U.Va. Researchers Receive $4.9M Grant to Study 'Core Knowledge' in Charter Schools

Aug. 7, 2009 — David W. Grissmer and Thomas G. White, researchers at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, have received a $4.9 million grant to evaluate the effectiveness of the "Core Knowledge" curriculum in 18 charter elementary schools in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Education is also participating.

The five-year grant is being funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education.

Grissmer, a principal research scientist, and White, a senior scientist, work at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, a national center based at the Curry School that focuses on the quality of teaching and students' learning.

The Core Knowledge curriculum, created by U.Va. professor emeritus and author E.D. Hirsch Jr., advocates a grade-by-grade core of common learning in English/reading, mathematics, science, history/geography, music and visual arts to establish a strong foundation of knowledge and ensure that children comprehend what they read in later grades. Hirsch based his innovative work on research in cognitive psychology, as well as examining several of the world's fairest and most effective school systems.

Hirsch founded the Charlottesville-based Core Knowledge Foundation as an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization in 1986. There are approximately 740 schools nationwide that have adopted the Core Knowledge Curriculum kindergarten through eighth grade.

"This project is a major effort of the Curry School's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning," said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School. "There have been several smaller-scale and less-well-controlled evaluations of Core Knowledge that suggest it has benefits for children's learning and achievement, but this will be the most comprehensive and well-controlled study to examine its effects. It is a definitive project and will clearly be an important one for education decision-makers."

The research has national importance, Grissmer said, because 3 percent to 5 percent of elementary students are enrolled in charter schools, many of which use the Core Knowledge curriculum.

"Starting a charter school is like opening a complex nonprofit from scratch," Grissmer said. "Some are opened by different groups of parents, and with Core Knowledge they have a ready-made curriculum they can use."

Grissmer and White will focus on 18 charter schools where the students are selected by lottery. They said this presents a unique opportunity for rigorous research because the participants and non-participants are randomly selected. The Colorado charter schools range from sparsely enrolled rural schools to 600- and 800-student urban schools.

Grissmer and White will examine students who start kindergarten next year and follow them for four years, assessing student's reading skills, oral vocabulary, listening comprehension, science, social studies, mathematics and writing. They will also conduct teacher surveys and classroom observations.

The project will also look at how conventional testing measures administered by the state of Colorado are impacted by Core Knowledge in the classroom.

Grissmer said he has not met Hirsch and will keep the Core Knowledge Foundation at arm's length to ensure the research remains independent. At the same time, he said having the foundation nearby will make it easier to get information about the program.

The Colorado education officials are fully supportive of the project, he said.

"I have never met a more enthusiastic education community as I have out there," Grissmer said.

— By Matt Kelly