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Social Studies, Science, and the No Child Left Behind Act

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One of the most stable findings in the management literature is that measuring a narrow subset of organizational goals results in employees ignoring non-measured tasks that are no less critical to the overall mission of the organization. When lawyers are rewarded for billable hours, they focus on increasing hours rather than quality. When case workers are measured by the number of job placements, they push job seekers into positions that are poorly suited for them. Management wonks call this "goal distortion" (see Richard Rothstein here; see also Timely Tidbits on Unintended Consequences). The take home point is that the facile use of quantitative indicators can cause as many problems as it solves.

Let's revisit a very old debate on NCLB's effect on science and social studies teaching in the schools most likely to struggle with AYP. My Valentine Charlie Barone followed up on my original post by asking:

Why did 56% of all districts not narrow down their curricula?

What we're quibbling about is who's responsible for cutting social studies and science - NCLB or teachers/schools. According to Barone, it's the schools, stupid. Because all schools don't narrow their curriculum post-NCLB, NCLB does not provide incentives to narrow the curriculum.

How would we know if NCLB creates an "incentive problem?" Let's consider a non-education example. Suppose we attempted to get drivers to slow down by tripling the price of speeding tickets. Drivers now have a much stronger financial incentive to ease up on the pedal. How do we evaluate this policy? We want to know if a driver living in the "crazy expensive ticket world" is more likely to slow down than he would be if he inhabited the old world. Imagine we observe that after this policy change takes effect, 50% of drivers slow down. By any standard, a 50% reduction would be considered a huge policy effect. While we might be interested in learning more about the other 50% of drivers, our ticket increase had a powerful effect on driver behavior.

Now, back to education: are more schools cutting social studies and science in a NCLB world than would be in a non-NCLB world? I think so. One could argue, as many accountability proponents certainly do, that reading and math are more important than science and social studies, or that the test score "gains" that accountability policies yield make these other losses acceptable. I don't agree with those arguments, but at least they acknowledge what is happening on the ground.

eduwonk also argued that the problem is schools, not NCLB:

I don't buy the argument that cutting other subjects, especially social studies, is an incentive problem here. Rather, it's a capacity problem. Too few schools are able to deliver a really powerful instructional program today and in the absence of that they do a lot of counterproductive things.

Low capacity schools may be more likely to cut social studies and science than high capacity schools, but NCLB, not low capacity, is the cause of the cuts. After all, low capacity schools taught more social studies and science pre-NCLB than they do now. Even higher capacity schools are affected by incentives - to use the driving parallel, wealthy drivers can handle a more expensive ticket, but many will slow down anyway.

My proposal for a reauthorization bumper sticker? "NCLB doesn't narrow curriculum. Schools narrow curriculum."
4 Comments

It isn't incentives; it's capacity? That's a false dichotomy of the "It isn't a Chevrolet, it's a sedan" type. How does one rule out the other, or even make it less probable?

Charlie Barone followed up on my original post by asking: Why did 56% of all districts not narrow down their curricula?

Has anyone studied whether schools/districts receiving Title I funds narrowed their curricula more than those that don't?

NCLB incentives will tend to have a lot bigger impact where Title I funds are important. It would be interesting to see a comparison of pre- and post-NCLB instructional minutes in subjects other than reading and math broken down by schools that receive Title I funds and those that don't.

I agree with Eduwonk and Mr. Barone. In this country we have a very high degree of local control. It is something of a logistical triumph that Title I has been able to wield as much influence as it has given the prescribed role for the federal government (none) in education. After splitting that fifty ways and running it through state systems (where standards are created, Title I interpreted and additional requirements handled), and then through various local school boards (except Hawaii, where the buck stops at the state), devolving to individual plans at individual schools, it is surprising that Title I has any effect at all. In fact for decades it has had none--in any measureable terms.

If the orignial intent of Title I (to level the playing field for disadvantaged students) had been accomplished in any meaningful way in the early decades, there would have been no political climate favoring this latest focus on testing to establish outcomes. Many Title I $ have been poorly distributed--not reaching their intended target--and others have gone into various add ons that may or may not have had educational value--and in the end any changes have diminished over time, despite any "supplement not supplant" requirements.

NCLB may have been overly simple-minded in assuming that schools, teachers and districts really know more than they do about effective teaching. This speaks to capacity.

What we have not yet been able to do, as a result of NCLB, is to tackle some of the crucial organizational questions that we need to take on for meaningful reform. We need to ask, for instance, what is the "right amount" of science and social studies in first grade? What is the "right amount" of mathematics and reading? We tend to want to equalize everything into 42 minute periods, with the result that we compare poorly to other countries who vary that to emphasize different things at different ages and stages.

Do we know whether students know less about science and social studies as a result of a focus on mathematics and reading, or only that they spend less time "learning" these things? Would it make more sense for the schools that are frantically putting together testing-oriented math and reading summer and after school programs to lengthen the school day for all students and provide a richer and more balanced curriculum with adequate focus on math and reading?

The fact that these are not the questions that we are dealing with speaks to our fractured approach to funding, planning and curriculum. We have not yet learned to look at our schools comprehensively--of our own volition, regardless of incentives.

Nice Post and Rather than focus on any one topic in depth, social studies provides a broad overview of human society past and present.

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