Monday, March 27, 2006

That's a Feature, Not a Bug

Yesterday's New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline, "Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math." Like many discussions of the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act, it seems to miss the central element that this was the inevitable consequence of the legislation. Here's an excerpt of interest:

The historian David McCullough told a Senate Committee last June that because of the law, "history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading."
Some may disagree with this as an objective, but one should not be surprised at the result. The logic runs as follows:
  • Reading and math are deemed to be more fundamental skills than other subjects to which class time is devoted in public schools; and
  • Some schools can be demonstrated to be inadequate in the outcomes they generate in reading and math; and
  • Schools that are so demonstrated are unlikely to have additional financial capacity to expand their programs; so
  • Those schools should be devoting more time to reading and math, with other subjects crowded out in whole or in part.
I think we should have been surprised if the law were not having the effect of narrowing the curriculum, but I was surprised that the law was having as pronounced an effect as it is. In general, my view is well summarized by this quote:
"When you only have so many hours per day and you're behind in some area that's being hammered on, you have to work on that," said Henry Lind, the schools superintendent. "It's like basketball. If you can't make layups, then you've got to work on layups."
I'd like to be able to say that every school district should offer a broad curriculum of liberal arts courses including history and music and languages and lab sciences, but some school districts aren't able to do all of that successfully. So given that they won't be at the ideal, where should they be? I think of reading and math as foundational. There's very little use in trying to build on a weak foundation. That doesn't mean I support this sort of federal involvement in primary and secondary education, but it does mean that I don't think the consequences of the law, as they are described in this article, are a source of concern.

The article is well written and of interest. I recommend the whole thing.


Daniel Kahn said...

I saw this article on Sunday evening at and thought the exact same thing: "So?"

It is a tragedy that kids can get through high school in this country without basic math and reading comprehension skills. Evidence from abroad (Singapore, China, Japan) tells us that there is still marginal benefit to be tapped by drilling reading and math into these kids.

If they can`t follow Clifford the Big Red Dog or multiply 5x4, then those 9th Grade American History and 10th Grade Chemistry books aren`t going to be very useful...

Arun Khanna said...

How does the school district in question intend to teach history without teaching reading skills?

Tom C said...

The schools with such problems are simply not organized to succeed. All they've proven is that gigantic schools with mostly lower-class students are a very bad idea. You cannot teach people things they have no intention of learning; they must see the point in all of it in order to do the work required to succeed. If they do see the point, schools can cover a broader curriculum; if not, they could drill phonics all day for 13 years and wind up in the same place.

(And, by the way, federal prisoners would be likely to succeed in a lawsuit if they were subject to 7 hours a day of confinement with just reading and math lessons. Cruel and unusual punishment, for sure.)

Arun Khanna said...

Besides schools, I think universities need to beef up their basic mathematics courses too.
While this is probably not a problem with Dartmouth graduates, employers hiring from less well known schools should require the following simple test before hiring university graduates.
Give the interviewee a set of raw scores and ask them to calculate the weighted percentage score and corresponding grade [BTW: I mean with the interviewee allowed to use a calculator].

On a different note, I wonder if you are aware that there is a girl band called Baby Vox.

Anonymous said...

Our schools would be better in urban settings if we quit accomodating the Trumps of the world.

People in Chicago get all excited about Trump's building. I hear rumors that it is very easy for Trump to get what he needs and build his tower. Meanwhile, people in less-glamorous neighborhoods get neglected, stigmatized and stereotyped. They get ignored. Our schools could do more if they were simply given priority.

Outside of his media smoke&mirrors, Trump is bankrupt and loses money. And the media smoke&mirrors does little to help education other than distract people with low-brow entertainment.

Anonymous said...

It seems a bit simplistic to consider this an either/or situation. It is far easier to teach reading and math if it is applied to an area the student is interested in. It is difficult to teach history without teaching reading. It is difficult teaching chemistry without teaching math. These can be central areas in both subjects.