Best Bets

The Core Knowledge Sequence

Description: Dr. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. believes that there is a body of knowledge with which people must be familiar in order to be “culturally literate.” On the individual student level, Hirsch has found that learning is most effective when topics are tackled in-depth. These convictions underscore the Core Knowledge Sequence, a curriculum that approaches learning as a cohesive whole, not isolated subjects and grade levels. The Core Knowledge Sequence integrates all subjects, from reading, to history, to math, providing students with the depth they need to understand concepts about which they are reading, as well as the knowledge necessary to understand the culture in which they live. No grades or subjects in Core Knowledge are disconnected; when a fourth grader is reading Arthurian legends in language arts, he is also studying the Middle Ages in history, art, and other classes.

Reading note: While the Core Knowledge Sequence is an excellent tool for teaching reading comprehension, it does not provide explicit phonics instruction. However, pairing it with any of the phonics curricula mentioned in the reading section below will be very effective.
Publisher: Various, but all publications are available on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s web site.

Grades: K-8

Web Site:

CER’s Reading “Best Bets”

What to look for in a quality reading program:

The key to a good reading program is logical progression – building ability like a house, from the foundation up. In reading, the foundation is broadly called phonics; teaching students to identify the sounds of letters and letter combinations, and how these sounds are represented in written language. To be effective for most kids, a reading curriculum must include a major phonics component. True, some children are able to translate written language into the language they hear and speak without phonics instruction, but research shows that they are a small minority.

Once phonetic fluency is achieved, students must develop their ability to comprehend large passages of text. Like phonics instruction, developing reading comprehension is a logical process, based on the idea that children’s ability to understand text is driven largely by their knowledge of the concepts the text discusses. An extreme example illustrates this: most adults can read the words contained in a graduate-level physics book. Few, however, can comprehend what they are reading because they have no understanding of the concepts on which it is based. Simply: it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. The following are exemplary programs that meet the criteria that produce the best results for students.

SRA Open Court Reading

Description: This program, which typically boosts reading scores by 10 to 20 points in the first couple of years after implementation, combines explicit phonics instruction with challenging reading comprehension. Open Court’s greatest accomplishment: launching previously dismal first grade reading scores in Los Angeles past the national average after only one year of use.

Grades: K-6

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SRA Direct Instruction

Description: Like Open Court, this program uses a combination of explicit phonics instruction and reading comprehension lessons. However, it is different in an important way: Direct Instruction (DI). DI is a fast-paced, highly structured teaching method that has gained fame for its ability to bring children who have fallen behind their peers back up to grade level – and beyond. It cuts out the “fat” found in many curricular models. SRA’s is the only DI curriculum officially approved by the Association for Direct Instruction.

Grades: K-12

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Saxon Reading and Math

Description: Published by a company that gained national notoriety for math curricula designed around a “building blocks” approach, Saxon’s phonics program does the same thing for reading. The Saxon series of textbooks focuses on phonics and is designed to supplement other reading programs, like Core Knowledge.

Publisher: Saxon Publishers, Harcourt Achieve

Grades: K-12.

Web Site:

CER’s Mathematics “Best Bets”

What to look for in a highly successful math program:

Just like reading, math instruction is most effective when it works from the foundation up. That means students must first be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide – without a calculator. Only then can they move on to other mathematical functions. Just as readers must have mastered phonics to understand large reading passages, students must be proficient in basic arithmetic before they can tackle tougher mathematical concepts.

Traditional math advocates caution consumers about buzz phrases such as a “higher-order thinking,” “conceptual understanding,” and “solving problems,” says Mathematically Correct, an organization of parents, educators, mathematicians and others dismayed by the poor state of math instruction in the United States. “It neglects the systematic mastery of the fundamental building blocks necessary for success in any of these areas … they shun things like algorithms and repeated practice.” The following programs have one thing in common: they stress teaching the basics, without calculators, and their lessons build logically on concepts already taught.

Saxon Math

Description: Though Saxon’s reading program is also on the list, it is in math that the company made its name. Actually, the name comes from the company’s founder, John Saxon, who in 1979 started publishing textbooks designed to teach new math concepts while constantly reinforcing old. That constant reinforcement is the hallmark of the Saxon curriculum, as is producing textbooks that focus on skills, not pretty pictures, calculator use, or group work. See Above link for reading.

Publisher: Saxon Publishers, Harcourt Achieve

Grades: K-12

Singapore Math

Description: In 1995, eighth-graders in the tiny nation of Singapore finished first in the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). In 1999 they repeated the feat. In contrast, the U.S. finished in the middle of the pack both times. Clearly they’re doing something right in Singapore – they’re stressing fundamentals to an extent not seen in U.S. programs. Singapore math starts by introducing first-graders to counting using blocks and pictures; teaches second grade students multiplication and division; and, by fourth grade, students are learning simple algebra. Most importantly, Singapore Math focuses on quick, mental calculations – students don’t even see a calculator until the seventh grade.

Publisher: Various, but there is at least one easily accessible distributor of Singaporean textbooks in the U.S.

Grades: K-12

Web Site:

Understanding your child’s mathematics education

In mathematics, parental involvement maybe more critical than you think. Placing children in highly rated schools with qualified teachers and making sure they bring home good math grades is not enough.

Today, parents should be proactive for many reasons. Recent fads in mathematics education often decrease attention to rigorous achievement. They may emphasize calculators and downplay manual computation, or be so strongly biased toward discovery learning that they are devoid of clear explanations and worked-out examples. In fact, the country as a whole isn’t doing very well in math compared to other developed nations. Also, grade inflation has watered down the meaning of an “A” in math. Here are some steps you take to get involved in your child’s math education:

Identify what your child should know and be able to do. Children who are ready for algebra by eighth grade are much more likely to succeed later on than those who are not, and these children are doing about as well as students in the most successful countries. Effective mathematics education requires a plan of achievement across grade levels to put your child on the path for success. Parents need to identify clear goals that are explicit about what children should know and be able to do at a given grade level. The clearest and most explicit mathematics standards were recently adopted in California. They also deliberately set high expectations for achievement -California wants to bring their children up to “world class” levels.

Compare your child’s achievement relative to these goals. Involved parents should know which standards their children can meet and which ones need more work. There are sample problems for each of the California standards through algebra that you can use with your children. You are diagnosing strengths and weaknesses, and this is critical for identifying your child’s educational needs.

Compare your child’s math learning experiences to the needs identified above.Study your child’s math book and the work done both in school and at home. If you need more elaboration about the standards, see the curriculum framework document. This also provides guidelines that can be used to evaluate mathematics textbooks. Do your child’s math textbook and student work build up achievement to fit the needs you discovered in Step 2 above? Unfortunately, many parents will find that there are areas where the needed progress is not likely to be forthcoming. If this is the case, you have found that the learning prescription for your child needs to change.

Fix the problems you found. (This is the hardest step.) Sometimes just talking to teachers and school personnel about your concerns will help. Other times, they may feel threatened or just tell you that such matters are better left to professionals. Don’t be discouraged – just focus on what you your child needs to learn. Find a few other involved parents and share information with them. When the school system won’t change enough to solve the problem, you may need to look for books or tutors to help fill in the gaps. In the worst cases, your child may need to do a lot of “extra” work. If you can set small, interim goals, at least you will be able to see progress. There is no easy solution, so the earlier you get involved the better.

-Paul Clopton is a biomedical research statistician with the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego. He became active in K-12 mathematics education in reaction to the experience of his own children in public schools. He is a cofounder of Mathematically Correct and has worked on the state mathematics framework, statewide tests, and textbook adoptions in California).

Don’t know much about history?

When 80 percent of college seniors receive a “D” or “F” on a short high school level American history test (unable to identify when the Civil War was fought or Germany’s allies during World War II), it’s time to shake up the nation’s history lessons.

One place to start is with our textbooks.

Because 81 percent of social studies teachers did not major or minor in history, these teachers are heavily dependent on their textbooks. And as publishers place a higher worth on “design values” such as graphs, photos, and cartoons, content in these textbooks has fallen, creating gaps in what students might learn.

For example, the sixth grade text The World contains 28 lines on the North American Free Trade Agreement but nothing on Albert Einstein.
As the written word has decreased, publishers have made choices to create space, reducing references to explorers and founders who created our nation, and emphasizing pop culture figures in a wrong-headed effort to make such texts more attractive (but thus, less challenging) to students.

In the 11th grade text The Americans, sections on the 1920s feature flagpole sitting, Al Capone, Aimee Semple McPherson, George Gershwin, Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington. As researcher Gilbert Sewell points out in his analysis for the American Textbook Council, “Andrew Mellon and Herbert Hoover, isolationism and geopolitics, revolutions in communications and electricity, medicine and transportation, speculation in real estate and securities, the Crash of 1929 – all are shortchanged in the textbook.”

The same philosophy has led to classroom projects that seem inconsequential. Writing in American Educator, Sewall notes “The most ambitious of the nation’s new secondary-level history textbooks, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe’s American Journey – whose authors include a former president of the American Historical Association … – features a Taffy Pull, complete with a recipe and an invitation for students to relive the social event of the 1800s and early 1900s.”

If this is the way high school students spend a valuable class period, is it any wonder they cannot identify Theodore Roosevelt?
Perhaps worse, history textbooks have swung toward “political correctness” to overcompensate for past mistakes. Where 30 years ago, many texts barely mentioned the importance of slavery in the United States’ development, today they throw in disconnected “factoids,” making heroes of little known individuals as Mansa Masu, Rigoverta Menchu and Anne Hutchinson, at the expense of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Edison and Henry Clay.

How do these books get adopted?

California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina dictate the texts used in schools. Nineteen other states publish lists from which local school districts may choose. The others all permit local choice adoption.

Areas with local textbook adoptions often permit at least a semblance of participation by parents, although such recommendation committees are typically top-heavy with school staff members.

Sewall offers clear goals: “History textbooks should be accurate and interesting. They should record what actually happened, and do so with some drama, conveying rich details, making an effort at objectivity, and making clear to children why a person, event, or geographical detail was of significance and importance. They should explain, not indoctrinate.”

Parents and teachers should seek history textbooks that impose order on the past, with an emphasis on written text. Graphs, photographs, and maps should illuminatethe text – not substitute for it in a disjointed manner. Other important steps –

Review the information for accuracy, and look for texts that are narrative stories, placing our history in context.

Consider purchasing slightly dated textbooks, supplementing them with current materials. Such books are often less expensive, but have more detail and clarity than the new breed of history texts.

Finally, contact the American Textbook Council at (212) 289-5177 or and ask for their analyses of history texts as a guide in your school’s next purchase. Their latest report, and other offerings, will help ensure that – even if history was not your favorite subject in school – your children will understand how our nation and world got where it is today.

Getting science right.

A well designed science curriculum will send a student home with in-depth knowledge of plants, animals, gravity, stars, electricity and much more. Not only will the student learn the facts about these topics, but she will also understand the general laws of nature, know important facts and ideas about the universe and be able to use some of the methods that scientists use. Finally, a good school will encourage a child to apply the concepts learned in science to other subjects and teach them how to systematically research, communicate and present their ideas.

What can you do to make sure your child’s science education measures up?

Check out your child’s textbook. California has a watchdog group called The Textbook League that provides independent, expert appraisals of textbooks that publishers are currently selling to schools. See if your child’s book is one of over 120 books they have reviewed.

Compare your child’s science class to what Core Knowledge offers. Is he learning about the five senses in kindergarten, magnetism, plants and animals in 4th grade, or sound waves in 8th grade?

How hands-on is the science program? One Arizona charter school, NFL-Yet, has created an entire eco-system outside the classrooms. The children feed the animals, watch nature evolve and tend to the vegetation.

Ask questions! Does your science teacher know science or merely hold a credential? Is it an actual course of study? If it is your area of expertise, you might offer to help out!

The importance of the arts at school

Does Music Class Help Children Learn?

Whenever a school budget is under the axe, it is presumed that music will be among the first of the budget items to be cut, as if there’s no fat in the budget elsewhere. For a long time, communities did not know how to justify why music was important to getting children a solid education. It just somehow made sense. Does music make a difference in the life of a student?

Many music educators believe that studying music strengthens student’s academic performance. Their research suggests that the continuous building of music skills as part the curriculum can significantly improve a child’s performance in reading and math.

So, how important is music education? It’s an argument which parents who favor music education have had a hard time making. But they shouldn’t have to struggle so hard.

Music is a rigorous discipline and music teachers will tell you that it is an essential part of any balanced curriculum, and they have some substantial evidence to back up this claim.

College-bound students, for example, are advised by the College Board to include arts and music courses in their schedule to show that they have a broad range of interests. And this advice is based in reality: a few years ago, medical schools admitted music majors at a higher rate than any other group of applicants. And a veteran of high-tech triumphs in Silicon Valley once observed that the very best engineers and technical designers in the computer industry are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians.

Regardless of a student’s college plans, music instruction can dramatically enhance a child’s abstract reasoning skills. This skill is also better developed by music education than computing classes, according to one study.

So if your foot is tapping and your child’s isn’t yet, what makes for a good music education?

Exposing children to music history, music literature, music in society – including singing in ensembles – children learn to appreciate sounds beyond the pop and rap fare available on the airwaves.

So get with the beat and keep the budget cutters at bay. Let them know that the discipline of performing music helps kids develop habits that will allow them to perform better in all areas of their lives.

For more information check out these websites:

1. National Association for Music Education lists national standards for music education and many useful links.
2. The NAMM Foundation provides research information and great links.

Is Your Child Musically Inclined?

My child loves music but her school doesn’t offer a good program. What should I do?

Seek out private teachers. The best way to find them is to call your local college or university music department and ask if any of the professors offer private lessons. Or, check out your local music store. If they rent instruments, they might also have a studio of teachers. For stringed instrument instruction, check out the American String Teachers Association.

What should I look for in a private instructor?

Experience and personality. Look for someone who designs the teaching programs around each child’s personality. A good match between student and teacher is a key ingredient to success. Sharon Godrick, an award-winning piano teacher in Vermont with a studio of more than 100 students, says “If you give them something they want to play, they’ll enjoy playing.”

How much should my child practice each day?

Godrick recommends a half-hour practice session per day for a half-hour weekly lesson. However, if a half-hour is too long for a child to focus on practicing, try breaking it up into several 10-minute sessions. Two 10-minute sessions are better than no practice at all, she points out. In addition to work on the instrument itself, she recommends other practice activities for children – tapping out rhythms, for example, away from the keyboard.

What if my child won’t practice?

Godrick recommends that you first try avoiding the word “practice” if your child has a real mental block about devoting the necessary time to mastering the instrument. Instead, she says, tell your child to “give you a concert” every day. If this doesn’t work, you should approach the teacher with practice problems. “I always tell parents to let me handle it,” she says. She, like many teachers, has a variety of techniques, ranging from making practice charts for students to searching for music they want to play, to help motivate students.

How can you use art to help your child achieve?

1. Begin with exposing both you and your child to art museums and books of art.

2. Provide materials that encourage creativity such as pencils, paper, crayons, paper scraps and watercolors. These “toys” are far less expensive than most.

3. Provide a space for your child to exhibit his work (refrigerator, wall, bulletin board…)

4. Write down what your child says about their creations. This may involve guiding questions from you, such as “Can you describe what you created?”

5. Refrain from comments that may contradict what your child has expressed about her creation, such as ” That doesn’t look like a dog” or “Dogs aren’t blue.” Use reinforcing comments such as, “I like how you made the dog so colorful.”

6. Encourage your child to develop his problem solving techniques by having him draw when he is upset. His drawing will enable him to see what happened so you can discuss ways to solve the problem.

7. A journal provides a place for your child to return to each day to draw out what she did. You can encourage her by adding personal words and dates to their drawings.

8. Let the arts inspire you and open you and your child to a colorful way of seeing and learning!

The SAIL (School for Arts in Learning) charter school in Washington, DC contributed to this article.