Lots of buzz about yesterday’s page-one NY Times piece on how NCLB’s focus on math and reading is leading schools to cut back on art, science, history, and other subjects. This is a troubling trend that Education Sector reported back in January. But today’s commentary on the Times report has mis-framed the issue is a couple of big ways.
The Times piece points out that the bulk of the curriculum cuts have come in schools serving underperforming students in disadvantaged schools. But the paper, and many of NCLB’s critics, then suggest that many of the schools cutting back non-tested subjects “once offered rich curriculums” in the subjects being cut. In truth, art, music, and science courses in many schools serving the nation’s neediest students are next to non-existant. Art is rolled into classrooms on a cart once a week for 30 minutes. Music is 40 kids in a room trying to clap their hands in 4-4 time. A lot of kids never had what the Times says they lost.
NCLB’s advocates, meanwhile, defend the focusing of struggling students’ time on the core subjects of math and reading. What good is studying history if you can’t read, they ask, fairly? Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aides in the UK, which implemented test-based accountability in the late 1990s, say quite candidly that they sought to narrow the UK curriculum for exactly this reason.
But learning specialists–and good teachers–will tell you it’s not an either-or proposition; it’s not reading or history. Rather, they say, it should be reading history. That is, kids should be listening to stories about historical characters and events even before they can read, and once they can decode they should read books, even very simple ones, about science, history, art, and music. The research is very clear on this: the best reading instruction weaves content into skill-building from day one. Unfortunately, far too much of what passes for reading instruction under NCLB is sterile skill-based exercises focused on helping kids pass state tests that focus on low-level skills.
Struggling students need extra help catching up in the building-block subjects of math and reading and NCLB is giving educators strong incentives to provide that help. But that’s only half the solution.