Assessment

Principals’ Poll Shows Erosion Of Liberal Arts Curriculum

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 17, 2004 4 min read
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A comprehensive curriculum is moving out of reach for more of the nation’s pupils as elementary schools turn greater attention to the subjects states are required to test under the No Child Left Behind Act, warns a new report.

Minority children in particular are experiencing a narrowing of the curriculum as their low-achieving schools place more emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to “Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America’s Public Schools.”

Read the report, “Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America’s Public Schools,” from the Council for Basic Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The trend in many schools of increasing instructional time in the tested subjects threatens student access to a high-quality liberal arts curriculum that includes the arts, foreign languages, and social studies, the report issued last week contends.

“The good news is there is evidence of a rising commitment to math, reading and writing, and social studies at the middle and secondary levels,” said Claus von Zastrow, who wrote the report for the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which advocates a strong core curriculum. “The bad news is we see compelling evidence of a waning commitment to social studies at the elementary level and to the arts and foreign languages.

“But for us the most troubling news,” he said, “is that the strongest evidence of curricular erosion appears in schools with high-minority populations.”

The council surveyed nearly 1,000 elementary and secondary principals in Illinois, Maryland, New York state, and New Mexico last fall about curriculum changes over the previous two years. Responses were representative of urban, suburban, and rural districts in those states.

Some three-fourths of the principals responding indicated that instructional time and professional development in reading, writing, and math had increased at their schools. One-fourth of the educators said that time spent on arts instruction had declined, and a third said they expected such declines in the future.

Among respondents from schools with large proportions of minority students, more than a third reported the arts had suffered, while 42 percent expected that arts education would weaken in the future.

Nearly 30 percent of all the elementary principals polled, and about half those in high-minority schools, reported that time devoted to teaching social studies had dropped in the previous two years. Social studies instruction, meanwhile, increased in many middle and high schools.

State Trends

Foreign-language classes showed less dramatic shifts. About one in 10 principals reported less time being spent on the subject, and about the same proportion indicated that more time was dedicated to those subjects in their schools. But 23 percent of principals in high-minority schools reported that less time was spent on foreign language instruction, and some 30 percent anticipated such reductions in the future.

A report by the National Association of State Boards of Education from last fall drew similar conclusions. “Arts, Foreign Languages Getting Edged Out,” Nov. 5, 2003.)

The latest report highlights New York’s success in maintaining or expanding the focus on social studies in the elementary curriculum, primarily because of the state’s standards and assessments in the subjects.

On the other hand, it points to what the writers call “dramatic curricular erosion” in Maryland. More than half the schools surveyed with high-minority populations, for example, anticipated that the time their teachers allotted to the arts would decline. Maryland moved two years ago to narrow the focus of its assessments—the state no longer tests students in social studies and writing—and more than 50 percent of the state’s K-5 principals responding reported a decrease in the time spent on social studies.

Maryland officials are uncertain if the report paints an accurate picture of what’s happening in its schools. They cite the relatively small sample of respondents, about 150, representing roughly one-tenth of the state’s schools. But the state has taken several steps to ensure that the liberal arts core is offered systemwide, including adoption of state standards in the subjects, creation of a state arts council, and plans for a social studies task force.

The erosion, if actual, may be short-lived while Maryland educators adjust to the new testing regimen, according to Ronald A. Peiffer, the deputy state schools superintendent.

“People are very nervous about making sure schools meet expectations,” he said. “But our experience with testing is that once they’ve developed a comfort level [with the new tests], they move away from teaching to the test.”

The CBE report recommends that educators and policymakers integrate the liberal arts into school improvement strategies, prepare teachers to integrate subject-area content into reading instruction, make liberal arts courses a part of standards and accountability systems, and monitor student progress in every liberal arts subject.

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