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AFT: Standard Curriculum Underestimates Students

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) devoted most of the Winter 1996-1997 issue of its publication American Educator to the growth and success of Core Knowledge. Sandra Feldman, president of the AFT, is a member of the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, as was her predecessor, Al Shankar.

One feature in this special issue concerned the shallow content typical in most social studies curricula and textbooks. In particular, the AFT compared the social studies curriculum typically offered to most American second-graders, with that used in second grade in Core Knowledge schools. Here is the text from that feature.

    Standard Curriculum
    Underestimates Students

    Winter 1996-1997
    American Educator
    American Federation of Teachers

    The pages shown here [the original article shows four facing spreads] are typical of the social studies curriculum for most second graders in the country. These excerpts happen to be from the new 1997 Houghton Mifflin second-grade social studies textbook, Work Together. We don't mean to pick on Houghton Mifflin; other textbooks are similar. Thousands and thousands of teachers are given books like these and told to teach from them.

    Not only are the contents vacuous and boring -- is there any child who finds this interesting? informative? useful? -- but they jump from one topic to another in a scattered, disjointed fashion that makes it dfifficult for even an adult to find the thread.

    Some very rudimentary map skills are introduced, along with a basic introduction to the dictionary and how a library is organized, and there is a strangely unconnected smattering of history scattered throughout the book -- something on the founding of Pittsburgh, a few pages on the Pilgrims, a history of "Earth Day," two pages on Canada and two on Mexico (approximately fifty words each). But the overwhelming impression one is left with is that this curriculum "teaches" children very little that they don't already know or will pick up by osmosis.

    In contrast, here are the topics that Core Knowledge second-graders are taking up in the World Civilization ("early Civilization and History of World Religions: Asia") section of their social studies curriculum, which builds upon what they learned in first grade: the geography of Asia, including the location of Russia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam; India, inclusing the Indus and Ganges Rivers, the caste system, Hinduism, and Buddhism; China, including the Huang He and Yangtze Rivers, Confucious, ancestor worship, Qin Dynasty, Great Wall of China, the importance of silk, inventions -- such as paper and the seismograph, and the Chinese New Year. In addition to these topics, students also study aspects of modern Japan, plus sections on American government; American history from the War of 1812 through the Civil War; immigration, cities and citizenship; civil rights; and geography.

    Some are skeptical that young children can master such an ambitious curriculum; but in fact, they do it and have fun doing it.

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