Opinion
Federal Opinion

Social Studies, Science, and the No Child Left Behind Act

By Eduwonkette — February 04, 2008 2 min read

One of the most stable findings in the management literature is that measuring a narrow subset of organizational goals results in employees ignoring non-measured tasks that are no less critical to the overall mission of the organization. When lawyers are rewarded for billable hours, they focus on increasing hours rather than quality. When case workers are measured by the number of job placements, they push job seekers into positions that are poorly suited for them. Management wonks call this “goal distortion” (see Richard Rothstein here; see also Timely Tidbits on Unintended Consequences). The take home point is that the facile use of quantitative indicators can cause as many problems as it solves.

Let’s revisit a very old debate on NCLB’s effect on science and social studies teaching in the schools most likely to struggle with AYP. My Valentine Charlie Barone followed up on my original post by asking:

Why did 56% of all districts not narrow down their curricula?

What we’re quibbling about is who’s responsible for cutting social studies and science - NCLB or teachers/schools. According to Barone, it’s the schools, stupid. Because all schools don’t narrow their curriculum post-NCLB, NCLB does not provide incentives to narrow the curriculum.

How would we know if NCLB creates an “incentive problem?” Let’s consider a non-education example. Suppose we attempted to get drivers to slow down by tripling the price of speeding tickets. Drivers now have a much stronger financial incentive to ease up on the pedal. How do we evaluate this policy? We want to know if a driver living in the “crazy expensive ticket world” is more likely to slow down than he would be if he inhabited the old world. Imagine we observe that after this policy change takes effect, 50% of drivers slow down. By any standard, a 50% reduction would be considered a huge policy effect. While we might be interested in learning more about the other 50% of drivers, our ticket increase had a powerful effect on driver behavior.

Now, back to education: are more schools cutting social studies and science in a NCLB world than would be in a non-NCLB world? I think so. One could argue, as many accountability proponents certainly do, that reading and math are more important than science and social studies, or that the test score “gains” that accountability policies yield make these other losses acceptable. I don’t agree with those arguments, but at least they acknowledge what is happening on the ground.

eduwonk also argued that the problem is schools, not NCLB:

I don’t buy the argument that cutting other subjects, especially social studies, is an incentive problem here. Rather, it’s a capacity problem. Too few schools are able to deliver a really powerful instructional program today and in the absence of that they do a lot of counterproductive things.

Low capacity schools may be more likely to cut social studies and science than high capacity schools, but NCLB, not low capacity, is the cause of the cuts. After all, low capacity schools taught more social studies and science pre-NCLB than they do now. Even higher capacity schools are affected by incentives - to use the driving parallel, wealthy drivers can handle a more expensive ticket, but many will slow down anyway.

My proposal for a reauthorization bumper sticker? “NCLB doesn’t narrow curriculum. Schools narrow curriculum.”

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