NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Core Knowledge in Schools

April 11, 1997

For decades, educators have been debating how children should be taught, rather than what they should learn, observers say. To address this, University of Virginia Professor E. D. Hirsch established the Core Knowledge Foundation -- dedicated to putting pressure on schools to develop a back-to-basics approach in their curricula.

Schools first started developing core knowledge curricula in 1990. Now it is used in some 350 schools, mostly public ones, in 40 states -- from elite suburbs to the inner-cities.

Hirsch developed a set of study topics for each grade.

  • For instance, second-grade students learn about Greek mythology, James Madison and the War of 1812, the 50 states, civil rights, seasonal cycles, cell biology, and Chinese and Japanese culture and geography.
  • Critics contend that the studies ignore minority cultures, but other educators say the core programs will help all students fit into, and ultimately succeed, in our society.

Early results from a three-year study being conducted by Johns Hopkins and University of Memphis researchers are encouraging.

  • As they gain concrete knowledge of the world, children also display an increase in their self-confidence.
  • The researchers found that core knowledge students picked up the ability to connect new material to old -- appreciating, for instance, the interplay between Greek and Roman civilizations.
  • As the challenging curriculum induces the students to become more interested in learning, creativity increases and discipline problems are reduced.
  • Teachers tend to interact more with one another and share instructional tips.

Making up just half of the schools lessons, the core knowledge program is flexible -- permitting teachers to tailor studies to local interests.

Hirsch's approach runs counter to the so-called "progressive" theories of educator John Dewey, who emphasized concentrating on learning skills rather than imparting knowledge. Dewey's theories are still very influential in education, but Hirsch believes that content-based education is what low-income children need most.

Children from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to have parents who make up for inadequate education, he says.

Source: Matthew Robinson, "What Should Students Learn," Investor's Business Daily, April 11, 1997.


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