How depressing.

Right there on the front page of the New York Times this morning:

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.

Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

Notice that science is not one of the mandated subjects, nor is history. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and these good intentions appear to be contributing to the raising of a generation of students who don’t have enough background in science and history to recognize pseudoscience or pseudohistory when they see it. This deficiency is likely to lead them to become even more easy marks for concepts like “intelligent design” creationism or Holocaust denial, and even less able to critically evaluate claims based in science or analogies based on history than Americans are already.

Don’t get me wrong. If you can’t read, then it’s almost impossible to learn history or science, and if you can’t do basic math a lot of science becomes forever inaccessible. These two subjects are the core, particularly English, given that, in this society illiterate people tend to be forever doomed to low-skill, low-wage jobs. But why limit ourselves to just these two subjects? It’s the law of unintended consequences, but these consequences were not unforeseen. After all, if there’s no testing and accountability in topics other than English or math, it doesn’t take much insight to predict that topics not tested would be emphasized less, and not just in failing schools where the axe might fall, but in all schools subject to this law. This is particularly so because No Child Left Behind was in essence an unfunded mandate on local schools.


  1. #1 Nathan
    March 26, 2006

    I’d want to know more about the cutbacks before I get alarmed. If we are talking about elementary school – it might not be that bad. If we are talking about high schools – well, there may be a problem.

    But even if it is high school, I don’t know what the curriculums were before they were cut – nor do I know what they are like afterwards. I know they are cutting some courses to make time for math and reading, but I don’t know what’s still being taught.

    There’s potential for trouble – but not a certainty of it.

    And I’m always skeptical of the New York Times. Especially when they have a chance to criticize an Administration program.

  2. #2 jpd
    March 26, 2006

    I was on the parent’s board for my local public high school, and the principal absolutely hated this law, and accurately predicted the consequences 2 years ago. This should be no surprise to anyone with half a brain, which of course leaves the Rep’s and in particular GW left behind.

    Just chalk this up to Reason # 1005 to work for the overthrow of the budsding Rep Theocracy.

  3. #3 steve
    March 26, 2006

    “Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math,”

    Tripling the time students spend on math & reading is supposed to be a bad thing? Its unfortunate that school officials have to be held accountable like this, but that’s the reality of public schools.

  4. #4 usagi
    March 26, 2006

    NCLB has never been about “accountability” nor has it been about learning. It’s about attempting to quantify a non-quantifiable outcome (They answered 8 of the 10 questions correctly, so they must have better reading comprehension–no, that means they figured out how to take the test, or, worse, the school officials have worked out how to best game the test results to increase their funding, which may or may not benefit the education of the students).

    Steve, you’re proceeding from the false assumption that increasing the amount of time spent with low-proficiency students will lead to better outcomes. If the cause of the student’s inability to perform on the test is related to another factor, spending more time doing the same thing that doesn’t help the student’s understanding is far more likely to result in nothing other than the student learning (quickly) to dread school and testing.

    Worse, it is simply insane to begin standardized testing as early as NCLB requires. I have a two and a half year old niece whose mother is considering coaching for kindergarden admissions. We know what this education model looks like. It’s called Japan, and frankly, it’s not a pretty picture.

  5. #5 Shygetz
    March 26, 2006

    Tripling the time students spend on math & reading is supposed to be a bad thing?

    When you have a finite amount of time in the school day, yeah, it is. It means less civics, less history, less science, etc., etc.

    I find it amazing that the same party that emphasizes Federalism when it suits them would neuter local school boards by mandating this kind of unbalanced focus in schools.

  6. #6 Anonnie Maus
    March 26, 2006

    NCLB isn’t exactly unfunded by the feds… and given some of the waste I’ve heard about and seen in the school district my husband works for, I’m fast losing sympathy for school districts claiming they are underfunded.

    Districts aren’t properly handling meeting the requirements for NCLB – if the districts would take advantage of the available tutoring funds, teachers would have more time to teach subjects other than reading and math, because reading and math deficiencies would be covered in the tutoring sessions. Holler at your school districts.

  7. #7 wheatdogg
    March 26, 2006

    A clever teacher (there are a few of those, really) could have her/his students read books about history and science. Depends on how closely the curriculum has to follow the test. To me, reading anything has to help prep a kid for taking a test, if the reading exercises are chosen carefully.

    I remember seeing somewhere that NCLB will eventually add science testing to the mix, probably in the middle and upper grades. The public schools here in Kentucky are already considering increasing the number of science credits required for graduation. The county school system in Louisville also plans to rewrite the science curriculum from the ground up. That includes, they say, writing their own texts!

    I can’t say whether NCLB is spurring all this introspection and reconstruction, but it is gratifying to see nonetheless. Personally, the NCLB testing machine just turns my stomach, but only vicariously. Private schools are insulated from all this federal hoohah.

  8. #8 TWAndrews
    March 26, 2006

    My initial reaction was, like yours, “wow, this sucks”.

    However, if you assume that “low-proficiency students” are only going to be able to absorb a certain amount of material, I’d think that math and reading are the two topics I’d pick. Social studies and art are right out, and while I’m a big proponent of everyone having a solid science education, it’s going to be hard to do it without being able to read, or do any math.

    This seems more like a feature than a bug to me.

  9. #9 Frumious B.
    March 26, 2006

    eep. do I even want to know where music, art, and PE fall?

  10. #10 Montu
    March 27, 2006

    I completely and utterly disagree, TWAndrews, and for a barrage of reasons. First, not everyone learns the same way. Some people are highly intelligent, but can’t comprehend reading, no matter how hard you pound it into them. My school’s valedictorian couldn’t read to save his life, instead he got all of his education from audio books. This is not a reflection of how bad my school was, but rather a reflection of how well it handled different peoples learning styles. These NCLB test do nothing to help students with these types of needs, and had Joe been brought up through public school now, he would be “left behind.”

    My other problem is with your belief that art and social studies should be removed from the curriculum. This hits even closer to home, being an artist myself. Contrary to popular belief, art does play a fundamental roll in society, and art should be actively encouraged in all schools. Again, some people simply can’t function in the world of mainstream values, and this is where the artist lies. For many, art is the only alternative for people who have differencing ways of viewing the world. Where would these students go if they could not have this release?

    And for social studies… I don’t even know why you think this should be removed. If anything, it should have a huge emphasis, considering that the biggest problem America is facing right now is our lack of understanding for other peoples and cultures. We continue to dig a deeper hole as we make blatantly wrong assumptions about people from a different part of the globe then our own. These ideas are usually planted in us when we are young, and this is the reason that social studies should be a core class. We should teach our kids young to be respectful and understanding of other cultures, and teach them as much as we can about other cultures while we have the chance. Because after they’re out of school, they have to take the initiative to learn about the world, and there’s no guarantee that they will.

    As my step-dad said when he read this article (he’s an elementary school teacher): everything’s connected, you can’t teach one thing without teaching another, but it’s all too easy for teachers to compartmentalize subjects, and tell kids to read this chapter and answer these questions. What value does this have? What education are these kids getting, really, if all they’re being asked to do is regurgitate information, and not think critically about it? And what hope of a life outside school do kids have if the only two options they’re being shown are reading and math? What about college? Colleges want to see a diversity of subjects taken by students, and if they’re not offered to them, will the student be forced to look outside the school for extra-curricular classes that will reflect their interest in a subject to a college admissions board? This is a huge mistake on many different levels, and I feel like it’s doing far, far more damage to students then helping them.

  11. #11 Bob Dowling
    March 27, 2006

    I’m in the UK rather than the USA so I may be missing important details about the American system but the approach of testing with a single cut point has very serious effects.

    In the UK the school’s performance depends on the number of kids getting C or better. As a consequence, children who are performing well and who might get an A rather than a B with a little help get none. Children who might get a D instead of an E with some help get none. Worse still, some of them get excluded from school on spurious grounds to get them out of the statistics. But those who might get a C rather than a D get the whole resource of the school thrown at them.

    I’m not against testing, but I am against bad testing. The current tests, with a single pass/fail split are very dangerous indeed. Any tests need to have a smoother scale of marks and precautions against the system being gamed.

  12. #12 Joy
    March 27, 2006

    I don’t understand why subjects have to be sacrificed to have proficiency in math and reading. I know the education system in India is different, however we do everything till 10th grade. Only then do we diversify into our intended streams for the future. I did all the subjects including two languages, social science, science, and math. Granted we are forced to do it, but still it gets done and some of us really appreciate and love learnings about different academic disciplines. I think the American students are been given too much of leniency in terms of learning. Our job is not to create an easy path but rather a path that will lead to a fulfilling life ahead.

  13. #13 sgent
    March 27, 2006

    Thanks everyone for the overseas perspective.

    I think its important however, to realize that these programs aren’t happening in a vaccum. The average child in this district is at a severe disadvantage from birth — parents that are functionally illiterate, and who can’t do enough math to make correct change (see why McDonalds uses pictograph order screens).

    Should math, history, art, and science be available to high school students who are able to read and perform pre-algebra level math? Of course.

    But don’t kid yourselves, the children in these programs aren’t the ones who are functionally literate — they are the ones that struggle with Dr. Zeus, and Harry Potter is beyond them. In New Orleans (pre-Katrina), over 1/2 of the high schools didn’t have a single graduating student perform at pre-algebra level of mathematics.

  14. #14 Erik H
    March 27, 2006

    I think this debate could be restated with a lot less bias: IF you are going to have a poorly performing student, would you rather have them be well-rounded (poor in all areas) or skilled in some and horrible in others?

    I think you can make an excellent argument that literacy is one of the, if not the, most important skill you can have in this day and age, ESPECIALLY if you are not otherwise rich and/or intelligent. And math? Well, we’re not talking advance math by any means: It’s not a stretch to want people to add.

    Social studies? Art? Music? Important, sure, But LESS so. Would you rather have someone who can read, or someone who knows our national history? The thought that SS classes are necessary to instill civic behavior is ludicrous: Sure, they might do so at highrer levels; an honors U.S. history class for 12th graders can get interesting. But half of it is memorization.

    Not to mention that you can–and do–learn quite a bit OUTSIDE school. You learn about social policy, you listen to music, you possibly draw.

    Two things you don’t learn outside school? Reading. And math.

    Ideally, we should teach all students what they need to know. In an imperfect world, I don’t see how a focus on math and reading is other than a good choice.

    I am also confused as to the whole ‘teach to the test’ issue, at least when it’s held up as being entirely bad. Yes, it gets overused, but haven’t we all studied with tests in mind for our entire lives?

  15. #15 Jo
    March 27, 2006

    I have worked in public schools for many years, most recently in a high school with many poor performers. Indeed, our students were given double math instruction in the tenth grade in preparation for the proficiecy test in eleventh grade. Students that were deemed likely to pass or were considered borderline, based on pre-testing, were given even more instruction and small group tutoring in hopes to drive up the proficiency rate. It’s important to note that this test prep was emphasizing math reasoning and problem solving skills over basic calculation skills; on the tests it is more important to show the process and thinking behind the answer than to plug in numbers to get a correct answer. In fact, a correct answer with no explanation or work shown will earn a low score.

    Do I agree with the NCLB testing? Absolutely not and for so many reasons!! However, I can say efforts to prepare students in math, at least, are teaching them to be better thinkers and not just mindless calculators.

  16. #16 steve
    March 27, 2006

    Public schools almost have to gear themselves to the lowest common denominator. School bureaucracy and teachers unions cannot be trusted to educate the disadvantaged without some sort of accountability measures. These tests are a necessary evil and another reason why vouchers make sense.

  17. #17 Greg P
    March 27, 2006

    What may happen or at least needs to happen is to spend the time and money down at the front end — grades K through 3 to make sure that every kid capable of it can read and read well, and gets the basic math operations down.

    Waiting until they get to high school to try to make up for these deficiencies is doomed to failure.

  18. #18 Chris
    March 27, 2006

    Vouchers are only defensible as long as the money is guaranteed not to come from the budget of the public schools. Otherwise they get left with the students no private school will touch, with less funding than they had before – clearly a recipe for disaster.

    Part of the reason private schools have better records than public schools today is that they cherry-pick their students – even within the economically advantaged class that can afford to go in the first place. If one school gets to *choose* who represents it, and the other has to take everyone who’s rejected by the first school (in addition to those who choose not to apply or who can’t afford it), it’s no wonder that their achievements are a bit different.

    Also, it’s a waste of public money to provide vouchers to families that can afford private schools anyway. A lot of the “school choice” rhetoric is just disguising subsidies for the rich/upper-middle-class that are *already* in private schools. The quality of their education would not be improved one bit, only the contents of their parents’ wallets. But other public programs, often specifically public schools, would be impoverished to pay that subsidy.

    In addition to that, there’s a real danger that quite *bad* schools could receive public funds this way – in particular, religious ones. This would be unconstitutional, but few people (and even fewer elected officials) are willing to oppose religious organizations in the U.S., even when they are doing something blatantly illegal.

    That’s why I don’t think any presently existing or proposed voucher system is a good idea. Not that the fundamental concept is bad, necessarily, but that it’s being implemented in a bad way.

    As for throwing art and science and history overboard – it’s not something that is just being done for intensive remedial classes, the *entire curriculum* is being chopped up like this, even for students that were adequate at reading and math already. That’s dangerous. Reading and math are necessary, but they are definitely not sufficient. Some subjects are *not* more equal than others. (And how many people who come out of a NCLB school will get that reference?)

  19. #19 Charlie
    March 28, 2006

    While reading the NYT article I began to wonder when public school administrators become Pontius Pilot. Make no mistake, the “remedial’ reading and math programs featured in the article are punitive.

    For clarification the punitive nature of these educational policies, NYT got Dr. Ellen O’Connor an assistant superintendent from New Jersey on the record: “We’re using that as a motivation. We’re hoping that they’ll concentrate on their math and reading so they can again participate in some course they love.” This sounds more like a discipline policy than an instructional policy.

    Furthermore, one of the pillars of NCLB is on research-based interventions. The fact is that there is no research base for this curriculum of subtraction in the name of remediation. Programs that use remediation as motivation do not teach kids to read or do math.

    In the article, a teacher in California said that some of here students were “dying to get out” of her remedial reading class. There used to be a time that the phrase “dying to get out” referred to prison; now it refers to classes. French philosopher Michael Foucault said that “jails professionalize criminals.” The very real danger is that remedial reading and math courses may professionalize mediocrity.

    After all, brain research indicates that by imitating another person’s behavior we become like them. A remedial class, populated by those “in need” may well create a culture of mediocrity. The school as prison prep metaphor is applicable for schools under dubious local leadership.

    All of this points out the need for strong leadership within schools. Leaders need to set a limit on NCLB mania. They need to stop going for the quick fix–remedial coursework for students and the subsequent ghettoizing of non-tested subjects–and start focusing on learning and instruction horizontally, vertically, and asymmetrically. We need to interrogate our methods–both instructional and decision-making–to arrive at a better future.

    Those administrators who argue that kids who can’t read or do math need to be placed in remedial programs aren’t very creative problem solvers. They need to realize that remedial programs beget mediocrity. The time for administrators and teachers to wake up and do the right thing is now. Education in America can ill afford a night in the fog.

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