Two years ago, W.H. Keister Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Va., began to take the No Child Left Behind law very seriously. Intensive 120-minute reading classes were installed, along with more math. Physical education went from 150 to 90 minutes a week. Music time was cut in half.
This was part of a national movement to make sure all children, particularly those from low-income families -- as were 50 percent of Keister students -- mastered reading and math skills essential to their lives and the rest of their educations. But such parents as Todd Hedinger, whose son, Gabe, attended the school, reacted negatively, saying there was too much emphasis on a few core subjects.
"The emphasis on instructional time pushes everything else out of the way," Hedinger said.
Such concerns have been part of the continuing debate over No Child Left Behind. The time devoted to reading and math has increased. And in many places, the increase has brought results. Between 2002 and 2004, Keister Elementary's passing rate went from 81 to 92 percent on the state English test and from 86 to 90 percent on the math test.
But critics of the federal law say children need a more complete education.
The Washington-based Center on Education Policy reported this year that 27 percent of school systems say they are spending less time on social studies, and nearly 25 percent say they are spending less time on science, art and music. "This tendency results in impoverishing the education of all students, but particularly the education of students who perform less well on the tests," said Robert G. Smith, Arlington County school superintendent, who said his schools have resisted the trend.
Many educators defend the focus on reading and math, as long as it is done properly. Lucretia Jackson, principal of Maury Elementary School in Alexandria, said that basic skills are very important and that many children need extra time to acquire them. Her school made significant test-score gains this year by scheduling after-school classes and enrichment activities three days each week.
"They need to develop the quality of skills that will enable them to meet the needs of the future society," Jackson said.
Rob Weil, deputy director of the educational issues department at the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, said reducing time for nonacademic subjects has been going on much longer than people realize and until now has had little to do with federal achievement targets. "Districts started cutting art, music and physical education over 15 years ago, in an effort to save money, not in an effort to increase performance," he said.
Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the nonprofit group Education Sector and a member of the Virginia state school board, said: "When faced with disappointing achievement in math and reading, the first reaction of too many schools is to just teach those subjects more and consequently squeeze out other subjects. This 'solution,' however, ignores one common culprit for low achievement -- teaching. Instead of using data to determine if teachers are teaching the material, are able to teach it and what exactly students are struggling with, too often schools decide to just extend the time on these subjects. The problem is, if your instruction is weak for 60 minutes a day, it's going to be for 90 minutes, too."
Mary Alice Barksdale, associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Tech, agreed: "There is lots of evidence that the one thing that really makes a difference in the classroom is the teacher and what she knows and does."
Several elementary school programs have shown good results by inserting science, social studies, art and music into reading lessons, rather than removing them from the curriculum. The Core Knowledge program, based in Charlottesville, has first-graders reading about ancient Egypt and second-graders learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. New York University educational historian Diane Ravitch called it "the best national program available."
Project Bright IDEA, which has produced good test results in lower elementary grades in North Carolina, uses advanced materials such as nonfiction books and techniques used previously with just gifted students. "We believe in teaching all children from kindergarten through high school a highly academic program," said Margaret Gayle, the project's manager and co-designer.
Nancy Scott, who teaches English to children from non-English-speaking families in Fairfax County, said she applauds the integration of science and social studies with reading and writing classes but said it might be dependent in some cases on which subjects are on the state test. In her fourth-grade classes, she said, she puts more emphasis on history and lets science take a back seat because that is the year of the Virginia social studies test.
Barksdale said that among the activities teachers have told her they dropped because of test pressure were silent reading, book talks, science experiments, picnics, field trips, classroom skits and creative writing.
"The logic of the fundamental importance of reading and mathematics is universally accepted," said David P. Driscoll, Massachusetts state education commissioner. "However, the testing of those subjects leads people to spend more time out of fear. While some extra focus particularly around test-taking skills and the most common standards is appropriate, this pushing other subjects aside to concentrate on reading and math is not. A full, robust program whereby kids are actively engaged in their learning produces the best results."
At Keister Elementary, test scores are up not only in reading and math but in science and social studies, despite fears of a negative result. Hedinger congratulated the "dedicated, loving, smart and creative people" who teach at the school but said he still does not like the long reading classes and athletic and music cuts because they reduced his son's love of learning.
"Is the meaning of education cramming as much knowledge in, to pass a standardized test, or is it meant to include something else -- creativity, reflection, synthesis, hypothesizing, daydreaming?" Hedinger asked. "What happens to all of that in the process?"