Monday, March 27, 2006

Reading and Math: Who Could Ask for Anything More?

Oy vey, Maria. An article in yesterday's New York Times reports that schools across the country are "narrowing the curriculum" to nothing but math, reading and gym in order to do well on the NCLB tests.

"The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.

"Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington."

Quite honestly, this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. Sure, intensive practice in math and reading will bring test scores up, since that's the only thing NCLB cares about. But what kind of citizens will we be graduating? They're proficient in reading and math (what does proficient mean anyway? 8th grade level?) but completely ignorant of our country's history, not to mention our place in the world. Do we want them running the country in twenty years? They're expected to get jobs in our heavily tech-savvy economy with no knowledge of science? How will they better themselves when they're only exposure to the fine arts is MTV?

Administrators say they are using these intensive remedial classes "as a motivator", as in "you do better on The Test and you can take some electives." Quite frankly, if it was me, I'd drop out. That's not a carrot, that's a stick. And it's going to create a permanent, barely educated underclass, further devaluing the high school diploma and eventually the bachelor's degree which in many cases already stands in for what we would have considered a high school education twenty years ago.

So what should we do, Princess Mom? If we graduate kids who can't read, won't that lead to the permanent-underclass-worthless-high-school-diploma, too? Yes, it will. What we need to do is stop promoting kids who can't read. Intensive reading and math instruction is what first and second grade is for. We need to stop failing schools and start failing kids. No child goes to third grade unless he or she can read at a third grade level, add and subtract. Period.

Yes, that probably sounds harsh. "What about poor Bobby who comes from a broken home/abusive home/foster care/etc.? Poor Bobby needs someone in his corner." He sure does. He needs a teacher who insists he learns something and who will work with him year after year until he finally masters the material. No social promotion so he "doesn't feel bad about himself." How much self-esteem does an illiterate 8th grader really have? No "get him out of my class" promotions, either. If there's a bad mis-match between student and teacher, putting poor Bobby in a different class is in order, but not a different grade. And if a teacher has a large number of students she doesn't get along with, or a large percentage of her class who needs to repeat a grade, that teacher's job should be in danger.

Our kids deserve better than they're getting. They deserve to learn, to understand the wide world and as much of what is in it as we can teach them in eighteen years. Narrowing their world to save administrative necks is an injustice.

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