Taken for Granted

Why Curriculum Content Is Like Oxygen

When asked what matters most in life, it's easy to quickly answer family and friends. It's loved ones we care about most, so the answer is appropriate—but is it entirely accurate? Of course not. The precise answer, which no one wants to hear, begins with oxygen.

Life is full of such social conventions. Many are beneficial (at least for easing communication), and most are harmless. But sometimes the "appropriate" answer goes unexamined for too long. Sometimes an accurate answer is needed. We see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. Whether in casual conversations or even in serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, appropriate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Not that these things are unimportant; just like family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? We contend that there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.

Experience tells us that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy leaders.

For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That's so obvious that it's assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what's essential to a great school. Don't get us wrong: the curriculum doesn't make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes us live. Both are merely necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a struggling school with a great curriculum, finding a good school with a weak curriculum is about as likely as finding a human being who can live without oxygen. Regrettably, when educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.

Many leaders in education policy, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don't even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, we could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world we can't. In an era of "100 percent proficient or else," what sane educators would encourage policymakers to "improve" their oxygen? Teachers realize, after all, that their evaluations are increasingly tied to student scores on high-stakes tests. As a result, they are reluctant—and rightfully so—to invite policymakers to offer what are likely to be similarly flawed suggestions about what the curriculum for each grade level should look like.

Unfortunately, the very lack of any discussion about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. There is no more direct connection to student achievement—i.e., what students know and can do—than what students have been taught.

It has been nearly five years since Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution wrote "Don't Forget Curriculum,"1 noting that "policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don't think much about water skiing." Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: "Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers."

This is why we are drawing attention to the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.

Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos published "Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core."2 Examining curriculum effects versus teacher effects, they found that implementing a better curriculum can have a slightly greater impact on student learning than teachers whose value-added data puts them at the 75th percentile (as compared with a 50th percentile teacher). While teacher quality is the clear leader in policy discussions of what matters most, these findings indicate that curriculum is just as important as teaching.

Since curriculum matters, everyone ought to act like it matters—and educators should have the opportunity to lead the way. Within schools, educators can work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, they can agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.

These are bold claims. They rest only in small part on research, like Whitehurst's, showing the relative power of curriculum. The fact is, there has been nowhere near enough research conducted on curriculum. But lots of relevant research has been done by cognitive scientists on how children learn. It is on this large body of evidence that we build our bold claims.

Child Friendly, Content Rich

As the articles here and here explain, several findings have emerged that are critical to early education. For example, knowledge builds on knowledge, so it is essential to begin building broad academic knowledge and vocabulary in the early years. In addition, repeated and varied exposures to concepts and vocabulary are needed for solid understandings to take root in long-term memory. Therefore, the content of instruction should be carefully planned to introduce topics early, and then teachers can intentionally revisit, deepen, and extend learning on these topics in later grades.

For educators in preschool through third grade who don't have the time or support to create such a curriculum, one potential model to adopt or adapt is Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA).* The CKLA program envisions reading as a two-lock box—a box that takes two keys to open. One key is knowledge of the code (the sound-letter correspondences), which must be mastered for fluent reading and writing. The other key is knowledge of words and the world, which is essential for language comprehension (both oral and written). Both keys are addressed throughout the program. The first key is developed with a phonics-based approach, as reading and writing skills are taught in tandem. The second key is developed primarily through teacher read-alouds, along with text-based discussions and activities.

While CKLA's skills instruction is absolutely essential, it is not all that different from other research-based phonics programs. What makes CKLA unique is the content-rich read-alouds, in which teachers read texts to students and engage them in conversations about the text and accompanying images. These read-alouds and discussions, which range from 20 to 30 minutes, are organized in 7 to 12 domains per grade. Each domain is dedicated to a particular topic that the class stays focused on for 10–15 days. Domains include "The Five Senses," "Native Americans," "Astronomy," "Early Asian Civilizations," "Insects," and more. The domains are carefully organized to build on each other within and across grades, giving students opportunities to refine and expand their knowledge and vocabulary over time. The topics are interesting and engaging too, as the content goes well beyond standard early grades fare (such as social studies that reviews families and neighborhoods year after year, and science focused on basic information about weather, plants, and animals) to include important historical and scientific events, ideas, and people.

Children in CKLA are immersed in sophisticated content, but it isn't just randomly dropped in. Accessible concepts—like families and communities—are purposefully introduced in preschool and then revisited and extended in later grades—such as the first-grade "Early World Civilizations" domain. Given the complexity and long-ago history of such a topic, some may question whether young children can meaningfully learn about ancient Egypt. The answer is absolutely.

As Daniel T. Willingham explained in American Educator several years ago, "no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate."3 It turns out that Piaget's notion of discrete developmental stages is not correct; young children not only differ from each other, their individual performance will vary from task to task and day to day. If children don't understand a lesson, Willingham encourages teachers to ask why—and to ask if it really matters. Perhaps the children need more background knowledge or a different explanation, not more time to "develop." And perhaps it's just fine for them to start forming a concept, but not grasp each detail:

For example, suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it's hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you're probably presenting content that they've already learned elsewhere.

Teachers using CKLA have found this to be true: young children enjoy hearing about and discussing complex concepts—and any misconceptions that preschoolers and kindergartners have are cleared up as topics are revisited in grades 1 through 3. According to Jena Peluso, a teacher at P.S. 333 in Queens, New York, students have "responded to the material exceptionally well":4

For example, last year I visited the Museum of Natural History with my first grade students, and as we were walking through the ancient Egyptian exhibit in the museum, the students were amazed that they were getting to see things in person that they were learning about all month. Not only were the students amazed, but other museum goers and tourists were amazed at the rich vocabulary that was coming out of these little six-year-olds' mouths. The students were able to recognize everything from the Sphinx to the sarcophagus, it was truly rewarding as a teacher to see this happening as a result of teaching this rigorous curriculum.

This early foundation enables second- and third-graders to really grasp historical and scientific content that has traditionally been reserved for middle school.

For example, at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Forest City, North Carolina, a charter school that serves a rural, predominantly working-class community, Heidi Cole's second-graders eagerly learn 19th- and 20th-century American history:5

With confidence, I can say that I have not only "taught" my students about ... the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly "learned" something about these topics. ... My students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. ... Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain [at the end of second grade]. ... Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country's history and its government.

It will indeed. The path to college, career, and citizenship begins in early childhood, so let's take a closer look at CKLA for preschool.

A Unique Pre-K Curriculum

CKLA Preschool is a comprehensive language arts curriculum that explicitly supports the development of knowledge and skills identified as key to building skilled, fluent readers. In addition to systematically building children's knowledge of letters, sounds, and print, CKLA Preschool is designed to expose young children to content-rich, coherent, cumulative instruction. It does so by building and deepening background knowledge using teaching practices that are appropriate for young children and generally familiar to early educators. Students and teachers engage in activities like singing songs and nursery rhymes, playing games in small groups, creating extended dramatic play scenarios, making crafts, reading books, and listening to stories. These activities not only are fun and appropriate experiences for young children, but are designed to create explicit opportunities for students to connect to specific content in the curriculum.

Infused throughout all grades of CKLA, but unique among preschool curricula, is the careful consideration given to the timing and sequencing of this content and how it contributes to students' later learning. Topics and subtopics are presented in a deliberately planned order, so that basic information and larger concepts build over time.

The end result is broad academic know-ledge and skills, but what is the starting point in early childhood? Since many, many students arrive at preschool without prior educational experience, CKLA Preschool begins with the child himself. Starting with students' own experiences of themselves is a deliberate choice aimed at finding common ground for all students, regardless of socioeconomic or educational background. Moving all students forward together from this common place then becomes the aim of the first preschool domain, called "All About Me."

"All About Me" begins with the vocabulary and content the child needs to talk about himself—age, body parts, hair color, likes and dislikes, favorite activities, etc. Teachers and students read aloud and sing favorite songs and nursery rhymes (e.g., "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and "Where Is Thumbkin?") as they teach this content (see the sidebar here). Strategically, they use these rhymes to teach and reinforce not only content, but also skills that prepare children to become fluent decoders in later grades. Essential early skills include rhyming, sound awareness, and syllable awareness. Together, the content and skills that students learn early in the curriculum provide the foundation for later learning about less familiar, more abstract concepts and ideas.

For example, in the "All About Me" domain, students learn the names of the parts of their own bodies, which is knowledge they refresh and extend during the "Animals" domain taught later in the preschool year. Drawing on their knowledge of their own body parts from the beginning of the year, students studying the "Animals" domain expand their concept of body parts when they learn about animals' body parts (e.g., beaks, eyes, legs), their functions (e.g., for eating, seeing, walking), and how body parts help classify animals (e.g., birds have beaks). That knowledge is extended yet again in kindergarten during "The Five Senses" domain. Then, in a series of human body domains spread across first through third grades, students learn about the human body's basic organs and how those organs form systems. (To see some of these materials and connections just described, see the sidebar here.)

Similarly, children's early understandings of animals' body parts and categories of animals prepare them for later explorations of animals that live in specific habitats (in preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade domains), the three main body parts that characterize insects (second grade), and the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates and how this difference informs animal classification (third grade). This intentional, careful sequencing of content enables students to quickly build complex knowledge and vocabulary. With CKLA, children experience the joy of learning because they see how interesting academic content is—and they are well prepared to comprehend academic texts in later grades.

As the year unfolds, the content of the CKLA Preschool curriculum expands to include literature, science, and history—all still taught through the same developmentally appropriate activities and contexts familiar to teachers and students. The goal is always to build a strong foundation of knowledge so that students can later understand the complex and nuanced relationships that exist within and across content areas.
For example, as preschoolers begin to grasp the concept of time and events that occurred in the past, they are introduced to Native Americans as part of the "Important People in American History" domain (see the sidebar here). Through a read-aloud, a rich array of accompanying images, and related activities, children begin to conceptualize the first people to live in what is now the United States. The read-aloud begins with some content that will be familiar, weaving in the unfamiliar:

Long, long ago, long before your mother and father were born, and even long before your grandparents were born, the United States looked very different. ... In that time long, long ago ... there were trees and rivers. There were rocks and mountains. There were wild animals, like deer and birds. The only people who lived here way back then were the Native Americans.

They learn about Native Americans' diets, activities, and homes, and compare these with their own present-day experiences, noting similarities and differences. Toward the end, the read-aloud becomes more specific: "The Native Americans we have been learning about have a special name. They are a group, or tribe, of Native Americans called the Wampanoag. A long, long time ago, there were many groups, or tribes, of Native Americans living all over the United States." To deepen understanding, the teacher reviews some of the read-alouds, then shows new images with modern-day information:

Native Americans still live in the United States today. This is a photograph of a Native American boy wearing clothing that is like the clothing some Native Americans wore long ago. This is a photograph of a Native American family. There is a mom, a dad, and a son.

Of course, preschoolers do not understand exactly how or how long ago Native Americans lived prior to European exploration or the series of events that led to modern-day life, but they begin to get a sense of the past and that things were not always the way they are today. (For more details, including images, see the sidebar here.)

*  *  *

Students, ending the preschool year with some knowledge of the passage of time more generally and the Native Americans more specifically, are well-poised for the kindergarten CKLA domain that examines Native American tribes and traditions in more depth. Going forward, students are equipped for two in-depth third-grade domains, "Native Americans: Regions and Cultures" and "European Exploration of North America."

This foundation regarding Native Americans, as well as the rest of the "Important People in American History" domain, is the beginning of a very systematic series of domains on American history. From "Columbus and the Pilgrims" in kindergarten to "Frontier Explorers" in first grade to "Fighting for a Cause" in second grade (and many in between), these domains grow steadily more detailed and nuanced. Throughout, they aim to be accurate regarding our national achievements and shortcomings, while also celebrating America's ideals. As E. D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, has explained, this is crucial to studying American history in a way that is patriotic but not nationalistic:6

Before the American experiment, "nation" was determined by place and birth. ... American patriotism is inherently different. It's ... not based on birth but on a set of Enlightenment ideas, ... ideas of equality, freedom, and toleration. ... Core Knowledge ... tries to strike the right balance between loyalty to ideals and historical truth. ... Nationalism defines one group ... against others. It sees differences as inherent and essential. ... It is nativist, and uses terms that imply contamination and infiltration. That of course goes against the universalism of our founding ideals. The trans-national patriotism of the United States, symbolized by the flag, can accommodate all tribes within a larger conceptual loyalty learned in childhood.

From preschool through third grade, CKLA is carefully designed to plant the seeds for future studies and future responsibilities. By holding firm to the highest goals for education, CKLA demonstrates one way educators can develop the broad academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills that really do matter most. We would never deprive our children of the oxygen they need to live. Why would we deprive them of the coherent, cumulative, content-rich curriculum they need to become educated citizens and lifelong learners?

Carolyn Gosse is the Core Knowledge Foundation's lead developer of CKLA Preschool. She received her PhD in Language and Literacy Development and Disorders from the University of Virginia, where she worked on a research project evaluating the effectiveness of a preschool curriculum designed to enhance young children's language and literacy skills. Lisa Hansel is the communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator. Portions of this article are adapted with permission from "What Really Matters Most?" by Lisa Hansel, which was published on the CUNY Institute for Education Policy blog, IdeaLab.

*To learn more about Core Knowledge Language Arts, see "More Than Words: An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge," in the Fall 2012 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)

To learn more about Core Knowledge Language Arts Preschool, see the general overview. Download the entire CKLA program, preschool through third grade, for free, here. (back to the article)

For more of E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s work, see American Educator's authors index. (back to the article)


1. Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, "Don't Forget Curriculum," Brown Center Letters on Education, Brookings Institution, October 2009.

2. Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2012).

3. Daniel T. Willingham, "Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?," American Educator 32, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 34–39. See also Daniel T. Willingham, "Do We Underestimate Our Youngest Learners?," RealClearEducation, March 11, 2014; Deborah Kelemen, Natalie A. Emmons, Rebecca Seston Schillaci, and Patricia A. Ganea, "Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention," Psychological Science 25 (2014): 893–902; Caren M. Walker and Alison Gopnik, "Toddlers Infer Higher-Order Relational Principles in Causal Learning," Psychological Science 25 (2014): 161–169; and Emma Flynn and Robert Siegler, "Measuring Change: Current Trends and Future Directions in Microgenetic Research," Infant and Child Development 16 (2007): 135–149.

4. To read more from Jena Peluso, as well as quotes from other teachers using Core Knowledge Language Arts, see www.bit.ly/1mFUHQs.

5. Heidi Cole, "Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too," Core Knowledge Blog (blog), September 26, 2013, http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/

6. E. D. Hirsch Jr., "Sustaining the American Experiment," in Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core, ed. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2014), 7–14.

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American Educator, Summer 2014