By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
In the five years since a federal law mandated an expansion of reading and math tests, 44 percent of school districts nationwide have made deep cutbacks in social studies, science, art and music lessons in elementary grades and have even slashed lunchtime, a new survey has found.
The most detailed look at the rapidly changing American school day, in a report released today, found that most districts sharply increased time spent on reading and math.
The report by the District-based Center on Education Policy, which focuses on a representative sample of 349 school districts, found recess and physical education the only parts of the elementary school day holding relatively steady since enactment of the No Child Left Behind measure in 2002.
The survey provides grist for critics who say the federal testing mandate has led educators to a radical restructuring of the public school curriculum in a quest to teach to new state tests. But backers of the law, which is up for renewal this year, say that without mastery of reading and math, students will be hampered in other areas.
"You can't do other subjects if you are not competent in reading and math, so first things first," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York.
Daria Hall, assistant director for kindergarten-12 policy at the District-based Education Trust, which advocates for better schools for low-income and minority children, said recent data from the Center on Education Policy and other sources show test scores up not only in reading and math but in history and science, "so this increased instruction in reading and math is paying dividends."
But Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of the Education Sector think tank in the District who serves on the Virginia Board of Education, likened the increased hours spent in reading instruction, devoid of history and science, to a diet full of empty calories. "If you have just doughnuts for breakfast, you will be hungry again soon," he said. "But a balanced breakfast can carry you to lunch."
He cited the work of University of Virginia researcher E.D. Hirsch Jr., who has said elementary students need exposure to history and science to be able to handle the concepts and vocabulary that make them good readers.
About 62 percent of districts reported more time for English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2002 in the center's survey, and 20 percent reported increased time for those subjects in middle school. On average, minutes per week in English language arts increased 46 percent and in math, 37 percent.
In the 44 percent of districts that said they had reduced time for subjects other than reading and math, the decrease on average was about 31 percent. The drop was 36 percent for social studies, 28 percent for science, 20 percent for lunch, and 16 percent for art and music over five years, the report said. The federal act, which requires testing in reading and math every year in grades three through eight and once in high school, began to require science tests this year. That might affect decisions about lesson times, the report said.
The report did not break out results for states such as Virginia that have long tested in science and social sciences. Nor was there information specific to District or Maryland schools.
Physical education dropped by 9 percent and recess by 6 percent in elementary schools. "We are delighted that we are still very much a part of the school day," said Paula Keyes Kun, spokesman for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Many parents in the Washington area have resisted further decreases in recess and physical education times, which were significantly reduced in the years before No Child Left Behind.
The data seemed to confirm a vivid account of limited science and social science instruction at one award-winning Anne Arundel County school, Tyler Heights Elementary, in a new book by Linda Perlstein, "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade." In one episode, she wrote that a child looked eagerly at petri dishes, thermometers and other science equipment in the back of her classroom and said, "I'd like to make inventions and experiments." But her teacher was focused on the reading and math sections of the Maryland School Assessment. "After the MSA," the teacher said, "we can do social studies and science."
In its report today, the center stopped short of endorsing a longer school day to fit in more topics. Adding hours, as some high-achieving inner city charter schools have done, is expensive, said Jack Jennings, the center's president, "and we first have to assure ourselves that the current time is being used well."
Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at the Education Sector, said her research showed many minutes in the school day eaten up by announcements, assemblies and other non-academic activities. Today's report showed that 9 percent of school districts said they had lengthened their school day, and the average extension was about 18 minutes.
The report indicated that the increases in reading and math time, and decreases in other subjects, were greatest in districts that had at least one school identified as needing improvement under the federal law. It also showed that since 2002, most districts had changed their English language arts and math curricula to emphasize content and skills covered on the state tests.