Elementary schools cut back on social studies, science, and the arts
This should come as no surprise to anyone, but a recent study shows that elementary schools are cutting back on social studies, science, and the arts in an effort to focus on the things that are being tested under No Child Left Behind, like reading and math.
The Washington-based Center on Education Policy (CEP), which released the report, said the research finds that about 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English/language arts or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.
According to CEP, "A majority of the nation's school districts report that they have increased time for reading and math in elementary schools since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, while time spent on other subjects has fallen by nearly one-third during the same time, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy.
"The report, based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 350 school districts, finds that to make room for additional curriculum and instructional time in reading and math - the two subjects tested for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act - many districts are also spending less time in other subjects that are not the focus of federal accountability."
It seems to me that in the areas of social studies and science there is an obvious solution to this problem, and it is recommended by E. D. Hirsch. That solution is simply to incorporate more social studies and science--part of what Hirsch calls core knowledge--into our early reading programs. Rather than having kids read stories about Freddy the Frog or Billy the Bear, why not have them read children's stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King? Is there any reason that we shouldn't do that?
Hirsch argues that this would actually be the most effective thing we could do to improve kids' reading over the long run. He says that American schools are already doing a good job of teaching the mechanics of reading, and this shows up on international test scores through the fourth grade. We start dropping after that because tests become based more on background knowledge, and our kids don't have much of that. Hirsch's point is that if students have little or no background knowledge in a subject that they are reading about, they're not going to understand what they're reading no matter how good their mechanics are. That makes great sense to me, because I see it in my own life.
Right now, I'm reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I'm enjoying it. But on Saturday, I read about Franklin's experiments and discoveries dealing with electricity. Now, my understanding of electricity is almost nonexistent, so I was lost after about one paragraph. There was talk of "positives" and "negatives" and "charges" and "electricity is a fluid" and it all meant about nothing to me. For me, it was the least enjoyable part of the book so far, and I couldn't even begin to explain anything about it to you. So if someone tested my reading skills based on that section of the book, they would probably conclude that I was a very poor reader.
Yesterday, on the other hand, I read about Franklin's views on Indians, African-Americans, and slavery. I already knew something about that going in, but I was able to learn a lot from reading this section, and I found it very interesting and enjoyable. If you wanted me to explain this section to you, I would be able to do it with a great deal of confidence. The background knowledge that I had was the key.
I admit that I am no expert on the subject of elementary education, but I do know that many of the kids I get in my sophomore American history classes have an appalling lack of background knowledge. There are kids who don't know who our first president was, there are kids who don't know what war involved slavery, and there are kids who have no idea that at one time African-Americans and women weren't allowed to vote--and I'm talking about my regular classes, not my basic one. When kids have so little background knowledge, it is hard for me to make the class interesting and meaningful for them. I can get them to learn material for a test, but I have no confidence that many of them will retain much of that knowledge even a month or two later. I know all these kids are getting American history in seventh grade, and I know they're getting some in elementary school, but maybe they're getting too little too late.
I want to make it clear that I am not pointing my finger at elementary teachers for the lack of American history background knowledge that so many students suffer from. I'm not sure what all the reasons are for this "knowledge deficit," but obviously the family plays a huge role, and I also think our culture bears some responsibility. But I think that by introducing more American history content earlier than we do now, our early elementary programs have the potential to be a big part of the solution. Hirsch is very critical of the reading material that is now being used in most of our early elementary programs, but I must confess that I know little about it. I do know that even when I was very young, I enjoyed hearing stories about people like Washington and Lincoln. It seems to me that having more material like that in our early reading programs is something worth trying.