April 4, 2006

On narrowing the curriculum

While I'm still unable to get to sleep from caffeine (I promised students a batch of grades tomorrow in class), I thought I'd take a few minutes to wind down the growing spin story on the Center on Education Policy report on the 4th year of NCLB implementation. Now that Andrew Rotherham has kindly asked people to take my money (via the Shakespeare challenges), I owe him and other readers a brief explanation of what I'm doing, and it's definitely not research, though I suspect some serious research will eventually delve into the narrowing of the curriculum. More on the continuation...

As Ed Toch points out, the Center on Education Policy report on NCLB does not mean that there was some recent Golden Age when schools' attention to the content areas was fabulous, and somehow that got ruined by NCLB. And I don't think the report said it, though the New York Times story last Sunday hyped that section of a much longer report (which discussed the mixed record of NCLB pretty fairly, as I think the Center's reports have generally done, at least those I've read).

Yet the Times story gives us an opening to talk about what has happened with the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. Is the CEP study definitive or at the classroom level? Absolutely not. Yet I haven't seen anything between that level and the type of close observation that Linda McNeil and others have done. (Search this week's AERA meeting schedule, but I haven't found anything specifically on the narrowing of the enacted curriculum.) You'd need a project funded in the $200-$400K range to have a broad range of classrooms observed in the types of settings to pick up the difference between a reasonable intensification of instruction, on the one hand, and obvious narrowing of the curriculum and bloody-minded test-prep, on the other. I suspect the federal DOE won't fund that type of study, and the foundations may not, unless there's considerable more push from researchers who have the capacity to do it (and I'm not the person for that job).

One other perspective: while there may not have been a Golden Age, you have to start improving the curriculum somewhere. I think of all the good stuff that the test-prep booklet cash could have bought and wince. That's really what the challenges are about (as well as to tweak anyone who thinks test-prep doesn't go on): what business do schools have purchasing booklets to help prepare for tests when too many schools don't commit time to good literature or have decent texts or enough class sets of good literature to begin with? The retired head of Florida's testing program, Tom Fisher, and I disagree on a number of things in ed policy, but we both have agreed that test-prep is unethical. To him, good everyday instruction should be sufficient to prepare children for any test. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that test-prep works, if only in the sense that steroids work in sports, with the short-term results. But at some point, that's an abandonment of a commitment to use school time wisely.

Finally, the narrowing-the-curriculum argument will swing either way (or multiple ways) depending on the grade level of the school. One can certainly make the case that one can infuse other subjects into reading at the elementary level, because elementary teachers are generalists. But once you get to grades where the clear expectation is that subject teachers are content specialists to some degree, can an English teacher be expected to put historical documents into context? I think you can either emphasize the content knowledge of secondary teachers (and be concerned about the lack thereof) or claim that content infusion is hunky-dory over sixth grade. But not both.

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Posted in Education policy on April 4, 2006 2:44 AM |