2006-03-31 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Cutting The Curriculum From The Bottom Of The Deck, II
By Howard Schwach

I have been writing about the Department of Education's (DOE) plan to improve test scores in Language Arts and Mathematics by dropping virtually everything else from the curriculum for about two years now.

The powers that be at the DOE laughed when I asked questions about the new mandates, telling me that the kids were getting plenty of instruction in Social Studies and Science through an "integrated curriculum" in which those subjects were taught through a literacy-based curriculum rather than as stand-alone subjects.

That might sound good to the uninitiate, to somebody who has no background in education, but anybody who has taught for a while knows what that means.

It means that the Revolutionary War is "taught" by reading and discussing "Johnny Tremain," and the Civil War is "taught" through reading and discussing "The Red Badge of Courage."

It means that students "study" science by doing an interdisciplinary report on a famous scientist or by studying the ecology of their neighborhood.

Reading those books and doing those projects are good as a way of adding to the content area learning that kids get in other ways, but they are never a be-all and end-all to learning.

First of all, while each of those novels gives the reader a first-hand feeling for the event, they are not historically correct.

Second of all, there is no novel that presents such vital geographic concepts as north-south and what longitude and latitude mean.

Then, there is the problem of learning about their own government.

I know how difficult it is to teach the concept of three co-equal branches of government and the balance of power between them. I have tried for years with both gifted and at-risk students.

It is a tough concept for the gifted kids, near-impossible for the at-risk students.

Yet, that governmental structure is at the heart of the decisions the students will have to make as voting citizens a few short years after they graduate from high school.

Look at the major issues that consume us today: the war powers of the president; abortion, state's rights; privacy rights; criminal rights; and religious rights. All of those issues flow from the Constitution. All of them have been debated by the three branches of government. How is a person to make a valid choice about those issues without knowing the back-story, the Constitution and the balance of powers that derives from that document?

The New York State Department of Education mandates one unit (four periods a week for one year) in both Social Studies and Science.

American History and government must be taught in the fourth grade, the seventh and eighth grades (as a two-year sequence) and in the eleventh grade.

There is often no instruction on American History in the fourth grade because the teachers have no training in teaching that subject and feel uncomfortable in the role.

There are 180 school days on the calendar. The mandate is that Social Studies be taught on at least 145 of those days. Instead, students in middle school are getting only 40 or 50 days of Social Studies instruction.

The same it true of Science, a subject I know far less about.

"Minor" subjects such as art, music, technology and even foreign language have fared even worse. In many cases, they have been removed completely from the curriculum.

Even Physical Education has been truncated despite the fact that our kids do not get enough exercise. While the state mandates three periods a week one semester and two the next, many public schools now provide only one or two periods of gym a week to students.

Why the cuts?

To build up reading and math scores so that the Mayor can look like he fulfilled his promise to "improve" education.

So the mandates under the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) can be met.

My last column on this subject (the latest in a long line of columns) came out last Friday. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page story above the fold (the most important position for a story) headlined, "Schools Cut Back Subjects To Push Reading and Math."

The story in the Times, however, was not simply about New York City and our DOE, but about the problem nationally.The first paragraph of the New York Times story reads:

"Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating [those subjects].

The Times article goes on to say, "The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American in-structional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums is 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."

I don't know about you, but "narrowing the curriculum" worries me. In a dash to improve scores, we are giving up on educating our children in the things they will need to become informed adults, to make the decisions that democracy needs made in order to stay viable as a governing plan.

The U.S. Secretary of Education said, "Good education has always been about good testing."

That is ridiculous and if it hadn't come from somebody high in the education hierarchy, it would have been rejected out of hand. Coming from the Secretary of Education, however, it is frightening.

Any teacher will tell you that testing is important. They will tell you, however, that good education is not about good testing.

Good education has always been about getting students ready for the adult world.

You do that by teaching them to read and to do the math necessary to function in the real world. You do that by teaching them to be aware consumers.You do that by teaching them about their surroundings, their government. You get them ready to become concerned and knowledgeable voters.

President Bush, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein seem to have forgotten the purpose of education (if, in fact, they ever knew what education really means) in the pursuit of higher test scores. Society will one day reap what they have sown.

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