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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Curriculum Wars: What Should All Children Learn?

By Peter DeWitt — December 04, 2014 2 min read
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“Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” Alan Kay

Can you read...Indus River?

What about...Ganges River?

Yangtze River?

How about...Himalayas?


Although the Flesch-Kincaid score for a word like Yangtze is 8.4 and words like Himalayas and Bayankalas is 20.2 (1.8 points under graduate level), these are not words for adults. This is not a test for adults.

Those words are for students...2nd grade students.

Taken from Amplify’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) booklet for 2nd grade, students aren’t just expected to read the words...they are expected to identify those places on a blank map. Blank...meaning a map with some pictures and a Key that says “Great Wall of China.Please click here to see the CKLA resource. Go to page V in the resource and check out some of the Core Content Objectives.

According to the Core Knowledge website,

The Core Knowledge Language Arts program was piloted in 10 public schools in New York City and an additional 7 schools throughout the country, including rural and suburban schools. The 172 classrooms, 200 teachers and 4,466 students in these schools were wonderfully diverse. From school to school, the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch ranged from 30 to 99%, and the percentage of students for whom English is a second language ranged from 15 to 60%."

Examples of Content Objectives:

  • Describe the basic principles of Hinduism and Buddhism
  • Identify the names for followers of Hinduism and Buddhism
  • Identify the holy texts for Hinduism and Buddhism
  • Identify important figures in Hinduism and Buddhism

Are these things students can’t do...or is it our perspective as adults that hold students back from doing them? Is there common ground between both?

A Different Look at CKLA

In October of 2014, the AD HOC Common Core Implementation Committee of the Rochester City Schools, which is one of the 5 big city schools in New York, reported their findings of EngageNY, CKLA and the Common Core. The following are pieces from the document. To read the whole document containing the committee’s findings, please click here.

Over 20 years ago--in response to practices promoted by educators such as E. D. Hirsch (1987) who is the originator of Core Knowledge Curriculum--educators in New York State and across the country contested school curricula that presented the history and literature of Europeans and their descendants to the exclusion and/or denigration of the cultural productions of all others (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995; Swartz, 1992; Wynter, 1992). In response, Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. (1992), Dianne Ravitch (1990), George Will (1989), and others referred to efforts to develop inclusive and representational curriculum as "feel good" curriculum--as filiopietistic or excessive veneration of ancestors--as if that isn't the character of the mainstream curricula our students have been failing (or resisting) to learn. Below is list of concerns related to grades K-2 of Core Knowledge Curriculum: The character and content of curriculum are an essential factor as to whether students engage or disengage with the learning process. Core Knowledge Curriculum has essentially the same curricular content used in American public schools since before people of African ancestry were allowed to go to school. It is conceptually the same curriculum that was in use as urban districts became predominantly Black and Latino. And, it is conceptually the same curriculum that has resulted in Rochester's current student outcomes. Where is the logic in acting as if Rochester or any other urban district will get different outcomes by instituting the same Eurocentric curriculum model over and over again? • There is no dispute among educators and psychologists over the developmental concept that learning for very young students should begin with themselves, which includes their families, communities, and ancestral origins. However, in Core Knowledge Curriculum, young students primarily learn about Europeans and their ancestors. When African and other Indigenous civilizations are included, their anteriority and prior accomplishments-which are well documented--are denied (Diop, 1974; Hilliard, 1978). From a developmental standpoint, examples for young students in our district would largely come from the best of the African world and Diaspora, past and present. Once grounded in self and cultural knowledge, children are ready for exposure to the worlds around them. This was and still is the approach for white students, now mostly in the suburbs, but when it comes to Black and Latina/o students, this approach is highly resisted. • The race, class, and gender stereotypes in the stories, fairytales, and myths included in Core Knowledge Curriculum teach--either directly or subliminally--violence, fear, a male power-over model of leadership, and misogyny as norms for human life and behavior (Buras, 2008). This kind of programing is harmful and we are now dealing with the consequences of remaining on this path, even after mass failure has become undeniable. • A review of the Core Knowledge ELA Curriculum Maps for grades K-2 reveals massive disregard for our students and families of color who rarely appear in it, and when they do, are presented either as victims (not people with agency); as invisible; inaccurately as following Mesopotamia rather than being descendants of the earliest civilizations in Africa; coming to the Americas over a land bridge (which is only a theory and not one supported by Indigenous beliefs); as omitted or objectified in colonial America; and as inheritors of a Greek legacy presented as foundational to this country, its institutions, and its people (Asante, 2007; Diop,1974; Tehanetorens, 1970/1999). These omissions, distortions, and inaccuracies result in an exclusionary curriculum that obstructs critical thinking. • No matter how often a monocultural curriculum is repackaged or how well it is aligned with state standards, it remains a monocultural curriculum. While the more complete review in Appendix A exemplifies how the content of the E. D. Hirsch Core Knowledge Curriculum can be thoroughly critiqued, time would be better spent showing teachers how to use materials and develop materials and lessons that include and accurately represent their students, families, and communities. The Committee went on to make recommendations concerning the CKLA curriculum. The suggested the following: Suggested Board Resolution #3: Whereas, the Board of Education recognizes the importance of bridging the substantial cognitive and general development gains accrued by children in Rochester UPK programs into the primary grades and beyond; and Whereas, early childhood expert educators have expressed concern regarding developmentally inappropriate characteristics of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Inc. offerings for kindergarten through 2nd grade on the NYSED supported EngageNY resource website; and Whereas, local and national expert educators have expressed concern regarding cultural incompetence in some of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Inc. offerings for kindergarten through 2nd grade on the NYSED supported EngageNY resource website; and Whereas, educators with expertise is both special education services and in teaching English language learners have expressed alarm regarding the detrimental impact of highly paced and scripted lessons associated with implementation of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Inc. offerings for kindergarten through 2nd grade on the EngageNY website; and Whereas, EngageNY resources have not been proven to support effective, comprehensive implementation of the Common Core State Standards nor do they have a clear track record of supporting improved academic achievement; and Whereas, in general, according to education law, it remains the purview of local Boards of Education to adopt textbooks, curriculum, and educational policy, and Whereas, in particular, common core state standards implementation guidance emphasizes that local educational agencies have clear decision-making authority over the adoption of curriculum materials and instructional practices, therefore be it Resolved that no later than February 1, 2015 RCSD kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers shall be collaboratively, systemically and effectively supported to select and implement the most developmentally appropriate and engaging curriculum and approaches available to them including, but not limited to elements from HighScope teacher practices successfully used in UPK; Rochester Curriculum; Rochester Teacher Center lessons and modeling; Expeditionary Learning resources; and other approaches that align with common core standards including continued use of selected resources from the EngageNY website; and be it further Resolved, that RCSD kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers shall rely primarily on locally selected and developed curriculum and approaches no later than September 1, 2015; EngageNY resources may be used as supplements such as, for example, skills strand exercises or to address state standards where gaps in local curriculum may exist, but shall not be used as the primary curriculum or source for text and other material in kindergarten through 2 grade.

In the End

Dissect, debate, discuss. Rochester City Schools took the appropriate action by having an Ad Hoc Committee look at the resources, and the committee did a thorough job looking at each part. However, other districts have done the same work and come up with the decision to use the modules.

One problem still exists. Some school districts are running toward CKLA while others school districts are running away from it. Is it political...on both sides? Or is one seeing this curriculum as a better way for students to learn?

Are some districts running away because of the political noise surrounding the Common Core, the New York State Education Department (NYSED), and therefore CKLA which is owned by Rupert Murdoch and run by Joel Klein (CEO)? Are other districts running toward it for the same reasons? They want to support the Common Core, NYSED, CKLA because they believe in what it offers to students.

Whatever the decision, the same problem exists that has always existed for schools...how do we level the playing field across schools? It is not the fault of accountability and mandates. This problem of equity existed long before those came into our lives. However, the Common Core was supposed to level the playing field, and in New York State it seems all it has done is put a wedge in it.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.