Districts Pare 'Electives' for Core Courses
Toughen the mathematics and science requirements and see the payoff in higher student achievement. At least, that was the intention of Anne Arundel County, Md., school officials who were aiming to improve middle school students' performance on state exams.
But instead of drawing wholesale approval from parents eager for their children to do better in school, as officials had expected, some in the suburban Baltimore district thought the price was too high. The action would have cut into the time that students had to hone their art and music skills.
Those concerns sent district officials back to the drawing board. Two redrafts later, the school board late last month approved a plan that not only retains student options in the arts but also requires music for all middle school students.
During the past decade, school districts have been scraping away at what many people perceive to be nonessential courses to battle budget cuts. Now, however, as state education departments and districts around the country begin to implement stricter academic standards, they are bartering away arts, physical education, and vocational requirements for more math, science, English, and social studies.
In Idaho, state education officials decided this fall to drop mandates for high school physical education and humanities courses to make way for an extra year of science and math. Last month, the Massachusetts state school board eliminated the mandate for 60 hours of physical education instruction in the 1st to the 10th grade each year to give local school officials more authority over curriculum decisions. And in Arizona, the state board recently came close to discarding an elementary school foreign-language requirement to address complaints from school officials about finding the time--as well as the money--to fit language instruction into the curriculum.
Since the late 1980s, reformers have championed more-demanding academic standards as the route to elevating student achievement and improving schools. At the national level, voluntary standards have been crafted in what were traditionally considered the core subjects--English, math, science, and history or social studies. Other subject-matter specialists also produced standards for their own disciplines: geography, civics, economics (coming next month), health, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education.
Ironically, the people who taught and promoted subjects that had long been treated as the stepchildren of school curricula thought the creation of national standards would underscore their importance, perhaps even ratcheting them up a peg or two.
But now subjects outside the traditional core are being whittled away because of the extra time districts say they need to meet the expectations of all the other competing standards--from the national, state, and local levels.
The required courses begin to squeeze out supplemental offerings, said Robert Lynn Canady, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Schools are either faced with cutting out choices or they get [class] periods so ridiculously short that it's very difficult to do the more productive teaching function."
After years on the decline, foreign-language offerings seemed to have stabilized with the release of proposed national standards in November 1995, said Jamie Draper, the project manager for the Yonkers, N.Y.-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which led the foreign-language standards effort.
Forty-two percent of high school students are enrolled in foreign-language courses, the highest proportion since 1928. Spanish classes are drawing increasing numbers of students.
Recent anecdotal evidence, however, also suggests a downward shift may be developing, especially in French and German programs, Ms. Draper said.
Some of the evidence that the so-called frill courses are slipping is more than anecdotal.
A U.S. surgeon general's report released earlier this year found that high school student enrollment in daily physical education classes had dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995.
"The public-health message about physical activity has gotten stronger, and more people are concerned about activity in general," said Judith Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sports and Physical Education in Reston, Va. "Then we have the education arena saying we don't have time for that."
A Juggling Act
As a member of the Anne Arundel County school system's music advisory committee and the father of two students in the Maryland district, Thomas C. Mosser said he understands the benefits the arts have in a well-rounded curriculum.
Mr. Mosser's objection to the proposal to limit arts electives in Anne Arundel's middle schools sprang from what he contends was a misguided attempt to address students' dismal performance on new state performance assessments.
"I am for vigorous academics ... but I am not convinced the [state exam] is either valid or reliable," said Mr. Mosser, a leader in the effort to revise the district's proposal. Nor has he been persuaded that music programs should be sacrificed "to teach toward scores on that exam," he said.
When it comes to the juggling of course requirements and electives, even good intentions can cause an outcry. In Utah, which was among the first states to set standards in the visual and performing arts and which music education experts say has some of the toughest requirements in the disciplines, parents and music educators were upset by a rearrangement of science requirements that may give students fewer electives in the 9th grade.
State officials said that the change, which now requires students to take a full year of science in the 9th grade, was meant to increase students' options in the arts in the upper grades. "There is nothing that precludes a kid from continuing the kind of elective courses that the student wants to take," Bonnie Morgan, Utah's director of curriculum, said.
But for students with a specialized musical talent or interest, the change could mean an unplanned interruption in their training.
Laura Butterfield got lucky this year. Wasatch Junior High School in Salt Lake City was allowed to postpone meeting the state's new science mandate until next school year, enabling Ms. Butterfield, a 9th grader, to take a choir class, as had four of her siblings before her.
"I would have been upset if I couldn't take music," the 14-year-old said. "We are the best [choir] in the district. I would have missed out on a lot, and I would have been a year behind."
Her father, Jim Butterfield, maintains that students and their parents should be able to decide whether they want to focus on math and science or other areas.
"If you have a good background in music in junior high, it makes the transition to high school easier," asserted Mr. Butterfield, whose older children are studying medicine and law. "There seems to be the mentality that science is the only thing everyone needs to fit their pattern of success."
Aim Is Flexibility
Idaho's new requirements, which grew out of efforts to reduce the state's 1,500 education rules to fewer than 400 and to grant more local control, allow greater flexibility and more options for students, said T.E. Dillon, a member of the state school board.
"I would hope that essentially every school district still requires physical education," Mr. Dillon said.
But the practice of sidelining courses in districts nationwide has been called into question by teachers, parents, and subject-area groups. They say that these underappreciated disciplines spur the physical and intellectual growth of children.
And, they argue, turning arts and gym classes into electives may minimize the benefits of such programs for students who are are not naturally athletic, artistic, or musical.
In fact, several research studies link art, music, and foreign-language education to higher-level thinking and greater academic achievement, and many studies demonstrate the connection between good health and physical activity.
The issue is not just one of balancing the curriculum, some experts say, but of ensuring that all students have access to the best education.
"Music is not the handmaiden of education," said John J. Mahlmann, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based Music Educators National Conference. "Since Plato's time, it has been critical to education. Only recently have we failed to realize the value it has for education," he said.
"In many areas, music has decreased as far as accessibility in schools," Mr. Mahlmann said. "There are always going to be parents affluent enough to [provide private instruction]. You create a cultural caste system in which the arts are only for the rich."