CKLA is an English Language Arts curriculum developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation and published by Dr. E.D. Hirsh. “The Core Knowledge Sequence is a detailed outline of recommended content knowledge and skills to be taught in language arts, history and geography, visual arts, music, mathematics, and science from preschool through grade eight. The Sequence complements the general skills and objectives typically found in state and local curriculum guides.” The curriculum is very detailed at 357 pages long. It includes explicit instruction on phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Fundamental to this curriculum is its systematic development of background knowledge instruction. Individuals such as Daniel Willingham, and Hirsh Jr. have theorized that systematic knowledge building can improve reading comprehension. For more information about this theory click here: https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/_files/ugd/237d54_ba203a114c7a4081932e7d84810d807e.pdf
I have been publicly critical of the strength of the claims often made surrounding this theory. However, I think it should also be noted that there is no evidence of harm from a curriculum that systematically builds background knowledge. Moreover, there is certainly a theoretical benefit.
Is based on the CKLA program but has more diverse topics, as well as several computer-based improvements that include: readymade slide decks, Dynamic live review tools, learning management systems, animated videos, recorded read-alouds, a professional development website, and real time support. I interviewed an Amplify CKLA teacher about the program and you can listen to it here: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/interview-jennifer-cyr-on-amplify-ckla/id1448225801?i=1000550395984 I was in particular impressed with how powerful their formative assessment tools were.
To analyze the efficacy of CKLA, I looked at studies on the topic with control groups and analyzed their results. I searched for studies on both company websites, on Education Source, and on Google. I also reached out to Dr. Sonia Cabell, who is currently conducting research on CKLA (and is a phenomenal researcher) to ask her if she had any studies that she could recommend to me. In total I found 20 studies. However, only 4 of these studies had a control group and enough reporting detail for me to find an effect size.
Grissmer, et al. published a four-year-long experimental working paper with eight other scholars, on the impact of the Core Knowledge Curriculum on standardized test scores. The study employed an RCT study design, had a sample size of 6652 (after attrition), and used standardized, norm referenced testing. In this study, students entered into lotteries to try and attend highly competitive charter schools, which also used the Core Knowledge curriculum. The researchers then compared the students who entered the lottery and won, vs the students who entered, but did not win and had to attend public school education. The study did have a high attrition rate of 34.1%; however, high attrition rates are often quite normal for longer studies. The students in the treatment group showed a mean effect size for English proficiency, of .47. This would suggest that the study results showed a strong positive result on English proficiency. The study also showed particularly positive benefits for low-income students with an effect size of 1.29 on English proficiency.
That said, it does need to be pointed out that, students in the treatment group attended highly competitive charter schools. Indeed, these schools were so competitive that parents entered lottery pools for their students to attend. Conversely, students in the comparison group stayed in the public school system and received business as usual instruction. This means that there is no real way to know what instruction looked like in the comparison group. Ostensibly, this is not really a study on just the CKLA program, but also a study on the impacts of specific charter schools. In order to assume that the effect size here represents was caused by the Core Knowledge curriculum, we also have to assume that there were no other significant differences between these charter schools and the public schools. This assumption does seem to be quite a stretch. None of this is to say that this research is not important or that it does not build on the scientific understanding of the topic. However, it cannot be used in isolation as definitive proof that the CKLA program works.
Cabell & Hwang, 2020: Sonia Cabell and Dr. HyeJin Hwang published preliminary results on 2 large scale RCTs on the efficacy of CKLA: Knowledge, in 2020. While the full results are not yet publicly available, Dr. Cabell was kind enough to send me her submitted manuscript for the full study details. The two studies were essentially identical as the second study was a replication of the first. Both studies compared CKLA to a business-as-usual control group, across 23 schools. The studies focused on kindergarten students and each lasted 1 semester. Both proximal (researcher designed) and distal (standardized) assessments were used. Overall, a mean effect size of .39 was found, .59 for proximal assessments and .10 for distal assessments.
Amplify 2018: Amplify published their own cohort study in 2018, without peer-reviewing it. The study included 2801 grade 5 students and compared students' ELA state test scores for the year before Amplify CKLA was implemented to the year after. The original authors found a small effect size of .26.
Synthesis Methodology: I synthesized the results of these four studies to calculate a mean overall Cohen’s d effect size, for the Core Knowledge curriculum. 95% confidence intervals were also used to calculate the probable range of study results. The study effect sizes were weighted by their inverse variance. However, the 2018 Amplify study only listed the full study sample size and not the sample size for the treatment and control groups respectively. To include the 2018 study, we had to make the theoretical assumption that both groups had the same sample size.
All 4 of these studies showed overall statistically significant results, when comparing the treatment group performance to the control group. However, only (Grissmer, 2023) showed moderate or higher results on a standardized test. The overall weighted mean effect size was .30 and the raw-unweighted mean was .33 [.23, .43]. The below graph displays the moderator variables, to model how these outcomes changed across assessed variables.
Figure 1: CKLA Moderator Analysis
Typically studies with more rigorous controls and measurements lead to lower effect sizes. To model how study rigor/quality impacted the mean result found, I have created the below regression analysis.
The Core Knowledge curriculum and the Amplify CKLA program have four experimental studies examining their efficacy. All four studies showed positive results when comparing a CKLA treatment group to a business-as-usual control group. Proximal effect sizes were large to moderate. Overall effect sizes were small but significant. And most distal/standardized assessment effect sizes were negligible (according to Cohen’s guide). While the mean effect size was small, the quality of the studies, in my opinion were relatively high when compared to what I see for other programs. CKLA is one of the most comprehensive programs available in that it offers both foundational skills and an English Language Arts curriculum. One semi-frequent criticism of CKLA is that it is not the most culturally relevant program, as discussed by Ann Schimke in a 2022 ChalkBeat article. Wit and Wisdom is a similar program to CKLA that is often offered as a culturally responsive alternative to CKLA. However, unlike CKLA it does not contain foundational skill instruction within the base program and therefore needs to be paired with an additional program.
Overall Grade: B+ The principles of CKLA are solidly research based. There are three studies with control groups showing statistically significant benefits.
Qualitative Grade for CKLA: 9/10
The Amplify CKLA program contains the following evidence-based types of instruction: explicit, phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Qualitative Grade for Amplify CKLA: 10/10
The Amplify CKLA program contains the following evidence-based types of instruction: explicit, individualized, phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Updated 223-07-12
-Amplify. (n.d). Home. https://amplify.com/
-Amplify. (2019). Amplify CKLA AZ grade 5 efficacy research report. https://amplify.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CKLA_AZ-grade-5-efficacy-research-report.pdf
-Cabell, S. Q. & Hwang, H. (2020). Building content knowledge to boost
comprehension in the primary grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S99-S107. doi:10.1002/rrq.338
-Cabell, S. Q., Kim, J. S., White, T. G., Gale, C., Edwards, A., Hwang, H., Petscher, Y., & Raines, R. (submitted). Impact of a content-rich literacy curriculum on kindergarteners’ vocabulary, listening comprehension, and content knowledge.
-Core Knowledge. (n.d). Our Approach. https://www.coreknowledge.org/our-approach/core-knowledge-sequence/
-Core Knowledge. (2023). Scope and Sequence. https://www.coreknowledge.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/CK_Sequence-2023_GK-8_W2.pdf
-Grissmer, D,. Buddin, R,. Berends, M,. Willingham, D,. DeCoster, J,. Duran, C,. Hulleman, C,. Murrah & Evans, T. (2023). A Kindergarten Lottery Evaluation of Core Knowledge Charter Schools: Should Building General Knowledge Have a Central Role in Educational and Social Science Research and Policy? Annenberg University. https://edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai23-755.pdf
-Schimke, A. (2022). How a Colorado district changed its reading curriculum to better reflect students. ChalkBeat. https://co.chalkbeat.org/2022/10/18/23401005/denver-inclusive-diverse-new-reading-curriculum-culturally-responsive-education-history
-Pedagogy Non Grata. (2022). Interview Jennifer Cyr On Amplify CKLA. https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/pedagogy-non-grata/id1448225801