Miracle on High Street

by Guest Blogger
December 19th, 2013

2013 has been a miraculous year for the folks at 801 E. High Street, the beautiful old house that the Core Knowledge Foundation calls home.

Core Knowledge Language Arts went from a pilot program to a major model for Common Core implementation. E. D. Hirsch’s ideas—and, more importantly, the research supporting them—earned a new audience. Plus, the need to close the vocabulary gap gained a prominent champion (as well as several close allies).

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, last week was phenomenal. I can’t rank order the events, so I’ll go in chronological order.

First, the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a forum on “The Word Gap & the Common Core” in which Susan Neuman hammered home the need to systematically build knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood. As I wrote over at the Shanker Blog, Neuman kicked off with the perfect metaphor: Words are just the tip of the iceberg. The concepts and knowledge—and the opportunities to acquire them—are underneath the words. In just 15 minutes (which you can watch online), Neuman explained that the vocabulary gap is actually a knowledge gap and set forth a clear path for closing it. Spoiler alert: the research only provides one way to do it—grouping challenging texts by topic and immersing young children in those texts though read-alouds and meaningful conversations. Sounds familiar.

Second, Michael Petrilli went for the hard sell on Core Knowledge in the New York Daily News. Writing to NYC’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Petrilli was blissfully blunt:

As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for 30 years — and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed — knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know….

The job of elementary schools, then, should be to systematically build students’ content knowledge in important areas like history, geography, civics, science, art, music and literature. Yet most elementary schools (nationwide — not just in New York) are content-free wastelands….

Bloomberg’s Department of Education has listed Core Knowledge as one of the model curricula for New York City teachers to consider as they transition to the new standards.

De Blasio should go even further. If he wants to be bold, he might urge all city elementary schools to adopt Core Knowledge.

Third—proof that good things come in threes—Joel Klein said that “The best parts of the Common Core are tethered to Core Knowledge.” (See for yourself!) Speaking with David Steiner in a forum at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, Klein was candid about his tenure as NYC schools chancellor. He regrets that at the beginning, he did not know how important it is to build knowledge and vocabulary in the early grades. But after doing some reading, especially Sol Stern’s powerful critiques, Klein said he reached out to E. D. Hirsch. Klein’s pilot study of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) was soon underway, with the CKLA schools consistently outperforming the comparison schools. CKLA is now being recognized as a model for the type of curriculum called for by the Common Core standards: one that “is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Klein expects that to have a “national impact.” We’ll keep working to make sure his words ring true in 2014.



  1. [...] http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/12/19/miracle-on-high-street/ [...]

    Pingback by Top Stories 12 / 16--20 / 2013 | CUNY Institute for Education Policy — December 21, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  2. Yes, Lisa, knowledge is indeed king. Your three references above corroborate this fact well. But you’re preaching to the choir on this issue/blog, aren’t you.

    CK supporters (I’ve been one for two+ decades) have known this, practice it in their classrooms every day, and herald it at every opportunity.

    The education issue de jour is the Common Core standards. It’s origin, implementation, practicality, usefulness and/or shortcomings would possibly make for more relevant/interesting discussion than the ubiquitous values of the CK philosophy, wouldn’t they?

    How does the CKF view the new CC? As well, how congruent are the new standards with the CK philosophy/curricula?

    Not meant to be a criticism, Lisa. I’d simply like to see this blog become more relevant in the ed reform debate and I see the issue of the CC standards as a way of getting there.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 1, 2014 @ 10:31 am

  3. Hi Paul,

    Happy New Year! Thanks for your very thoughtful questions. We have done some posts on the Common Core (see http://blog.coreknowledge.org/tag/common-core-state-standards/), but I agree with you that we should consider doing far more.

    Core Knowledge does support the Common Core standards. In ELA in particular, the standards are based on the same–very sound–research as Core Knowledge Language Arts. For more on that, please see our 2012 annual report (http://www.coreknowledge.org/annual-report) and the FAQs for CKLA (http://www.coreknowledge.org/faq-ckla).

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — January 2, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

  4. Thanks for the citations, Lisa and Happy New Year.

    It’s been my belief that the CKF would support/surpass the CCSS, K-8. Never worried about that given Don Hirsch’s demand for a comprehensive preparation for younger learners nationwide.

    Guess I’m wondering specifically about the CC/CK degrees of preparation for the STEM subjects, specifically post algebra (II). While I realize CK only goes through grade eight, just wondering if the CCSS’s lack of content demands for calculus and trigonometry troubles Prof Hirsch or in any way compromises his endorsement of the CCSS overall.

    As a strong supporter of the original Massachusetts state standards, with all their success, and a reluctant embracer of their replacement, the CC STEM standards, I’d like to see more national standard experts (DH) weigh in on such issues.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 3, 2014 @ 10:27 am

  5. Here’s a WSJ op-ed from yesterday from a national standards expert:


    Subject: Wall St. Journal Stotsky op-ed: “Common Core Doesn’t Add Up to STEM Success”


    Jan. 2, 2014 7:09 p.m. ET

    As a former member of the Common Core Validation Committee and the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, I am one of the few mothers to have heard the full sales pitch for this latest educational reform, which has been adopted by 45 states.

    I know the Common Core buzz words, from “deeper learning” and “critical thinking” to “fewer, clearer, and higher standards.” It all sounds impressive, but I’m worried that the students who study under these standards won’t receive anywhere near the quality of education that children in the U.S. did even a few years ago.

    President Obama correctly noted in September 2012 that “leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today—especially in science, technology, engineering and math.” He has placed a priority on increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital STEM fields. And the president’s National Math and Science Initiative is strongly supported by people like Suzanne McCarron, president of the Exxon Mobil Foundation, who has said she wants to “inspire our nation’s youth to pursue STEM careers by capturing their interest at an early age.”

    As Stanford mathematics professor James Milgram noted in “Lowering the Bar,” a report the two of us co-wrote for the Pioneer Institute in September, the Common Core deliberately leaves out “major topics in trigonometry and precalculus.” Contrast that with the status quo before the Common Core, when states like Massachusetts and California provided precalculus standards for high-school students. The implications of this are dramatic. “It is extremely rare for students who begin their undergraduate years with coursework in precalculus or an even lower level of mathematical knowledge to achieve a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area,” Mr. Milgram added.Yet the basic mission of Common Core, as Jason Zimba, its leading mathematics standards writer, explained at a videotaped board meeting in March 2010, is to provide students with enough mathematics to make them ready for a nonselective college—”not for STEM,” as he put it. During that meeting, he didn’t tell us why Common Core aimed so low in mathematics. But in a September 2013 article published in the Hechinger Report, an education news website affiliated with Columbia University’s Teachers College, Mr. Zimba admitted: “If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core.”

    Common Core’s deficiencies also plague its English standards, though its proponents have been selling the opposite line. Under the Common Core, complex literary study—literature close to or at a college reading level—is reduced to about 50% of reading instructional time in high school English class. The rest of the time is to be spent on “informational” texts, and more writing than reading is required at all grade levels.

    Excerpts will have to do when reading “The Great Gatsby” so students can spend more time on the Teapot Dome Scandal. Yes, that’s a real suggestion for informational reading from the National Council of Teachers of English, the professional organization of English teachers that aims to support teachers under the Common Core.

    In its November 2013 Council Chronicle, a teacher argued that learning about this 1920s government oil scandal is the proper way to “contextualize” Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age characters. But reducing the time students spend studying complex literature means fewer opportunities to learn how to read between the lines—the fundamental way teenagers learn how to analyze a text.

    Still, no major English or humanities organizations have endorsed the Common Core state standards for English language arts. Not so in mathematics.

    Despite the dramatic mismatch of the Common Core math standards with the White House goal of preparing more students for a STEM career, all the heads of major professional mathematics associations expressed “strong support for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics” in a July 2013 letter solicited and posted by William McCallum, professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona and a Common Core math standards writer. Other signers include the presidents of the American Mathematical Society, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Association for Women in Mathematics, the Benjamin Banneker Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and TODOS: Mathematics for ALL.

    Why leaders of these organizations would endorse standards that will not prepare students for college majors in mathematics, science, engineering and mathematics-dependent fields is a puzzle. But no educational reform that leads to fewer engineers, scientists and doctors is worthy of the name.

    Ms. Stotsky was a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee from 2009-10. She is professor emerita at the University of Arkansas.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 3, 2014 @ 11:27 am

  6. While Stotsky always has something interesting to say, there are plenty of standards experts who do support the Common Core. In my opinion, what really matters is how any set of standards is interpreted and implemented. Standards set a floor, not a ceiling. For a more helpful approach to thinking about the Common Core (and especially the roles of standards and curricula), you might find this post by Diana Senechal worth reading: http://dianasenechal.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/a-common-core-lesson-gone-wrong/.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — January 3, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

  7. Thanks, Lisa, but when Diana states, “The first step, as I have said elsewhere, is to insist on teaching important, compelling, beautiful, lasting things. Yes, this requires that we exercise discernment; but what else is education for? By exercising discernment, we help students do the same,” She loses me. Beautiful, lasting things? According to whom/what? Discernment? The rubric for which exists where?

    Appears to be anecdotally slanted and sounds eerily to me like something LDHammond might endorse, as a “skill.”

    Guess I’m more in Sandra Stotsky’s camp, specifically as it relates to Massachusetts abandoning the best standards/assessments in the country in an attempt to satisfy a RttT mandate (for $$$).

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 4, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

  8. As long as I have known the CK Sequence, I have loved it because it is full of beautiful, important, compelling, lasting things.

    And yes, I dare to make that judgment.

    The day I am not allowed to make that judgment is the day I recognize we have succumbed to intellectual dystopia.

    Yes, there is utility in learning as well. But “utility in the largest sense” (to quote Mill) is combined with a sense of the good, the beautiful, the lasting, which depend on human judgment.

    The fact that one has to persistently defend the exercise of human judgment (or to assert that it doesn’t amount to intellectual fuzziness) is saddening.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 5, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

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