A new study from the Center on Education Policy Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era is providing a new spark to the debate over the No Child Left Behind law. The study finds improvement in math and science scores, but at a price. The finds are as follows:
Increased time for tested subjects since 2002. About 62% of districts reported that they have increased time for English language arts1 (ELA) and/or math in elementary schools since school year 2001-02 (the year NCLB was enacted), and more than 20% reported increasing time for these subjects in middle school since then. Among districts that reported increasing time for ELA and math, the average increase in minutes per week since 2001-02 was substantial, amounting to a 46% increase in ELA, a 37% increase in math, and a 42% increase across the two subjects combined.
Reduced time for other subjects. To accommodate this increased time in ELA and math, 44% of districts reported cutting time from one or more other subjects or activities (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess) at the elementary level. Again, the decreases reported by these districts were relatively large, adding up to a total of 141 minutes per week across all of these subjects, on average, or nearly 30 minutes per day. These decreases represent an average reduction of 31% in the total instructional time devoted to these subjects since 2001-02.
Increases and decreases more prevalent in districts with schools identified for improvement. Greater proportions of districts with at least one school identified for NCLB improvement than of districts without schools in improvement reported that they have increased time for ELA and/or math at the elementary and middle school levels since school year 2001-02. Districts with at least one school in improvement also reported in greater proportions than districts without schools in improvement that they have decreased time in social studies, science, and art and music.
Greater emphasis on tested content and skills. Since 2001-02, most districts have changed their ELA and math curricula to put greater emphasis on the content and skills covered on the state tests used for NCLB. In elementary level reading, 84% of districts reported that they have changed their curriculum “somewhat” or “to a great extent” to put greater emphasis on tested content; in middle school ELA, 79% reported making this change, and in high school ELA, 76%. Similarly, in math, 81% of districts reported that they have changed their curriculum at the elementary and middle school level to emphasize tested content and skills, and 78% reported having done so at the high school level.
These findings raised concerns as to whether students are getting a well-rounded education. The report recommend the following:
Stagger testing requirements to include tests in other academic subjects. Because our survey data indicate that what is tested is what is taught, students should be tested in math and English language arts in grades 3, 5, and 7 and once in high school, and in social studies and science in grades 4, 6, and 8 and once in high school. These tests should be used for accountability purposes. By staggering the subjects tested, the total amount of NCLB-mandated testing would stay the same, except in states that do not currently test social studies in high school.
Encourage states to give adequate emphasis to art and music. States should review their curriculum guidelines to ensure that they encourage adequate attention to and time for art and music, and should consider including measures of knowledge and skills in art and music among the multiple measures used for NCLB accountability.
Require states to arrange for an independent review, at least once every three years, of their standards and assessments to ensure that they are of high quality and rigor. Because districts in our survey report that they are changing their curriculum to put more emphasis on content and skills covered on the tests used for accountability, states should be sure these tests are “good” tests by commissioning reviews of their standards and assessments by independent organizations or agencies.
Provide federal funds for research to determine the best ways to incorporate the teaching of reading and math skills into social studies and science. By integrating reading and math instruction into other core academic subjects, students will be more ensured of a rich, well-rounded curriculum. Funds should also be provided through Title I and Title II of NCLB to train teachers in using these techniques.
I hope the recommendations will be carefully reviewed in the process of reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law. Math and reading are foundation skills - however at some point it is necessary to build upon that foundation. Otherwise, you end up with a massive cellar and little living space above. In the I-Cubed Economy, it is important to be able to do your sums and follow written instructions. That is the starting point. But those are industrial era skills. Creativity in numerous areas is the driver of prosperity today. If our schools are not fostering that creativity, then we are preparing our children for 1910, not 2010.