Lyles-Crouch Gets High Marks on State Report Card

by Core Knowledge Foundation
October 14th, 2016

Students and teachers at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy have something to celebrate. For this public school in Alexandria, Virginia—also a Core Knowledge School of Distinction—the latest State Report Card results put the school ahead of all other elementary schools in its district and overall ahead of the state as well.

The Report Card provides test score data at three levels: state, district (school-division), and school. On the 2015-2016 Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, 95% of Lyles-Crouch students passed in Reading, compared to 73% in the district and 80% across the state. In Mathematics, 92% of Lyles-Crouch students passed, compared to 68% in the district and 80% across the state. The “passing” percentage includes students who scored at the Proficient or Advanced levels on the SOL tests. (For results by grade level, see Tables 1 and 2.)

2015-2016 VA SOL: District, State, School Comparison (All Students)


From 2014-2015 to 2015-2016, the passing percentage for Lyles-Crouch students overall is up six percentage points in both Reading and Mathematics. (See Table 3.) Lyles-Crouch students also outperformed both the district and state in the SOL tests of History and Science, administered in grade 5. (See Table 4.)

Lyles-Crouch Elementary currently enrolls 438 students, with 26% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 10% receiving Special Education services, and 10% English Language Learners. One hundred percent of Lyles-Crouch students participated in the 2015-2016 SOL testing. Dr. Patricia Zissios, principal of Lyles-Crouch, reports that “we saw the largest gains with the Special Education students in Language Arts—from 53% [passing] in 2014-2015 to 81% in 2015-2016. We met all of our benchmarks and are again fully accredited.”

For Economically Disadvantaged students (defined by the state as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or Medicaid), the data show Lyles-Crouch significantly outperforming both the district and the state. The Virginia Department of Education also disaggregates performance data for three student subgroups categorized as Proficiency Gap Groups. In all three Gap Groups, Lyles-Crouch students have higher passing percentages than both the district and state in Reading and Mathematics. (See Table 5.)

Congratulations to everyone at Lyles-Crouch for the hard work and outstanding performance!

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s New Book Affirms Why Knowledge Matters

by Core Knowledge Foundation
September 21st, 2016


The ideas that thirty years ago prodded a scholar of English literature from the halls of academe into elementary school classrooms continue to motivate E. D. Hirsch, Jr. today. “I am still chiefly motivated by the social injustice of our dominant theories and their unwitting destruction of the American dream,” Dr. Hirsch affirms in the prologue to his new book, Why Knowledge Matters, published by Harvard Education Press.

According to Dr. Hirsch, “American teachers (along with their students) are . . . being blamed for intellectual failings that permeate the system within which they must work.” The real problem, says Dr. Hirsch, lies in “failed educational theories,” in particular:

  • Early education should be appropriate to the child’s age and nature, as part of a natural developmental process.
  • Early education should be individualized as far as possible—to follow the learning styles and interests of each developing student.
  • The unifying aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other general skills.

These ideas, while attractive, are misguided, says Dr. Hirsch. Rather, he says, “the unifying aim of early schooling” should be to impart “communal knowledge”—that is, “the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society,” the shared body of knowledge taken for granted by literate writers and speakers.

“The key task facing our elementary schools,” Dr. Hirsch urges, “is to shift from the goal of self-realization to the goal of community—from child-centeredness to community-centeredness. No sensible person would disparage either goal. But the emphasis must shift decisively for the sake of the community and the individual child.”

In various chapters Dr. Hirsch analyzes specific obstacles to the embrace of communal knowledge as the central goal of schooling. He notes the pernicious pressure of high-stakes tests that drive teachers to focus instruction on skills in language arts and math while crowding out history, geography, science, literature, and the arts. He objects to the “scapegoating” of teachers subjected to “value-added” evaluations of their effectiveness. He explores shortcomings in implementation of the Common Core language arts standards. He documents a recent dramatic decline in French educational achievement, when the nation’s schools shifted from “community-centered and knowledge-centered” to “child-centered and skills-centered”—in other words, when the French “Americanized” their school system.

If schools are to impart necessary communal knowledge, says Dr. Hirsch, then they need to follow a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific curriculum. One model of such a curriculum is the Core Knowledge Sequence (freely available from the Foundation). Dr. Hirsch openly welcomes other models. He explains that the Core Knowledge Sequence “has always been offered as just one exemplification” of the “general communal principle . . . that every child in a democracy should have access to that shared, enabling knowledge and language.”

Whatever the curricular model, in his new book Dr. Hirsch compellingly makes the case that “only a well-rounded, knowledge-specific curriculum can impart needed knowledge to all children and overcome inequality of opportunity.”


Why Knowledge Matters may be ordered from the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Read “The Tyranny of Three Ideas,” the Prologue to Why Knowledge Matters.

A chapter adapted from Why Knowledge Matters is featured in the The Atlantic“Don’t Blame the Teachers.”

On Blooming

by EmmaEarnst
May 26th, 2015

As a member of the team of educators and editors developing Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), I’m continually proud of and impressed by the understandings, connections, and accomplishments that students reach when their incredible teachers use the CKLA program to guide instruction.

There’s Olivia, the darling girl on this Amplify Learning video, who discovers her ability, and love for, reading. There are the scores of children we see and hear during school visits who are using academic and domain vocabulary (tiers 2 and 3) as they make cross-curricular connections.

And then there are the writers. Being a writer myself, seeing students use writing as a means of expressing themselves is one of my favorite rewards.

Acting as “Kate,” I have the opportunity to see students blossom in just this way every year.

You see, every spring as the daffodils, tulips, and peonies lift their heads in succession to greet us, something else magical happens as well: Kate Skipper letters come pouring in!


As part of CKLA’s Skills strand, first graders read Kate’s Book during the fifth of seven units. Depending on various factors like school schedules and student progression, this typically falls between the months of March and May. After reading Kate’s Book and learning about opinion writing, students write a letter to Kate Skipper, the main character and “author” of their reader. Kate explains it best in her introductory letter to the book:

CKLA_G1_U5_Rdr_Engage 7


Students read the thirteen stories that make up Kate’s Book over the course of a 23-day unit. While reading the book, students simultaneously develop and then publish an opinion letter to Kate. At the end of the book and unit, students are offered the chance to send their letters to Kate Skipper care of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hundreds of letters pour in and I, as Kate, write back. First-grade teachers: Keep them coming!

As explained in the recent post by Debbie Reynolds, a teacher in Nevada, CKLA develops writing ability by supporting students to use their background knowledge, build new knowledge orally, and organize their thoughts before tackling any larger writing project. First graders’ letter to Kate is the culmination of exposure and study throughout the year; students’ growth, enthusiasm, and attitudes are clearly reflected in their letters.


The most common response from students follows along these lines: “Loved your book, Kate! When will you write another?”


Notice Linsey’s opinion “I like Max” is backed up with reason: “because he has a hat.”



Likewise, Samuel explains that he likes the books because Kate and her friend, Max, find a T. rex bone.

This year, we got a special surprise as just before the letters to Kate Skipper began rolling in: We received a letter from Olivia (not the same Olivia in the Amplify video), a second grader, that reflects not just her heart-felt opinion, but also showcases her reasoning. Olivia, described by her teacher as “the premier animal lover and animal expert in [her] classroom,” disagreed with the portrayal of snakes and spiders in the CKLA book Sir Gus. Olivia’s teacher used this as an opportunity for enrichment, and suggested that Olivia write to us at the Foundation respectfully explaining her position.

Olivia took up on her teacher’s suggestion, and wrote us the following letter:

bear CKLA,

My name is Olivia and I am second grader….I am reading Sir Guse I like it but Sir Gus is a skardy cat. I noticed a big problem….You making a bad impreshen to make kids skarde of spiders and snakes you know you should relley study an animal before you guge it.



Olivia clearly displays the tenets of persuasive writing she learned from CKLA (argument, reasoning, and personal connection), and uses them to make her opinions known and potentially improve how CKLA represents animals. I am—we are—enormously proud of her!

By learning about and practicing persuasive writing in CKLA, and building a base of knowledge, Olivia was prepared for this unique opportunity to make her voice heard—and that will serve her well throughout her life.

Ending the Cultural Divide

by Guest Blogger
September 24th, 2014

It is possible to enjoy NASCAR and polo, FX and PBS, Homer Simpson and Homer’s epics—but it is not always easy. As much as we Americans claim to value diversity and multiculturalism, we tend to shun the idea that one person can embrace and embody more than one culture.

This struggle, writes Vicki Madden (an instructional coach in New York City) in the New York Times, is a reason why many students from low-income homes do not complete college:

Once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap. I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times—not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.

We know that Core Knowledge narrows the knowledge gap. Students in schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence have Homer covered, leaning about Winslow Homer in kindergarten and sixth grade, and reading The Iliad and The Odyssey (or adaptations of them) in sixth grade.

That alone should help students feel that they belong on their college campuses. Explaining how to butcher a deer may be a point of pride for those who can also weave Franz Liszt and Duke Ellington (both studied in the seventh grade via the Sequence) into their conversations. But let’s be honest; it’s the unique student who is resilient when faced with insidious, frequent reminders that grandpa’s fishing boat can’t get you to St. Martin.


Grandpa’s boat courtesy of Shutterstock.

Just as important as the academic challenge is the personal one students face when they find the strength to stay and earn their degrees. Madden relays her own experience, summing up that of her students:

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

To this I’d like to add two more questions: Is there a way to prevent students from feeling such a tug of war? Educators in Core Knowledge schools—and any schools that focus on closing the knowledge gap—have your students experienced similar challenges?

Maybe it’s just my own very fortunate experience—I grew up in West Virginia, yet attended rigorous schools and had close friends at “regular” schools—but my hope is that these challenges are minimized by an educational environment that values home culture and academic culture from the very first day of school. In passing, I’ve heard of Core Knowledge schools that have book clubs and study groups for parents, as well as cultural festivals in which families share the rich, varied heritages that make up their school community. I’d love to learn more about such opportunities for whole families to grow together. Please submit a comment below, or email me at Thank you!

Pariah to Politico 50

by Guest Blogger
September 4th, 2014

After 30 years of being misunderstood, E. D. Hirsch’s dedication to equalizing opportunity is being widely recognized. Today, he has the honor of being included in the Politico 50.

E D Hirsch

As noted in Politico’s encapsulation of his work, “Hirsch’s argument was revolutionary: All children, regardless of background, should be taught the shared intellectual foundation—from Euclid to Shakespeare to Seneca Falls—needed ‘to thrive in the modern world.’”

Thriving, regardless of the accident of birth, has always been his driving force. In her brilliant article, “‘I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,’” Peg Tyre explores how Hirsch has been revered and reviled:

In 1978, between stints as head of UVA’s English Department, Hirsch was conducting research at a nearby community college. There, he observed that the largely African-American low-income students could read short works of narrative fiction but could barely wring meaning from a piece about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox because they lacked basic knowledge about the Civil War. “What I saw is that background knowledge really mattered,” Hirsch says….

To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”

Which is where his List came in. To make it, Hirsch, along with two professors, scanned newspapers and popular journals for high-frequency concepts and then polled 500 professionals—lawyers and writers—to determine which of those concepts were the most crucial for cultural literacy….

OK, I say, that might have made sense in the 1970s, but what about now when the complexion of American public schools is changing? … How can any dictionary of cultural literacy keep pace with such a rapidly changing world? Hirsch grows crisp. “Why do you think one’s color or ethnicity would affect one’s vocabulary? Without a doubt, Latino culture is having a big influence on America, and the language of culture will change around the margins. But educated conversation is still going on. And you want to make sure those kids—particularly those kids—have the tools they need to be included.”

Tyre concludes, “In the autumn of life, with three grown children (two of whom are teachers), he’ll take vindication where he can. ‘The point wasn’t to perpetuate the culture of power,’ he tells me. ‘It was to open the door to kids who don’t have the keys to power.’”

What Can Preschoolers Learn about American History?

by Guest Blogger
August 21st, 2014

To those who answer “nothing” or “they don’t need to learn it,” I have two responses—you’re wrong and you’re not trying hard enough to see the world through the preschoolers’ eyes.  Do they have some grand concept of human history and arrive eager to see how the American experiment fits in? No. But they are routinely confronted with hints that some unknown past exists, and that it must be pretty important—important enough to take a day or so off school.

Although in later grades the calendar is unlikely to be the most logical, efficient, or coherent way to teach content, for preschoolers, all those special days off with funny names offer a way to connect their present to our shared past. (In a nutshell, that’s why CKLA Preschool’s intro to American history follows the calendar, but the U.S. history domains in CKLA K–2 are in chronological order.)

Most of the content in CKLA Preschool is the standard stuff of early childhood: families, animals, Goldilocks, etc. It’s important, but too typical to capture my interest. The “Important People in American History” domain is different, raising questions about what we ought to expect of 4 and 5 year olds and what the purpose of preschool is. What I find particularly interesting in this domain is both how complex concepts are introduced and that a simplified (simplistic, even) introduction is enough.

Take the lessons on Barack Obama (which are done in conjunction with lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., before and after his birthday). Preschoolers learn that Obama is our president—which is likened to the school principal—and that he became president because “many people” voted for him. (You weren’t expecting the Electoral College, were you?) In a read-aloud and discussion, the role of president is boiled down to things like talking on the phone to important people, reading and signing important papers, and thinking about what laws (or rules) the country should have. Some images and text are devoted to conveying that Obama is a real man with daughters who have to do homework and walk their dog. Fair enough. To me, the most interesting aspects of the lesson come after the read-aloud, when time is spent on two essential concepts: laws and voting. The teacher begins with a discussion of laws; while the teacher is free to do the discussion as s/he sees fit, the domain guide has suggestions for how to explain what laws are, such as:

Laws are special rules that everyone in the country must follow. Laws keep everyone safe and help everyone get along with each other. There is a law that we must wear a seatbelt in a car. There is also a law that all children must go to school. Laws are rules that everyone in our country obeys.


Laws are like the rules in our classroom. Rules in our classroom keep us safe and help us all get along with each other. One rule in our classroom is _______. What are some other rules in our classroom?

A teacher could take this as far as s/he likes, expanding into family and school rules and/or helping the children create laws.

To understand voting, teachers are encouraged to pick something the class may choose, such as whether to have goldfish or graham crackers for their next snack, and have the students cast ballots. The choice itself is not monumental (though some 4 year olds may beg to differ), yet critical aspects of voting become concrete: marking one’s choice, dropping the ballot in the ballot (shoe)box, counting the votes, and—perhaps most importantly—having to peacefully accept the majority’s choice. It’s a social skills lesson as much as a citizenship, history, and academic vocabulary lesson.

Those lessons alone are worthwhile, and they become even more so in later lessons. (You were expecting that—it’s Core Knowledge after all. CKLA Preschool’s content is coherent and cumulative even when it’s following the calendar.) The presidency is reviewed while learning about Abraham Lincoln (for Presidents’ Day) and the concept of laws is revisited in the context of learning about Justice Sonia Sotomayor (during March, Women’s History Month).

I thought the concept of a judge would be difficult to convey, but the domain guide offers suggestions to make it comprehensible—especially for children who have already thought about what laws are and why we need them:

A judge’s job is to listen to different people and help make decisions about rules and laws.


We have a rule in our class that everyone plays nicely, but sometimes not everyone knows that this means sharing your toys. Sometimes, I act like a judge and help everyone understand what playing nicely means.

After a discussion, the children are ready for the read-aloud, which focuses as much on Sotomayor’s childhood as her career. Which brings me back to the purpose of preschool—not just preparing children to do well in school, but to embrace school as an opportunity to find out what life has to offer. When we introduce preschoolers to important people in American history, we begin showing them just how diverse and significant the choices before them are. Those are the lessons that will last a lifetime; the sooner they grasp them, the better.

CKLA Preschool Sotomayor

This photo of Sotomayor being sworn into office (with her mother holding the Bible) by Chief Justice Roberts is image 7A-7 in CKLA Preschool’s “Important People in American History” domain.

Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Guest Blogger
February 6th, 2014

It’s been a tremendous few weeks for those who love to read about building knowledge. Here are three great resources that are worth studying.

I. Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

This slim volume from the Fordham Institute has an agenda-setting introduction by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, then several terrific essays:

  • “Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch” by Sol Stern
  • “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content Curriculum They Need?” by Ruth Wattenberg
  • “There Are No Shortcuts: Mending the Rift between Content Knowledge and Deeper Learning” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge” by the Farkas Duffett Research Group

Even better, there are three must-reads by Hirsch: “Sustaining the American Experiment,” “Romancing the Child,” and “Why I’m For the Common Core.”

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (which will be published in the US in March), writes great blog posts all the time, but this one stands out. Christodoulou has a critical message for data-driven education reformers: “We can’t just predict using statistics alone. We need a theory.” She continues:

Without this theoretical understanding, we are more likely to conduct meaningless tests, mistake correlation for causation and confuse statistical significance with causal significance. This is something that E. D. Hirsch has written an absolutely brilliant article about…. Hirsch notes that we do have a strong theory from cognitive science about how pupils learn. We can use this theory to guide our teaching…. Here is his list of reliable general principles (in the article he discusses each at length).

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

It seems to me this is an excellent and easily accessible summary of what we know from cognitive science. If we used these as a basis for devising RCTs [randomized controlled trials] and as a starting point for discussing the findings we get from them, I think we would be doing well.

III. Why We All Have a Stake in the Common Core Standards

This brief essay by Mark Bauerlein drives home a key point for critics of the Common Core standards to consider: Most students are not well prepared for college. The standards alone won’t guarantee that more students are college ready, but they do nudge schools in the right direction. Writing for a higher education audience, Bauerlein argues:

When ACT, one of the best-known judges of college readiness, examined why so many first-year students end up in remedial courses and perform poorly, it identified one factor above all others: “Performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” Students three months out of high school enroll in freshman composition, a survey of U.S. history, and Econ 101 eager and hopeful, only to find that they can’t comprehend a Supreme Court opinion, 100-year-old oration, contemporary poem, and other texts.

Those pages prove too much for half of them (according to ACT), and colleges have insufficient resources to help…. To comprehend the texts they will face in college, students need general knowledge about science, math, history, civics, geography, arts and literature, religion, and technology….

Willy Loman, satire, and the poetry of King James stand proudly beside Gettysburg, separation of powers, and photosynthesis in the procession of cardinal things. The only adjustment English teachers need make is to add more literary nonfiction, which may include letters by Emily Dickinson, essays by Richard Rodriguez, chapters from Up From Slavery, and other unsurprising titles. Common Core readily admits them if they impart verbal facility and background knowledge that serve students well at the next level.

Critics of Common Core rightly worry, however, that curricula currently in development interpret “informational text” too nonliterarily and disregard cultural literacy. A troubling example comes from the National Council of Teachers of English, in a self-proclaimed guide to the standards. It declares, “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions.”

The authors mention “prior knowledge that gives context to the complexities of further reading,” but the “context texts” they recommend include film excerpts, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, and graphic novels, options often nonliterary and minimally fruitful for cultural literacy. Indeed, the choice of materials is secondary: “How the texts are used to scaffold the reading experience takes precedence over which texts are chosen.”

The burden, then, lies with college teachers to ensure that “which texts” does take precedence, specifically, that new informational texts in high school pay off in freshman year. They must be compellingly literary and rich in historical, social, psychological, or moral content. “Do not spend precious hours on media and topics that will not build familiarity that will be rewarded at the next level,” we must insist. Select informational texts that augment the knowledge base and enhance literary understanding.


Netflix Academy: A Magical Introduction to Core Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
September 16th, 2013

You might know the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli as a thought-provoking policy wonk and influential writer, but that’s not what makes him stand out. Above all else, Mike’s a great dad—one who struggles with making the best decisions for his kids and with helping all kids have similar educational opportunities.

Now, he needs your help.

Using the Core Knowledge Sequence as a guide to essential content, Petrilli has started a yearlong project to identify the best scientific, historical, and literary videos for kids. Set aside your favorite expensive or hard-to-find videos; Petrilli’s “Netflix Academy” is all about widely accessible works—those that, as he writes, “anyone with an $8/month Netflix subscription, or a $79/year Amazon Prime subscription, could instantaneously stream.”

(Young boy’s virtual safari courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Petrilli got the idea over the summer while watching the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons (ages five and three). He explains:

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years. This is why the Common Core State Standards call for a rigorous, coherent curriculum that offers a healthy diet of content knowledge—that’s the key to becoming a great reader, and an enthusiastic learner.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, for instance, my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.)….

Of course, five-year-olds have loved dinosaurs for decades, Netflix or not, but the power of cinematography to bring the subject alive is just this side of magic.

Watching with dad is magic too. But far too many dads (and moms and teachers) don’t have time to research how to make the best use of their kids’ screen time. We can all help.

Take a look at Petrilli’s posts thus far, and please use the comments section (here and/or on Petrilli’s site) to add your favorite videos:

Introduction and selected topics:


America’s founders and founding ideas:


Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: “Five Pillars” of a Good History Education

by Guest Blogger
August 28th, 2013

Last week, the hard work of educators at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas, was overshadowed by ignorance. Like dedicated educators across the country, those at Minneha had thoughtfully decorated their school to pique students’ interest in the studies to come. For a fall unit on Islam, this bright bulletin board was on display—temporarily.

This photo, which was posted on Facebook, went viral. It was accompanied by a caption claiming that the school had “banned all forms of Christian prayer.” That’s not true, but that detail is not as important as the larger embracing of ignorance that it conveys. When a responsible citizen sees something in a public school that he or she does not like, what’s a reasonable reaction? Is it acceptable to post a photo online without making any effort to learn about the context and without any regard for how the ensuing debate may affect students? Are such actions really something other responsible citizens should reward by showering them with attention?

Minneha’s curriculum is based on the Core Knowledge Sequence (which is a preschool through eighth grade outline of essential knowledge). As anyone who takes 30 minutes to skim the Sequence knows, any curriculum based on the Sequence  will provide a well-rounded, historical examination of all five major world religions. Just as our nation’s founders intended, the Sequence also explores the centrality of religious tolerance to a strong, well-functioning, democratic society.

Minneha and the Wichita Public Schools are to be congratulated for offering an excellent response to the brouhaha:

Religion is an important component of the history of civilizations. Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet students cover the five major religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—as part of their Core Knowledge magnet curriculum. The students study civilizations throughout time, throughout the world, and cover religion with a focus on the history and geography in the development of civilizations.

The bulletin board that originally caused the concern does represent the 5 Pillars of Islam—in a historical context of their studies. There is also a painting of the Last Supper hanging in the school as part of the study of art and the Renaissance period. The students at Minneha have received these lessons for years as part of their Core Knowledge curriculum. A photo taken of a bulletin board without context is misleading, and some have taken it out of context without having all the information. Because of the misunderstanding that has been promoted by that one photograph, the bulletin board has been taken down until the unit is taught later this fall.

Minneha is a Core Knowledge magnet school. As a school of choice, more than 60 percent of Minneha’s students apply for admission to the school in order to receive the Core Knowledge education that is the foundation of the school. As part of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is overseen by a national foundation devoted to Core Knowledge education, children are introduced in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. In the fourth grade the focus is on history, geography and the development of civilization. The purpose is not to explore the matters of theology, but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history. The Core Knowledge goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

The heart of this matter is not one’s values or beliefs—it is a simple recognition that human history can’t be taught without devoting significant time to studying religion. One might even consider the five major world religions to be five pillars of an excellent history education.

Let’s take a closer look at how religion is covered in the Sequence. We can see the intent and progression of the study of religion just by looking at how religious content is framed. The following guidance is provided for early grades teachers:

Teachers: Since religion is a shaping force in the story of civilization, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces children in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. The purpose is not to explore matters of theology but to provide a basic vocabulary for understanding many events and ideas in history. The goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The tone should be one of respect and balance: no religion should be disparaged by implying that it is a thing of the past. To the question, “Which one is true?” an appropriate response is: “People of different faiths believe different things to be true. The best people to guide you on this right now are your parents or someone at home.”

In fourth grade, the studies remain historical, but become more in-depth, so similar guidance is offered:

Teachers: Since religion is a shaping force in the story of civilization, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces children in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. In the fourth grade the focus is on history, geography, and the development of a civilization. The purpose is not to explore matters of theology but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history. The goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The tone should be one of respect and balance: no religion should be disparaged by implying that it is a thing of the past.

In sixth grade, building historical knowledge is still the primary goal, but the study becomes more analytical:

Teachers: The World History guidelines for sixth grade begin with a study of ancient civilizations introduced in earlier grades in the Core Knowledge Sequence. Topics include Judaism, Christianity, and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The focus in sixth grade should be on the legacy of enduring ideas from these civilizations—ideas about democracy and government, for example, or about right and wrong. After this study of lasting ideas from ancient civilizations, the World History guidelines pick up the chronological thread from earlier grades with a study of the Enlightenment. You are encouraged to use timelines and engage students in a brief review of some major intervening events in order to help students make a smooth transition across the gap in centuries between the ancient civilizations and the Enlightenment.

The following excerpts from the Sequence show the primary examinations of the major world religions. (For a comprehensive look, see the Sequence itself, which can be downloaded for free.)

Excerpts from Pages 34-35: Grade 1

World History and Geography

II. Early World Civilizations

  • Judaism
    • Belief in one God
    • Story of the Exodus: Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt
    • Israel, Chanukah, Star of David, Torah, synagogue
  • Christianity
    • Christianity grew out of Judaism
    • Jesus, meaning of “messiah”
    • Christmas and Easter, symbol of the cross
  • Islam
    • Originated in Arabia, since spread worldwide
    • Followers are called Muslims
    • Allah, Muhammad, Makkah, Qur’an, mosque
    • Symbol of crescent and star (found on the flags of many mainly Islamic nations)

Excerpts from Pages 61-67: Grade 2

World History and Geography

II. Early Asian Civilizations


  • Indus River and Ganges River
  • Hinduism
    • Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
    • Many holy books, including the Rig Veda
  • Buddhism
    • Prince Siddhartha becomes Buddha, “the Enlightened One”
    • Buddhism begins as an outgrowth of Hinduism in India, and then spreads through many countries in Asia.
    • King Asoka (also spelled Ashoka)

See also Visual Arts 2: Architecture: Great Stupa, re Buddhism.

Excerpts from Pages 84-87: Grade 3

World History and Geography

II. The Ancient Roman Civilization

B. Background

  • Define B.C. / A.D. and B.C.E. / C.E.
  • The legend of Romulus and Remus
  • Latin as the language of Rome
  • Worship of gods and goddesses, largely based on Greek religion
  • The Republic: Senate, Patricians, Plebeians
  • Punic Wars: Carthage, Hannibal

C. The Empire

  • Julius Caesar
    • Defeats Pompey in civil war, becomes dictator
    • “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
    • Cleopatra of Egypt
    • Caesar assassinated in the Senate, Brutus
  • Augustus Caesar
  • Life in the Roman Empire
    • The Forum: temples, marketplaces, etc.
    • The Colosseum: circuses, gladiator combat, chariot races
    • Roads, bridges, and aqueducts
  • Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, destruction of Pompeii
  • Persecution of Christians

E. The Eastern Roman Empire: Byzantine Civilization

  • The rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire
  • Constantine, emperor who made Christianity the official religion of Rome
  • Constantinople (now called Istanbul) merges diverse influences and cultures.
  • Justinian, Justinian’s Code

American History and Geography

III. The Thirteen Colonies: Life and Times Before the Revolution

C. New England Colonies

  • New England colonies: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island
  • Gradual development of maritime economy: fishing and shipbuilding
  • Massachusetts
    • Colonists seeking religious freedom: in England, an official “established” church (the Church of England), which did not allow people to worship as they chose
    • The Pilgrims
      • From England to Holland to Massachusetts
      • 1620: Voyage of the Mayflower
      • Significance of the Mayflower Compact
      • Plymouth, William Bradford
      • Helped by Wampanoag Indians: Massasoit, Tisquantum (Squanto)
    • The Puritans
      • Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor John Winthrop: “We shall be as a city upon a hill.”
      • Emphasis on reading and education, the New England Primer
  • Rhode Island
    • Roger Williams: belief in religious toleration
    • Anne Hutchinson

Excerpts from Pages 106-115: Grade 4

World History and Geography

II. Europe in the Middle Ages

C. Developments in History of the Christian Church

  • Growing power of the pope (Bishop of Rome)
  • Arguments among Christians: split into Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Conversion of many Germanic peoples to Christianity
  • Rise of monasteries, preservation of classical learning
  • Charlemagne
    • Temporarily unites the western Roman Empire
    • Crowned Emperor by the pope in a.d. 800, the idea of a united “Holy Roman Empire”
    • Charlemagne’s love and encouragement of learning

See also Visual Arts 4: Art of the Middle Ages in Europe: Medieval Madonnas and Gothic architecture. And see Music 4, Gregorian chant.

III. The Spread of Islam and the “Holy Wars”

A. Islam

  • Muhammad: the last prophet
  • Allah, Qur’an, jihad
  • Sacred city of Makkah, mosques
  • “Five pillars” of Islam:
    • Declaration of faith
    • Prayer (five times daily), facing toward Makkah
    • Fasting during Ramadan
    • Help the needy
    • Pilgrimage to Makkah
  • Arab peoples unite to spread Islam in northern Africa, through the eastern Roman empire, and as far west as Spain.
  • Islamic Turks conquer region around the Mediterranean; in 1453, Constantinople becomes Istanbul.
  • The first Muslims were Arabs, but today diverse people around the world are Muslims.

B. Development of Islamic Civilization

  • Contributions to science and mathematics: Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Arabic numerals
  • Muslim scholars translate and preserve writings of Greeks and Romans
  • Thriving cities as centers of Islamic art and learning, such as Cordoba (Spain)

C. Wars Between Muslims and Christians

  • The Holy Land, Jerusalem
  • The Crusades
  • Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted
  • Growing trade and cultural exchange between east and west

Visual Arts

I. Art of the Middle Ages in Europe

Teachers: Study of the following works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in fourth grade World History: Europe in the Middle Ages.

  • Note the generally religious nature of European art in the Middle Ages, including Examples of medieval Madonnas (such as Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne—13th century Byzantine)
    • Illuminated manuscripts (such as The Book of Kells)
    • Tapestries (such as the Unicorn tapestries)
  • Become familiar with features of Gothic architecture (spires, pointed arches, flying buttresses, rose windows, gargoyles and statues) and famous cathedrals, including Notre Dame (Paris).

II. Islamic Art and Architecture

Teachers: Study of the following works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in fourth grade World history: The Spread of Islam.

  • Become familiar with examples of Islamic art, including illuminated manuscript and illumination of the Qur’an (Koran).
  • Note characteristic features of Islamic architecture, such as domes and minarets, in Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar), Jerusalem
    • Alhambra Palace, Spain
    • Taj Mahal, India

Excerpts from Pages 130-137: Grade 5

World History and Geography

IV. The Renaissance and the Reformation

A. The Renaissance

  • Islamic scholars translate Greek works and so help preserve classical civilization.
  • A “rebirth” of ideas from ancient Greece and Rome
  • New trade and new wealth
  • Italian city states: Venice, Florence, Rome
  • Patrons of the arts and learning
    • The Medici Family and Florence
    • The Popes and Rome
  • Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo
  • Renaissance ideals and values as embodied in
    • The Courtier by Castiglione: the “Renaissance man”
    • The Prince by Machiavelli: real-world politics

B. The Reformation

  • Gutenberg’s printing press: the Bible made widely available
  • The Protestant Reformation
    • Martin Luther and the 95 Theses
    • John Calvin
  • The Counter-Reformation
  • Copernicus and Galileo: Conflicts between science and the church
    • Ptolemaic (earth-centered) vs. sun-centered models of the universe

Visual Arts

I. Art of the Renaissance

Teachers: Study of the following artists and works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in World History 5: The Renaissance.

  • The shift in world view from medieval to Renaissance art, a new emphasis on humanity and the natural world
  • The influence of Greek and Roman art on Renaissance artists (classical subject matter, idealization of human form, balance and proportion)
  • The development of linear perspective during the Italian Renaissance
    • The vantage point or point-of-view of the viewer
    • Convergence of lines toward a vanishing point, the horizon line
  • Observe and discuss works in different genres—such as portrait, fresco, Madonna—by  Italian Renaissance artists, including
    • Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
    • Leonardo da Vinci: The Proportions of Man, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper
    • Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, especially the detail known as The Creation of Adam
    • Raphael: The Marriage of the Virgin, examples of his Madonnas (such as Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John, The Alba Madonna, or The Small Cowper Madonna)
  • Become familiar with Renaissance sculpture, including
    • Donatello, Saint George
    • Michelangelo, David
  • Become familiar with Renaissance architecture, including
    • The Florence Cathedral, dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi
    • St. Peter’s in Rome
  • Observe and discuss paintings of the Northern Renaissance, including
    • Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Wedding
    • Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (such as from 1498 or 1500)
    • Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (also known as Arnolfini Wedding)

Excerpts from Pages 153-160: Grade 6

World History and Geography

II. Lasting Ideas from Ancient Civilizations

A. Judaism and Christianity

  • Basic ideas in common
    • The nature of God and of humanity
    • Hebrew Bible and Old Testament of Christian Bible
  • Judaism: central ideas and moral teachings
    • Torah, monotheism
    • The idea of a “covenant” between God and man
    • Concepts of law, justice, and social responsibility: the Ten Commandments
  • Christianity: central ideas and moral teachings
    • New Testament
    • The Sermon on the Mount and the two “great commandments” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
  • Geography of the Middle East
    • Birthplace of major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam
    • Anatolian Peninsula, Arabian Peninsula
    • Mesopotamia, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
    • Atlas Mountains, Taurus Mountains
    • Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Black Sea, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf
    • The “silk road”
    • Climate and terrain: vast deserts (Sahara, Arabian)

I hope these excerpts provide some much-needed context. Many thanks to Minneha and all the other Core Knowledge schools committed to ensuring that knowledge triumphs over ignorance.


What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education?

by Guest Blogger
July 11th, 2013

As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”

What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.

That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”

Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.

Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.

I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?

There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.

A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.

And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:

In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.

Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:

1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables

2. The Five Senses

3. Stories

4. Plants

5. Farms

6. Native Americans

7. Kings and Queens

8. Seasons and Weather

9. Columbus and the Pilgrims

10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople

11. Taking Care of the Earth

12. Presidents and American Symbols

Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?

Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.

Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.