Classical Core Knowledge

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Via Jeff Lindsay on Twitter, I learned about Classical School in Appleton, Wisconsin, a charter Pre-K - 8 school of 450 students that follows a classical curriculum. The school follows E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum. Hirsch is the author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. From the Core Knowledge FAQ:

The "Core Knowledge" movement is an educational reform based on the premise that a grade-by-grade core of common learning is necessary to ensure a sound and fair elementary education.... Professor Hirsch has argued that, for the sake of academic excellence, greater fairness, and higher literacy, early schooling should provide a solid, specific, shared core curriculum in order to help children establish strong foundations of knowledge.

The FAQ is worth reading for their responses to questions like:

"Students are unique individuals, so can we really expect them all to learn the same material? Shouldn't schooling respond to the unique learning styles of each individual child?"

"Is the specific academic content in the Core Knowledge curriculum developmentally appropriate for young children?"

Since knowledge is changing so rapidly, isn't the best approach to teach children to "learn how to learn," rather than to teach specific knowledge?

Without coming right out and saying it, the Core Knowledge approach rebuffs the philosophies and fads of modern public education while embracing the classical Trivium, which begins with "Grammar." The Grammar of the Trivium is not merely how you put words together, but it encompasses the facts and rules of a range of disciplines, including math, history, music, the visual arts, and science, as well as language.

Here's part of the Core Knowledge response to the "learn how to learn" concept:

...Children learn new knowledge by building upon what they already know. It's important to begin building foundations of knowledge in the early grades because that's when children are most receptive, and because academic deficiencies in the first six grades can permanently impair the quality of later schooling. The most powerful tool for later learning is not an abstract set of procedures (such as "problem solving") but a broad base of knowledge in many fields....

...The basic principles of science and constitutional government, the important events of world history, the essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression -- all of these are part of a solid core that does not change rapidly, but instead forms the basis for true lifelong learning.

And in response to the criticism of rote memorization and the idea that children need critical thinking skills, not just a bunch of facts:

No one wants schools to think of curriculum solely in terms of facts. We also want -- and students need -- opportunities to use the facts, to apply them, question them, discuss them, doubt them, connect them, analyze them, verify or deny them, solve problems with them. All these activities, however, rely upon having some facts to work with. Without factual knowledge about an issue or problem, you can't think critically about it -- you can only have an uninformed opinion.

Oklahoma has three officially certified Core Knowledge schools -- schools that have implemented at least 80% of the curriculum with a goal of full implementation: Cleveland and Sequoyah Elementary Schools in Oklahoma City, and Clegern Elementary School in Edmond.

Clegern Elementary is certified as a Core Knowledge visitation site, a model school where the curriculum has been fully implemented. Clegern is also a "parent choice school" -- any family in the Edmond district may apply to attend; students are chosen by lottery. It's telling that much of the school's FAQ page has to do with who does or doesn't get an edge in the selection process.

Another 13 schools in Oklahoma City and one in Anadarko are "Friends of Core Knowledge," which means that the schools are implementing the curriculum at some level.

The curriculum of Classical Charter School in Appleton reminds me in many respects of the curriculum at Regent Preparatory School in Tulsa -- for example, both use Saxon Math and Shurley Grammar. I like the fact that instead of the vague "social studies," they have history, geography, and literature.

Now that the Tulsa Public Schools board has dropped its senseless and expensive lawsuit against the state's charter school law. An editorial in the Oklahoman noted a report that the Tulsa school board spent $103,000 on attorney's fees to pursue the suit; appealing to the State Supreme Court would have cost another $125,000. The Oklahoman's advice:

This lawsuit was a bad idea from the start. Money that could have been spent for the benefit of teachers and students went to lawyers instead. That was the only guaranteed outcome, and by no logic could that be considered good for children or taxpayers.

What's good for children -- and by extension taxpayers -- is for Tulsa to not just accept but embrace quality charter schools. Those schools exist to serve Tulsa's children. Their success doesn't reflect poorly on the district; rather, it says that the district cares enough about its students to step outside its comfort zone.

Oklahoma City has 12 charter schools. Tulsa has three. Perhaps now the Tulsa district will be open to new charters, or perhaps one of the universities would sponsor a Core Knowledge charter school here.

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1 Comments

S. Lee Author Profile Page said:

I went through teacher education back in the 80s and was forced to play along with the warm fuzzy individualism philosophy of education. Every new collection of educators likes to think it is the truly enlightened one, not burdened by the grumpy prejudices of the previous collection. I was certified to teach Math, Biology, and Chemistry, but found employment outside public education.

I essentially agree with most of your comments. However, conversations I have had with teachers made it clear that urban public schools are being stuck with raising children rather than educating them. This is a consequence of increasing rates of government subsidized illegitimacy and urban areas being where the majority of the rent subsidized single parents live. I think any progress on improving education in urban schools will require coming up with ways to both raise and educate children. It could be that some individualism will be required there.

I'm not sure how far you want to go with the requirement for universal core knowledge: How much does it encompass, and to want extent are electives squeezed out. I support the idea of a fundamental core that is limited enough to allow some choices such as pursuing a pre-college path or a vo-tech path.

I would like to see a revival of interest in what was generally called manual arts: Shop, electricity, auto mechanics, etc. Not only are these skills very handy to have and will save a person buckets of money in life, I consider them part of that much worshipped concept of the well-rounded person. I like to think we are more than just a brain.

I am still not convinced that charter schools are the answer. I believe the problem is with the students (which is really a problem of reproductive responsibility). Charter schools cannot pick and choose from among the cream of the students; private schools can, charter schools can't.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 26, 2009 8:50 PM.

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