Monday, July 30, 2007

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.


Blogger Lorne said...

While I understand that your comments are all about the importance of context in reading, some cynics would suggest that public education today is primarily concerned about the teaching of skills that will make people valuable(and malleable)employees in the future. To provide people with, for example, too much historical context perhaps runs the risk of producing critical, independent thinkers, something that some sectors of society would feel threatened by.

7/30/2007 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To provide people with, for example, too much historical context perhaps runs the risk of producing critical, independent thinkers, something that some sectors of society would feel threatened by."

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence :-)

Or the strange interactions of political compromises.

It is more reasonable to explain this lack as something as simple as a lack of historical cross-domain teaching. Reading, for example, was "reading fiction", not reading for content (although, interestingly, the old McGuffey's readers contained non-fiction). Explaining how we might have got here doesn't help to explain why we don't seem to *start* doing things different, though.

Any K-5 teachers out there who can offer some real world explanations?

-Mark Roulo

7/30/2007 10:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Joanne Jacobs had a post called "Summer Starts" yesterday that is indirectly related to this. She mentions the big gap for disadvantaged kids in the background and reinforcement they get at home for the things they are learning in school. Hirsch argues that we can make up for this gap if, among other things, we give kids enough "content" earlier than we are now. Whether we can or not, I don't know, but I think it's worth giving a try.

I think one problem in social studies might be the battle between liberals and conservatives. Teachers might be afraid that if they present the traditional heroes of American history that liberals will be screaming, and if they go in the "multicultural" direction, conservatives will be on their case. To be honest, I think at early ages, going mostly in a tradtitional direction makes the most sense.

7/31/2007 3:27 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Dennis: great post. Perhaps one reason Freddy the Frog is taught in elementary school because the kids like Freddy the Frog, and the teachers don't trust Ben Franklin and George Washington to be interesting to the kids.

And to be fair, there are a lot of dry history books out there. It's not easy to write a history book for kids and make it interesting and accurate. Nevertheless, kids can surprise you.

As far as cynicism -- well, my first grade son came home with a classroom bill of rights exercise the school had done. The "rights" included things like "The right to sit quietly in my seat" and "The right to come to class on time". Of course, the bill of rights can be an extraordinarily difficult topic, with a lot of background knowledge to even begin to understand what some of them are driving at -- but the way it was presented misinterpreted the entire concept of the BOR as a set of limitations on government. I believe it's very possible the teachers don't want first-graders throwing the first amendment at them. They don't want junior high schoolers throwing the fourth amendment at them either.

7/31/2007 8:28 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Fantastic idea! I think we just need to get Bill Bryson or even Robert Munsch to write some kids-level biographies of famous people and events so kids will have an easy time reading them and still gain the information therein.

Part of the problem may also be the Diney-fication of classic kids' stories - when things are simplified, they tend to take out the historically significant aspects of the stories. I blame Disney because I am reading side-by-side to my four-year-old the original A.A. Milne Pooh stories and the Disney-licensed versions. The originals are much richer in language and context, and I think it's a huge disservice to only read the Disney-fied versions. Plus, my son enjoys them equally, so why not read the good ones?

7/31/2007 10:09 AM  
Anonymous joycemocha said...

If you go back and read some of the old-timey basal readers (I'm talking early 20th century--Edson Readers, Everyday Readings), short, pithy historical readings were mixed in among other items for fairly young readers.

It worked in the past. It'd be useful now.

8/01/2007 8:29 AM  
Blogger trishia said...

As an elementary teacher-in-training, this topic is very important to me. As a parent of 5 young children, this is a topic close to my heart.

A few weeks back, there was a post titled "Don't know much about history" from Althouse "And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. " source

Now, I don't know much about leaving the literary reading to home... the reader in me screams in anguish when reading that part, but her other idea (and yours, too) make sense to a degree. Why only use literature to teach reading? Why dumb down readings? (look at the ever popular Harry Potter series, she does not water her language down in any way. There were a few words that even I as an adult had to look up in the dictionary to be sure on the actual definition. Yet people around the globe are eating those books up.)

I do know from personal experience of a few series that highlight historical biographies for kids. One is the TIME for Kids series. Another is the Who Was... series. And my sons favorite of all, the Childhood of Famous Americans books, which we get at Barnes and Noble whenever we are there (getting to be a pricey little collection on his part!). Obviously biographies can not be all they get, but this is a start based on what series I am aware of. The other problem would likely be that of politics, as mentioned before. Who gets to pick what subjects are important, what characters to highlight? I sure don't want to be the one opening that can o worms with the politicians we have today.

This is an intriguing idea. Kids need better reading skills which comes by more reading and by exposure to a variety of vocabulary words, and they also need better historical background knowledge than they have now. Why not combine the two?

8/01/2007 9:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you to all of you for your comments!

Trishia, I really appreciate your elementary school perspective. I'm always reluctant to say things that come off as telling other teachers how they should do their jobs, so when I write a post like this one, I'm really hoping for feedback from people like you.

Cypticlife, welcome back! I understand your annoyance with the turn-around on the Bill of Rights, but I honestly think that's better than nothing. At least those kids are hearing the term, and they are getting the idea that it's rules for something. When they get to the point when they're learning about the real Bill of Rights, they'll have some familiarity with the term, and I'm sure some of the kids--probably led by your son--will come to the realization that the real Bill of Rights are a lot different than their first grade Bill of Rights.

8/01/2007 11:42 AM  
Blogger trishia said...

Thanks! I can see where you would be worried. In my studies alone I have come across teachers who are very reluctant to take a suggestion from (gasp) a STUDENT teacher. Not that I would ever tell them to do their job different, but in one case there was a boy who struggled with attention during teacher led reading time. He wanted to draw and mess with papers. I simply told his teacher about one of my college professors who allowed students to doodle on a blank sheet of paper so long as the drawing was related to the readings/lecture. She was very angry with me for suggesting we let this boy continue to "misbehave"... well, what if he is a visual learner and those doodles helped him to connect to what was being read?

So, yeah, I see where you would be worried. That is one of the issues of teaching, though. Teachers are so often blamed for the problems that they become very defensive- in some cases, rightly so. But when those defenses push into their dealings with others in the field, a sad thing happens as a lot of collaboration and idea sharing is lost for fear of insulting someone.

8/02/2007 8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I understand your annoyance with the turn-around on the Bill of Rights, but I honestly think that's better than nothing. At least those kids are hearing the term, and they are getting the idea that it's rules for something..."

Really, Dennis? Since the teaching here is exactly backwards, I see that as a problem. Consider a class where the teacher was teaching that the Germans won WW I. I don't think I'd be okay with that because at least the kids have heard about WW I and in a later class they can get the correct version.

My thinking here is, "First, do no harm."

Or have I misunderstood you?

-Mark R.

8/02/2007 12:45 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

No Mark, you actually haven't misunderstood me. Speaking for myself as a history teacher, I would rather have kids come into my class with wrong information about a subject than no information on it. Obviously, the more accurate the better, but think about all the history your've learned through the years that turned out to be inaccurate in some way. Probably the first thing I ever learned about George Washington was that he chopped down a cherry tree. So, yes. When it comes to history, which is so subject to interpretation, I think giving kids some familiarity with a subject--even if it's inaccurate--is better than no familiarity at all. In fact, I think it's interesting when you learn that what you thought or learned initially was wrong. To this day, when I read about Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, and realize that I had misconceptions about them, I find that interesting. When you're young, you're given the impression that the Founding Fathers were all good buddies and perfect people. You're not told about the bitter rivalries between some of them, you're not told that a lot of them owned slaves, and you're not told that Thomas Jefferson had children with one of this. When you find that out later, it's really interesting, but it wouldn't be if you had no clue who they were. Look at all the money James Loewen made by writing "Lies My Teacher Told Me." I think Loewen tells his own share of "lies," but the book is interesting because it gives a completely different slant on many of the things we learned in school.

This does depend on the subject, however. I don't think it would be a good idea to tell kids that 2+2=7.

8/03/2007 5:21 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

"This does depend on the subject, however. I don't think it would be a good idea to tell kids that 2+2=7."

I'm smiling. I actually started off with a math example (teaching multiplication as division), but decided that this was a poor analogy :-)

-Mark Roulo

8/03/2007 9:56 AM  

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