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Analysis Finds Time Stolen From Other Subjects for Math, Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 20, 2008 2 min read
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Most of the nation’s elementary schools added at least 75 minutes of instruction time in reading and mathematics each week—and often twice that amount—in the five years after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, but many did so by skimming that time from the teaching of science, social studies, the arts, recess, and physical education.

An analysis released this week by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group, expands on the findings of the organization’s nationally representative survey released last summer. That study found that more than six in 10 school districts had increased reading and math instruction between the 2001-02 and 2006-07 school years, and that more than four in 10 did so while significantly reducing time spent on other subjects.

The findings offer further evidence that the NCLB law has led to sizable shifts in the curriculum.

“This report shows the magnitude of the changes in that we see that substantial amounts of time have been added to reading and math instruction, and substantial amounts of time have been taken from other subjects,” said Jack Jennings, the center’s president and chief executive officer. “The survey’s conclusion is solid, … although it’s not clear if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have all that additional time spent on reading and math.”

The findings confirm what some subject-area experts have been arguing over the past several years. Groups representing educators in history and social studies, the arts, and foreign languages have been pressing for changes to the law—which is up for reauthorization—contending that the subjects have been marginalized because they are not part of its accountability measures.

Blending of Curriculum

A draft NCLB reauthorization proposal by a House panel this past fall featured potential incentives for states to test students in core subjects other than those now required under the law—reading, math, and, beginning this school year, science. (“House Plan Embraces Subjects Viewed as Neglected,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

The U.S. Department of Education contends that the NCLB law requires the teaching of all core subjects, even if they are not included in its accountability measures.

“We have been hearing from our elementary school teachers for a number of years” that they have less and less time to teach social studies, said Gayle Thieman, the president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies. “What social studies does particularly well is give students the opportunity to apply their literacy skills, build vocabulary, learn concepts, and get the background knowledge they need.”

Ms. Thieman noted that NCSS members have also complained that they have fewer professional-development opportunities in the social studies because those resources are more often being spent on teacher training in math and reading.

Mr. Jennings said federal officials and researchers should be studying ways for teachers to integrate content from other subject areas into math and reading lessons, and vice versa.

“That’s how schools are dealing with the realities of having to raise test scores and wanting kids to be exposed to other subject areas,” he said. “We should be studying this blending of curriculum and trying to encourage good practices, because we are not going to back down from accountability.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week

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