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Milner Students Will Be Exposed To 'Core Knowledge'

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer

January 22, 2008

It will be back to basics math and art and literature and science and other stuff every child should know when Milner Elementary, the city's lowest performing school, transforms into a Core Knowledge school next year.

"Let's hope that helps its troubles," said E.D. Hirsch Jr., the 80-year-old theorist behind the Core Knowledge philosophy that has spawned more than 1,500 of the schools around the nation, but just a handful in Connecticut.

Like Montessori schools, Core Knowledge schools adhere to a particular philosophy. Unlike Montessori, they don't tell teachers how to teach. Instead, they focus on what items to teach, and in what order they should be taught. Core Knowledge schools seek to foster a love of learning through engaging students with literature and poetry. And lessons are planned around the goal of teaching students to be culturally literate.

Hirsch, a retired English professor from the University of Virginia and author of a series of books about what children should know in each elementary grade level, said students learn to read when they are interested in the subject being taught. And the time spent teaching reading, he said, is time that should be used to teach children about the world.

"What we need to do for these poor kids is year-by-year give them interesting stuff and then they'll become readers. How did we get into this fix? How did we begin not teaching content?" Hirsch asked.

The recent trend of drilling students for hours, using a series of disconnected, highly scripted exercises, is mind-numbing, he said.

"It's horrible for the teachers, and it's bad for the kids, and the results are lousy," he said. "... It's magical thinking to think that somehow these kids will know something if you haven't taught them anything. "

Milner's scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test are consistently the lowest in the district. In the 2006-07 school year, for example, just 2.4 percent of the fourth-graders reached the state goal in reading, while 88 percent scored below the basic level meaning they can't read anywhere near their grade level. That same year, by comparison, 28.3 percent of all Hartford fourth-graders met the reading goal and 57 percent tested below the basic level.

The Core Knowledge website classifies just one school in Connecticut Pear Tree Point School in Darien as an official participant in the system.

Two others are listed as using parts of the Core Knowledge program.

Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski said he was surprised to find that the state hosted so few of the schools. In other states where he has worked, he said, there were many Core Knowledge schools, which were among the best-performing school.

To make Core Knowledge work at Milner, extra instructional time and reinvigorated parental involvement are important parts of the package.

The guiding philosophy behind the Core Knowledge schools is that information should be presented in a coherent sequence so that the basics are presented first to help students master more sophisticated material as they grow older. Many schools present information in a fragmented way, Hirsch said.

What To Teach

The curriculum focuses on what the website calls a body of lasting knowledge. "Such knowledge includes, for example, the basic principles of constitutional government, important events in world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation," the site says.

For example, a teacher might cover the story of David and Goliath so that students would understand the reference when the term is invoked as a metaphor for modern events.

What constitutes cultural literacy has stirred controversy over the years. The question is, whose culture should students develop fluency in, particularly when all but a couple of the students in the school are minorities. Milner's enrollment is 99.3 percent minority, of which 68 percent are black and 30 percent are Hispanic.

A sample list of what students will learn reads like a series of survey courses of the world. Fourth-graders, for example, will learn about Europe in the Middle Ages; the spread of Islam and holy wars; early and medieval African kingdoms; China's dynasties and conquerors; the American Revolution; early presidents and politics; the formation of constitutional government; Islamic art and architecture; and the art of the European Middle Ages, Africa, China and early America.

Each grade will also learn poetry, fiction, sayings and phrases, science, math and music.

From one day to the next, Hirsch said, the curriculum of a Core Knowledge school may not seem dramatically different from the existing curriculum. "It's only when you build over a few years," he said, that change will be evident.

So progress will be slow, Hirsch warns. It takes years to develop a strong vocabulary and a body of foundational knowledge.

"Core Knowledge isn't some elixir out of a bottle," he said. "It's just an ordinary curriculum. It's the way curriculum used to be."

Adamowski sounded a similar note: "There is no easy fix."

To bolster the curriculum, Milner will extend its day by an hour, which will be dedicated to literacy. Then, until 5 p.m., the school will offer homework help, tutoring and enrichment. There will be Saturday classes for older students to catch up on some of the curriculum offered in the early grades.

Parents will be enlisted to participate through seminars and meetings in a Core Knowledge Parent Institute. Before each trimester, teachers will meet with parents to brief them on what their children are about to learn, and they will be given material to use to help their children at home, along with instructions on how to use the material.

Teachers will also give parents a list of nightly homework assignments with due dates and a schedule of quizzes and tests. The academy will send all school correspondence home the same day of each week so parents will know when to expect it. And there will be weekly morning meetings for parents at the school.

When youngsters are enrolled in the school, Hirsch said, it will have a leveling effect between the poorest neighborhood of Hartford and the wealthy communities nearby. "We're all part of the American sphere," he said.

Still, he said, "You never close the gap entirely because the house is also a school. You can make huge inroads. You're giving a chance to the talented in the disadvantaged group to catch up."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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