Since it looks like NCLB isn’t going to reauthorized until 2010 or so, we should probably all hunker down and prepare for a steady stream of stories like this one, about a Montgomery County elementary school that spent an entire morning focused on art in protest of the curriculum narrowing effects of the federal law. The story then pivots, as all such stories do, to recent studies from CEP:
Her sentiments echoed a report released last month by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which found that many elementary schools across the country have allotted more time to reading and math by cutting time for social studies, science, art and physical education. The issue of “curriculum narrowing” has become a key part of the debate over reauthorizing the 2002 federal law, which is designed to improve reading and math proficiency.
It’s worth noting, first of all, that reporters routinely misinterpet the CEP data or present it in ways that aren’t really accurate. Sometimes they just botch the numbers entirely; in other instances–like this one–they’re vague to the point of being misleading. All we’re told here is that “many” districts have cut a range of subjects, including art. But a quick look at the actual CEP report, which was released a few weeks ago, shows that the percent of districts that reduced time on art–the entire subject of this story–was 16%. The number is right there on Table 1, on the second page of an eight-page report. So either the reporter (or her editor) didn’t bother to read it, or read it and chose not include the number in the story. Why? I imagine because it calls the story’s premise into question; 16% doesn’t feel so much like “many.” The CEP reports, moreover, suggest that districts most likely to cut time in subjects like art to increase time for reading and math are chronically low-performing districts that are really under the NLCB gun–districts not like Montgomery County.
More broadly, this whole conversation about the impact of NCLB on curricula needs to get beyond the simple formulation of “Curricula narrowed; ergo NCLB bad.” There are only so many hours in the school day. Priorities need to be set and choices must be made. The 16% of districts that cut art in favor of reading and math didn’t necessarily make a bad choice, unless you think that all districts had, pre-NCLB, miraculously arrived at the precise optimal mix of subjects and time. Reducing time for art in order to ensure that elementary school student can read might be exactly the kind of hard decision those students need.
Update: AFTie John nods approvingly, saying:
If you’re an NCLB lover, there’s no use trying to contact the reporter She’s too far gone. She writes that the morning of art focused attention on “a national reality: that art is often squeezed out of the curriculum by the academic rigors of the No Child Left Behind law.”
This is just a matter of definition, then. If you think 16% is “often,” then it’s a fair piece. If not, it’s not. John?
Update 2: John responds:
Well, a little extrapolating and back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that 4 million students (16% of ~ 25 million public K-6 students) are missing more than 30 hours of art instruction per year. So, yes, Kevin, I think that’s a lot of lost art instruction. But the art of defending NCLB against all comers is alive and well at Education Sector.
This is the “if you multiply some number times some other number times some other number times the entirety of the American public education system, the result is a non-trivial number” excuse, i.e. the last refuge of scoundrels. Again, those 30 hours of art and music instruction weren’t poured down a rat hole somewhere. They weren’t “lost,” they were replaced by 30 hours of instruction in reading and math. The result, presumably, is students who are better able to read and do math but have less skill in and appreciation of art and music. Is that–as John seems to believe–obviously a bad thing?
Taken in isolation, some of the provisions described above may seem inconsequential, amounting to 1 percent or less of school spending. But when the costs of these provisions are added together, they amount to a significant percentage of all school resources. As Table 9 shows, the eight provisions described above add up to almost 19 percent of all school spending. This amounts to roughly $77 gazillion* in school spending per year nationwide.
30 hours is about 2.7 percent of the roughly 1,100 hours of instruction schoolchildren get per year. That’s for the 16 percent of districts made cuts in art and music (the percent that cut art is presumably less). So, once again, this is a matter of definition. If you think that four tenths of one percent (.027 X .16) is comparable to 19 percent then John’s comparison is apt. If not, it’s not.
See also this thread at D-Ed Reckoning, whose commenter says:
As a musician and composer, I can say that trading some time teaching music for time teaching reading, assuming they’re actually teaching reading, is a perfectly OK tradeoff. Why? Because one can’t perform written sheet music without being able to read. One’s decoding skills have to be good enough to recognize words from English, Italian, French, and German.I’m looking at a piece right now that has the following words on it, just on the first line: Trompete, Langsam, Con Sordino, crescendo, Senza Sordino. If I couldn’t read those words, I wouldn’t be able to play the music, even if I could perfectly execute the instructions encoded on the staff itself. Music and art are valuable for both the heart and mind, but reading and math are necessary for success in anything, including music and art.