A recent study conducted by the Council for Basic Education confirms what many educators have feared: The curriculum is narrowing as schools zero in on reading, writing, and math at the expense of the arts, foreign languages, and elementary-level social studies. Further, minority students have borne the brunt of this curriculum erosion. These findings, published in Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools, raise disturbing questions about education equity and quality.
In fall 2003, the Council for Basic Education surveyed 956 elementary and secondary school principals in Illinois, Maryland, New York, and New Mexico. The survey, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, asked respondents about changes in the number of teachers as well as in the time allocated to instruction and professional development in various curriculum areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, civics, geography, foreign language, and the arts. The Council also conducted two focus groups with exemplary principals from across the United States to provide background and context for the issues raised in the survey.
Overall Curriculum Changes
The study's analysis of the principals' responses showed that the curriculum provided to U.S. students is shifting. Here are some of the report's findings.
The winners. The overwhelming majority of principals, approximately 75 percent, reported increases in instructional time and professional development devoted to mathematics, reading, and writing. Approximately 43 percent of principals reported increases in instructional time for science, and even more anticipated such increases over the next two years. These data, says the report, attest to the influence of No Child Left Behind and its requirements that schools make adequate yearly progress in math, reading, and—beginning in 2007—science.
The losers. The study found that the focus on reading, writing, math, and science has been accompanied by decreased emphasis on the arts and foreign languages. Of the responding principals, 25 percent reported decreases in instructional time allocated to the arts, and even more predicted decreases in the coming years. Decreases in time devoted to foreign languages overall were less severe, with just 13 percent of principals reporting less instruction in this area. The report points out, however, that curriculum requirements in foreign languages started out low: “Many states do not require high school students to take language courses, and few have created statewide foreign language assessments” (p. 18).
Mixed results. Trends in the amount of time devoted to social studies vary by grade level, according to the study. For example, at the elementary level, principals reported more decreases than increases in time devoted to social studies (29 percent versus 22 percent), although the numbers are not far apart. At the middle and high school levels, 37 percent of principals reported increases in instructional time and professional development for social studies; only 7 percent reported decreases. The report speculates that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath have prompted increased awareness of older students' need to learn about the world.
Disparities for High-Minority Schools
The picture changes when the study looks at the differences between high-minority schools and low-minority schools. In many content areas, minority students are feeling the impact of the narrowing curriculum much more than their nonminority peers are. For example:
- Almost half (47 percent) of principals in high-minority elementary schools reported decreases in time devoted to social studies, 37 percent reported decreases in civics, and 35 percent reported decreases in geography. These percentages are much higher than those for low-minority elementary schools. (On a positive note, however, the increased commitment to social studies, civics, and geography at the secondary level has occurred in both high-minority and low-minority schools.)
- Principals in high-minority schools were much more likely to report decreases in instructional time devoted to languages (29 percent) than were principals in low-minority schools (9 percent).
- A larger proportion of high-minority than low-minority principals reported declines in instructional time allocated to the arts (36 percent versus 21 percent). Principals' predictions of decreases in the coming two years were also especially pronounced in high-minority schools: 42 percent, versus 30 percent for principals in low-minority schools.
These findings highlight a significant danger stemming from the narrow accountability focus embodied in current federal and state education mandates, the report asserts:
Though we must certainly strive to close racial achievement gaps in mathematics and reading, we run the risk of substituting one form of inequity for another, ultimately denying our most vulnerable students the full liberal arts curriculum our most privileged youth receive almost as a matter of course. (p. 9)
Educators' Response to the Challenge
The report acknowledges the dilemma facing educators who must meet federal and state mandates while striving to maintain a broad, long-term vision of education excellence. Many school leaders have found ways to preserve the liberal arts, such as incorporating reading and mathematics into other classes. Yet the survey findings suggest that “without the help of policies and programs that support the liberal arts, principals may prove unable to prevent curricular erosion” (p. 13).
Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools was written by Claus von Zastrow with Helen Janc and published by the Council for Basic Education, Washington, DC, March 2004. It is available online at www.c-b-e.org/PDF/cbe_principal_Report.pdf.
Deborah Perkins-Gough is Senior Associate Editor, Educational Leadership;
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