Thursday, August 10, 2006

What Our Children Isn't Learning

In response to the rising importance to school administration of math and language arts test scores, many schools are requiring students to take two periods each of those "core" classes. Of course, the school day is only so long and something's got to give - schools aren't just adding two periods to the day.

Sure enough, as this AP article discusses, many schools are dropping electives for their students:
Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland, Calif., decided to require two class periods of the core subjects for all students. The change left no time for electives and forced the school to drop wood shop, art, music and Spanish. Now, those electives and others are offered before and after school as extras.

Now, depending on the particular elective in question, I might be more or less bothered by its removal from the regular school day. And the article mentions the standard, abstract objections to narrowing the curriculum so severely. What the article fails to mention, however, is a phenomenon that is occurring in some middle schools: the removal of science and history classes to make room for additional math and reading. (I do not know for sure, though I guess, that this phenomenon is somewhat less common in high schools, which, I assume, have more of an eye toward university entrance requirements.) Indeed, the words "science" and "history" do not even appear in the article.

It probably goes without saying why this development is unfortunate - just off the top of my head, much of the reason we teach math and language arts in the first place is that we ultimately want to facilitate the learning of science and history, and one has a hard time imagining why 12-year-olds would care as much about math or reading if they didn't have science or history to apply their skills to - and it's definitely noteworthy, so I'd hope to read more about it in the papers.

Update: Oh man. It's like the world conspires to provide me with convenient illustrations to fill out and expand upon my blog-points:
A comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower.

Among the factors contributing to America's low score are poor understanding of biology, especially genetics, the politicization of science and the literal interpretation of the Bible by a small but vocal group of American Christians, the researchers say.

"American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close," said study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University.


The study found that over the past 20 years:
  • The percentage of U.S. adults who accept evolution declined from 45 to 40 percent.
  • The percentage overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48 to 39 percent, however.
  • And the percentage of adults who were unsure increased, from 7 to 21 percent.

So while the survey doesn't deal directly with the practice of double-blocking math and English at the expense of science, it is evidence of increasing disregard for science in general in American society.

The liberal instinct might be to blame this all on religious conservatives muddying the waters with quackery like "intelligent design" theory, but we shouldn't neglect entirely the impact of the rise of standardized testing. The emphasis of such tests is almost always predominately - if not exclusively - on math and language arts. Problem is, big chunks of those subjects aren't terribly useful unless you can apply them to science or history. It would be a shame if we managed to boost our kids' math and reading scores only at the net expense of their bag of useful skills.


Thinker said...

Paul, you might be interested in this thread I started at the party line a couple of weeks ago. (

It is about the science literacy component of the Science and Engineering Indicators, which illustrate just how poor basic scientific knowledge is among adults in the U.S.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Further, when language arts and math supplant other core subjects, mainly the reading component of language arts is pushed; writing is overlooked. Apparently the state has no interest in students pursuing anything resembling creative work. Don't they get it that by encouraging students to produce and create (via writing, performing arts electives, exploring real-world applications of science and social studies) their reading comprehension and math skills will naturally increase?

Can we please have data-driven education policy?