Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

Academic Atrophy

By Raymond "buzz" Bartlett & Claus Von Zastrow — April 07, 2004 7 min read
Examining the condition of liberal arts in America's public schools.

Scratch the surface of nearly every educator and you will find someone who believes that every child should be taught the liberal arts. They may call it by another name—a “well-rounded” course of study, for example—but the concept is the same: A first-rate education has breadth as well as depth. Young people should learn more than just a handful of fundamental skills. In fact, they should pursue the whole range of studies commonly said to constitute a liberal education, including not just reading, math, and the sciences, but also writing, literature, history, civics, geography, the arts, and foreign languages.

Increasingly, however, the nation’s educators are being forced to squeeze and trim the curriculum, abandoning the shared ideal of a well-rounded education in order to fit the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Faced with budget cuts, competing demands for time, and pressures for compliance, educators have backed away from implementing a truly comprehensive vision of educational excellence, one that includes all the subjects of the liberal arts. In the absence of such a vision, our most powerful reform efforts are pitting fundamental academic disciplines against each other in a struggle for scarce resources in which the big losers are students.

Because it holds schools accountable for student performance in just three areas—mathematics, reading, and eventually science—the federal No Child Left Behind legislation creates a powerful disincentive to teach other subjects. And with the states’ fiscal crises ongoing, the pressure only becomes more intense for schools and districts to abandon whole parts of the curriculum so as to focus their scarce resources on test-related topics.

Yet aside from the occasional media report of cuts to arts and foreign-language programs, the danger of curricular erosion has received scant attention from researchers, journalists, or the public. Until recently, there has been little research to confirm or allay fears that students are beginning to miss out on the intellectual foundations of civic life, art, culture, and more.

To address this concern, the Council for Basic Education recently conducted a study to determine how much access our nation’s students now have to a complete curriculum in the liberal arts. With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and substantial help from the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Association of School Administrators, the council surveyed public school principals in Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, and New York about what is happening to the curriculum in their own schools. ( “Principals’ Poll Shows Erosion of Liberal Arts Curriculum,” March 17, 2004.)

Roughly 1,000 principals responded to the survey, providing ample evidence that the assessment and accountability regimen required by the No Child Left Behind law has indeed begun to undermine the schools’ commitment to a number of core fields of study, including the arts, foreign languages, and elementary social studies, civics, and geography.

The overall curriculum in public schools appears to be narrowing at an alarming rate.

On a positive note, three-quarters of principals reported that instructional time for reading, writing, and mathematics has increased, while a similar majority also reported increased opportunities for teachers to hone their skills and knowledge in these areas. Close to half the principals reported increased instructional time for science, and even larger numbers project such increases over the next two years.

However, while these courses are receiving greater emphasis, the overall curriculum appears to be narrowing at an alarming rate. For example, elementary school principals reported decreases in instructional time for social studies, civics, and geography. Nearly three in 10 principals overall (29 percent) reported decreases in time for social studies, compared with 21 percent who reported increases.

The most troubling evidence of curricular erosion occurred in schools with large minority populations, the very populations whose access to a full liberal arts curriculum has been historically most limited. Nearly half (47 percent) of principals in high-minority schools reported decreases in elementary social studies. More than four in 10 (42 percent) anticipated decreases in instructional time for the arts, and nearly three in 10 (29 percent) foresaw decreases in instructional time for foreign language.

These findings raise the specter of a new kind of opportunity gap in which low-income minority students are being excluded from the liberal arts curriculum that their more privileged counterparts receive as a matter of course. In our effort to close achievement gaps in literacy and math, we have substituted one form of educational inequity for another, denying our most vulnerable students the kind of curriculum available routinely to the wealthy.

The Council for Basic Education’s study did identify a few promising trends, particularly in higher grades. Principals in middle and high schools are allotting more instructional and teacher-professional-development time to social studies, civics, and geography. Principals interviewed for the study suggested that events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war have strengthened schools’ commitment to these subjects. Such signs of schools’ devotion to urgent priorities that receive little support from the current accountability system are truly heartening.

In the long run, however, we must make the entire liberal arts curriculum our priority. Though some educators might argue that persistent underperformance in basic reading and mathematics warrants a particular concentration on those two areas, such arguments should not lead us to treat the arts, foreign languages, and other subjects as expendable.

Indeed, at a time when the explosion of multimedia technologies compels us to expand our very notion of literacy to include visual and even auditory literacy, the arts have become particularly relevant. And in an era of both global trade and global terror, it should go without saying that our students must become proficient in foreign languages.

Life in the 21st century has become very complex, and the educational requirements for success have grown accordingly. No one can dispute the magnitude of changes we will see in the course of any student’s lifetime. Job skills are changing at an accelerating rate. Political and economic events across the globe have a profound effect on our prosperity and security at home. Because the liberal arts span the domains of human experience, they afford the best foundation for the diverse challenges that confront us in this rapidly evolving world.

A liberal arts education returns us to first principles, fostering an understanding of what it means to be human.

At the same time, a liberal arts education returns us to first principles, fostering an understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding that transcends limiting conceptions of occupation, social class, race, or nationality. An education once reserved for the most privileged has therefore become a necessity for all. As soon as we sacrifice one or more academic subjects to budgetary constraints, apathy, or the demands of an assessment and accountability regimen, we limit students’ opportunities after graduation. In a society founded on equality, such sacrifices are unconscionable.

Meanwhile, research clearly demonstrates that social studies and civics content can enhance elementary reading instruction by developing beginning readers’ comprehension skills. By establishing relevant and engaging contexts for reading and mathematics, high-quality instruction in all the liberal arts subjects supports learning in those fundamental skill areas.

Educators and policymakers can take specific measures to protect the complete curriculum without abandoning the objectives of the No Child Left Behind Act. They can integrate the liberal arts into strategies for raising students’ mathematics and reading scores. They can better equip teachers to carry out this integration in the classroom. They can begin developing long-term plans for incorporating strong standards and challenging assessments in all the liberal arts subjects to assure the integrity of the curriculum.

Most important, educators and policymakers must maintain an explicit, comprehensive vision of educational excellence and track progress toward that vision. Despite its potential to narrow the K-12 curriculum, the No Child Left Behind law has actually laid much of the groundwork for this vision. For one, the law has helped establish the need to hold all students to high academic expectations as a civil rights issue. Furthermore, it has publicly confirmed the importance of paying careful attention to all students’ progress toward those expectations, lest we turn a blind eye to persistent educational inequities.

Yet, the No Child Left Behind Act may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if we define its vision for achievement too narrowly and thus institutionalize long-term academic mediocrity and inequity.

Raymond “Buzz” Bartlett is the president and Claus von Zastrow is the director of institutional advancement at the Council for Basic Education, in Washington.

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