Soundings

Charles Upton Sahm
Cutting to the Core
New York makes encouraging moves toward content-rich education.
Spring 2013

On February 28, the New York City Department of Education released a list of recommended curricula for elementary and middle schools looking to align their instruction with the Common Core State Standards. These standards, which 45 states have adopted, don’t constitute a curriculum themselves. Instead, they delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. It’s up to school districts to devise curricula that live up to the standards.

The DOE’s recommended English language arts curricula were particularly noteworthy. A program once required in all city schools, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop, was conspicuously missing. One of its replacements was the content-rich Core Knowledge literacy program, based on the work of education scholar E. D. Hirsch, which combines systematic phonics-based reading instruction with texts that build students’ vocabulary and background subject knowledge.

That change is something to celebrate. The Teachers College program and other “balanced-literacy” curricula—which make scant use of phonics and care less about background knowledge than about children’s supposedly natural language acquisition—have done little to boost reading scores, while Core Knowledge has already shown that it can deliver results. To his great credit, in 2008, city schools chancellor Joel Klein kicked off an experiment in ten schools, introducing the Core Knowledge reading program in kindergarten and the first and second grades. Klein matched these schools with demographically similar ones that used the dominant balanced-literacy program. After three years, city-commissioned studies compared the results from both cohorts and found that the Core Knowledge kids had made reading gains at least twice those of the students in the balanced-literacy group (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

As education scholars Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst note in Choosing Blindly, a Brookings Institution report, it’s hard to overstate the importance of using the right curriculum. The choice of instructional materials can have as great an impact on student achievement as teacher quality and accountability, parental choice, and such innovations as charter schools—recent focal points of education reform. All of these can improve public education, but too little attention has been paid to curriculum, say Chingos and Whitehurst: “It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.”

That appears to be changing. As curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute notes, “New York City seems to be waking up to the fact that curriculum is the missing piece of the education reform puzzle.” Even City Journal’s Sol Stern, a tough critic of the city’s schools who has long called for the replacement of balanced literacy with content-rich curricula, is impressed. “I congratulate the DOE,” says Stern. “It’s good to see that the city’s education officials are making sound curricular decisions based on empirical evidence.”

In recommending Core Knowledge citywide, New York has followed the lead of the state’s education department, which last year hired Core Knowledge to devise a new K–2 state reading curriculum that’s available to any school free of charge. So at both the state and local levels, New York is off to a good start in reforming curricula. That’s great news for school reformers—and most of all, for New York’s kids.

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