading for President Reagan and used it as the model with which to judge all other programs by.

    Comment by Christine D'Amico — September 25, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  19. Robert & Erin,

    I’ve worked with Singapore math with my own kids from 1st – 8th grade for more than 10 years. It requires a lot of knowledge from the teacher and a willingness to learn aspects of math that some of us missed when we were in school.

    The 4th and 5th grade word problems involving fractions, ratios, and decimals are very similar to what a top rated traditional Algebra book (eg Dolciani and Brown) would use in 8th in the US. In 2nd grade they move immediately into regrouping with 3 and 4 digit numbers. Long division is taught in 3rd.

    For every parent who’s been told a school must use Investigations or Everyday Math to teach “conceptual understanding”, Singapore is the real thing because of the use of visuals to illustrate the math relationships among fractions, decimals, percentages, and ratios; the regular use of multistep word problems that usually require more than one operation; and the insistence on facility with the standard, transferable calculations.

    Doing the Singapore elementary curriculum and comparing it to what happens in most US classrooms makes you feel like we are leaving an entire generation without a solid foundation in arithmetic.

    Comment by Student of History — September 25, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  20. Oh, golly. There is simply no secret to why the older kids’ reading comprehension scores are fading. The kids are playing videogames and watching tv instead of reading for pleasure at home for 2-3 hours at a time.

    Change the home environment and you will elevate the reading comprehension scores.

    Comment by Chris — September 26, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  21. Dear Robert & Erin,
    Thank you for the review on Singapore Math, I have looked at it and heard great things about it. I, personally, have experience with Saxon Math which I LOVED for early childhood classrooms. Lots of hands-on activities were included and lots of good solid math. Everyday Math lacks a lot and is not as well-written as some would like to believe.
    Unfortunately NYC has blanketed the entire city with Everyday Math. Ridiculous! If the administration had selected a few programs at least ten and had each principal choose which he or she liked this would have made much more sense. In the poorer neighborhoods where I teach, Everyday Math is failing our students, as is Lucy Caulkin’s “Whole Language Remake” called “Teacher’s College” – What a disaster! You have no idea!

    Comment by Christine D'Amico — September 28, 2009 @ 11:05 am

  22. Having taught 5th grade in NYC for several years — and been forced to use EM and TC — I have an idea, Christine. And how.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 28, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  23. [...] foolishly) agnostic. It appeared that, a few years ago, he had a conversion experience, when he embraced Core Knowledge and started talking about the need for young children to build their content knowledge. Mr. Klein, [...]

    Pingback by What Did Klein Learn? Not Much, Apparently | My Teaching Education — December 6, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

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