This op-ed by Gregory R. Meece, school director of Newark Charter School, a Core Knowledge Visitation School, originally appeared in the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware. Newark Charter School was named a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School — rp.
Growing up in Newark, I was much like the average kid today — shooting hoops in the driveway, attempting to duplicate Evel Knievel stunts on my bike, spending too many hours watching what my mom used to call “the idiot box.”
But unlike most kids today (and a good many adults) I could liken the experience of tubing on the White Clay Creek to a Huck Finn adventure.
I could compare a spring afternoon to an Impressionist painting; describe a sit-in on a college campus as an act of “civil disobedience;” and pick out the grandfather character in the composition “Peter and the Wolf” by the sound of the bassoon. And, of course, I learned none of this in school.
I was fortunate. I grew up in a home filled with “core knowledge.” The “haves” in this country had “core knowledge” in their homes too. Many “have-nots” didn’t. But if they were lucky they attended a school that stressed the importance of, well, important things. They were exposed to that which binds our culture together, a common understanding — cultural literacy. Those who wish to function in the world of the “haves” need to know what they know. In a democratic society, it is public education that should be the equalizing force. It should give every child a fair chance to achieve success. But it hasn’t.
For decades, American public schooling has veered toward so-called “reforms” in curriculum and instruction. These feel-good initiatives typically offer vague theories of learning at the expense of coherent content. What students need to know has become relative or, worse, irrelevant. Teaching Johnny about his neighborhood is just as useful as teaching him about the Renaissance. The problem is, if we only teach children about their neighborhoods they are forever limited by the boundaries of those neighborhoods. And for too many kids, their neighborhoods aren’t great.
Teachers are conditioned to plan lessons around what they believe students might be interested in. Effortless engagement, not knowledge, is the goal. And it is the student who comes from a disadvantaged background who is cheated by it the most.
Core Knowledge is a coherent list of what every American student through 8th grade should know. It is not a curriculum, a movement, or a reform. The scope and sequence of Core Knowledge was developed by university professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and the Core Knowledge Foundation after years of consensus-building among teachers, scholars, scientists, and others.
Hirsch realized that there was something missing from what nearly every other “expert” on education was writing about — namely, common sense. But the education establishment cautioned that a curriculum that exposed fifth graders to atoms, molecules and compounds and sixth graders to plate tectonics was developmentally inappropriate (translation: “hard and boring”).
The freedom granted charter schools allowed Newark Charter School to adopt Core Knowledge as the content portion of its curriculum. We found that the school’s curriculum not only met, but exceeded the state standards. While Core Knowledge is heavy in history and geography, Delaware standards demand more economics and civics. It wasn’t that the Core Knowledge Foundation didn’t believe that economics and civics were important. Rather, it found that schools became so enamored with “social studies” that they forgot to teach world and American history and geography. It got to the point where the late-show comics were having a field day interviewing adults on the street who couldn’t locate China on a map.
Knowledge builds on knowledge. In the words of columnist William Raspberry writing about the need for Core Knowledge schools in African-American communities, “The more you know, the smarter you get.” Hirsch calls it “Intellectual Velcro.”
If you were a lucky kid you were exposed to the events, literature, ideas and arts that changed our world. If you were not so lucky, you might be like the person at a party who doesn’t “get” the joke the host just told. You didn’t understand the meaning behind the punch line’s reference to a “Trojan Horse.” But our school’s 11-year-olds would be laughing out loud!
A content-rich curriculum isn’t the only reason for a school’s success. The most important resource in any school is the classroom teacher. But when good instruction is coupled with a curriculum rich with substance, clarity and cohesiveness, young students will have doors opened to places they never dreamt of. Core Knowledge provides a path to all of the most desirable education goals: the ability to think critically and problem solve, greater reading comprehension, and higher test scores — because all of these things are functions of a broad base of background knowledge.
The role of a democratic “common school” is to make sure that “intellectual capital” is not only for the privileged. Having access to important “core knowledge” isn’t school reform. It’s social justice.