An Interview with Linda Bevilacqua: Regarding the Core Knowledge Foundation

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University

1) I understand that you have recently taken over the leadership position in the Core Knowledge organization. How did this come about?

It has been my good fortune to have worked at the Core Knowledge Foundation for the past ten years. I was originally hired by Dr. Hirsch to develop the Core Knowledge preschool program. I spent my early years at the Foundation researching early childhood programs both nationally and internationally, especially the French ecoles maternelles, in order to write the Preschool Sequence. Once we had field tested the Preschool Sequence, I turned my attention to creating ten 2-day professional development training modules, designed to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to implement the Core Knowledge preschool program. During that time, I worked closely with preschool programs and teachers across the country to help them put the Core Knowledge program into practice, as well as continuing to work on the development of various preschool publications. The newest preschool materials will be released in March, 2008: Bantam Dell is publishing What Your Preschooler Needs to Know, the most recent book in the very popular series, What Your Kindergartner – 6th Grader Needs to Know, and the Core Knowledge Foundation will simultaneously be releasing 2 accompanying activity books for parents to use at home with their preschoolers.

It's been just about a year since Dr. Hirsch asked me to assume the role of president at the Foundation. I initially thought that I could continue to direct the preschool program, as well as the carry out the duties of the president, but I have since come to my senses and hired a wonderful new director for the preschool program, Alice Wiggins. As president, I am very much engaged in all aspects of the work of the Foundation and love the many challenges that it presents.

2) What changes have you seen in the organization over the years?

From my ten-year perspective – the Foundation was established by E.D. Hirsch in 1986 – the Foundation remains focused on its original mission, captured in its motto, "Educational Excellence and Equity for All Children." The mission of the Core Knowledge Foundation continues to be doing all that we can to offer all children a better chance in life and create a fairer and more literate society by educating America's youth in a solid, specific, sequenced and shared curriculum. During the better part of the Foundation's history, this mission has been interpreted to mean the implementation of a content-based curriculum during the elementary grades, with a primary focus on history, science and the arts. Many educators and parents alike now recognize that such a knowledge base is necessary to achieve a core of commonality and solidarity in our diverse, multicultural society.

In recent years, however, both Dr. Hirsch and the Foundation have worked especially vigorously to communicate the role and importance of a content-based curriculum in reducing the achievement gap between social classes to promote educational equity. This specific understanding of the Foundation's work is particularly relevant during the current NCLB-era in which schools and teachers are often tempted to take a rather short sighted approach and focus narrowly on preparing children for successful performance on state reading tests. From its inception, though not always fully understood, Dr. Hirsch, in coining the phrase "cultural literacy," and the Foundation have made the argument that schools will be successful in creating proficient readers only when it is recognized that understanding what is read is based on possessing relevant background knowledge. Stated simply, the best way, in the long term, to prepare children for successful performance on any measures of reading achievement is to ensure that they participate in a coherent, content-rich curriculum in which "taken for granted knowledge" is taught explicitly.

3) Can you tell us a bit about your background in education?

In terms of my own education, I was accepted into the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia in 1972, the first year in which females were admitted to the University (yikes!) During my first three years of college, I remained in the College of Liberal Arts and developed a strong, diverse academic background. I then decided that I very much wanted to teach and work in particular with children who had difficulty learning. I transferred into the Curry School of Education, where I received both a BS and M.Ed. in Special Education. I worked initially in a large suburban school district with children in grades preschool – grade 6, who had been identified as learning disabled and at risk for academic failure. My teaching was focused primarily on improving the oral language skills of these children and teaching them to read. I was then tapped to serve as the first coordinator of services to all learning disabled students, preschool –grade 12, in this same district, which was a wonderful opportunity to gain a "big picture" view of the entire educational continuum. I subsequently pursued additional graduate studies, mentored student teachers as an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, directed the work of a nonprofit organization, as the executive director the Learning Disabilities Council, and wrote a book for parents of learning disabled children.

4) In your mind, how has NCLB affected the Core Knowledge movement, if at all?

This is a very interesting question. There is certainly common ground in terms of the fundamental principles underlying NCLB and Core Knowledge, that is, the shared commitment to creating a more literate society. The Core Knowledge Foundation has always been and is supportive of the basic intent of NCLB. We think that NCLB has been largely responsible for calling attention to the need for all children to be explicitly taught a coherent and sequential phonics based approach to decoding and that this attention has resulted in measurable improvement in children's reading/decoding skills in the very early grades. Certainly, this is a very positive effect of NCLB.

However, as mentioned in my response to an earlier question, as a result of NCLB, many educators and schools have taken a very narrow approach in focusing on the development of but one component of reading, i.e., specific decoding skills. This is a necessary component of reading instruction, but is not sufficient; reading comprehension must also be considered.

Historically, educators have addressed reading comprehension by teaching comprehension strategies, such as "finding the main idea." This is a very limited approach, especially if presented as the sole approach to reading comprehension. Again to reiterate what I stated in the earlier question, understanding what is read is based on possessing background knowledge relevant to whatever is being read.

Paradoxically, one of the unfortunate effects of NCLB has been that, given the intense focus on decoding – in many states, schools are now mandated to devote three hours of instructional time to the language arts block – there is little time left during the school day for the content based subjects, such as history and science, in which children might acquire relevant background knowledge. So, many schools, with their eye on the immediate goal of improved performance on state tests of early reading performance, have eschewed the implementation of Core Knowledge …and, in so doing, have eliminated the very type of instructional experiences needed to build the foundation for real reading achievement.

5) What is E.D. Hirsch currently doing?

Dr. Hirsch continues to speak publicly and to write on many educational issues. He is often asked to speak on the topics elaborated in his most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit (2006), most recently in November at the Education Trust Conference in Washington, DC.

He will present the keynote address at the International Dyslexia Society Conference in New York City in March, 2008. He is also at work on a new book and very actively involved in the development of the Core Knowledge Reading Program (described in my answer to the last question.) It takes a lot for the rest of us at the Foundation to keep up with him!!!

6) How involved is your organization in terms of long term studies of schools that use the Core Knowledge curriculum?

We feel that it is most desirable for the evaluation of any curriculum to be conducted by a researcher outside and independent of the developer of the curriculum or materials, so the Core Knowledge Foundation is not directly involved in large, long term studies on the effectiveness of the Core Knowledge program. However, we would very much like to see such research on Core Knowledge funded and carried out. To that end, we are in contact with educational researchers around the country who have expressed an interest in studying Core Knowledge. A research proposal to evaluate the use of Core Knowledge in grades K-8 in the state of Colorado has recently been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Educational Science by a researcher at the University of Virginia and we are awaiting notification as to funding. Another proposal to examine the preschool program will be submitted within the next several months as well.

7 ) Besides advocating for a Core Knowledge curriculum, do you personally ever recommend the reading of the Core Knowledge texts?

I surely do. My younger nieces and nephews all have been the lucky recipients of nearly all of the Core Knowledge publications for various birthdays over the past ten years.

When my own daughter was chosen to participate in Teach for America several years ago, she was required to take and pass the Praxis Examination, a national teacher's test. I recommended that she read the Core Knowledge Teacher Handbooks, a set of resource for teachers in grades K – 5, prior to the examination. As was my daughter's case, most individuals in Teach for America are generally chosen because they have excelled in college in the liberal arts, though they generally have no coursework or experience in education. My daughter passed the Praxis with flying colors!

Beyond recommending Core Knowledge publications for elementary school age children or the teachers who work with them, I have found, both personally and in talking with others, that the Core Knowledge topics are of interest and highly stimulating for adults. I love attending sessions at the Core Knowledge conference that are presented by various experts in art, history, religion, and science. It is always a very energizing experience.

Interestingly enough, over the years, the Foundation has also been approached by a number of foreign publishers who have wanted to publish the Core Knowledge series of "grader books" in their native language as background preparation for executives in their own countries who want to do business in the United States. Nothing has materialized along those lines, but it occurs to me that these books would be a great resource to immigrants new to the United States, wanting to prepare for assimilation into the American culture and future citizenship.

8) Have you a website and what would you find there?

We do indeed have a website at which contains a wealth of information and resources for both educators and parents. There is information about the Core Knowledge curriculum and how to implement it in schools; all of the Core Knowledge publications are described and can be ordered directly from the website; and there are links to research studies that have been conducted about Core Knowledge, as well as articles by E.D. Hirsch and downloadable grade level unit and lesson plans for teachers and homeschoolers. You can also sign up for a quarterly electronic newsletter and we have just launched a new blog, open to anyone who wants to discuss Core Knowledge.

9) With Presidential elections right around the corner, it seems that there is a lot of global talk about education, but very few specifics. Any idea as to why this is so?

The following comments represent just a guess on my part. I suspect that few politicians want to discuss specifics for fear of alienating someone and the need to take a stand and grapple with tough issues. One has only to look at the resistance and varying opinions that the reauthorization of NCLB has generated during recent months before Congress.The reauthorization bill has gone nowhere fast, with lots of bickering and no sign of resolution in the near future.

10) What question have I neglected to ask?

You might be interested in knowing that much of the Core Knowledge Foundation's resources, both human and financial, are presently being devoted to the development of a Core Knowledge Reading Program. We have completed, and are field testing, kindergarten level materials this year and expect to complete and pilot first grade level materials during the coming school year.

The Core Knowledge Reading program addresses all components that research has shown to be critical to the development of reading proficiency and literacy. It includes a rigorous, phonics based approach to teaching decoding skills. Early reports from the 40 kindergarten teachers piloting this material have been wildly enthusiastic, with indications that, at this point in the school year, students using the Core Knowledge decoding materials have already surpassed the decoding mastery levels of kindergarten students at year's end in previous years with other materials.

However, the most revolutionary element of the Core Knowledge Reading Program is its inclusion of material designed to build background knowledge of key subjects needed for true reading comprehension. In addition to the skill based decoding component described above, the Core Knowledge Reading program includes a listening and learning component composed ofa set of carefully sequenced read-aloudsat each grade level to build essential background knowledge in the key domains already identified in the Core Knowledge curriculum.

The development of this reading program represents a tremendous undertaking for the Core Knowledge Foundation. We have already raised close to $4 million dollars from various foundations that will allow us to complete the development and field testing of materials for grades K-2. We will begin fundraising anew with the start of the new year to raise the resources needed to complete the next phase of materials development for grades 3 -5.

Published January 3, 2008


January 3rd, 2008

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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