« This week: Accountability, Data, and Some Ninja Guest Bloggers | Main | Reader Comment on Performance Pay »

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

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."

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.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • http://www.top-term-paper-sites.com: Nice Post and Rather than focus on any one topic read more
  • Margo/Mom: I agree with Eduwonk and Mr. Barone. In this country read more
  • Rachel: Charlie Barone followed up on my original post by asking: read more
  • Georgia Sam: It isn't incentives; it's capacity? That's a false dichotomy of read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here


8th grade retention
Fordham Foundation
The New Teacher Project
Tim Daly
absent teacher reserve
absent teacher reserve

accountability in Texas
accountability systems in education
achievement gap
achievement gap in New York City
acting white
AERA annual meetings
AERA conference
Alexander Russo
Algebra II
American Association of University Women
American Education Research Associatio
American Education Research Association
American Educational Research Journal
American Federation of Teachers
Andrew Ho
Art Siebens
Baltimore City Public Schools
Barack Obama
Bill Ayers
black-white achievement gap
books on educational research
boy crisis
brain-based education
Brian Jacob
bubble kids
Building on the Basics
Cambridge Education
carnival of education
Caroline Hoxby
Caroline Hoxby charter schools
cell phone plan
charter schools
Checker Finn
Chicago shooting
Chicago violence
Chris Cerf
class size
Coby Loup
college access
cool people you should know
credit recovery
curriculum narrowing
Dan Willingham
data driven
data-driven decision making
data-driven decision-making
David Cantor
Dean Millot
demographics of schoolchildren
Department of Assessment and Accountability
Department of Education budget
Diplomas Count
disadvantages of elite education
do schools matter
Doug Ready
Doug Staiger
dropout factories
dropout rate
education books
education policy
education policy thinktanks
educational equity
educational research
educational triage
effects of neighborhoods on education
effects of No Child Left Behind
effects of schools
effects of Teach for America
elite education
Everyday Antiracism
excessed teachers
exit exams
experienced teachers
Fordham and Ogbu
Fordham Foundation
Frederick Douglass High School
Gates Foundation
gender and education
gender and math
gender and science and mathematics
gifted and talented
gifted and talented admissions
gifted and talented program
gifted and talented programs in New York City
girls and math
good schools
graduate student union
graduation rate
graduation rates
guns in Chicago
health benefits for teachers
High Achievers
high school
high school dropouts
high school exit exams
high school graduates
high school graduation rate
high-stakes testing
high-stakes tests and science
higher ed
higher education
highly effective teachers
Houston Independent School District
how to choose a school
incentives in education
Institute for Education Sciences
is teaching a profession?
is the No Child Left Behind Act working
Jay Greene
Jim Liebman
Joel Klein
John Merrow
Jonah Rockoff
Kevin Carey
KIPP and boys
KIPP and gender
Lake Woebegon
Lars Lefgren
leaving teaching
Leonard Sax
Liam Julian

Marcus Winters
math achievement for girls
meaning of high school diploma
Mica Pollock
Michael Bloomberg
Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee teacher contract
Mike Bloomberg
Mike Klonsky
Mike Petrilli
narrowing the curriculum
National Center for Education Statistics Condition of Education
new teachers
New York City
New York City bonuses for principals
New York City budget
New York City budget cuts
New York City Budget cuts
New York City Department of Education
New York City Department of Education Truth Squad
New York City ELA and Math Results 2008
New York City gifted and talented
New York City Progress Report
New York City Quality Review
New York City school budget cuts
New York City school closing
New York City schools
New York City small schools
New York City social promotion
New York City teacher experiment
New York City teacher salaries
New York City teacher tenure
New York City Test scores 2008
New York City value-added
New York State ELA and Math 2008
New York State ELA and Math Results 2008
New York State ELA and Math Scores 2008
New York State ELA Exam
New York state ELA test
New York State Test scores
No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind Act
passing rates
picking a school
press office
principal bonuses
proficiency scores
push outs
qualitative educational research
qualitative research in education
quitting teaching
race and education
racial segregation in schools
Randall Reback
Randi Weingarten
Randy Reback
recovering credits in high school
Rick Hess
Robert Balfanz
Robert Pondiscio
Roland Fryer
Russ Whitehurst
Sarah Reckhow
school budget cuts in New York City
school choice
school effects
school integration
single sex education
small schools
small schools in New York City
social justice teaching
Sol Stern
Stefanie DeLuca
stereotype threat
talented and gifted
talking about race
talking about race in schools
Teach for America
teacher effectiveness
teacher effects
teacher quailty
teacher quality
teacher tenure
teachers and obesity
Teachers College
teachers versus doctors
teaching as career
teaching for social justice
teaching profession
test score inflation
test scores
test scores in New York City
testing and accountability
Texas accountability
The No Child Left Behind Act
The Persistence of Teacher-Induced Learning Gains
thinktanks in educational research
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Tom Kane
University of Iowa
Urban Institute study of Teach for America
Urban Institute Teach for America
value-added assessment
Wendy Kopp
women and graduate school science and engineering
women and science
women in math and science
Woodrow Wilson High School