4th Grade Core Knowledge Curriculum Key to Citizenship

by Robert Pondiscio
July 3rd, 2012

Nearly three out of four of the 100 potential civics and history questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test are covered in the Core Knowledge Sequence.  In 4th grade.

That remarkable statistic comes courtesy of Lisa Malaquin-Prey, a Kindergarten teacher at Brevard Academy, a Core Knowledge school in Brevard, North Carolina.  Malaquin-Prey discussed her journey to citizenship last weekend at a Washington, DC conference hosted by Team CFA, a network of charter schools in North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona—all of which teach the Core Knowledge curriculum.  A New Zealander by birth, and Australian by upbringing, Malaquin-Prey has lived in the U.S. since 1997.

New Citizen Lisa Malaquin-Prey

While working as a camp counselor years ago, Malaquin-Prey described how she used to “stand respectfully” when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited.  “I heard those words every day for 9 weeks, but they didn’t hold a lot of meaning for me,” she recalled.  She followed the same routine for years in her classroom, explaining to her students that she didn’t recite the Pledge with them because she was not a citizen.  But at the same conference a year ago, Malaquin-Prey found herself unexpectedly brought to tears by an old video of the comedian Red Skelton explaining the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, and resolved to become an American citizen.

“I’m listening to it, and all of a sudden.  I get it.  I’m hearing the Pledge of Allegiance in a new way and I’m getting it.  While watching it, I was shocked at how I reacted to it.  I remember feeling flushed and tears came to my eyes.  I remember looking around at the other people at my table, and no one is reacting the way I do, and I was embarrassed.  And then everyone stands to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  And I stand, and while everyone around me is saying it, I’m thinking ‘I want this.  I want to be a part of this.  I want to earn the right to say this!’

It took Malaquin-Prey six months to complete the naturalization process, which includes demonstrating proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in English, and answering questions that show your knowledge and understanding of the United States in three areas: American Government (principles of American Democracy, system of government, and rights and responsibilities); American History (the colonial period and independence, the 1800’s and recent American history); and Integrated Civics (geography, symbols and holidays.)  On the day of the test, you are asked up to 10 questions from a list of 100 possible questions.  You need to correctly answer six of the ten to pass.

While describing the process, Malaquin-Prey asked the audience to “raise your hand if you teach 4th grade.”

“When you look at the content of the Citizenship Study Guide, 74 out of the possible 100 questions could be answered using the 4th Grade Core Knowledge Social Studies Curriculum, specifically the domain units on Making a Constitutional Government and American Revolution.  When you look at the content of the Citizenship Test, what the American Government feels a citizen should know and understand mirrors the Social Studies objectives of the Core Knowledge Curriculum.”

The Core Knowledge curriculum, she concluded, is “filled with opportunities for students to understand the principles of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of U.S Citizenship.”

“Beginning in Kindergarten, students are learning about former Presidents and American Symbols and the meaning of Democracy.  In 2nd grade, students explore the Constitution and answer the question, “What is government?”  In 4th grade, students delve into the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and examine every part of the constitution and the levels and functions of government.”

Malaquin-Prey passed her exam with ease and took the Oath of Allegiance in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January.  “My proudest moments that day were, raising my hand and taking that Oath, collecting my citizenship certificate, and above all, being asked to lead the Pledge for the first time for more than 100 new American Citizens,” she recalls.

Study Guide for Citizenship Test

For the record, here are the six questions asked of one of our newest fellow citizens:

  1. Who is the current Chief Justice of the United States?
  2. Name one war fought in the 1900’s.
  3. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
  4. Who is the “Father of our Country”?
  5. We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?
  6. In what month do we vote for President?


  1. What a great inspiring story. And I am so pleased for those lucky students still getting fact rich content. I used the Jean Fritz books on Early America with the comical names about our Founding Fathers as readers with my own kids.

    I will caution though that much of the civics and citizenship materials being put out by the Civic Mission of the Schools initiatives does not reflect American history and our Constitution as traditionally understood. It is premised on the communitarian ethos of responsibilities and obligations to others and the Common Good as a primary point. Unfortunately just like Career Ready does in Common Core.

    So good for Core Knowledge and an official welcome to Ms Melaquin-Prey. But please be careful with some of the civics curriculum out there. It relies on ignorance of our history and Constitution to try to remake both.

    It is also geared to the Civics portion of PISA which means it is not really based on what makes the US unique.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 3, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  2. Great story. For CK to cover almost 75% of the US citizen’s test, and by fourth grade, is nothing short of remarkable. It’s also no surprise to me, as I used the CK series regularly in my teaching. Someone did some serious planning/thinking when they put this package together.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 3, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  3. Lisa’s statistic quantifies what I observed as my own two kids studied U.S. history during fourth grade in their Core Knowledge school. American history has been my main reading passion for the last ten years, so I was especially impressed with what CK schools study in elementary years.

    The maddening reality is that most college graduates don’t have as firm a grasp on basic American history and civics as do CK fourth graders. When the CK middle school American history is added on by eighth grade, CK kids are miles beyond the vast majority of our citizens.

    So why is exposing kids – our future voters and jurors – to this necessary knowledge so authoritarian, so right-wing, so dead white male, etc.?

    Comment by John Webster — July 3, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

  4. @John There’s a good episode of The Twilight Zone in there somewhere. Arguing that American History and civics aren’t important and then finding oneself judged by a jury who agree with you. Where’s Rod Serling when we need him…

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 3, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  5. A wonderful article. Shows us the importance of civics knowledge and what it feels like on the inside to be a citizen.

    But there is cause for concern. In a recent study, only 25% of middle and high school students scored at “proficient” in their knowledge of civics. Check out my article at Psychology Today, “No Joking: Our Kids Are Failing Democracy 101″ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moment-youth/201205/no-joking-our-kids-are-failing-democracy-101

    I hope we can bring civics back into schools in a meaningful way.

    Comment by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD — July 3, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  6. John-it is such a loss too. These are Good stories to share. History will never be stale for these kids.

    My oldest daughter was telling me that in her AP Lit class none of the kids were getting the references to mythology and historical events.

    Simply never learned it nor read it.

    We have been seeing the same thing though in private schools catering to UMC kids with professional parents.

    Life with me was always one long history lesson. But with the fun stories. When I took my daughters to England at 7 and 10 my oldest somehow already knew the story about why Charles I wore 2 shirts to his execution.

    A: He did not want anyone to think he was afraid because it was a cold day. What a loss not to know such tales.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 3, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

  7. The Psychology Today link refers to the Civic Mission of the Schools and CIRCLE.

    I appreciate the link because William Damon was cited as a co-author on something I was working on over the weekend related to Positive Psychology as a means for desired social change and the Wisdom movement. I found it researching the Global Wellbeing push in the schools. That confirms what my Australian links show on how everything is related. Including what I have been writing about social and emotional learning, CASEL, communitarianism, Positive School Climate, and Global Competence. I tracked back the US advisors on the Scoping Study.

    “Meaningful” civics redefines what it means to be an American and is not the “civics” described in the CK article. It’s why I posted that warning in the first post.

    And July 3 and 4th are good times to ruminate on what we mean by a civics appropriate for 21st century American schools.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 3, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  8. It would sure be interesting to hear what two giants of our profession, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, have to say on this piece. Can anyone guess what they’d say? John? Student? Robert?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 4, 2012 @ 9:24 am

  9. Paul-Deborah was part of a panel put on last fall with John Goodlad as part of his National Network for Educational Renewal that I watched. It also included James Comer, Hank Levin, and was chaired by Carl Glickman.

    I think Deborah is quite pleased that the Common Core implementation is shaping up to finally realize John Dewey’s dream. My notes show her saying that the “overriding idea in my life was a love for democracy and its potential.” The Civic Mission of the Schools Report also references achieving Dewey’s definition of democracy.

    So I think Deborah would be aligned with that Psychology Today piece that is also relying, it appears to me, on Dewey’s concept of democracy.

    That is not the founding fathers definition. Equal outcomes for all means a powerful government treating people differently. That’s as much of that debate as I am having today.

    I just got Amitai Etzioni’s 1998 The Essential Communitarian Reader after recognizing it as the theory embodied in part of Common Core’s definition of Career Ready Practices. I do my homework once I recognize a political or economic theory. It shows Diane as penning one of the essay’s “Pluralism vs Particularism in American Education.”

    So I do not know now but I probably will have the rest of your answer tomorrow.

    Happy 4th to you.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 4, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  10. My guess is that even as extreme a progressive as Deborah Meier is has to believe that students need at least some basic facts about American history and civics to engage meaningfully as citizens. She would find some way to fit this information in as a response to students’ questions in class.

    Who knows what Diane Ravitch believes about curriculum these days. As far as I can tell, she has been completely unwilling for the last two years to publicly endorse Core Knowledge or anything like it in her writings. I have my own speculations why this is so, and those speculations aren’t flattering to Ravitch, but I’ll save those for another time in the hope that I’m not well enough informed.

    In the meantime, Robert and the other honchos at the CK Foundation surely know what their longtime trustee Ravitch believes. I’ve been told many times that she praised Core Knowledge in 2010 in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”. But what does she believe now in July, 2012?

    Comment by John Webster — July 4, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  11. I’ve written about Diane’s views on curriculum on this blog in the past. So too, if I recall, has Diana Senechal. To my knowledge, Ravitch’s views on curriculum in general and Core Knowledge specifically, have never changed. If anything, I’ve found myself distressed that her legions of new acolytes, while eager to cheer, support and repeat her views on ed reform, have not seen fit to embrace her views on curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 4, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

  12. John,

    If you haven’t read Diane’s book (D&LGASS), you need to immediately. It is a terrific synopsis of her views on ed reform, especially since her metamorphosis over the past couple of years.

    And yes, she definitely has good things to say in the book about Core Knowledge and specifically the imperative of a comprehensive curriculum for all US students.

    “Students who have the benefit of this kind of sequential, knowledge rich curriculum do very well on standardized tests that they must take. CK students…do well on tests because they have absorbed the background knowledge to comprehend what they read.

    Why is curriculum important? It is a road map. Without a road map, you are sure to drive in circles and get nowhere.”

    Ravitch, Diane, Death and Life of the Great American School System, Basic Books, New York, 2010, p.236.

    Please be aware, this is a somewhat glancing recognition of the CKFoundation of which she was such an integral part for a number of years. Also observe the date of publication and how her views on a number of topics related to education have changed so dramatically. Like John, I too wonder about her views today on progressive education theory versus the work of the Core Knowledge Foundation today, especially with her public allegiances to such groups as the NEA and Fair Test, among others.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 5, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  13. John-I am guessing you are not familiar with Goodlad’s work or NNER. If you believe in using education to completely shift the nature of American society, you do not tend to want to push knowledge that would make a student nostalgic for what has been taken away.

    I have read what Goodlad proposes from each decade starting in the 60s through that October 15-17, 2011 forum and he is quite consistent in his rejection of any academic focus. The emphasis is on changing the kids.

    Meier did make a really interesting remark though that Paul may have some insights on. In connection with what advice the panelists would give to Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, she said she wanted Arne to remember the kind of education he had. I believe his mother was an educator. So if you know anything about the kind of education Arne Duncan had in Chicago, that’s what she had in mind.

    Also remember that Central Park East was part of the Coalition for Essential Schools. That’s much more of a child development orientation than any interest in knowledge. IIRC that’s what caused schools to drop out of Sizer’s CES. But not Maier.

    I perused that essay by Ravitch and she was arguing against ethnocentric curriculum. At that point in 1998 Diane vision was still devoted a knowledge oriented multicultural education.

    Paul-one would like to think she would not be enamored of the NEA’s current Purple America agenda to remake American values.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 5, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

  14. Student,

    In 2010 Diane received the NEA’s Friend of Education award. Other notable recipients include Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Linda Darling Hammond and LBJ. That, coupled with her Deborah Meier award presented recently by Fair Test, are two troubling distinctions in my book, both from very dubious sources.

    I believe Duncan’s mother still runs an after school program serving primarily African American youth in Chicago. His father was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Arne attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School; we all know about this famous school and who started it. Of course, Deborah Meier is a huge fan of anything John Dewey. Hence the reference to the privileged education she thought Duncan had as a youth and maybe he should remember that when directing policy for so many US students, especially inner city minority children.

    What Deb will hesitate to acknowledge regarding Dewey’s Laboratory School was class sizes of 10-15 serving primarily children of the faculty of the University of Chicago. Not something which was ever taken to scale with Chicago’s inner city disadvantaged youth.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 5, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  15. I figured out why Damon’s name was familiar. He wrote Good Work with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I had ordered after seeing it cited as support in some footnotes.

    I read it this week and then wrote a post on how all this seems to fit together including that Psychology Today piece.


    And Paul, I saw your comment at Ed Week on that Education for Life and Work report. Hugely troubling if you take the time to read the full report. None of it was news to me but there truly are some stunning admissions against interest in that report that would be a PR nightmare.

    Especially the comment about rejecting learning theories or model’s that put an emphasis on individual thinking.


    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 12, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  16. Looks as though there is little/no interest in Diane’s current thoughts on core knowledge v the progressive education approach. Is she afraid she could somehow lose some of the ‘Tiny Dancer’ mystique, the seamstress for the band following her every word if she advocates for CK? And if she did, what would that tell us about them?

    Troubling, especially on this blog. Robert is the only one who has commented on what he believes her thoughts are today.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 14, 2012 @ 9:41 am

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