Older Students Play Catch-Up on Uncovered, Vital Lessons

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 13, 2006 5 min read
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After six years as a social studies teacher, Jim Mueller worries how the Founding Fathers might react to the limited acquaintance with history and civics among students at his Scottsdale, Ariz., school. More and more, he says, their lack of basic historical knowledge is “simply shocking.”

“Not only do they not remember, but more often, they have never even heard of some of the most important people and events in American history,” the teacher at Cocopah Middle School wrote in a recent e-mail.

The problem is not his alone. Social studies teachers in middle and high schools around the country, as well as teachers of science and a number of other subjects, are noticing a similar trend. Many middle school students, Mr. Mueller believes, are not learning the social studies foundations traditionally introduced in the elementary grades, where teachers are now spending much of the school day on reading and mathematics lessons.

“Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Mason, Washington, Hancock, Adams, Hamilton, and others,” Mr. Mueller, a former lawyer, added, “would flip in their graves if they saw what is being passed off for history lessons today.”

As a result, Mr. Mueller must often revisit crucial time periods, events, and documents, and even introduce the Founders themselves to help his 8th graders catch up on the content before proceeding with the middle-grades curriculum.

As states ratchet up accountability requirements around student performance in reading and math, many schools and districts are paying far less attention to other subjects, particularly social studies and science, requiring teachers in later grades to play catch-up.

“It’s definitely an issue nationwide,” said Mike Koren, a middle school teacher in Wisconsin who is a board member for the National Council for the Social Studies. “In some elementary schools, they are completely cutting out social studies. … If they do teach it, it’s the last class of the day, if there’s enough time left in the school day.”

Literacy, Literacy, Literacy

Data from the 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey, which is scheduled to be released by the U.S. Department of Education later this summer, show that instruction in English/language arts had gained an hour in the school day in grades 1-4 since 1990-91, for a total of 11.6 hours weekly. Math instruction had increased by some 30 minutes during that period, with teachers spending an average 5.4 hours a week on the subject. Time spent on history and science dropped in that span by nearly 30 minutes each. Those subjects account for some 2½ hours each of weekly instructional time.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual testing of math and science in grades 3-8 and penalizes schools and districts if they do not meet adequate yearly progress, was signed into law in January 2002.

A year before schools will be required to report students’ scores on science tests under the federal law, many experts worry that large numbers of students are unprepared for middle school work in that subject as well.

“Literacy is literally putting off science. … All we hear is literacy, literacy, literacy, math, math, math,” said Rene Carson, the middle-level director for the National Science Teachers Association. She retired from her teaching post in Little Rock, Ark., last year after nearly three decades in the classroom.

“In my classroom,” she said, “I started to see that for things you would assume kids would know when they get to middle school—like cloud structure, how to read instruments, basic parts of the cell, animal classification—they just don’t have that background anymore.”

The Arlington, Va.-based NSTA found in an informal online poll last month that many teachers have similar concerns. Among the 611 teachers who chose to respond to the poll, the No. 1 barrier they see to raising student achievement is that students are not taught enough science in the early grades.

Ms. Carson and others predict that given such a trend, schools will miss out on sparking children’s interest in science early, when they tend to be most enthusiastic about the hands-on activities that have long been highlights of elementary school lessons. And by the time they get to high school, many will not have had the preparatory classes needed to do well in Advanced Placement courses and higher-level electives.

“I do think we’re going to end up with a 10- to 15-year span of kids who maybe can read well,” said Ms. Carson, who is serving as an Einstein Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But they are going to lack that creative spirit we’ve seen for so many years in kids who want to be the engineers and the rocket scientists of the future. I don’t think we have instilled that dream in the minds of a lot of kids today.”

Building on Background

The NCLB law defines core subjects as English/language arts, math, science, history, government, economics, arts, foreign languages, civics, and geography, and it requires teachers in those subjects to meet “highly qualified” criteria.

But with penalties tied to inadequate student test results only in reading and math, schools tend to spend more effort on improving student achievement in those subjects, according to several studies on the impact of the 4-year-old federal law.

Just as pundits and policymakers are sounding alarms that schools are turning out too few graduates with the knowledge and skills to become future business leaders, government workers, scientists, and engineers, students are apparently getting less and less instruction in the subject areas they will need to succeed in those fields, many observers say.

“It reflects and deepens a problem that we’ve had for decades,” that students aren’t being taught the critical knowledge that is the foundation of a solid education, said E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In his new book, The Knowledge Deficit, Mr. Hirsch argues that educators will bolster students’ reading-comprehension skills and overall achievement only if they build on the students’ background knowledge in a variety of subjects and topic areas, or domains. The current emphasis on teaching students skills and strategies, without exposing them to substantive content in a variety of domains, he contends, is likely to make students worse readers, not better.

“It isn’t the standardized tests that are at fault; it is the unsophisticated preparation for the tests,” he said in an interview. “The right way to prep for a reading test is to make sure students get a good education.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Older Students Play Catch-Up On Uncovered, Vital Lessons


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