Teacher Preparation Opinion

Core Knowledge and Teacher Education: Time for a Cease-Fire

By Gary DeCoker — April 25, 2001 7 min read
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These groups seem to be engaged in a role reversal and are now beginning to pursue each other’s agendas.

I spent the first two weekends in March at the national conferences of a teacher education organization and the Core Knowledge Foundation. Before attending the meetings, I had thought that the only thing these two communities of educators have in common is their passionate dislike of what the other represents. But despite their rhetoric of opposition, the two groups seem to be making a role reversal and are now beginning to pursue the other’s agenda.

Core Knowledge, the reform movement that grew out of University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s 1987 book Cultural Literacy, promotes a carefully sequenced curriculum for grades K-8. The Core Knowledge Sequence, developed by a diverse group of more than 100 educators, preserves traditional subject-matter boundaries, but also includes many opportunities for curricular integration. For instance, in grade 2, students study about Japan in three subject areas: In history/geography, they locate major islands and their cities and study aspects of traditional culture; in literature, they read a Japanese folktale; in art, they do projects based on Hokusai wood-block prints. Later, in grade 5, when the curriculum returns to Japan, teachers briefly review what the students learned a few years before and then go on to explore other aspects of the country.

The Core Knowledge conference, attended by a few thousand teachers, administrators, and university professors, revolved around 75-minute sessions on the theme “Share the Knowledge.” At these sessions, teachers showcased the teaching units they had developed for a particular grade level in the Core Knowledge curriculum sequence. The audience members, primarily teachers of the same grade level, picked up some ideas and a copy of the teaching unit that included detailed lists of activities and supplementary resources. Since it was only possible to attend a half-dozen sessions, each teacher received a CD that included all of the teaching units. The foundation will later post these on its World Wide Web site, adding this year’s units to those from the three previous conferences.

Curiosity led me to attend the Core Knowledge conference. Necessity took me to the gathering of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. The state of Ohio, where I teach, has recently mandated that all teacher education programs follow the standards of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, and the new NCATE 2000 standards were being showcased at the meeting.

Unlike the Core Knowledge curriculum, the NCATE standards focus more on process than content. They precisely describe the components of a teacher education program, but leave it up to the individual schools to determine how to configure these pieces and to measure their success. So the teacher-educators at the various sessions I attended eagerly gathered program outlines and evaluation rubrics, hoping to find something useful to their program-reform efforts on the home campus.

The similarity I perceived in the two conferences is the sharing of information around a well- defined set of standards—the Core Knowledge curriculum and the NCATE program standards. But despite this similarity, and the obvious connections between an organization of teachers and an organization that prepares people to become teachers, few subject-matter specialists attended the AACTE meeting, and few teacher-educators attended the Core Knowledge conference. Most of the university faculty members involved with Core Knowledge represent the disciplines of their curriculum. Professor Hirsch himself is from the English and humanities program at the University of Virginia, and arts and sciences professors from a variety of disciplines serve as consultants to the foundation. Specialists in teaching methods seemed largely absent.

In developing its standards for teachers, NCATE draws on the recommendations of professional education organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English, or of Social Studies, or Mathematics, professional organizations largely made up of K-12 teachers and teacher-educators with a speciality in the teaching of a particular subject. Few arts and sciences professors are involved.

I discovered that both of the groups seem to sense their own weaknesses and, as a result, are beginning to move toward the other.

At each of the March conferences, I attended a lecture by the head of the organization under discussion. And at these, I discovered that both of the groups seem to sense their own weaknesses and, as a result, are beginning to move toward the other.

At the teacher education conference, for example, Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, announced that his organization was working with the Educational Testing Service, which makes the teacher tests used in about two- thirds of the states, to develop subject-matter-content tests that better align with NCATE standards.

Mr. Hirsch, the founder of Core Knowledge, announced, on the other hand, that his organization would spend the next two years developing a series of optional lesson plans for use in teaching the foundation’s curriculum.

Having participated in these two meetings within a two-week period, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways the two communities could work together toward their common goal of improving the quality of American education. In the past, for example, NCATE has put insufficient emphasis on the content knowledge of teachers, especially those at the K-8 level where Core Knowledge puts its focus. But in a country where each state develops its own standards, it is difficult to determine exactly what a teacher should know. The content-rich Core Knowledge curriculum offers a perfect framework.

Core Knowledge, on the other hand, has so far left the issue of methods to its teachers. But most of these teachers, having learned to teach in education programs at universities across the country, are using teaching strategies developed and refined by the teacher education community. When creating its series of lesson plans, surely Core Knowledge could benefit from the advice of teacher-educators.

Could these two communities actually work together? Most teacher-educators oppose the Core Knowledge program, and a few have called Mr. Hirsch an elitist, a demagogue, and much worse. “Who is he to tell us what to teach?” is one of the most polite ways of summarizing their opposition. And for his part, Mr. Hirsch often publishes books and articles critical of the progressive educators who dominate teacher education, using terms like “anti- knowledge extremism” and “militant separatism” to describe the nation’s schools of education.

Still, I can’t help finding irony in the passionate disagreements between the two groups. Here is NCATE, an organization whose standards are mandated by many states, working with the Educational Testing Service, a private educational testing and measurement organization, to refine its content standards. Yet, the teacher education community criticizes Core Knowledge for developing a voluntary curriculum that, if implemented, makes up only half of a school’s curriculum.

Core Knowledge, on the other hand, looks to teachers to develop their teaching methods. And yet, even though these methods look very similar to what is being taught in many teacher education programs, Mr. Hirsch and the foundation’s leadership continue their blanket criticism of teacher education.

Teacher-educators will probably continue to criticize Core Knowledge, and vice versa. Perhaps it’s time for both communities to take another look at the other’s work.

As these two communities begin to work on one another’s agendas—content and teaching methods—it seems to me that the only thing left to fight about is ideology. And unfortunately, ideological passions already run too deep in the field, forcing debates into artificial dualisms (phonics vs. whole language, basic math vs. problem-solving, constructivism vs. direct instruction) that fail to represent the complexity of the issues facing educators.

My guess is that the subject-matter content of the tests developed by the Educational Testing Service for NCATE will look very similar to the content promoted by Core Knowledge for a college curriculum for future K-8 teachers. And as Core Knowledge develops its lesson plans and teaching units, that group’s teaching methods will look very similar to what is promoted at the nation’s best teacher education programs.

And yet, teacher-educators will probably continue to criticize Core Knowledge, and vice versa. Perhaps it’s time for both communities to take another look at the other’s work.

Gary DeCoker is the chairperson of the education department and the director of the East Asian studies program at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. His book on Japanese education reform and national standards will be published by Teachers College Press later this year.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Core Knowledge and Teacher Education: Time for a Cease-Fire


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