These days, the loudest rallying cry against the No Child Left Behind Act, and standards-based reform in general, is the persistent claim that the law’s reliance on testing and emphasis on reading and math are driving a “narrowing of the curriculum.” According to this view, core subjects like English and mathematics are being overemphasized at the expense of other subjects, and of educating the “whole child.” The implied antidote is to lower the bar: have less, or softer, performance accountability and a lower standard to take the pressure off educators, reduce the time spent on core subjects, and make room for other important parts of the curriculum, such as the arts, foreign languages, and social studies.
The logic of this well-intentioned response to a legitimate problem has two flaws: It assumes that students can go forward and be successful at the next stage of their lives with substandard proficiency in core subjects, and it treats school time in its current form as absolutely immutable.
I interpret the facts a bit differently. There is compelling evidence on the narrowing of the curriculum. More time is undeniably going to core subjects, especially in schools where students are struggling to meet basic standards. Why? Because the new basic standard is considerably higher than previous expectations, and it now applies to all students. Teachers are understandably discovering that it’s going to take far more time to guarantee that each and every student achieves proficiency in the gateway subjects now considered the standard. In other words, they need the extra time to achieve the basic goal.
The mission of our schools, at a minimum, should be achieving the goal of proficiency in reading and math for all students. Such proficiency is necessary for students to succeed in other subjects, in higher education, and in their later employment. Simply achieving proficiency in these areas, however, is totally insufficient and does not, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute a full education. The question then becomes: How do we allow enough time to achieve proficiency in “gateway” subjects, while making room for the other coursework and competencies that are critical ingredients in a well-rounded, fully enriched education for all children?
It seems logical to conclude that if we want schools to do more than simply get all students to proficiency in reading and math, and we do, then we will have to give them more time for instruction in other subjects, as well as an array of enrichment activities. Our relatively arbitrary school schedule is not well-sized to meet these 21st-century objectives for learning. To be sure, there are some schools that need to make better use of existing time. But on average, a decade or more into this era of standards-based reform, educators are working hard and efficiently, and are finding that the instructional clock doesn’t adequately accommodate today’s academic demands. It takes more time to educate all students to a high standard of performance in core subjects, to adequately address a broad array of additional subjects, and to provide the kind of enriched education that most parents want for their children.
The answer to the current “narrowing of the curriculum” problem is not to abandon our fundamental commitment to a high standard of excellence and equity, embodied in our aspiration to achieve proficiency for all students. We should not consider lowering standards in basic subjects as a solution to the time problem in education. To do so would be to harm the very children that reform is designed especially to help. Instead, we should provide to each child the quality and quantity of instructional time needed to achieve our ambitious and wide-ranging goals for student learning. This is going to mean significantly expanded learning time to match our significantly expanded 21st-century learning goals—and particularly for those children with the biggest learning gaps.
Such a change is far easier said than done. It means grappling with the inadequacy of education’s current time paradigm, something the National Education Commission on Time and Learning challenged the nation to do more than a dozen years ago. We have made little progress on the educational time frontier since that commission’s 1994 report declared our schools to be “prisoners of time.” But a new opportunity is at hand. The reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act represents an ideal moment for a vigorous national conversation on right-sizing school time to meet the enhanced demands on schools and students in this era of high expectations for all.
Educators are working hard and efficiently, and are finding that the instructional clock doesn’t adequately accommodate today’s academic demands.
A reauthorized NCLB could strike a major blow for equity by breaking the barriers of our one-size-fits-all time paradigm. The next phase of education reform should begin with leaders calibrating the time requirements necessary to broadly and fully educate all children to sufficiently high standards to participate, thrive, and succeed in our society. No Child Left Behind might enable both the federal and state governments to seed demonstration projects that make more time available to schools proposing to use it in effective, enriching programs.
This added time would allow schools to fully pursue the sciences, social studies, the arts, foreign languages, health, and vocational and technical skills, and to add social-services supports, recreational activities, off-campus learning opportunities, and a wide range of curriculum enrichments.
Too often, we create false dichotomies in education. Lately, it is the battle between standards advocates and those who support educating the “whole child.” As a standards advocate who believes in the power of the standards movement to achieve both excellence and equity, I cannot imagine advocating for educating anything less than the whole child. But the high expectations and real accountability that are hallmarks of standards-based reform are forcing us to confront the inconsistencies in our current system. One of the most prominent is that we simply lack sufficient educational time to achieve all of our objectives.
High standards have forced us to recognize this deficit, and have also created the pressure that has resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum. Backtracking on standards and expectations should not be an option. Instead, we need to fashion a policy response that creates the time necessary to realize our educational ideals.
Certainly, additional time must be used well. More time for failing practices is a nonstarter. But we cannot hope to educate all students, especially those who have suffered the injuries of poverty, to high levels in a wide range of competencies unless and until we “right size” the school day and school year. We must reinvent the school schedule and calendar to meet the needs of today’s students.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week