Programs that Work
Children Succeeding in School
Students performing at grade level or meeting state curriculum standards
Age of Child
Early Childhood (0-8)
Middle Childhood (9-12)
Type of Setting
Type of Service
Type of Outcome Addressed
Cognitive Development / School Performance
Evidence Level (What does this mean?)
Core Knowledge (CK) is an educational reform model based on the premise that a solid, specific, shared core curriculum is crucial to ensure a sound elementary education and to help children build strong foundations of knowledge. The content of this core curriculum is outlined in the Core Knowledge Sequence manual, which describes what students should learn at each grade level in kindergarten through grade 8 (K-8). The Core Knowledge Sequence provides a detailed outline and planned progression of specific content to teach in the language arts, American and world history, geography, math, science, the visual arts, and music. The Core Knowledge Sequence of topics is intended to provide 50 percent of what is taught in a U.S. elementary school, and the content complements the general skills development and learning objectives typically found in state and local curriculum guides. Currently, hundreds of schools are participating in the CK school reform model throughout the United States.
Students in grades K-8
Datnow et al. (2000) evaluated the CK program among students in grades 1 through 5 in four CK schools and four comparison schools in four states-- Maryland, Florida, Texas, and Washington. All CK schools had been implementing the CK sequence for two or more years, and program impacts were assessed for a cohort of students that started CK in the first grade and a cohort of students that started CK in the third grade. In each state, local education officials helped to select a comparison school that was from the same district as the CK school and that was similar in the demographic characteristics of its students. The demographic characteristics of participating students varied across program sites. For example, 82 percent of the Florida CK sample were white, 12 percent were African-American, 5 percent were Latino, and 31 percent received free lunches, while 8 percent of the Texas sample were white, 6 percent were African-American, 85 were percent Latino, and 96 percent received free lunches. Additionally, the level of Core Knowledge implementation at the four sites varied. While the Florida, Washington, and Texas schools implemented CK in 70 percent or more of the observed third-grade and fifth-grade classrooms, only 27 percent of the observed classrooms in the Maryland school showed evidence of CK implementation. Outcome measures included basic skills achievement derived from reading comprehension tests and math concepts and applications tests from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (in the Florida, Texas, and Maryland schools) and basic skills achievement data derived from a locally administered test of functional reading and math skills (in the Washington schools). Also studied were program-developed tests of Core Knowledge achievement, including tests on language arts and social studies achievement and science subtests (in the Florida, Texas, and Maryland schools). The total sample of students analyzed who started CK in the first grade was 343 students assessed for basic skills achievement and 256 students assessed for CK achievement. The total sample of students analyzed that started CK in the third grade was 389 students assessed for basic skills achievement, and 290 students assessed for CK achievement.
In another study of CK, Whitehurst-Hall (1999) studied 301 seventh- and eighth-grade students from two public middle schools in central Georgia. The study was conducted over three years, and it compared CK students with students who were taught using a traditional curriculum (comparison students). The comparison school was chosen because it most closely matched the CK school. Prior to the 1996/1997 school year, the students at the comparison school attended the school in which CK was later implemented (they were transferred to the comparison school due to district re-zoning). Forty-seven percent of the 110 CK students were black, 53 were percent white, 58 were percent female, 1 percent were special education students, and 28 percent were gifted students. Of the 191 comparison school students, 51 percent were black, 49 percent were white, 49 percent were female, 2 percent were special education students, and 10 percent were gifted students. Outcome measures included the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) battery total and the ITBS reading, language, and math subtests; the proportion of students who failed ninth-grade English and ninth-grade math; and the proportion of students retained in the ninth grade.
Key Evaluation Findings
The Datnow et al. (2000) two-year study on a cohort of first graders found the following by the third grade:
- For the Florida site, the overall scores were significantly better for the CK group than for the control group. Subtest analyses showed that CK students scored significantly higher than control students on the reading test (with an average effect size of 0.61) and scored marginally significantly higher than control students on the math test (with a small effect size of 0.40).
- There were no significant overall or subtest score differences found between CK and comparison students at the Maryland, Texas, or Washington sites.
- The Washington CK students significantly outscored the control group students as indicated by the overall score analysis. Subtest analyses showed that the CK students scored significantly higher than the control students on measures of reading skills (with a small effect size of 0.31) and math tests (with a small effect size of 0.44).
- The Maryland CK students scored significantly lower than the control group students as indicated by the overall score analysis. Subtest analyses indicated that the control group outscored the CK group on both the reading test (with a large effect size of -1.31) and the math test (with a large effect size of -1.00).
- No significant overall score differences were found between the CK group and the comparison group at the Florida and Texas sites.
- Subtest analyses at the Florida site revealed that CK students scored significantly higher than control students on the reading test (with a small effect size of 0.26), and marginally significantly higher than control students on the math test (with a small effect size of 0.08).
- Subtest analyses at the Texas site found that CK students scored significantly higher than control students on the math tests (with a small effect size of 0.37), but no significant differences were found between groups on the reading tests.
- The overall analysis for the first-grade cohort revealed that Florida and Texas CK students scored significantly higher than did control group students (with an average effect size of 0.54 and a large effect size of 1.11, respectively). No significant differences were found between the two groups at the Maryland schools.
- Similarly, for the third-grade cohort, analyses of overall results showed that Florida and Texas CK students scored significantly higher than control students (with average effect sizes of 0.76 and 0.57, respectively). No significant differences were found between the two groups at the Maryland schools.
- Reading Advanced Skills subtest of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
- Reading Total score of the ITBS (which included a test of advanced reading skills and a vocabulary test)
- Mathematics Total score on the ITBS
- ITBS Survey Total scores.
Public and private elementary schools
The cost of implementing Core Knowledge varies significantly from school to school. There are a few nominal fees that each school must pay, including a small fee to become a member of the Core Knowledge Network. In addition, every teacher in the school must have a personal copy of the Core Knowledge Sequence. Many schools also purchase the optional series What Your ... Grader Needs to Know and sign up for optional CK workshops (described below). More significant program expenses may be incurred, depending on the amount of additional student resources and materials that are purchased to supplement the materials already in existence at the school.
The main component of the CK approach is the Core Knowledge Sequence, a 200-page outline of the specific content that should be taught in each subject and in each year from kindergarten through eighth grade. Although the Core Knowledge Sequence details the content that should be taught at each grade, it does not specify the manner in which the content should be taught. Instructional strategies are left up to the individual teachers.
The Core Knowledge Sequence is designed to take 50 percent of the total classroom instructional time, allowing schools to spend the remaining time to cover topics required by state and local standards. Over time, schools work to align the Core Knowledge Sequence with state and local standards, leaving more time for supplemental work. Core Knowledge produces materials that schools may purchase, including the Core Knowledge Sequence, a series of books for parents and teachers titled What Your ... Grader Needs to Know that covers each grade level, and related reading materials and resources for teachers to use in their classrooms.
There are no specific requirements for increased staff at schools implementing the CK program, because regular classroom teachers implement the curriculum. However, because the CK approach emphasizes music and art instruction as well as instruction in language, math, and science, schools that do not have music or art teachers may wish to hire them. Regularly scheduled time set aside for planning the presentation of the CK curriculum is recommended for teachers who are implementing Core Knowledge in their classrooms. Because the material that is taught in each grade builds directly upon what was taught in the previous grade, the CK program recommends that teachers work together to ensure a natural progression of content development from one grade to the next.
The Core Knowledge Foundation offers workshops conducted by trained teachers or administrators from CK schools. Training sessions range from one to five days in length and can be given to up to 75 participants at a time. Visits from experts in CK who can provide technical assistance are also available to schools implementing CK.
Issues to Consider
This program received a "promising" rating. While study results were somewhat mixed, the evaluations of the CK program indicate that treatment group students experienced significant improvements in their reading and math skills as compared with no-treatment control-group students. The program's "promising" rating is due to mixed results from the program evaluations, small sample sizes in two of the three evaluation studies, and weakness in the comparability of the control groups used in the analyses. These factors limit our ability to determine with certainty that the program caused the observed positive outcomes.
Results from the Datnow et al. (2000) study indicated that there were some positive and significant results for CK students at the Florida, Texas, and Washington sites but no significant program effects for students at the Maryland site. One possible explanation for the differing outcome for Maryland CK students is the substantially lower level of observed CK implementation at the Maryland site as compared with the other three program sites. It is also possible that student and school differences among the four sites were contributing factors for the differences in program outcomes. The socioeconomic and ethic background of the students at the Maryland site differed significantly from that of the students at the other three sites, e.g., while students at the Florida and Washington sites primarily were white (82 percent and 79 percent, respectively), 98 percent of students at the Maryland site were African-American.
The CK curriculum also includes a preschool sequence that is being used in many schools across the country, but does not have any rigorous evaluation data available at this time.
Core Knowledge Foundation
801 East High Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
Tel (434) 977-7550
Toll-free (800) 238-3233
Fax (434) 977-0021
The Core Knowledge website (http://www.coreknowledge.org/) offers information about implementation, professional development, books, and other resources for schools and teachers interested in implementing the program.
Datnow, Amanda, Geoffrey Borman, and Sam Stringfield, "School Reform Through a Highly Specified Curriculum: Implementation and Effects of the Core Knowledge Sequence,"
The Elementary School Journal,
Vol. 101, No. 2, 2000, pp. 167-192.
Whitehurst-Hall, Jerri Ann, The Impact of the Core Knowledge Curriculum on the Achievement of Seventh and Eighth Grade Students, Ph.D. dissertation, Faculty of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, 1999.