The Affective, Academic and Professional Impacts of an Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence at a Southern California Lutheran School

Jun 14th, 2010 | Category: Elementary/Middle School Education, Featured, Research in Education
By Barbara Rene Valine Wheeler.

ABSTRACT

This mixed-methods study examined effects of implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence (CKS) in a southern California Lutheran school. The CKS is a sequence of academic content arranged by grade level for Grades Kindergarten through 8. The content builds on itself, year after year, relating new knowledge to the knowledge gained in previous years. The sequence indicates what must be taught at each grade but allows the teacher to choose teaching methods.

This study included interviews of teachers and classes, parent surveys, a standardized test score analysis, administration of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, analysis of enrollment records, and alumni surveys. Findings showed that the students had positive attitudes toward school in general and toward the subjects in which they scored highest on the standardized tests as a school. Data revealed that enrollment had increased significantly since shortly after the implementation of the CKS. The sampled teachers reported that their role in implementation of the CKS was related mostly to researching for background knowledge and deciding which methods to use to teach the content; the teachers also reported high levels of job satisfaction. The results of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale showed a correlation between students’ self-esteem and grade point average. Alumni reported high levels of academic achievement at this school and in high school; most had attended college. After college, these alumni had pursued or planned to pursue professional occupations. Parents who responded to their survey were very satisfied with the content of the CKS and their children’s learning experiences at this school. Although implementation of the CKS appeared to have some effect on student success, it is also possible that other factors, such as socioeconomic status, parental education, and parental support, influenced student success.

Background of the Problem

Core Knowledge as Rigorous Content

The Core Knowledge Sequence provides a sequential curriculum of challenging topics (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Johnson, Janisch, & Morgan-Fleming, 2001). Diverse groups, including parents, teachers, scientists, professional curriculum organiza­tion experts, and experts in multicultural traditions agreed on the initial content of the sequence. Later versions of the sequence were developed by panels of teachers. These versions were then edited by the nearly 100 people attending a 1990 national conference sponsored by the Core Knowledge Foundation (Hirsch, 1996). The intense sequence was finalized by teams of educators from three regions of the United States under the assumption that children are cognitively capable of under­stand­ing challenging concepts (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Hirsch, 2001). In fact, in the study by Johnson et al. (2001) the teachers reported that they were surprised that their students not only desired to study the topics from the Core Knowledge Sequence but were capable of learning the material.

Examples of Core Knowledge

According to the Core Knowledge Sequence, the teaching of history begins in kindergarten with such topics as Native Americans, early exploration and settlement, the presidents of the United States, and the seven continents. In the first grade students learn about the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mayas, the Incas, and the Aztecs, modern Mexico, and world religions. Further information on early exploration and settlement (to include the U.S. West) is taught, as well as the American Revolution. In the second grade students learn about the early civilizations of India, China, and Greece, modern Japan, the U.S. Constitution, the War of 1812, more on westward expansion, the Civil War, immigration and citizenship, civil rights, and the geography of the Americas. Third graders learn the geography of Canada, more on ancient Rome, the Vikings, the earliest Americans, early exploration of North America, and the 13 colonies. In the fourth grade students learn about mountains, Europe in the Middle Ages, the spread of Islam, the Holy Wars, early and medieval African kingdoms, Chinese dynasties and conquerors, the U.S. Revolution, the making of a constitutional government in the United States, early U.S. presidents and politics, and U.S. reformers (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999).

Challenging concepts continue into the upper grades. In the fifth grade students learn about Meso-American civilizations, European exploration, Renaissance and Reformation, England’s Golden Age and the Glorious Revolution, early growth and expansion of Russia, and feudal Japan. Fifth graders also learn more about westward expansion, the Civil War, Native Americans, and U.S. geography. In the sixth grade students learn about world deserts, the ancient Israelites, Greeks and Romans, Christianity, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, romanticism, industrialism, capitalism, socialism, and Latin American independence movements. They also learn about immigration, industrialism, and urbanization of the United States, as well as U.S. reform. Seventh graders learn about the United States as a world power, World War I, the “Roaring Twenties,” World War II, the geography of the United States, and the Russian revolution. In the eighth grade students learn about the decline of European colonialism, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the rise of social activism, the Middle East and oil politics, and more about the Constitution of the United States and the geography of Canada and Mexico (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999).

Statement of the Problem

Disadvantaged students can be defined as “persons who, because of restricted participation in the broader U.S. culture have developed characteristics which pose special problems for educators” (Froe, 1972, p. 121). Restricted participation in the broader U.S. culture may be attributed to socioeconomic status or a high level of participation in a minority culture, since affluent parents have the resources to extend their children’s education outside the classroom and increase their cultural literacy (Van Dorn, 2009). Disadvantaged high school students with native languages other than English are often placed in lower-level courses that prevent them from taking advanced classes and that render them unprepared for college coursework (Sharkey & Layzer, 2000). This lack of background knowledge, or cultural literacy, may hinder participation in U.S. corporate and political arenas (Hirsch, 1985).

The Core Knowledge Sequence describes what all students should learn at each grade level and in every subject area. The sequence does not dictate to teachers how to implement the sequence with particular teaching methods; rather, it organizes only what should be taught (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Datnow, Borman, Stringfield, Overman, & Castellano, 2003). The content of the Core Knowledge Sequence can be integrated into whole curriculum (Achievement Alliance, 2007).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to investigate affective, academic, and professional impacts on parents, students, and teachers of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence in a single Lutheran elementary school in southern California (herein the “target school” ). The impacts of the Core Knowledge Sequence on students’ academic achievement, teachers’ methodologies, teachers’ perceptions of job satisfaction, and students’ and parents’ perceptions of content and attitudes toward learning were also explored. This descriptive research study explored the impacts of Core Knowledge on selected aspects of education by addressing the following research questions.

Primary Questions

  1. What is the relationship between the students’ attitudes toward a Core Knowledge school and their academic achievement?
  2. What are the enrollment trends since the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence? (The researcher had the convenience of reviewing these data because of her relationship with the target school; this information served as part of the triangulation of data.)
  3. What role does a teacher play in the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence with regard to changes in their teaching strategies?
  4. Are there any changes in a teacher’s teaching strategies after implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence?
  5. How do teachers rate their professional satisfaction as individuals and as a whole school faculty after implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence?

Secondary Questions

  1. What is the nature of student self-esteem in a Core Knowledge school, as perceived by the students and by their teachers at this school?
  2. To what degree is elementary school success with Core Knowledge at this school a predictor of future academic success?
  3. To what degree is elementary school success with Core Knowledge at this school a predictor of occupational plans, options, and decisions?
  4. What are the parents’ perceptions of the quality of the Core Knowledge academic content and student learning experiences with Core Knowledge after the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence at this school?

Review of Relevant Literature

Lack of a National Core Curriculum

The United States does not have a nationwide core curriculum. Nations that adopt core curricula beginning in the early grades do so based on an understanding that learning leads to further learning. Nations such as France and Japan that have national core curricula also have students who academically achieve significantly higher than those in the United States. There is greater academic equity among students who experience national curricula (Hirsch, 2001; Simola, 2005).

Hirsch was not the only one calling for national curriculum/specific standards. Former President Clinton (Izumi, 1997; Paul, 1999), President Barack Obama (Education News, 2009), U.S. Secretary of Education Ame Duncan (Education News), the National Governors Association (Bishop, 1997; Hoff, 2009; Swift, 2009), the Council of Great City Schools (Hoff), the National Association of Secondary School Principals (Hoff), American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (Hoff; Swift), the Council of Chief of State School Officers (Education News, 2009), former IBM President Mike Lou Gerstner (Petrilli, 2008), and others have all taken positions in favor of specific nationalized standards/curriculum. They present many reasons for wanting to nationalize education, including the idea that nationalizing education is an effective means by which the federal government can handle foreign aggression (Thompson, 1997). It has been proposed that nationalizing education is necessary for citizens of the United States to compete globally (Education News; Thompson). In the current state of the U.S. economy, nationalizing education makes economic sense because education and testing would be streamlined and consistent across the nation.

Lack of Student Preparation

In their book The Learning Gap Stevenson and Stigler (1992) offered opinions on the main issues currently facing U.S. teachers. It was their opinion that the greatest issue facing teachers was the lack of student preparation. Every year students were entering into a new grade without the necessary knowledge or skills to succeed. The lack of specific standards dictating the field of education renders instruction in the United States ineffective and continues a downward spiral of academic achievement, with the exception of mathematics, where standards have been slowly improving (Hirsch, 2008a). The lack of specific state standards is a direct result of the Progressive movement in the United States, which called for a rejection of traditional education. The idea behind Progressive education was that children should direct their own learning and that the teacher should merely facilitate that learning; there should be no set curriculum or content. State standards were intentionally written vaguely to continue to promote Progressive education. This has contributed to the decline in learning in the United States (Hirsch, 2006c).

Lack of Rigorous Content

Another factor in U.S. schools that has negatively impacted student achievement is a lack of rigorous content (Alexander, 1997; Callahan, 2005; Forgione, 1998; Jago, 2001; Tatsuoka, Corter, & Tatsuoka, 2004). U.S. students leave school minimally prepared for college (Forgione). As Commissioner of Education Statistics, Forgione noted that most countries introduce algebra to their students before high school, while in the United States only 25% of students take algebra before high school. Ninety percent of U.S. students stop taking mathematics courses without studying calculus.

Tatsuoka et al. (2004) found that countries that were high achieving on the eighth-grade TIMSS 99 (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) mathematics assessment did so through various means. Some students from high-achieving nations showed excellence in reading and computational skills, others showed extensive higher-level thinking skills, others had great command of fractions and proportional reasoning skills, and still others excelled in balanced knowledge and processing skills. Those countries, including the United States, that did not achieve highly on the TIMSS 99 test were weak in higher-level mathematical thinking skills and did not perform well in geometry. Geometry is related to proportional reasoning, application of knowledge, concepts and properties, and managing data and processing skills (Tatsuoka et al.).

Teaching to the Test

The demand for increased student performance leads teachers to ignore the options of curricular reforms involving rich content in favor of drilling to prepare for achievement testing (Desimone, 2002). Teaching specifically in preparation for standardized tests is a common practice in U.S. public schools (Hirsch, 2008a). The results of these tests show that using the majority of classroom instruction time to teach to the test is an ineffective means for raising test scores. What teaching to the test accomplishes is a reduction in the amount of classroom instruction time dedicated to the teaching of history, science, and art (Hirsch, 2008a).

Specific Content Standards and Academic Success in the United States

Hirsch (2008b) and his colleagues have asserted that, in order for education to improve in the United States, states must have specific content standards, teacher training programs must train teachers to instruct the specific content, tests should test only the specific content, and teaching materials should be relevant to the specific content, not the vague state standards that continue to support progressive education. These materials must specify what the teachers should be teaching but allow the teachers to teach in a manner that they select to be appropriate for their classes.

Thompson (1997) agreed with Hirsch, maintaining that there should be national standards, tests, and available resources for students to be successful under national education. He contended that states’ participation in national testing should be optional initially, as full implementation of the new standards would require time. Former head of IBM Lou Gerstner agreed that there should be a national set of standards for a core curriculum in Grades Kindergarten through 12, as well as annual testing of third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth graders against national standards, not against each other. Gerstner maintained that national teaching certification should be implemented (Petrilli, 2008).

Education and Quality of Life

According to the Longitudinal Survey of Youth, there is a high correlation between adult reading scores and life opportunities for success. Ultimately, in the United States, higher scores on reading tests indicate that one is likely to avoid incarceration and have a higher income (Bills, 2003; Hauser, Warren, Huang, & Carter, 1996; Hirsch, 2006b). To compete in the job market, educational credentials and cognitive skill are important (Bills; Kane & Rousse, 1995; Krueger, 1993). Seventy percent of prisoners nationwide scored in the two lowest literacy levels on the National Adult Literacy Survey; 51% of prisoners nationwide had completed high school or met a graduate equivalent requirement, compared to 76% of the general U.S. population (Minnesota Literacy Council, 2004). A college diploma practically guarantees a graduate entrance into a nonmanual career field. This is the trend, regardless of the apparent academic ability of the graduate and his/her social class background. Higher education is a vehicle for social mobility under these combined conditions: graduation from college, academic ability, and the extent to which these two variables contribute to the individual’s achievement in the particular occupation. Low academic ability college graduates are more able to find a job than high academic ability school dropouts (Eckland, 1965).

The Core Knowledge Sequence

To counteract the disturbing trend of academic decline, Hirsch (1987) proposed the Core Knowledge Sequence. This rigorous content was designed to teach young children the essential background information for being a literate and educated member of U.S. society, with the background knowledge necessary for successful functioning and further learning. The Core Knowledge Sequence is designed to make students culturally literate. In Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy (1987) he explained and defended his idea of cultural literacy and provided evidence to support the idea that U.S. schools should educate students into that type of literacy. The text ends with an initial list of items that Hirsch considered important for a culturally literate person in the United States to know.

The Core Knowledge Sequence provides a sequential curriculum of challenging topics (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Johnson, Janisch, & Morgan-Fleming, 2001). Diverse groups, including parents, teacher, scientists, professional curriculum organization experts, and experts in multicultural traditions agreed on the initial content of the sequence. Later versions of the sequence were developed by panels of teachers. These versions were then edited by the nearly 100 people attending a 1990 national conference sponsored by the Core Knowledge Foundation (Hirsch, 1996).

The intense sequence was finalized by teams of educators from three regions of the United States under the assumption that children are cognitively capable of understanding challenging concepts (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Hirsch, 2001). In fact, in the study by Johnson et al. the teachers reported that they were surprised that their students not only desired to study the topics from the Core Knowledge Sequence but were capable of learning the material.

Core Knowledge and Learning

Hirsch (2001) asserted that, in order to acquire new knowledge, one must already possess some general knowledge about the subject. This can be referred to as domain knowledge (Tobias, 1994). According to Hirsch (2001), the positive correlation between learning ability and general knowledge is twice that of learning ability and socioeconomic status. To Hirsch, acquiring new knowledge is much like reading a journal article. The abstract gives the reader a broad understanding of what is in the article, allowing the reader to connect the more specific information in the body of the article. The Core Knowledge Sequence presents content in a spiral formation. The content learned each year prepares the student for the content that he or she will learn in the following year(s). What is learned previously becomes the background knowledge for future learning. Thus, the student is more able to learn and may have a positive attitude toward learning about something with which he or she is familiar (Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999; Shapiro, 2004). Once children find themselves capable of learning challenging content, they put forth more effort in their studies (Middleton & Spanias, 1999) and learning becomes more enjoyable (Achievement Alliance, 2007; Core Knowledge Research, 2004).

Core Knowledge Implementation

Successful Implementation

McHugh and Stringfield (1999) found that the successful implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence relied on a very involved implementation leader. In addition, continued financing was essential to long-term implementation and maintenance of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Teacher planning time also played a major role in optimal implementation and is mandated by the Core Knowledge Foundation (Van Ness, 2008). The importance of abundant planning time for school curriculum reform was supported by Desimone (2002), who reported that schools with more teacher planning time had higher levels of reform implementation. The provision of ample planning time for teachers indicates that school reform is important to the school administration and increases the level of the normative and individual authority of the policy (Desimone, 2002). McHugh and Stringfield found that, even in the 3rd year of implementation, teachers averaged 4 hours per week either developing or revising curriculum related to the Core Knowledge Sequence. Also, 49% of the teachers in the study reported using teacher-created materials most often in the teaching of the Core Knowledge content. This illustrates that planning and preparation time is necessary for teachers to fully and continually implement the Core Knowledge Sequence (Desimone; Gadd, 1995b). Desimone stated that lack of planning time is one of the main causes of limited implementation of comprehensive school reform.

In Datnow’s (2000) study of multiple school implementations of comprehensive school reform data on the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence were gathered at two schools. Evidence revealed that principal leadership and teacher buy-in were necessary for successful implementation of comprehensive school reform in general and the Core Knowledge Sequence in particular (Datnow; Desimone, 2002).

In that study (Datnow, 2000), the principal received a copy of the Core Knowledge Sequence from a fellow principal. Copies of the Core Knowledge Sequence were distributed to the staff the first year, with an invitation to develop and teach sample lessons. By the following year, after a vote, the Core Knowledge Sequence was adopted as the model of comprehensive school reform to be implemented at this school. Because not all teachers immediately agreed to the Core Knowledge philosophy, teachers had to vote more than once until the desired majority voted in favor of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. The lack of immediate and complete support of Core Knowledge by the teachers created tension among staff members who initially supported Core Knowledge and those who were slow to accept and approve the new reform (Datnow).

In the end, the majority of the teachers at one school accepted the Core Knowledge Sequence for their curriculum. Some teachers who did not implement the sequence into their classroom instruction excused their behavior by rationalizing that the Core Knowledge Sequence was designed to make up only 50% of the content taught in the classroom. Due to the acceptance of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence by the teachers and the leadership of the principal, this school maintained implementation for over 6 years. As a result of the data, Datnow (2000) concluded that perhaps the method of introduction and adoption of a comprehensive school reform is important to the implementation and longevity of the program.

Obstacles to Implementation

In a 3-year analysis of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence in Maryland, McHugh and Stringfield (1999) identified many factors that negatively impacted optimal implementation of Core Knowledge. At the time of the study, there were no specific supporting textbooks, materials, plans, or teaching strategies for the Core Knowledge Sequence. As a result, teachers had to gather or create these vital teaching items independently. This took time and effort on the part of the teachers, who also found it difficult to find age-appropriate teaching materials that would support the complex topics in the sequence.

Desimone (2002) asserted that teachers at different levels may need different levels of implementation assistance when instituting curriculum reform in their classrooms. An expert teacher may need very little support during the implementation phases of curricular reform because her classroom autonomy level may be very high. The average teacher may need more specificity to balance autonomy when implementing an educational reform. Gadd (1995a) concluded that intensive training of teachers as experts in the Core Knowledge Sequence content was necessary for successful implementation. The results of her study indicated the need for teachers to attend training sessions and workshops designed by other successful Core Knowledge schools.

Two other intertwined issues prohibited optimal implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence: the mandate to teach district curricula and expectations to teach to a standardized test (McHugh & Stringfield, 1999). Desimone (2002) stated that a comprehensive school reform may be difficult to accomplish when school reform choices conflict with state reform demands. This idea was supported by a study of more than 300 case studies by Stringfield and Datnow (2002). McHugh and Stringfield concluded that teaching district-mandated curricula and teaching for standardized testing left little time for teaching the Core Knowledge Sequence. Desimone indicated that other studies, such as those by Bodilly and Berends, had reached similar conclusions. In desperation, some teachers found a way to use the sequence as a means to prepare students for the standardized tests (McHugh & Stringfield).

Teacher turnover seemed to be an issue in optimal implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Gadd (1995b) concluded that intensive training of teachers as experts in the Core Knowledge Sequence content was necessary for successful implementation. However, McHugh and Stringfield (1999) found that, without a specific plan for training newly hired teachers, new hires often received no guidance for teaching the Core Knowledge Sequence. Any guidance that the teachers received became the unofficial responsibility of the veteran teachers. Similar situations arose when teachers changed grades. Other issues included lack of planning time and the difficulty of teaching Core Knowledge to split grades.

The Achievement Gap

The term achievement gap refers to differences in academic performance, as measured by test scores or graduation rates, between groups of students (Palasek, 2003). Hirsch posited that the Core Knowledge Sequence would have the most positive academic impact on disadvantaged students (Shields, 1992). As disadvantaged children progressed through the grade levels, the gap between their achievement and the achievement of their advantaged counterparts widened (Ireson & Hallam, 1999; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). In France and Germany, with national curricula, the gap narrowed through the grade levels (“Common Knowledge,” 1992).

The Core Knowledge Sequence has been implemented successfully in numerous school settings: urban, rural areas, public, Title I schools, private, parochial, charter, and magnet schools. The student populations of these schools include disadvantaged students, minority students, and English language learning (ELL) students (Van Ness, 2008). The student population of Oklahoma City Public Schools is made up of 39% African American, 36% European American, 18% Hispanic, 5% Asian American, and 2% Native American students. After implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence, these students made significant or highly significant gains in reading comprehension, vocabulary, language usage, mathematics concepts, mathematics computation, and social studies on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). On criterion-referenced tests in reading, history, and geography the Core Knowledge students outscored non-Core Knowledge cohorts (Core Knowledge Research, 2004).

The Osmond A. Church Elementary School in Queens, New York, had a student population of about 1,000 students. This student population was made up of 40% African American, 23% Latino, and 33% Asian students. Over 90% of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Almost 200 of the students were from homeless shelters in 2005 and 2006. Prior to implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence in 2000, Osmond A. Church Elementary School was considered a marginal school. In 2002, 60% of the students were failing third grade. By 2007, the students at this school demonstrated higher proficiency rates than the state average and much higher proficiency rates than those of students in New York City (Achievement Alliance, 2007).

Causes of the Achievement Gap

Students’ limited access to knowledge outside of the school setting contributes to the achievement gap. Advantaged children live rich lives, full of experiences that lead to learning (Hirsch, 2006a; Tatsuoka et al., 2004). Advantaged children have more access to computers, the Internet, and good literature, as well as a wealth of other learning experiences outside of school (Hirsch, 2006a). Advantaged children receive adequate reading instruction in the home (Berger, 2003), so they are able to make more connections to what is being taught in the classroom. Advantaged children are more likely to see relevance to what they are learning in the classroom. As a result, these students score better on standardized tests, apparently due to the cultural knowledge included on these tests (Hirsch, 1985).

Alexander (1997) asserted that academic performance is impacted more by what students do during their leisure time than during public school instruction. The issue is primarily how much time a student spends in reading for pleasure. In the late 1970s, 60% of high school students read daily for pleasure; by 1988, this figure had declined to 45%. Alexander posited that this may account for the decline in adult vocabulary levels over time and for reasons why student vocabulary has not increased in relation to the amount of education that students receive. He suggested that increases in television viewing may be to blame for the decline in reading for pleasure in the United States.

Sirin (2005), in a review of studies published between 1990 and 2000, agreed with Alexander (1997) that family domain affects academic achievement, perhaps even cumulatively, as the student progresses through the grade levels in the United States. For Sirin, family domain, in the form of a student’s socioeconomic status, is one of the strongest factors associated with academic achievement (Hursh, 2005). The relationship between these two factors increased over time from elementary school through middle school (Sirin). Ultimately, a student’s socioeconomic status determines outside educational resources and indirectly determines a school’s funding, which is determined by property taxes. Unfortunately, although the state compensates for the lack of school funding in low socioeconomic areas, this funding is inadequate for creating educational equity (Joseph, 1996; Sirin). Socioeconomic status impacts the relationship between school personnel and parents. Sirin also noted that socioeconomic factors were more strongly related to White students than minorities and agreed with Alexander’s ideas that neighborhood factors may have a more significant impact on African American students than socioeconomic status. These factors, outside of public education, indicate that comparisons of standardized test results across the nation are unfair because it is impossible to separate school factors from non-school factors that impact academic achievement (Linn, 2000).

Standardized Testing and the Achievement Gap

Although no specific national standardized test has been devised, mandatory testing was legislated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act (Hursh, 2005). The exact type and nature of the test was left up to individual states to decide (Sloane & Kelly, 2003). The move toward standardized testing was supported by the following arguments: It is a necessity in a global economy, educational inequality will be reduced, and assessment objectivity will increase. These goals have not been achieved and the educational inequity is increasing (Hursh).

One of the major issues with standardized testing is that measurement of two important goals in education is attempted with one test: (a) learning important content according to standards, and (b) the ranking of schools and students locally, statewide, and nationally. Standardized tests are primarily concerned with the latter (Sloane & Kelly, 2003).

Complaints against standardized testing began as early as the 1980s. During this era, standardized testing emphasized minimal competency levels and resulted in teaching directly to them instead of addressing the broader curriculum (Hursh, 2005; Sloane & Kelly, 2003). Haertel and Calfee (1983) disagreed with this approach. They contended that the ultimate goal of education is not to learn how to take tests, but rather that learning must generalize in order for students to function in the world. Today, one of the complaints against standardized testing is that it is implemented late in the school year, making the data useless for teachers to understand their students and plan instruction to meet their needs (Sloane & Kelly).

Advantaged students perform better on standardized tests because standardized test makers intentionally use questions relating to their life experiences beyond the classroom. These questions are built into a test to spread out the students’ test scores so the test results can be interpreted in a detailed and accurate way (Popham, 1999). Because disadvantaged students have reduced exposure to learning environments outside the classroom, they fail to achieve academically (Hirsch, 2006a). Standardized test scores reflect that the questions on a test are irrelevant to many parts of the home life experience of a disadvantaged child. The test results falsely evaluate the academic progress of some students (Bracey, 2006; Hursh, 2005; Sloane & Kelly, 2003). Unfortunately, in this case, test writers are counting on the fact that certain questions are beyond the realm of experience for some students, instead of assuming that relevancy exists, so that scores may be ranked (Bracey). These questions address knowledge obtained beyond the question that allows student scores to be spread along the scoring continuum so students can be ranked (Bracey). The goal of standardized testing is to rank students against other students academically, not to measure what each student has learned against a criterion, such as state standards (Sloane & Kelly).

Core Knowledge and Narrowing the Achievement Gap

According to the theory behind the Core Knowledge Sequence, students learning the sequence should exhibit gains in academic achievement due to an increase in general knowledge. In a study of Maryland schools (McHugh & Stringfield, 1999) it was found that Core Knowledge students had greater gains on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) than did students in the control schools and state averages. The largest gains were in the area of reading comprehension. On the MSPAP the results were similar, with the greatest gains in social studies.

Baer (2003) found that students who attended Core Knowledge schools performed better on standardized tests. In San Antonio, Texas, fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary, after 7 years of experiencing the Core Knowledge Sequence, passed the state standardized reading test at a rate of 67%, compared to the 56% in the district’s other schools. This occurred despite the fact that one third of Hawthorne’s students spoke English as a second language (Summers, 1999).

The Core Knowledge Foundation (2000) reported that Grace Taylor and George Kimball studied 300 pairs of students in the Oklahoma City schools to evaluate their performance on the ITBS. These students were matched in areas of grade level, gender, ethnicity, and so forth. Each pair was made up of one Core Knowledge student and one non-Core Knowledge student. The Core Knowledge students made greater 1-year gains than their counterparts in reading comprehension, vocabulary, science, mathematics concepts, and social studies. The most significant gains were in reading, vocabulary, and social studies. This is particularly important because vocabulary is the single most accurate predictor of academic achievement (Core Knowledge Foundation, 2000).

Wedman and Waigandt (2004) reported a strong relationship between student performance and implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Students who experienced the Core Knowledge Sequence consistently exceeded national averages on standardized tests in reading, language, mathematics, social studies, environmental studies, and science. These results were not impacted by ethnicity, economic profile, or size of school attended. This study highlighted the advantage that Core Knowledge students had over their counterparts. The results may also indicate the positive effects of using the Core Knowledge Sequence for academic achievement that is cumulative and sustainable in nature.

Educational Impacts on Self-Esteem

Aspects of Self and Achievement

Many of the aforementioned factors that prevent academic achievement directly impact a student’s self-esteem and locus of control and ultimately increase the likelihood of lower academic success (Davies & Brember, 1999; Larned & Miller, 1979). Larned and Miller found associations among academic self-concept, academic self-esteem, and achievement. This relationship increased with each grade level as the student’s ability to accurately assess his or her academic abilities improved.

The more a student achieves, the more academic self-esteem may improve (Ross & Broh, 2000). Along with an improvement in self-esteem, an internal locus of control may develop (Stipek, 1993). An end result could be that the disadvantaged student may become more likely to stay in school and graduate from high school as a literate adult. At Three Oaks Elementary School, a Core Knowledge school, the principal noticed that, after 2 years of implementation, attendance increased, behavioral issues decreased, and the number of retentions declined (“Common Knowledge,” 1992).

Despite the fact that doing well in school increases self-esteem, high levels of self-esteem are not felt to be related to future academic achievement. Academic achievement and internal locus of control can combine to raise the level of academic success of students with low socioeconomic status (Ross & Broh, 2000). A child’s lack of academic performance in the grades prior to the eighth grade is indicative of an increased likelihood of dropping out of high school (Lan & Lanthier, 2003).

Learning Core Knowledge content may be related to locus of control in the sense that the effort that a person is willing to expend on a particular task is positively related to the amount of success that will be experienced through that task (Middleton & Spanias, 1999). The Core Knowledge content is challenging and the student may at first perceive it as difficult. However, the task difficulty increases the value of success (Brophy, 1987; Middleton & Spanias). It is intended that students will attribute their success to their effort, which will encourage them to continue to work hard academically and not give up (Middleton & Spanias).

Challenging Content and Student Enthusiasm

In a study by Johnson et al. (2001), when questioned by their teacher prior to a unit on Shakespeare, students responded that they were indeed ready, willing, and able to learn about Shakespeare; this is something that many students have no opportunity to learn until college. The result was that the students were interested in learning, enthusiastic about the content, produced quality work, showed initiative in assignments, and were proud of their work relating to the topic. Another teacher in the study had similar experiences with his students. The incoming students, during the second year of this study, were found to anticipate learning the content in the Core Knowledge units.

In the Datnow study (2000) teachers commented that the rich content of the Core Knowledge Sequence led the students to be interested and focused. Some felt that some of the topics in the Core Knowledge Sequence were not only challenging but in some cases inappropriate for the recommended grade level (Nathan, 1997).

Core Knowledge and the Teacher as Professional

Classroom Autonomy and Teacher Job Satisfaction

Kreis (2001) found that teacher job satisfaction was related to classroom autonomy. Parochial teachers reported that they had the most autonomy in the classroom because the teaching faculties of parochial schools usually share a philosophical commitment and a common mission. Parochial schools also tend to be smaller than public schools and have smaller administrations with less “directive” natures. Kreis noted that the absence of teacher unions enabled teachers in parochial schools to be more autonomous in their classrooms. Job satisfaction was impacted only by classroom autonomy, not by levels of autonomy outside the classroom.

In a study of 300 Florida teachers (Pearson & Moomaw, 2005) using the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) it was found that curricular autonomy decreased job stress. However, little relation between curricular autonomy and job satisfaction was found. Instead, increases in general teacher autonomy resulted in increased feelings of empowerment and professionalism, which in turn were associated with increased teacher job satisfaction. This general teaching autonomy was consistent with teachers’ need to control their work environment and to have decision-making authority that allowed them to stay committed to their profession. Curricular authority centered round the selection of activities and materials, instructional planning, and sequencing. That curricular authority had to do with content to be taught was not stated. This was also indicated in the Datnow et al. study in which a teacher indicated specifically that she felt that teachers resisted educational reforms that prescribed teaching methods. The study also found that Core Knowledge teachers felt empowered personally and professionally (Marshall, 1999).

Core Knowledge and Classroom Autonomy

Hirsch (1996) addressed the philosophy that teachers should make curricular decisions. He contended that decisions related to methods of teaching should be left to the teacher. He also claimed that holding individual teachers responsible for deciding what to teach is burdensome and is not conducive for cooperation among teachers, causing schools to lose sight of what is necessary to educate students fairly and effectively.

Core Knowledge teachers find the sequence liberating, not confining. Teachers can teach the rich content in the way that they choose. Teachers can collaborate. The sequence is designed to make up 50% of the content taught during the school year, allowing teachers to add what interests them or what they feel students need to complete the content for the year. Students need facts to think about critically and teachers should provide students with opportunities to apply content, question the facts, analyze them, and problem solve with them. The Core Knowledge Sequence provides the rich content conducive to the development of critical thinking skills.

A high level of classroom autonomy was evident in Datnow’s study of a successful implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence (Datnow, 2000). According to the data, the Core Knowledge Sequence seemed to enrich the professional lives of teachers. They took ownership over the units and activities that they developed. The research and development of their units and the actual teaching of those units added professionalism and enjoyment to their lives and increased the professionalism, collegiality, and team cohesion among the teaching staff members. Because the Core Knowledge Sequence did not instruct teachers on how to teach, the teachers became engaged in the intellectually stimulating activity of researching, learning, gathering materials, and making other preparations to teach.

Core Knowledge and Teacher Enthusiasm

According to Ireson and Hallam (1999), teachers prefer to teach to high-ability groups because the content is interesting and the students have positive attitudes. Teachers enjoy content that is not boring (Datnow, Borman, & Stringfield, 2000) and students also like to learn content that is interesting. Because the content of the Core Knowledge Sequence is rich, teachers typically find the research and study process for lesson planning to be interesting and even enjoyable. One teacher claimed that it was her students’ enthusiasm for learning that made the long hours of research worth it (Storm, 1993).

Another way to create teacher enthusiasm is through common teacher planning time. According to the results of a study by Gadd (1995b), teamwork and collaboration between teachers is not just essential to the successful implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence; it provides teachers with support and motivation. This collaboration by teachers gave them the strength and the desire to sustain their efforts throughout the school year.

Administrative Support and the Professional Teacher

The research indicated that principal support was necessary for successful school reform implementation (Desimone, 2002). In fact, Datnow (2000) reported that, in 7 of the 22 schools studied, the principal brought a plan for comprehensive school reform to the school and none of the schools had reform movements that were directed by the teachers. RAND did a series of studies and found that strong principal support of school reform was linked to greater implementation and higher student achievement than that found in schools without strong principal support (Berends, 2000; Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002; Bodilly, 1998; Bodilly & Berends, 1999; Kirby, Berends, & Naftel, 2001). Characteristics of supportive principals included supporting and encouraging the staff, obtaining resources for the school, and having confidence in the abilities of the teachers (Desimone). When principals support the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence, these elements may be impacted in a positive way and teacher productivity may increase, as well as teaching quality. According to Sergiovanni and Starratt, when these elements are strongly present, teachers can be expected to feel good about their jobs, teach well, and have a desire to do so in the future.

According to Davis and Wilson (2000), the more a principal empowers the teaching staff, the more likely those teachers will believe that they have options for implementation. These beliefs of professional respect and involvement may then be translated into higher levels of intrinsic motivation, greater job satisfaction, and significantly lower feelings of stress, which seem to be experienced more often by male teachers (at least on the island of Malta) than by female teachers, regardless of age or subject area (Borg & Riding, 1991).

Administrative Support and Successful Core Knowledge Implementation

Gadd (1995b) stated that strong administrative support is essential to optimal levels of Core Knowledge implementation. Principals must be part of the academic team. In addition to providing support and encouragement, they must monitor how implementation is progressing, analyze student work, and discuss pressing implementation issues with the faculty. Datnow (2000) reported that one of the schools in her sample failed to implement the program due, in large part, to the lack of administrative support.

Setting and Participants

The sample population for this study was a convenience sample derived from the students, parents, and faculty of a Lutheran elementary school in southern California. The school currently served 329 students in Kindergarten through Grade 8. The student population was approximately 75% Caucasian, less than 2% African American, 11% Asian, 7% Hispanic, less than 1% Native American, and 14% other. Approximately 25% of these children and their families attended the sponsoring church and approximately 26% were unchurched (i.e., not affiliated with or attending any particular church). Alumni of this school were also part of the convenience sample. At the time of the study the school administration consisted of one full-time and two part-time employees, who supervised 22 teachers. The average length of teacher’s experience was just about 6 years, ranging from 1 to 27 years. A majority of the teachers had teaching credentials or were currently completing them. Some of the teachers also held master’s degrees.

In addition to the community of the target school, available comparison data were collected from the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, in whose geographical area the school is located. There are 22 schools in this district. Also, available comparison data were collected from all 20 private schools in the city in which the target school is located that administer the SAT9 and/or the ITBS.

Sampling Plan

The samples for this study were convenience samples. The extent to which school records had current addresses for alumni and the number of alumni who had attended the target school from Kindergarten through Grade 8 determined the size of the alumni sample. The parent sample was comprised of parents who returned surveys.

Students were interviewed as a class, using an open discussion format. The classroom teacher was available to assist in determining that a majority of the class participated in the discussion. The students were convenience samples determined by the number of students in attendance on the day of the interview, minus those whose parents declined consent or did not return permission forms. For the same reasons, the students in Grades 6 through 8 who completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale constituted a convenience sample.

Teacher samples were convenience samples based on the numbers of teachers employed by the school. All faculty members and administrators were interviewed unless they declined to participate as indicated by not scheduling an interview.

The sample of student test scores was a convenience sample based on school records of students who had attended the school before and after implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. The sample of comparative testing data was a convenience sample based on the willingness of other schools to share their data and the compatibility of test versions for purposes of comparison.

Data Collection Methods

To collect data on the relationships between and among student attitudes toward school, students’ academic achievement, and student self-esteem, as perceived by the student and the teacher, modified focus groups were conducted. Interviewing the students was done as a class, with the assistance of the classroom teacher. Each focus group session lasted no longer than one class period (approximately 40 minutes). For younger students who had not yet mastered writing skills or who lacked adequate vocabulary, the interviewer asked the students to draw pictures to represent their feelings. The researcher provided the teacher with a copy of the audio transcription as an opportunity to make contextual comments that may be helpful in interpreting the data gathered.

Students in grades 6 through 8 completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Teachers participated in qualitative interviews regarding their professional satisfaction with the implementation of Core Knowledge. They were also questioned about their role in the implementation of Core Knowledge and its impact on their teaching practices and for student learning. To assess the academic success of alumni, a qualitative questionnaire was used. A mixed-methods qualitative and quantitative survey was administered to parents regarding their perceptions of the quality of the academic content being taught to their children, as well as their perceptions about their children’s learning experiences.

As recommended by Wedman and Waigandt (2004), the standardized test scores for this school from 1997 (2 years prior to the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence). This view of test scores prior to implementation enabled the researcher to establish a baseline of test score averages and trends for comparison to averages and trends after the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence.

Comparison data were derived from the Lutheran schools in the Southern California District that had administered the SAT9 and the ITBS during the same years that they were administered at the study target school. Comparison standardized test score data were also derived from Panama Buena Vista Union School District schools.

Enrollment records at the target school were evaluated to track the trends and patterns of enrollment since the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. These data were compared to enrollment trends of Panama Buena Vista Union School District and other Lutheran schools in the California/Nevada/Hawaii (CNH) District and Southern District.

Procedures

In October 2009 surveys regarding parental perceptions of their child’s experience with the Core Knowledge Sequence at the target school were sent to all 221 families whose children attended the school. Enclosed with the survey was a postage-paid return envelope for the convenience of the parents and to increase the number of surveys returned. The data from all returned surveys were analyzed in October and November 2009 for trends and/or themes regarding parental perceptions of their child’s academic experience at the school.

To collect data on the school’s alumni who had completed the entire program at this school, semiqualitative surveys were sent in October 2009 to the last known address of each alumni family. Included with the survey was a postage-paid return envelope for the convenience of the survey participants and to increase the number of returned surveys. These surveys provided data on the academic success of these students after they had left the school. The data were categorized and analyzed in November 2009 to reveal trends in alumni academic and employment success.

Other Lutheran schools in the California Nevada Hawaii district and public schools in the Panama Buena Vista District and other private schools were asked to provide enrollment records and standardized test score data. From October through November 2009 these data were analyzed to identify trends and patterns of enrollment and to compare test score data with the enrollment and test score data of the target school prior to and since the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Patterns of enrollment and scores were examined for increases, declines, and plateaus.

All student focus groups (Kindergarten through Grade 5) met on campus in November 2009. A written informed consent form was sent home with the students in October 2009. These focus groups sessions were conducted as whole-class discussions in which the students were asked about their attitudes toward school. Drawings were used to gather data from younger students (Kindergarten through Grade 2) who might have had inadequate vocabulary to express their thoughts. All focus group sessions were audio recorded and transcribed. Analysis of trends and themes was conducted in January 2010. The researcher sought to identify general feelings toward school expressed by the students and to identify anomalies, such as consensus of feelings by grade levels or differences between feelings in upper and lower grades or positive/negative feelings toward particular subject areas.

Students in Grades 6 through 8 completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale in October 2009. In analyzing these data (October 2009), the researcher sought a general understanding of the overall level of self-esteem of these students at this school and attempted to identify correlations between the data from the Rosenberg scale and the students’ grades.

Appointments were scheduled in December 2009 and January 2010 to meet with the teaching faculty individually for interviews. These interviews took place in available meeting rooms or classrooms. The teachers were interviewed qualitatively with regard to their role and responsibilities during the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence, their teaching strategies, and the impact of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. They were asked to describe the state of their professional satisfaction and its relationship to the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. Analysis of data for common trends and themes occurred in January 2010.

Conclusions

What Is the Relationship Between the Students’ Attitudes Toward a Core Knowledge School and Their Academic Achievement?

According to the data from the focus groups, mathematics was favored across grade levels. At each grade level there was a high level of favorability for mathematics; the percentage of students who favored mathematics ranged from 80% to 90%. The researcher noticed a gradual decline in the favorability of mathematics from kindergarten through second grade and then a gradual increase in favorability from third grade through fifth grade.

In every class from kindergarten through the second grade, mathematics was the first favorable subject that the students mentioned in the focus groups. It was not until the third grade that students began to mention other subjects as favorably. In the early grades there is a strong emphasis on mathematics and reading and other subjects are less distinct in the minds of the students. It seems the easiest to identify, whereas what makes a topic scientific or historical in nature may be more difficult for younger elementary students to define.

There was a consistent increase in the favorability of reading and literature in Grades 3 through 5. It was not until the third grade that classes began naming reading and literature among the academic subjects that they preferred. This may be caused by the fact that, for many students, by the third grade ready is fairly mastered and is now more of a tool than a chore. Perhaps by the third grade students were typically competent readers and can focus on the enjoyment of reading, which is why students consistently commented on reading beginning in third grade and why its favorability increased as the students progressed through grade levels.

There was a sharp increase in the favorability of history among students from third grade to fourth grade. That level of favorability was sustained in the fifth grade. This may be a result of the history classes being departmentalized in the fourth and fifth grades. This offers support that departmentalism may increase the students’ enjoyment of a subject as the teacher who volunteered to teach the subject in an extra period also enjoys the subject. The result may be that the teachers who are interested and enjoy teaching history the most are teaching history to these students. Their creativity, interest, and enthusiasm could be transferred to these students, increasing the favorability of this subject. Students did not begin to comment consistently on the favorability of history until the third grade.

The positive feelings toward certain subjects as described by the students in the focus groups are supported by analysis of standardized test scores. First, the students had positive things to say about what they were learning. This coincided with the generally high composite performance on standardized tests over the past 11 years. However, there was no evidence that the high standardized test performance was the result of attending a Core Knowledge school. In fact, the data suggested that attending a Lutheran school or attending a Core Knowledge Lutheran school made no difference in student-normed test score gains. This may support Hirsch’s idea that it is not the Core Knowledge Sequence that has to necessarily be taught in schools, but some type of sequence that is logical and builds on itself and is connected. Also, the fact that attending a private school and attending a private Core Knowledge school appeared to have little impact on student standardized achievement scores seemed to support the idea that the disadvantaged students suffer most because their economic status limits educational opportunities outside of the classroom, opportunities that advantaged students are able to experience.

The favorability of mathematics and reading coincided with the target school’s 2008 Blue Ribbon Status. In order to be awarded the Blue Ribbon Status, a school must have school-normed scores in mathematics and reading in the 90th percentile for several consecutive years. The fact that the students reportedly enjoyed mathematics and reading and scored well enough to win Blue Ribbon Status may indicate a connection between feelings about Core Knowledge and academic achievement.

Although an analysis of the standardized student-normed scores revealed inconsistent positive gains at Core Knowledge schools, it also revealed that the longer students remained in public education, the larger their achievement losses. This is supported by previous research. The achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students increases through the grades (Ireson & Hallum, 1999; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Public schools in California emphasize mathematics and reading in their elementary schools and yet the data showed continued declines in these subjects as public school students passed through the grade levels. The target school and other Core Knowledge schools and other private schools did not emphasize mathematics and reading but included all the other core subjects and many electives. It is perhaps a result of this that these students did not show such a decline in performance on standardized tests. This may substantiate the idea that California public schools are teaching children ineffectively, at least in the content areas of math and reading.

What Are the Enrollment Trends Since the Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence?

Overall, enrollment trends at the target school have been very positive since the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence in 1999. When compared to the percentage of population growth of the target city, the school’s percentage of population increase was much larger in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2008. In addition to the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence, this may be explained by the booming housing market in the area, as families of higher socioeconomic status move in and due to the fact that the school was becoming the only large private elementary school in the southwestern part of the target city, with newer facilities and smaller classes. According to the former principal, during this time, one of the other private schools in the target city changed facilities and administration, causing many of their students to enroll at the school.

Of the eight private Lutheran schools in this sample, the three Core Knowledge schools experienced a decline in enrollment immediately after implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence, followed by a generally steady increase in enrollment. The target school had the largest increase in enrollment from 2001 to the present. The implementation of the sequence in these schools may have been partly responsible for the immediate decrease in enrollment because change is difficult for some people. Parents who were not in favor of the curricular change may not have returned. Also, change may be perceived as a sign of instability, which may have caused some parents to move their children in the years following implementation. According to the former principal of the school, about the time of the implementation there was also a change in administration and a change in pastors, both changes not under favorable conditions. This upheaval may have caused a decline in enrollment. Once it became apparent that the church and the school were more stable and the school was offering a challenging curriculum, enrollment increased.

All of the other private Lutheran schools in this sample were in a state of declining enrollment, likely due to the decline in the economy. The fact that the Core Knowledge schools have been experiencing growth in recent years may be partly due to the content of the sequence taught to the students. If parents believe that their children will benefit from being educated at these Core Knowledge schools, perhaps they will make financial sacrifices to send their children to these schools despite the declining economy and the increased unemployment in California.

What Role Does a Teacher Play in the Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence With Regard to Changes in Teaching Strategies?

According to the teacher interviews, teaching strategies did not change very much during the implementation phase of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Instead of changes to teaching strategies, the teachers largely had to change how they prepared to teach. Some teachers had to decide how to bring the advanced Core Knowledge content down to the levels of their students. A challenge was to find age appropriate resources with which to teach students the Core Knowledge Sequence. Initially there were not as many resources available as there are today. Since 1999, when Lutheran schools in the CNH district began implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence, the Core Knowledge Foundation has published many more resources for teachers.

The principal during the period of implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence also stated that, for most teachers, adaptations to their teaching strategies were minimal and that many of the teachers had been teaching much of the Core Knowledge content, just at a different grade level than that prescribed by the sequence. Therefore, content was shuffled, so to speak, among the teachers. The fact that the teachers did not have to make many changes in their teaching styles at the point of the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence supports the idea that the sequence is a listing of topics per grade level. The sequence does not prescribe what methods should be used to teach the content. Therefore, teachers continued to teach in ways that made them feel comfortable and that were appropriate to their students’ ages and abilities.

Were There Changes in the Teachers’ Teaching Strategies After Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence?

Once the teachers implemented the Core Knowledge Sequence, not much changed in their teaching practices. However, the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence did lead to team planning. The administration had also recognized the need for team planning and scheduled time for this in lieu of a staff meeting once a month. The teachers had preparation periods that could be used to plan. Unfortunately, these periods are not coordinated between teachers at the same grade levels, so teachers could not meet and coordinate during these times. The combination of not enough scheduled time after school and the uncoordinated preparation time required teachers to continue to meet for planning and coordination of academic content and activities on their own time. Coordinating and organizing were logical adjustments to teaching for these Core Knowledge teachers. Many teachers stated that the Core Knowledge Sequence contained extensive material. Organizational tools, such the year-long plan and rearranging topics to fit the school calendar, were practical means of managing content throughout the school year.

Another teacher found it necessary to create assignments, tests, and quizzes for her students. The tools left to her by the previous teacher lacked sufficient activities. This teacher created new assessment tools. Other teachers reported similar changes. The former art teacher, who was currently teaching fifth grade, stated that, as the art teacher, she had to develop activities for students in kindergarten through eighth grade because her lessons did not include activities for the practice of art methodology. This is consistent with the former principal’s statement that the Core Knowledge Sequence was not fully implemented in a single year. It also supports the idea of the flexibility of the Core Knowledge Sequence in that the teachers can create their own units or add activities to existing units so as to suit the needs of the students.

How Do Teachers Rate Their Professional Satisfaction as Individuals and as a Whole School Faculty After Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence?

All of the interviewed teachers reported job satisfaction, due to interesting content, choice in activities, preparation time, departmentalization of content, and more. This group of teachers represented all grades, either through current or prior experience at the target school, so it seemed that their overall job satisfaction was positive. Teachers stated that choice of activities increased his job satisfaction. They also stated that the interesting content not only increased their job satisfaction but also raised their enthusiasm about teaching. The interesting content motivated teachers to learn the content of the sequence and find materials to support teaching those topics.

Teachers also found the interesting content relevant, which increased job satisfaction. One first-grade teacher who had taught in the public schools expressed much job satisfaction simply because she was not dealing with the bureaucracy on a daily basis. In her interview this teacher described a situation in which she wasted valuable time by stating all objectives and standards on lesson plans at the beginning of each lesson, documenting English Language Learning time, and so forth—a process that she described as jumping through hoops, which took her attention away from students’ needs. This is not the case at the target school. However, this lack of bureaucracy is inherent in private schools in general and not necessarily limited to private Core Knowledge schools. Private schools are not bound to state education regulations and do not need to spend valuable classroom time adhering to them.

What Is the Nature of Student Self-Esteem in a Core Knowledge School, as Perceived by the Students and by Their Teachers?

According to the analysis of the data collected from a sample of students in Grades 6, 7, and 8, there were significant correlations between self-esteem and grade point average (GPA), the number of years a student attended school and GPA, and self-esteem and GPA. This may indicate that the longer a student stays at the school, the higher his/her GPA may be. Consequently, the higher a student’s GPA, the higher a student’s self-esteem may be. By examining the common factors between these trends—GPA—it may be logical to conclude that academic achievement leads to high self-esteem. This supports earlier research that established that the more a student achieves, the more academic self-esteem may improve (Ross & Broh, 2000).

With regard to the positive relationship between the number of years a student attends the school and GPA, it would seem that, at the very least, this school’s environment in its entirety, including all who serve the students within it, has a positive effect on student academic achievement. Since the Core Knowledge curriculum is an element in this academic environment, it would seem that Core Knowledge has a positive effect on academic achievement, with respect to GPA. This supports previous research that there is a strong relationship between student performance and implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence (Wedman & Waigant, 2004).

To What Degree Is Elementary School Success With Core Knowledge at This School a Predictor of Future Academic Success?

All of the students at the target school prior to and during the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence had very good grades at the school and later in high school. These former students were reported to have taken advanced placement classes and college preparatory classes in high school when available. One of the students who attended prior to implementation and one who attended during implementation were also reported to have been a high school valedictorian.

All surveyed alumni who had attended the target school prior to and during Core Knowledge implementation and who could have attended college or were of age to be currently attending college had, in fact, done so, or were currently doing so. Some alumni indicated that they were pursuing, or considering pursuing, graduate studies. There was an apparent shift in type of college degrees sought between the alumni that attended prior to implementation and those that attended after implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. It appeared that those who had graduated from the school in 2000 or earlier had pursued more degrees in the sciences (three in the sciences and one in the arts), whereas those who had graduated from the school after 2000 had pursued more degrees in the arts (five in the arts and one in the sciences). This roughly coincides with the gradual implementation of Core Knowledge beginning in 1999.

To What Degree Is Elementary School Success With Core Knowledge at This School a Predictor of Occupational Plans, Options, and Decisions?

The occupations reported by graduate alumni and college student alumni who had attended the target school during the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence were largely white collar positions: military officer, pastry chef, chemical engineer, Lutheran school teacher, architect, and economics and government. Of the three alumni who had attended the school prior to the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence, two were pursing graduate work and one was a farmer. Both alumni samples were very small. Also, the target city is an agricultural city and it would not be unusual for college graduates to pursue farming careers.

What Are the Parents’ Perceptions of the Quality of the Core Knowledge Content and Student Learning Experiences With Core Knowledge After the Implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence at This School?

Parents were moderately to very satisfied with the curriculum at the school, with an overall satisfaction rate of 3.5 out of 4. In reality, parental satisfaction was likely higher, as it was clear that 9 parents had misread the Likert-type scale and that their positive comments were in direct opposition to how they rated their satisfaction numerically. Several positive themes regarding parent satisfaction with the academic content taught at the school became apparent. These themes focused on specific subjects, student preparation, teachers, curriculum, program intensity, academic challenge, and so forth.

In response to parents’ level of satisfaction with their child’s learning, the average numerical value was 3.46 out of 4, between moderately satisfied and very satisfied. In reality, parental satisfaction is likely higher, as it was obvious that some parents had misread the Likert-type scale and their positive comments were in direct opposition to how they rated their satisfaction numerically. Positive comments regarding parental satisfaction with their child’s learning centered on children being prepared for high school and beyond, children’s current state of academic success, satisfaction with the curriculum, academic challenge, the rate and breadth of learning, children’s attitudes toward school, the spiritual nature of the school, the teachers, comparisons to other schools, parental feelings about what their children are learning, specific content areas, and general comments about the school.

Suggestions for Further Research

The student scores on the Rosenberg self-esteem scale indicated that some students with special conditions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), had low self-esteem. The researcher is aware that a child with ADD may also experience difficulties in social situations. Social situations were used by one teacher to comment on her perceived self-esteem levels of these students. Based on evaluating these students with special conditions as they handled social situations, this teacher concluded that some of these students had low self-esteem. Due to the extenuating circumstances with regard to some students’ low self-esteem, it is inappropriate to link certain children’s self-esteem to Core Knowledge. However, it raises the question as to whether students with special needs would perform worse academically at non-Core Knowledge schools. Shyness may be confused with low self-esteem and would be an interesting topic for research.

For future research, it may be interesting to control for students with special needs, in order to prevent possible skewing of the data. The correlation between self-esteem and the number of years attending the school could be a result of the use of an entrance evaluation for all new students. It is possible that, since there was a correlation between self-esteem and GPA, the students at the school must show academic capability, which would later translate to GPA and would be related to medium to high levels of self-esteem. In other words, the students at the school would already have medium to high levels of self-esteem when they entered, at least in part because they were able to handle the academics. Therefore, the number of years attending the school would generally impact pre-existing high levels of self-esteem.

It would be interesting conduct a longitudinal study to evaluate the relationship between academic self-esteem and achievement of a particular group of Core Knowledge students over time. Previous research has found that the relationship between these factors increase with each grade level (Larned & Miller, 1979). This study could also be related to previous research that has established that the more a student achieves, the more academic self-esteem may improve (Ross & Broh, 2000).

Further research may entail comparing high school graduation rates and college attendance rates of the target school alumni with those of other private schools in the area. In this study, alumni surveys were mailed only to alumni of the target school. Although the data gained from these surveys was interesting, they did not provide insight into how the school’s alumni fare compared to the alumni of other private schools in the area. Since the target school is the only Core Knowledge school in the target city, surveying the alumni from other private schools might provide not only comparison data on locate private schools but also comparison data on private non-Core Knowledge schools, compared to Core Knowledge schools. Research comparing academic achievement by public school students and public school Core Knowledge students might provide data that either support or refute the idea that Core Knowledge gives underprivileged students the background information that is available to privileged students simply because they lead more enriched lives. Research that compares the occupational and educational choices of alumni to those of the citizens who reside in the target city area would give insight into any the similarities and differences.

Another area of research to consider would be to compare the two methods by which curriculum establishes depth of knowledge in students. Core Knowledge approaches creating depth of knowledge through building on the previous year’s knowledge base, year after year, attaching new but related knowledge to what the child already knows. For example, students in Core Knowledge schools learn about Ancient Greece in the second, third, and sixth grades, each year with increasing depth and breadth. Research comparing the effectiveness of this method of creating depth of knowledge to traditional methods of creating depth of knowledge (e.g., learning fewer topics in greater detail at one time) may add valuable information and insight in the world of academia.

Closing Comments

This study produced data that are valuable to the field of education in the areas of academic achievement, teacher job satisfaction, and parent and student satisfaction with curriculum. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that it appeared that students in a private school and private Core Knowledge school showed little difference in academic achievement on standardized test scores with regard to trends of increase in student normed scores as they progressed through the grades.

The data also showed that the longer a student stayed in public school, the more loss of academic achievement on standardized tests occurred. According to Ireson and Hallum (1999) and Stevenson and Stigler (1992), as disadvantaged students progress through the grade levels, the gap between their achievement and the achievement of their advantaged counterparts widens.

The data also revealed that alumni of this Core Knowledge school tended to continue to be successful academically as evidenced by their success in high school and their pursuit of higher education. The data indicated a positive correlation between grade point average and self-esteem. This supports research by Larned and Miller (1979) that found associations among academic self-concept, academic self-esteem and achievement. However, the direction of causality was undetermined.

The data revealed that the implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence led to increased levels of job satisfaction because it gave the teachers the freedom to choose the means by which to teach students. Support by the administrators and their willingness to allow the teachers as much time as possible through meetings and time to prepare lessons were also factors in job satisfaction. Previous research has established that teacher job satisfaction is related to classroom autonomy (Kreis, 2001). Previous research also found that the implementation of Core Knowledge enriches the professional lives of teachers. The research and development of teaching units and the teaching of those units add professionalism, enjoyment, collegiality and team cohesion among faculty members (Datnow, 2000). The data collected in this study supported previously reported team cohesion, as teachers mentioned frequently that they were held accountable to their fellow faculty members for covering the material in the sequence, knowing that the content taught at each grade level would support the content in the next grade level.

The data in this study also provided evidence of the successful implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Previous research found that to implement the Core Knowledge Sequence successfully, a strong implementation leader was necessary (McHugh & Stringfield, 1999). According to the data, the administrator at the time of implementation provided the faculty with encouragement and support, both affectively and financially. This is consistent with previous research that reported that strong principal support of school reform was linked to greater implementation (Berends, 2000; Berends et al., 2002; Bodilly, 1998; Bodilly & Berends, 1999; Kirby et al., 2001). Previous research has also specifically linked strong administrative support to optimal levels of Core Knowledge implementation (Gadd, 1995a, 1995b). The data from the current research indicated that teachers had planning time, which supports previous research that found that teacher planning time played a role in optimal implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence (Van Ness, 2008).

The data revealed that students and parents, in general, were in favor of the content taught in the Core Knowledge Sequence. Students seemed to enjoy the content and to excel in their studies. Parents were impressed by what their children were learning. Based on responses to the parent surveys, communication was essential to parent satisfaction. The instances in which parents commented that certain content was lacking from the sequence or did not understand how the sequence was cohesive could have been prevented by carefully educating parents regarding the content of the sequence and its cohesiveness through the grade levels. LEJ

References:

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Author Information

Barbara Valine Wheeler received her Bachelor’s degree in Child Development, with a minor in Asian Studies, from San Jose State University (California) and subsequently earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at Concordia University, Irvine (California). Most recently she completed the doctorate in Educational Leadership from Concordia University Chicago. An armed forces veteran she served as a Korean Linguist in the Republic of Korea and for the National Security Agency. Dr. Wheeler currently teaches at a Lutheran school in central California. She can be reached at bwheeler@sjlchurch.org.

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