Over the weekend the Times ran a “scary” above-the-fold article on the way No Child Left Behind is forcing low-achieving schools to cut back on classes like art and science in order to spend more time on reading and writing, the kind of thing that makes education experts say, “What a sadness”*:
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.
The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.
Except when you think about it, what exactly is wrong with making sure junior high students can actually read? After all, junior high kids are basically a captive audience, so it doesn’t make much difference whether they like being in school. And faced with wanting them to “like” school and wanting them to read, I think most people would take the latter. Besides, a subject like history isn’t all that beneficial if you can’t really read. But don’t tell that to some people:
The historian David McCullough told a Senate Committee last June that because of the law, “history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading.”
Mr. McCullough might want to consider the benefits of having a literate population that will eventually buy books about, say, John Adams, but no matter . . .
The problem is that this approach seems to be working:
At King Junior High, in a poor neighborhood in Sacramento a few miles from a decommissioned Air Force base, the intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores for several years running. That has helped Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District, which oversees the school, to be selected by an administrators’ group as California’s 2005 superintendent of the year.
But in spite of the progress, the school’s scores on California state exams, used for compliance with the federal law, are increasing not nearly fast enough to allow the school to keep up with the rising test benchmarks. On the math exams administered last spring, for instance, 17.4 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above, and on the reading exams, only 14.9 percent.
With scores still so low, Mr. Harris, the school’s principal, and Mr. Buchanan said they had little alternative but to continue remedial instruction for the lower-achieving among the school’s nearly 900 students.
The students are the sons and daughters of mostly Hispanic, black and Laotian Hmong parents, many of whom work as gardeners, welders and hotel maids or are unemployed. The district administers frequent diagnostic tests so that teachers can carefully calibrate lessons to students’ needs.
Rubén Jimenez, a seventh grader whose father is a construction laborer, has a schedule typical of many students at the school, with six class periods a day, not counting lunch.
Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth. His sixth period is gym. How does he enjoy taking only reading and math, a recent visitor asked.
“I don’t like history or science anyway,” Rubén said.
One of the most depressing things today is seeing an 18-year-old who can barely read or write. By that point — at the high school level — educators are unable to help them. They often blame the middle schools (or junior high schools). So why not get it right at that level? And if it takes Bush to do it, then maybe he actually did something right — shudder to think!
*The fetishization of “the arts” by the upper-middle class is one of the most annoying, elitist things we have to deal with in education — something almost perverse in the face of kids who are basically illiterate.