Schools Focus on Reading and Math (at the Expense of Everything Else)
> 7/25/2007 3:28:55 PM

Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act have long complained that the law would have the unintended result of forcing American schools to focus on boosting students' standardized test scores in math and language while considerably cutting into time spent on science, social studies, history, and the arts. New studies confirm that suspicion while adding lunchtime to the list of victims. Washington policy think-tank Center on Education Policy reports, in a survey of 350 school districts across the nation, that 44% admit devoting fewer overall hours to various subjects in order to provide more time to focus on reading and math instruction. These changes largely come in preparation for state tests that highlight these two subjects.

If 44% strikes one as a significant number, consider that a previous study run by the same group listed the number at 71%. The reason for the change? A slight difference in wording. In 2006, researchers gave administrators a multiple-choice survey to indicate how much they had reduced the amounts of time dedicated to various subjects. The current survey simply asked them whether or not that time investment had declined for each subject listed. The COEP's director guesses that districts who viewed their restrictions as minimal may have chosen to answer in the negative, and he is probably correct, as the possibility that schools devoted additional resources to these subjects in the subsequent year is highly unlikely.

Overall, language arts time increased by nearly 50%, with math instruction maintaining a 37% growth rate. In statistical summary by time: "...The average change in instructional time in elementary schools since the law’s enactment has been 140 additional minutes per week for reading, 87 additional minutes per week for math, 76 fewer minutes per week for social studies, 75 fewer minutes for science, 57 fewer minutes for art and..." as a positive note in a sea of unfortunate statistics, only "40 fewer minutes for gym." Some districts also report increasing the entire school day by 15 minutes or more. Among those that reported devoting fewer time to these subjects, lunchtime was also cut by an average of 20%.

The law's supporters argue that such changes are absolutely correct because, without math and English skills, children would not be prepared to perform in other subjects. While it's true that illiteracy would serve as a serious obstacle to achievement in the sciences, why are reading, science and history deemed to be mutually exclusive? Would children not better learn to read if they did so by researching information of interest to them? Why can they not improve their English skills, at least in part, through their science and social studies courses? These questions have yet to be answered. Fortunately, the science testing provision of No Child Left Behind begins with the upcoming school year. It only requires a science proficiency test to be administered once every three to four years, but it is a step in the right direction. Of course, the law asserts that all students must perform at a proficiency level to be determined by each state by the 2014–15 school year, and in the absence of major policy changes or a sudden case of nationwide brilliance in chemistry and biology, this goal is anything but realistic.

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