Core Knowledge

I have been listening to an audiobook by Daisy Christodoulou titled the Seven Myths of Education. The central thesis of all of Daisy’s recent work is that K-12 school students need to learn from a core knowledge curriculum. What she means is that the emphasis in schools needs to shift away from generalized and vague competencies like critical thinking and problem-solving back to instructor-led teaching focused around a broad general knowledge of classical subject domains, such as English literature and history. Her position is grounded in a very large body of evidence. She’s very influenced by the work of E.D. Hirsch, Herbert Simon, and Paul Kirshner. Much of their research centers on cognitive load and the capacity of working memory.

Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to implement his ideas over 30 years ago. Those idea were implemented in hundreds of school districts, and the evidence is quite striking. By and large, students who learn from a properly implemented core knowledge curriculum perform more like their South Korean peers than like the average American public school student. Massachusetts actually implemented this approach statewide in the early 90s and adhered to it until around 2010. During this time, the achievement of students in that state was remarkable. Unfortunately, after adopting the common core standards in 2010, they reverted to a model of education that focuses on student discovery – an approach that has been shown over and over again to be ineffective for novice learners.

In this recent article by Hirsch, he makes a persuasive case for returning to an evidence-based approach to education:

But in 2010, the Bay State replaced academic content-rich standards with the content-empty, value-free Common Core. Most other states did the same, but the impact was particularly unfortunate in Massachusetts, where its former standards were a national model.

Since Common Core, NAEP fourth-grade reading scores have declined nearly a quarter of a point per year and eighth-grade reading scores are down by three times that much.

Last year the bottom fell out. Eighth-grade math scores fell three points since the last time NAEP was administered in 2017. Meanwhile, 15 of the jurisdictions tested showed improvement and 23 declined less than Massachusetts. A two-point drop in fourth-grade math was worse than 40 states and the District of Columbia.