Core Knowledge to Link Curriculum to Core Standards

Foundation Will Make Its K-8 Sequence Available to Schools for Free

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The Core Knowledge Foundation, which criticized an early version of common-core standards for putting too much emphasis on academic skills and too little on content, has decided to align its central curriculum sequence to the revised standards and make it available for free.

The decision by the 24-year-old foundation, which is shaped by founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s belief that all children need a command of a specific body of knowledge to be “culturally literate,” means that later this month it will stop charging $35 per copy for its K-8 Core Knowledge Sequence and will instead give away the 218-page book by download from its Web site, its officials told Education Week. A bound volume will be available at a charge.

Core Knowledge’s move appears to be the first of what observers anticipate will be many bids by a variety of groups and businesses to adapt or distribute curriculum materials for the common academic standards that 48 states have agreed to support. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are coordinating that work-in-progress.

The first product of that effort, a set of “college and career-ready standards” describing the skills students must have to succeed after graduation, drew a mix of reactions when it was released publicly last September, and is being revised further. A set of standards outlining skills in English/language arts and math at each grade leading up to graduation is to be released for public comment by the middle of this month. ("New Critiques Urge Changes in Common Standards," this issue.)

‘Conventional Agreement’

Giving away its most fundamental classroom resource will mean that the Charlottesville, Va.-based nonprofit will give up $100,000 per year, about one-eighth of its annual operating budget, said Linda Bevilacqua, its president.

"We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. ... This is a moment when we really could change the direction."

Founder, Core Knowledge Foundation

The organization still will sell its other products, including a preschool-level curriculum sequence, teacher handbooks, and its series of “grader” books with titles such as What Your Second Grader Needs to Know. It also provides professional development at schools that use Core Knowledge curriculum. About 750 schools use some or all of the K-8 sequence, and 380 use its preschool sequence.

Some observers noted that while Core Knowledge’s move will cut into its revenue, it could also position the foundation to sell more materials and training. But Ms. Bevilacqua disagreed, saying that giving away the curriculum sequence could eventually put the organization out of business by enabling others to produce similar materials. The foundation’s decision, she said, is motivated by its belief in the importance of a curriculum that can help “interpret and implement” the common standards.

Core Knowledge’s approach is based on the belief that children should know specific content at each K-8 grade level in English, mathematics, science, music, visual arts, world history, American history, and geography. It is only on a base of such “shared, specific, and sequenced” knowledge, the foundation argues, that skills such as critical thinking and reading comprehension can be built.

Those who debate curriculum issues differ on the extent to which skills must be blended with subject-matter knowledge, and the common standards—like many state standards—focus more on skills than on specific chunks of content. Core Knowledge believes its K-8 sequence supplies key content for the common standards’ framework of skills and ideas.

Mr. Hirsch, a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, also in Charlottesville, said he hopes the foundation can make an impact on education by moving it “toward some conventional agreement” about what topics should be taught in each grade. Doing so would minimize the disruption of learning when children switch schools, and would aid development of instructional materials and methods, and teacher training, that reflect those grade-by-grade topics, he said.

“This could be bigger than any other reform I can think of,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We’ve had a hell of an incoherent system. It’s been based on a how-to theory, and not enough attention has been paid to the build-up of knowledge. This is a moment when we really could change the direction.”

The foundation criticized the first set of common standards as light on content. But Mr. Hirsch, who reviewed a draft of the next set, which outlines grade-by-grade skills, said it touches more on content. The new draft suggests, for instance, that students do a gooddeal of reading from nonfiction texts.

Other groups are starting to plan curricular responses to the common standards. By late February, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to award one or more grants for development of curriculum materials aligned to those standards. Achieve, a Washington-based group leading the drafting of the common standards, has convened experts to discuss using them to craft model course outlines for high school math.

Kent Williamson, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Urbana, Ill., said Core Knowledge’s decision is a harbinger of what textbook publishers and others will do. Especially because of the competition for federal Race to the Top money, states and school districts are motivated to show that their work reflects the common standards, and providers of curriculum will want to respond to that, he said.

“Normally with [state] standards adoptions, you have to persuade and win the debate, and that’s not easy to do. But now there’s money attached to it,” he said. “That makes this more powerful than any other standards effort I can recall.”

Textbook publishers are indeed tracking the common-standards initiative closely, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. Some managed to review copies of the draft K-12 standards before they were publicly available to gauge how they might adapt their materials, he said.

“If customers ask us for alignment with the common-core standards, that’s what we’ll do,” Mr. Diskey said. “If the country really does go in this direction, it means there will be a very significant amount of material that will need to be published. It will be good business for a number of years.”

Meaning of Alignment

But while publishers and others might say their materials are aligned to the common standards, determining what that means might be difficult, some said.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and policy group, recalled how quickly publishers claimed their materials were “scientifically based” after the federal No Child Left Behind Act popularized that term.

“This time around, the buzzword will be ‘common standards.’ Comercial companies will want to use those words to promote availability of their materials,” he said. “But what may be lacking is some certain judgment that what they are developing is in fact aligned with the common standards. The assertions may well outpace the reality.”

Mr. Jennings posed the question of whether an independent panel should be established to perform such alignment reviews.

The breadth of the common standards poses another potential alignment problem, some said.

“They are sufficiently broad that they permit many things to be aligned to them, and I don’t think that’s good,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who has written about the importance of good curriculum as the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “If one can imagine 15 curricula that can be said with equal justification to be aligned with the new [common] standards, then there is too much room for people to do all sorts of things, and then you’re back to the original problem.”

Vol. 29, Issue 20, Page 11

Published in Print: February 3, 2010, as Core Knowledge to Link Curriculum to Core Standards
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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the print version of the Core Knowledge standards will be given away for free. The foundation will make the standards available for free online and create a downloadable version for free. A bound volume will be available at a charge.

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