4 minute read

School Curriculum

Core Knowledge Curriculum

More properly termed "the Core Knowledge Sequence," Core Knowledge is a grade-by-grade specification of topics in history, geography, literature, visual art, music, language, science, and mathematatics for grades pre-kindergarten through eight. These topics are set forth with some specificity in a publication called The Core Knowledge Sequence, available from the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation.

The following is an example of the sequence in grade two history and geography:

  • II. Early Civilizations: Asia
  • A. Geography of Asia
  • 1. The largest continent with the most populous countries in the world
  • 2. Locate: China, India, Japan
  • B. India
  • 1. Indus River and Ganges River
  • 2. Hinduism
  • a. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
  • b. Many holy books, including the Rig Veda
  • 3. Buddhism
  • a. Prince Siddhartha becomes Buddha, "The Enlightened One"
  • b. Buddhism begins as an outgrowth of Hinduism in India, then spreads through many countries in Asia
  • c. King Asoka (also spelled Ashoka)

This example illustrates the specificity and the selectivity of the sequence, as well as its unique feature of providing solid content in the primary grades.

The selectivity of the sequence is partly a result of expert consensus on the importance of topics within a domain, but is mainly determined by whether or not this knowledge tends to be taken for granted in books addressed to a general reader, and whether or not it tends to be possessed by the top economic tier of U.S. society, but not by the bottom economic tier. The sequence is premised on the belief that if schools teach this enabling knowledge, the knowledge gap and the related income gap between the lowest and highest economic groups would be reduced.

The contents of the sequence have evolved as the result of field testing and consensus building, starting in March 1990, with a conference of some 150 teachers, scholars, and administrators meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Goals of the Core Knowledge Curriculum

The basic goals of the Core Knowledge Curriculum are congruent with the basic goals of education in a democracy: fostering autonomous and knowledgeable citizens, giving every person an equal chance, and fostering community. These basic goals are intertwined, and all of them depend upon shared knowledge. The acquired abilities that give people an equal chance in life are the same abilities that make for autonomous citizens and a cohesive society. That is because the ability to communicate and to learn is based upon the same foundation of shared knowledge as the ability to earn a living and to vote intelligently, as well as to communicate with fellow citizens. The founding theory of the Core Knowledge Curriculum was that an inventory of this shared knowledge could be taken, and that imparting this knowledge to all rather than a few would foster all the democratic aims (including the equity aims) of public education.

Assessments of Effectiveness

Where Core Knowledge is implemented, the effects on achievement and equity have been highly significant both statistically and from the standpoint of effect size. The most important studies of actual school effects include a three-year study conducted by a team from Johns Hopkins University, and a large-scale study conducted by the Oklahoma City public schools. In the Hopkins report, "the gain difference on standardized tests between low and high implementing schools varied from 8.83 NCEs to 16.28 NCEs. That is an average rise of about 12 NCEs (similar to percentile points) over the controls, more than half a standard deviation–a very significant gain" (p. 26). (NCEs are Normal Curve Equivalents, a way of measuring where students fall along the normal curve when the mean is 50 and the standard deviation is 21.06.) The Oklahoma City study analyzed the effects of implementing one year of Core Knowledge in grades three, four, and five using the well-validated Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The study paired some 300 Core Knowledge students with 300 students not in the Core Knowledge program that had the same characteristics on seven variables:

  1. Grade level
  2. Pre-score
  3. Sex
  4. Race/ethnicity
  5. Free-lunch eligibility
  6. Title I eligibility
  7. Special-education eligibility

Given the precise matching of these 300 pairs of students, the expectation would be that the end-of-year results of both groups would continue to be similar on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. But, in fact, the Core Knowledge students made significantly greater one-year gains in reading comprehension, vocabulary, science, mathematics concepts, and social studies. The greatest gains–in reading, vocabulary, and social studies–were computed to be statistically highly significant. The vocabulary gain was especially notable, because vocabulary is the single best predictor of academic achievement and the area where the gap between ethnic and racial groups has proved to be especially difficult to overcome.



CUNNINGHAM, ANNE E., and STANOVICH, KEITH E. 1997. "Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later." Developmental Psychology 33 (6):934–945.

HOFSTETTER, C. RICHARD; STICHT, THOMAS G.; and HOFSTETTER, CAROLYN HUIE. 1999. "Knowledge Literacy, and Power." Communication Research 26 (February):58–80.

KOSMOSKI, GEORGIA J.; GAY, GENEVA; and VOCKELL, EDWARD L. 1990. "Cultural Literacy and Academic Achievement." Journal of Experimental Education 58 (4):265–272.

PENTONY, JOSEPH F. 1992. "Cultural Literacy: A Concurrent Validation." Educational and Psychological Measurement 52 (4):967–972.

PENTONY, JOSEPH F. 1997. "Cultural Literacy." Adult Basic Education 7 (1):39–45.

STANOVICH, KEITH E.; WEST, RICHARD F.; and Harrison, Michele R. 1995. "Knowledge Growth and Maintenance across the Life Span." Developmental Psychology 31 (September):811–826.


CORE KNOWLEDGE FOUNDATION. 1999. The Core Knowledge Sequence. Charlottesville, VA: Core Knowledge Foundation. <www.coreknowledge.org>.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence courseSchool Curriculum - Core Knowledge Curriculum, Hidden Curriculum - OVERVIEW