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CEP Adds Fuel to Fire of Curriculum Debate

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Over the past month, the wonkish education bloggers have been debating whether NCLB has had the effect of narrowing school curriculum. (See Sherman Dorn's excellent analytic summary, and eduwonk's recent postscript.)

The debate hinged, in part, on the interpretation of one piece of data: 44 percent of districts have increased the amount of time spent on reading and mathematics at the expense of other subjects.

The Center on Education Policy—the source of that data—is out with what it calls "a deeper analysis" of its survey.

Here's a quick snapshot:

  • Some districts are finding time for additional reading and math instruction without taking away time from other subjects. Fifty-eight percent of districts reported increasing the time for reading, and 44 percent for math. But the percentage of districts decreasing the time on other subjects was smaller (36 percent reduced social studies; 28 percent, science; 16 percent, art and music; 20 percent, recess; 9 percent, physical education).
  • Social studies appeared to lose the most amount of time. On average, those districts cut social studies instruction by 76 minutes per week. In terms of the percentage of time cut from other subjects, all had about a one-third decrease in the amount of time dedicated to them.
  • Schools are focusing on reading more than math. Of the schools that allocated extra time to either or both of the subjects, 54 percent reported adding 150 minutes per week (or 30 minutes a day) of reading instruction. Just 19 percent of the districts increased their math lessons by that much.

These numbers may add fuel to the fire. But they don't answer the nuanced question at the heart of the debate: Are schools that are increasing the amount of time on reading incorporating content from social studies, science, and the arts?

1 Comment

This whole discussion, unfortunately, adds credibility to the notion of teaching to the test. When students are tested only in math and reading for NCLB, then many schools will direct their teachers to spend the majority of instructional time in these two areas. As critical as these subjects are they should be prioritized, hence NCLB legislation was probably not wrong to focus on them. However, with just a little imagination and improvising, these subjects can easily be covered via social studies and science materials. Additional reading in both of these "extra" disciplines can be almost automatic, not to mention the additional vocabulary for kids from each subject. Incorporating math into science and social studies is almost as automatic with many contemporary texts offering multiple examples to include math as well as implementing numerous technology strategies.

Bottom line, reauthorizing NCLB should probably include some accountability for science and social studies, albeit to, perhaps, a somewhat lesser extent. If kids are expected to demonstrate learning has occurred in these additional disciplines, in many cases teachers will cover the material and the students will learn it. Again, as Al Shanker used to say, "If kids know it's going to count, they'll pay attention and learn what's expected of them."

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