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Study: NCLB Leads to Cuts for Some Subjects

By Michelle R. Davis — April 03, 2006 5 min read
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The federal No Child Left Behind Act is prompting many schools to cut back on subjects such as social studies, music, and art to make more time for reading and mathematics, the main subjects tested by the federal law, a study released last week says.

The report about the fourth year of the law’s implementation, issued by the Center on Education Policy, also found that the law is having the positive effect of spurring schools and districts to more closely align instruction with their states’ curriculum standards, and that test scores are rising.

The Washington-based research organization found that 71 percent of school districts reported that they had decreased the time teachers spent on subjects not specified for testing under the federal law so they could emphasize reading and math. In some cases, districts said they skipped certain subjects altogether to provide students with double reading or math time, Jack Jennings, the president of the CEP, said during a press conference held here to release the report March 28.

“From the Capital to the Classroom” is available from the Center on Education Policy.

“Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessary to help low-achieving students catch up,” the report says. “Others pointed to negative effects, such as shortchanging students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school.”

The report, “From the Capital to the Classroom,” is an analysis of the impact of the No Child Left Behind law in 299 school districts in all 50 states. Researchers did in-depth case studies of 38 geographically diverse districts and 42 individual schools. It is the CEP’s fourth annual report on the law.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said that before children can study other subjects, such as social studies, they must first learn to read.

“There is plenty of evidence, however, that schools across the country are providing a well-rounded curriculum … and still making adequate yearly progress in math and reading,” he wrote in response to the CEP report in a March 29 e-mail.

Susan Griffin, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md., said the study is the first quantitative measure to show a development that has been widely assumed to be happening for years.

“We’re hearing that [social studies is] almost disappearing in the elementary schools,” she said. “In this global economy and very complex world, if students aren’t prepared, how are they going to make good decisions?”

Impact on Urban Schools

The CEP says teaching and learning are changing significantly because of the federal school law. Principals and teachers are more often using test data to help improve student performance, and are making sure curriculum and instruction are aligned with state standards. Districts are focusing on ways to improve teachers’ skills.

Researchers also determined that although the law’s effects are being felt in all kinds of districts, urban school systems are being affected the most. About 90 percent of schools in “restructuring,” the last stage of sanctions under the federal law, are in urban districts. That is because urban districts typically have more subgroups of students—such as African-Americans and Latinos—for which they must show progress than suburban and rural districts do, Mr. Jennings said.

Implementing the Law

The Center on Education Policy is recommending changes to the U.S. Department of Education on carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act include:

• Provide more information to the public about the process for considering changes to state accountability systems.
• Monitor and report on the effects of flexibility granted on adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

• Fully carry out new rules for assessment of students with disabilities.

• Grant states and districts increased authority to oversee providers of supplemental educational services.

• Expand a pilot program that allows some districts to offer supplemental services a year before they offer transfers from schools labeled “in need of improvement.”

• Use the secretary of education’s bully pulpit to emphasize the importance of subjects in which the law does not require testing, including social studies, art, and music.

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

The CEP makes eight recommendations for improving the law, including greater transparency in state accountability programs. The Education Department has worked with some states to revise their accountability plans, but that process has largely been shielded from public view, the report says.

“This is not a very open process,” Mr. Jennings said. “This is not right for a government agency.”

Mr. Colby pointed out that “every decision letter on every requested amendment to a state accountability plan is on the department’s Web site.”

Another recommendation is that the federal government support the efforts of states and districts with adequate funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. While the demands on local officials are becoming greater in relation to the federal education law, funding is shrinking, it argues.

President Bush has called for a 3.8 percent cut to the Education Department’s fiscal 2007 discretionary-spending budget. The department’s 2006 discretionary budget was cut 1 percent.

“If lawmakers are serious about schools’ complying with No Child Left Behind, they should give schools the resources they need,” Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, said in a statement.

However, Mr. Colby said discretionary federal spending on education has risen significantly during the Bush administration.

“The CEP study asks districts if they get enough money,” he added. “Have they ever said yes?”

Greg Forster, the director of research at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based group that supports greater choice in education, said the report doesn’t contain empirical research.

“They don’t do independent data collection,” Mr. Forster said. “It’s just the party line of the school system.”

Collecting Data

Mr. Forster, who has an upcoming article on Mr. Jennings and his research methods scheduled for the journal Education Next, published by the Stanford, Calif.-based Hoover Institution, also suggested that Mr. Jennings’ long experience as an education staff member for Democrats in the House of Representatives had shaped the report’s conclusions.

Mr. Jennings dismissed those complaints. “This means we are a rational voice for the improvement of public schools, and we’re having too much of an influence, in their view, on the debate of how to improve public schools,” Mr. Jennings said of criticism in conservative quarters.

As for the study’s methods of data collection, he said they’re the same methods used by the Education Department and other federal agencies that do surveys on everything from employment trends to population growth.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study: NCLB Leads to Cuts for Some Subjects

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