Politics & Policy

The Narrowing of the American Curriculum

Ideology and special interests stand in the way of better school reforms.

History, science, and the arts are being de-emphasized by most schools in order to make room for teaching basic reading and math skills, according to a recent study . Who’s to blame for this? Critics of reform point to the No Child Left Behind law.

And they’re right to do so–to a point. NCLB mandates that schools boost achievement in reading and math–only reading and math–or face tough consequences. To the surprise of some, the incentive has worked, but so, too, has the law of unintended consequences.

This is not the only example of that phenomenon. NCLB puts pressure on educators to get all students to a low level of proficiency, so schools ignore kids at the top of the class. The law leaves the standards-setting to the states but ties sanctions to the results, so the states “race to the bottom” and lower their standards. And yes, the statute focuses its accountability provisions on reading and math, so schools ignore everything else. The latter problem is easily fixed (if politically unpopular). Congress should add history testing to the law’s requirements, and make the history and science results count. (Science testing will be required next year, but the results won’t count for accountability purposes.) Now that we know that schools will respond to incentives, we should be clear about our aims.

But tweaking the law’s carrots and sticks is not enough. We must also address the fact that schools are choosing the path of least resistance by narrowing the curriculum. After all, pushing other subjects aside is not the only choice schools face. Great schools beef up their students’ basic skills while also providing them a broad, rich education. Why don’t most? There are two reasons–one ideological, and the other political.

#ad#E. D. Hirsch tackles the ideological problem in his recent book, The Knowledge Deficit . Hirsch identifies an obvious solution to the challenge schools face: Teach reading through history, science, literature, and the arts. He argues persuasively that most of the students who have been “left behind” have successfully learned to decode words and sentences, but can’t comprehend much because of their limited vocabulary and knowledge base. Especially in the upper elementary grades and middle school–where we see student achievement plateau and then begin its long, precipitous decline–the best way to teach reading is to teach content. Instead of “doubling up” on rote, mechanical reading instruction, schools can engage students with compelling historical accounts, fanciful stories, fascinating science, and riveting poetry. In fact, it is exactly the kind of rich content that students find in Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools that account for their strong gains in reading and math achievement .

So why don’t schools embrace Core Knowledge or something like it? Hirsch: “The reason for this state of affairs–tragic for millions of students as well as for the nation–is that an army of American educators and reading experts are fundamentally wrong in their ideas about education and especially about reading comprehension.” Still enamored with romantic beliefs that children can learn to read as naturally as they learn to talk, and disregarding knowledge and content as nothing but “mere facts,” the leaders of the education establishment and their comrades in schools of education continue to indoctrinate teachers and principals in self-defeating ideas. The solution to schools’ reading woes and their curricular conundrum is right in front of them, but these misguided ideas get in the way.

There’s another solution to curriculum narrowing: Expand the school day. Excellent charter schools such as KIPP and Amistad Academy use this strategy and record great results. The KIPP middle schools, guided by their philosophy that “there are no shortcuts,” equate their efforts to a ball game. A fifth grader who enters KIPP several years below grade level is like a team down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. There is no time to spare. The only way they are going to make it is if they work harder than their competition. So KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., assigns several hours of homework daily, brings students in for Saturday morning classes, and adds a month of school in the summer. This allows them to provide extensive instruction in reading and math, plus engage students in a full, rich curriculum, complete with history, science, foreign language, physical activity, and the arts. What’s most remarkable about the KIPP model is how un-innovative it is. Anyone could think of it.

So why doesn’t every high-poverty public school embrace the KIPP model and lengthen its day? In this case, the answer is politics: It’s not allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. As Frederick M. Hess and Martin R. West make painfully clear in their manifesto, A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century , teacher-union contracts dictate every facet of school life. Consider a contract from Eau Clare, Wisconsin, from which Hess and West quote: “A standard day shall be defined as 435 minutes, excluding lunch but including a morning homeroom period of 7-15 minutes, e.g., where teachers will supervise students entering the building, take roll, take lunch count, make announcements, etc. The teaching day shall not exceed 349 minutes of classroom teaching, thirty (30) minutes for lunch and thirty (30) minutes of recess…” The reality in many big-city districts is even worse; a five- or six-hour school day is not uncommon. Of course schools cannot fit remediation in reading and math and broad exposure to the core curriculum into such a crammed schedule. But the unions are loathe to give up their hard-fought “gains”–in this case, the right to be home by 3:00 p.m. School-board members, most of whom are elected with union money and union votes, just sit and watch.

So yes, let’s tweak NCLB and undo its perverse incentives. But we must also address the crazy ideas that still delude the education profession and the ridiculous union contracts that hamstring common-sense reforms. If the traditional K-12 system is unwilling to be so bold, then we should create an alternative system of schools that is. Narrow-minded solutions won’t produce the schools our children deserve.

–Michael J. Petrilli is Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He is co-author, with Frederick M. Hess, of No Child Left Behind: A Primer.

The Knowledge Deficit, by E. D. Hirsch



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