Getting the facts about education

The Education Beat

Curriculum: A content- based teaching program butts heads with its process-based competition.

March 29, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S A STORY without a happy ending.

In the beginning, back in 1994, a string of elementary schools in Maryland -- with seed money from the Abell Foundation -- established the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a rich course of studies that has first-graders learning about Egyptian history and fourth-graders studying medieval China.

Developed by University of Virginia Professor E. D. Hirsch and based on his study of cultural literacy, Core Knowledge is now taught in approximately 1,000 schools nationwide. It's the closest thing to a curriculum of specific knowledge in American schools, and it's as rich as crab soup. Properly taught by teachers who know what they're doing, Core Knowledge demonstrates what children are capable of at astonishingly young ages.

FOR THE RECORD - Last week's column reported on a five-year study of Core Knowledge, a rich, knowledge- laden curriculum in place in a network of Maryland elementary and middle schools. But because the researchers from the Johns Hopkins University identified neither the schools in the study nor their district, the job of being specific was mine, based on my knowledge of the program. In the Hopkins report, a principal of "School A" was criticized by a district associate superintendent for focusing "too much on content and not enough on process." I said the school is in Baltimore County. It isn't. Sue Torr, former principal of Catonsville Elementary School, the only Core Knowledge school in Baltimore County, tells me county officials were supportive and enthusiastic. Moreover, Catonsville's scores in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program have soared.

"We did a national study of Core Knowledge," says Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and member of the Baltimore school board. "One inner-city school in San Antonio was jaw-dropping. I thought, `This is what education is supposed to be about.' "

Core Knowledge in Maryland, however, was in trouble from the start. It came up against a much more powerful rival that started officially in 1993: the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

Content vs. process

That brought content and process together in the same schools, and there wasn't room for both. If Core Knowledge requires third-graders to learn about the Pueblo Indians, among hundreds of other specific bits of knowledge in social studies, MSPAP has third-graders "gathering, interpreting and explaining information, demonstrating positive self-concept and empathy toward others, and expressing appropriate understanding and attitudes," according to Stringfield's report.

Because officials of the Abell Foundation had been frustrated over the steady stream of "innovations" that had come and gone without long-term evaluation, the foundation's funding for the Core Knowledge experiment came with the insistence that it be thoroughly analyzed. Stringfield and two fellow researchers got the contract, and last month they issued their final report covering five years.

The report's conclusions are couched in academic language: "While one of the Core Knowledge schools in this study has been particularly successful in accomplishing this integration between Core Knowledge curriculum and the performance outcomes tested on the MSPAP, this task of integration has proved particularly challenging to the others."

Translation: Rural Vienna Elementary School in Dorchester County proves a school can excel at Core Knowledge and MSPAP. But MSPAP ate into Core Knowledge at the other schools studied. "Our study suggests that it is difficult but indeed possible to sustain Core Knowledge in a high-stakes testing state," Stringfield and his colleagues conclude.

This is a sad story because nearly everyone in the Hopkins study praised Core Knowledge for its richness and depth. One teacher told the Hopkins researchers, "It's the best curriculum overall that I have worked with in 28 years."

But even though Core Knowledge was never designed to be used more than half of the school day, and even though it never specified how to teach, only what to teach, its demands usually gave way to the demands of MSPAP. As a result, Core Knowledge was weakened and, in the case of Lyndhurst Elementary in West Baltimore, discarded.

Keys to success

Vienna Elementary succeeded, the report says, because it had a stable staff and an enthusiastic and supportive principal, Frederic Hildenbrand. Moreover, when MSPAP scores dipped, Dorchester officials didn't overreact and order resources transferred.

"Sometimes it helps to be left alone," says Stringfield. "This principal turned his school into a poster child for wonderful education." (Hildenbrand confirmed that his school was one of those studied. Neither Stringfield nor the Hopkins report identifies schools.)

But most principals don't have that luxury. Their jobs may depend on MSPAP scores. One Baltimore County elementary school principal said a newly appointed associate superintendent for instruction told her after visiting her school for the first time: "I think you focus too much on content, and not enough on process."

When I wrote a news article about Core Knowledge two months ago, the first caller to praise the program was state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Grasmick reminded me that she had been one of the program's original supporters, and she said she remained one.

MSPAP and Core Knowledge aren't incompatible, Grasmick insisted. Process can be put to the service of content; knowledge can be integrated with performance. Vienna Elementary is the proof of that, Grasmick said.

But when you hear of principals being upbraided for requiring too much content, you want to tear your hair out.

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