Saturday, May 14, 2011

Are Schools Teaching Too Much Math and Reading?

One of the objections often heard to No Child Left Behind and state accountability testing of schools is that schools spend too much time focusing on math and reading, compared to the good old days when they could spend more time on science, social studies, the arts, etc.

Here's what the Center for Education Policy said a few years ago:
“In 2005-06, as shown in table 4-C, our survey found that 71% of districts reported reducing instructional time in elementary schools for one or more subjects in order to make more time for reading and/or math. On average, districts in our survey spent about an hour and a half on reading and a little over an hour on math. Urban districts, however, spent significantly more time on reading than suburban and rural districts: 113 minutes or almost two hours” (p. 95).
One might wonder how that compares to what schools did long before accountability testing or NCLB. By chance, I recently came across evidence on that very point. It's from a book published by the National Institute of Education in 1980, reviewing a large classroom observation study from California called the "Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study."*

Here's a page summarizing how much time the observed California classrooms in the 1970s spent on math, reading, and other subjects: (Click to enlarge.)

The chart says that 2nd grade classrooms in 1970s California spent 1.5 hours per day on reading, 35 minutes on math, and all of 8 minutes on other academic subjects (which included social studies and science, but not music or art). Fifth grade classrooms spent an hour and 50 minutes on reading, 45 minutes on math, and 17 minutes on social studies and science. (Note that activities within other classes could be counted as reading or math time.)

How about even further back? Here's a chart from the same book reviewing previous studies from the 1860s, 1904, 1914, and 1926, respectively:

(Click to enlarge.)

In all of the previous studies from the 1860s to the 1920s, 2nd grade classrooms were spending well over 2 hours per day on reading -- more than the amount of time that is today cited as a "narrowing" of the curriculum. Fifth grade classrooms spent between 108 and 146 minutes per day on reading. In math, the classrooms spent between 29 and 61 minutes per day. Classrooms spent between 15 and 63 minutes per day on other academic subjects such as geography, history, and science.

Thus, it seems that long before anyone had thought of testing math and reading on a standardized basis, a lot of schools were still spending the bulk of their academic time on those subjects (especially reading).

* The full citation: Carolyn Denham and Ann Lieberman, eds. "Time to Learn." National Institute of Education, 1980.



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