Less science, art, music, and history, thanks to more math and reading

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Some days the news converges. Yesterday the New York Times reported that because of the No Child Left Behind law, many schools are cutting back on other subjects (including science) to spend more time on math and reading – particularly with disadvantaged kids. Simultaneously yesterday, the Seattle Times had this opinion piece discussing how the US is in danger of losing its science supremacy to the Chinese.

At one level, I can understand the intuition of focusing more on math and reading to make sure that students are then set up to succeed on other subjects. Except that’s not why they’re doing it. They’re doing it for one simple reason: NCLB tests only math and reading, rewards students (and their schools) that do well, and punishes those that do badly. NCLB only cares about math and reading, and thus everything is being sacrificed to serve those masters. NCLB is a law, written by Congress. It wasn’t written by educators, and it wasn’t written based upon any actual studies or evidence that over-focusing on reading and math would pay dividends later. In fact, there isn’t clear evidence that focusing on reading and math, to the exclusion of other subjects, is even a good way to teach reading and math. Moreover, for decades now there have been studies that show the reverse: that putting reading and math in context makes them much more engaging for students and improves learning. If you’re interested in science, then you learn to read better when you’re reading about science.

Shouldn’t we be focused on quality of learning rather than quantity? Shouldn’t we focus on having better teachers, instead of the same teachers just teaching more? Because there are many downstream effects of this. One is certainly a movement away from science; if we teach less science, then we’ve almost assured that we will lose our supremacy. Another is that we’re throwing our cohort of teachers into complete disarray. What happens when a school decides to teach less science, art, music, and history, so that they can teach more math and reading? Answer: the science, art, music and history teachers get converted to math and reading teachers – whether they’re qualified or not. I actually wasn’t at all surprised to read these two stories in the newspapers, because I knew this was going on already; high school computer science teachers had told me. Their computer science classes were being cancelled and they were being asked to teach math instead. But part of the problem is that NCLB is an unfunded mandate; the Bush administration has not made good on their promised funding to support the program. And re-allocating existing teachers and class time to focus on math and reading is a free way to improve the all-important test results, whereas actually improving the quality of teaching and learning would cost money – money that doesn’t exist in school budgets.

This is foolishness of stunning proportions. NCLB is robbing us of our economic future. With the best intentions, it is driving the wrong behaviors, and it will cost us dearly in the long run.



The Discussion

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    Pat Phillips

    I think what you are describing is what used to be called a whole language approach to teaching. I am most familiar with this concept as used in the elementary schools. The strategy was to use a theme, of sorts, in which every subject was immersed in the theme. I seems that with adequate training every subject teacher could be part of the army of reading and math teachers by including proven reading/writing and math strategies into the lessons in science, social studies, computer science, etc. This was the focus of my district where every teacher was expected to teach reading and writing within the curriculum area. Those who took advantage of the "reading specialist" to learn effective strategies contributed to the overall goal.

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