Common Core State Standards: The Knowledge Curriculum

William H. Young

Ironically, as important as structural changes such as school choice and school and teacher accountability have been, they do not address the principal underlying cause of the failure of public education: its adulterated academic curriculum and content and politicized pedagogy. These derive from the education monopoly, steeped in progressivism and postmodern multiculturalism, whose purpose is to instill what Heather Mac Donald has called “anything but knowledge.”[1]

The independently-prepared Common Core State Standards (CCSS) replace the detrimental de facto standards of the education Blob--which I described previously in Our Literacy Problem and Our Mathematics Problem—and seek a return to knowledge-based public education. The CCSS establish the knowledge-based skills that students should acquire in each grade, from kindergarten to the end of high school. They properly leave the task of developing the knowledge curriculum—the particular academic content being taught by teachers from lesson to lesson and from grade to grade and the associated pedagogy—to states and local school systems.

As the standards document for English Language Arts puts it:

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content…they do not, indeed cannot, enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.[2]

Education blogger Robert Pondiscio calls the following 57 words in the CCSS the most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk (1983):

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

Pondiscio argues that the foundation on which American education rests “must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.”[3]

The “intellectual forefather” of the CCSS, Virginia English professor emeritus E. D. Hirsch Jr., explicates how wide general knowledge and vocabulary are the key to student success in reading, which largely determines their future.

Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words. Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability—there are no shortcuts. The slow, compounding nature of vocabulary growth means that successful reform must lie in systematic knowledge-building….

Opponents of Common Core’s new nonfiction requirement ought to recognize that good, knowledge-enhancing nonfiction is literature that helps students gain a foundation of knowledge and words they need to understand fiction and everything else.

The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: “Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?”[4]

Hirsch argues that “the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold.” By skills he means those designated by the education Blob: critical thinking, problem solving, and clear writing—which are content-free.

Skills can’t be more important than knowledge for college and career because without knowledge, there are not “higher-order thinking and performance skills.” Skills depend on knowledge….Recently, educators’ focus on skills—particularly so-called 21st-century skills—and disparagement of knowledge got so bad that the National Research Council took up the issue, clarifying that skills and knowledge can’t be separated, and then exploring how deepening content knowledge could lead to better skills….

The necessary merger of deep content knowledge and higher-order skills is indeed reflected in the Common Core standards.[5]

A 2012 Brookings Institution paper, which concluded that “the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement,”[6] has been used by critics to seek abandonment of the CCSS.  But ignored is what two other Brookings papers say about the curriculum that states and local school districts are responsible to establish—in accordance with the CCSS. A 2009 Brookings paper found that:

Curriculum is the content and sequence of the experiences that are intended to be delivered to students in formal course work. Curriculum includes teaching materials such those that can be found in commercial textbooks and software applications. It also includes the pedagogy for delivering those materials when teachers receive guidance on how to teach the curriculum, or when software manages the pacing, prompts, and feedback that students receive as they engage with the materials….

There is virtually no evidence that setting high standards for content and quality leads to high achievement of its students. But curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.

We conclude that the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers. We recommend that the Obama administration undertake…actions to better integrate curriculum innovation and reform into its policy framework. [7]

And another 2012 Brookings report about instructional materials and teacher effectiveness concludes that

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness.[8]

Given the checkpoints along a needed new pathway by the CCSS, states and localities are free to choose new curricula and instructional materials that will improve their students’ learning and achievement.

David Coleman, the architect of the CCSS for English Language Arts/Literacy, explains why the types of curriculum changes sought by the CCSS are essential:

In elementary school it is critical that students read and write about books in history, social studies, science, and the arts to build their knowledge of the world. A strong general knowledge and vocabulary gained through reading, writing, speaking, and listening is essential for later reading growth and achievement. However, today students read overwhelmingly stories in elementary school; students do not read nearly enough rich nonfiction. The Standards require that all students equally read rich literature in elementary school as well as rich nonfiction….

In addition to ensuring that students read a lot more high-quality informational text, the Standards require that kids read texts of increasing complexity as they grow older. The single most important predictor of student success in college is their ability to read a range of complex text with understanding….The Standards provide annual goals for the level of the texts students need to be reading in order to be on track to college….

Reading complex fiction and nonfiction and reading it with understanding; these are the key ingredients of a college- and career-ready reader.[9]

A key document that explains the purpose and direction of the CCSS is the Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3‒12.

The criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.

At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself. In aligned materials, work in reading and writing (as well as speaking and listening) must center on the text under consideration. The standards focus on students reading closely to draw evidence and knowledge from the text and require students to read texts of adequate range and complexity….

The standards and these criteria sharpen the focus on the close connection between comprehension of text and acquisition of knowledge. While the link between comprehension and knowledge in reading science and history texts is clear, the same principle applies to all reading. The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text….[10]

Hirsch argues that the best way to teach “English language arts” is to teach systematically the substantive domains of knowledge along with their inherently related vocabularies.

In fact, the whole issue needs to be broadened by a return to real classes in history, science, and the arts in the elementary grades, as the best way to gain proficiency in reading. This larger principle transcends the currently debated topic of fictional vs. non-fictional genres. Much good fiction is a repository of domain knowledge—not just of human nature and ethical principles, but also of historical and factual knowledge…as well as the forms and techniques of literature, like simile and metaphor, prefixes and suffixes, which are just as “informational” as chemical valences. What is needed for college and career readiness is extensive general knowledge over multiple domains, coherently delivered—with lots of Tier 3 words.[11]

The kinds of curricula expected by the CCSS are intended to override the education Blob’s dismissal of content knowledge, for which, it argues, kids can later just Google any facts needed. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli argues that the CCSS will fix that misguided concept.

If schools want to do well on common-core assessments, they had better start teaching students knowledge.[12]

Over recent decades, the proportion of high school students taking more-rigorous-sounding curricula or courses has nearly tripled. But such courses are often less rigorous than claimed and have not led to greater student knowledge or achievement on standardized national tests.[13] Inflated course credentials may have served the vanity of some educators and parents, but have not served the needs of students.

States and local school systems—and especially parents—need to recognize the rare opportunity that the CCSS have given them to transmute their public schools’ curricula—still imbued with progressivism and postmodern multiculturalism and long imposed by the education Blob on schooling. Seizing the opportunity to reform public education by structuring a new knowledge-based curriculum may be their last chance to return American education to teaching the academic content that can make their children ready for college, career, and citizenship-and authentic adulthood.

Next week’s article will address the mistaken charges that the CCSS constitute a “national curriculum.” The following week’s article will cover the debate over the CCSS requirement to increase the reading of nonfiction versus fiction.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).



[1] Heather Mac Donald, “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, Spring 1998.

[2]What is not covered by the Standards,” Introduction/Key Design Consideration, English Language Arts Standards.

[3] Robert Pondiscio, “The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever,”, 20 September 2012.

[4] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 December 2012.

[5] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “The Skills Stranglehold,”, 21 February 2013.

[6] Tom Loveless, How Well Are American Students Learning? Brown Center, Brookings Institution, February 2012.

[7] Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Don’t Forget Curriculum, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, October 2009.

[8] Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, 10 April 2012.

[9] Renaissance Learning, Inc., What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools, 2012.

[11] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Mere Facts, Mere Knowledge, Mere College Readiness,”  25 February 2013.

[12] Michael J. Petrilli, “To Close the ‘Opportunity Gap,’ We Need to Close the Vocabulary Gap,” Education Week, 7 May 2013.

[13] Sam Dillon, “High School Classes May Be Advanced in Name Only,” The New York Times, 25 April 2011. Mark Schneider, “Obama’s Education Hopes Face Achievement Realities,” The American, The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, 29 April 2009.



Image: Max Pixel, Public Domain



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