MCLB (Much Curriculum Left Behind): A U.S. Calamity in the Making
Published in The Educational Forum, Oct. 1., 2009, 73:4,284 Ã¢€” 296.
A teacher in Florida said (Jones and Egley 2004): Our total curriculum is focused on reading, writing, and math. There is no extra time for students to study the arts or have physical education, science, or social studies. Our curriculum is very unbalanced.
Empirical Studies of Curriculum Narrowing, Social Class Bias, and MCLB
It is not just teachers who notice the trend toward narrowing the curriculum. Researchers have confirmed that teachersÃ¢€™ beliefs have a basis in reality. The Council on Basic Education surveyed school curricula in the post-NCLB world and announced that the liberal arts in contemporary America had "atrophied" (Zastrow and Janc 2004). They noted that history, social studies, civics, geography, art and music, and foreign language often are not the focus of high-stakes testing and so these courses have been abridged or dropped all across the nation. The loss of these courses was found to be greatest in minority communities.
Curriculum decisions that emphasize reading and mathematics over other areas seem quite sensible to some politicians and citizens because the poor and minorities probably do need more time in basic subjects such as these to catch up with their more advantaged middle-class age-mates. With only a few notable exceptions in our nation, the allocation of more time for high-quality schooling is not the response made to the disparities in academic skills that exist across social classes. Increased school time is regarded as too costly a remedy for the achievement gap that exists between social classes. Though members of all political parties make complaints about the "gap," the use of increased instructional time as a remedy is not acceptable. What we see much too often, instead, is the jettisoning of the non-tested portions of the curriculum so that additional time can be devoted to the curriculum that matches the test. But, all the while, the time allocations that schools and districts have used for decades are maintained.
The narrowing of the curriculum offerings to prepare for tests is a sure way to divide the wealthier from the poorer in ways other than by income and housing. Curriculum decisions of this kind ensure that intellectual capital is cultivated more in some groups of students than in others. Jonathan Kozol (2005) branded curriculum policies that allocate a richer curriculum to the wealthy and an impoverished and test-preparation curriculum to the poor as apartheid in its character. This is a harsh but not unreasonable interpretation of what has been occurring with increased frequency since NCLB was passed.
Survey research by the Center on Education Policy (2006) also captured this frightening trend. The center looked at 350 school districts and learned that about 62 percent of those districts had increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on EnglishÃ¢€“language arts or math and that 44 percent of the districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess. The group discovered, however, something more frightening: 97 percent of the high-poverty districts (where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) had policies that restricted the curriculum offered to their students. Even two strong supporters of NCLB in the past, conservative educators Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, noted that MCLB has been the result of NCLB. Finn and Ravitch (2007) stated:
Test Preparation and MCLB
Among the most problematic ways of focusing student attention on the tests is to spend the time that is cut from other curriculum areas on test preparation rather than on new learning. The use of some school time to prepare for high-stakes tests is generally an appropriate response by educators to the political needs in their district and state. But, too many teachers, schools, and districts, overly worried about test performance and its consequences under NCLB, have made indefensible decisions about how much time to spend on test preparation.
The high-stakes testing environment of North Carolina, for example, resulted in so much test preparation that many school days were devoid of genuine instruction (Jones et al. 1999). Survey research in that stateÃ¢€™s high-stakes testing environment found that 80 percent of elementary teachers in North Carolina reported that they spent, on average, more than 20 percent of their total teaching time practicing for high-stakes tests. This is about the equivalent of 36 days of test preparation per school year. But, even more dismaying was that 28 percent of those teachers reported spending more than 60 percent of their time practicing for the stateÃ¢€™s tests. That would require more than 100 of the typical 180 days of instruction to be spent in various forms of test preparation!
Texas, the model for our federal NCLB Act, has so destroyed the curriculum through excessive test preparation that students in some school settings report complete loss of interest in schooling. The poorer the students attending the school, the worse it is. For example, in the following transcript from a high school English classroom, a teacher is attempting to motivate her 16 Latino juniors to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test (Foster 2006). The teacher (T) had just handed out an essay similar to those expected to be on the upcoming state test. Her goal was to motivate and inspire students (S) to perform well on the test, but for these students, this activity had no value:
And so it goesÃ¢€”-another exciting day at school marked only by passive resistance to what is accurately perceived to be an inferior (and boring) education by the students at this South Texas high school.
Narrowing the Curriculum by Constraining the Test
Multiple-choice items are cheap to produce and to score, with scoring often done by machine. A test that includes lots of multiple-choice items during any single testing session becomes more reliable as an indicator of achievement in the curriculum content area assessed. Essays, on the other hand, are more expensive to score and more time-consuming to administer, so only one or a few of them are used in any single testing session. Although essay examinations are more likely to reflect genuine learning of the kind we want students to possess, the examsÃ¢€™ unreliability requires that we not base important decisions about students, teachers, and schools on such tests. That is why many assessments associated with NCLB have many multiple-choice items but one or only a few essay items.
The multiple-choice format, however, simply makes it harder to be sure that deeper, more complex learning of subject matter has taken place. Students can often recognize and quickly select the right answers, but they may not understand the concepts or areas being assessed fully. Students may not be able to analyze key ideas in an area or elaborate the pros and cons of an issue. They may be unable to evaluate the data related to a phenomenon, even though they know the name of the phenomenon and thus can answer correctly the multiple-choice item assessing
their knowledge in that content area. It is the difference between knowing the names of ColumbusÃ¢€™s ships and knowing the reasons that the Spanish royal family financed him.
Eliciting higher-level thinking by using multiple-choice items is certainly possible, but not typical. What follows is a real-life item assessing reading and writing skills for the TAKS. After reading a short story, with numbered sentences, about the Madan (the marsh dwellers
of southern Iraq), the student is asked a series of multiple-choice questions, the first of which is
To most people, it seems reasonable that if you want to know whether children can write, you have them produce writing samples and not answer questions such as the one just listed. And, to determine whether students understand just how precarious the life of the cultural group described in the story was, most teachers would ask more complex questions than this. Teachers I know would ask by way of essay questionsÃ¢€”such questions as, Why is the way of life of these people now threatened? What can be done about it? How would you (the student) convince these people to move and give up their centuries-old culture? Have you the right to do that?, and so forth. The point is that a series of select-type multiple-choice items, calling for little in the way of long-term memory, analysis, and judgment, does not ensure that learning of the type we desire in our youth takes place. Multiple-choice tests typically are designed to assess decontextualized fragments of knowledge, and they reward breadth of coverage, aspects of a subject matter area that can be prepared for by engaging in drill and extensive test preparation. Thus, even when the scores on multiple-choice tests go up, it is not likely that students have developed deeper, richer, more interconnected conceptions of the knowledge assessed. In sum, largescale multiple-choice testing usually narrows what is learned as surely as does reduced curriculum offerings.
MCLB and the American Public
The founding fathers of the United States did not want a narrow curriculum (Rothstein and Jacobsen 2007). George Washington worried about citizenship and integration of immigrantsÃ¢€”what today would be called multicultural education. Benjamin Franklin wanted history emphasized so that ordinary citizens might understand the concepts of justice and injustice. He also wanted more physical education taught, and todayÃ¢€™s youth obesity problems would certainly have brought out the scold in him. Thomas Jefferson wanted vocational training, and he also wanted schools to address issues of morality, as well as the rights and obligations of citizens in a republic. And, no more eloquent a plea for the arts can be found than in the May 12, 1780 letter John Adams, a former schoolteacher and future president, wrote to his wife, Abigail. In that letter he said, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
Recent survey research found that a majority of Americans want most of the same things from their schools (Rothstein and Jacobsen 2007). Basic skills training always is expected from our schools but, in this survey, the teaching of critical thinking rated almost as high. As shown in the transcript presented earlier, critical thinking is too often sacrificed by teachers engaging in a test-preparation curriculum. In turn, complex thought is too often suppressed by students while they are in school. The survey also found that Americans want their schools to teach social skills and a work ethic, citizenship, and physical education. They also wanted curriculum that supported emotional health, the arts and literature, and that prepared U.S. youth for skilled employment.
Few of the respondents to this survey wanted to see U.S. schools narrow what they offer. By a wide margin, the nation does not want a school system characterized by MCLB, though that is precisely what NCLB has given us and why NCLB must be abandoned or greatly modified. In their wisdom, the American public seems to know what politicians have failed to understand: There is every reason to believe that the broader the curriculum, the more likely the United States will maintain its edge in productivity and keep its place as one of the strongest and most nimble economies in the world. The narrower the curriculum provided to our students, the less well-prepared they are likely to be for intellectual competition in a rapidly changing, quite unpredictable international economy. A few of the studies suggesting this quite defensible thesis follow.
Narrowing Curriculum and the Outcomes of Schooling
A recent study examined the data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study in the United States, called the NELS 88 data (Deke and Haimson 2006). About 10,000 students were followed from 1988 to the present. The researchers looked at the competencies that were most valuable in predicting an array of post- secondary indicators of school success. For each student in the sample, researchers identified the competency that, when raised 10 percentile points, generated the largest jump in earnings and the likelihood of completing a postsecondary program. These researchers found that increasing math test scores had the largest effect on earnings for a plurality of the students, but they found that for most students, the greatest benefits were attributable to improving one of their nonacademic competencies. These nonacademic competencies included improved work habits, increased sports skills, increased leadership skills, better prosocial behavior, and more responsibility for successÃ¢€”-a locus of control or personality variable. For example, with respect to
earnings eight years after high school, increasing math test scores would have been most effective for just 33 percent of students, but 67 percent of the students would have benefited more from improving a nonacademic competency. Many students would have secured the largest earnings benefit from improvements in locus of control (30 percent) and sports-related competencies (20 percent)Ã¢€”learner competencies that are ignored when talking about schoolingÃ¢€”-or performance on the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP) or Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams.
Similarly, for most students, their chances of enrolling in and completing a postsecondary program improved if one of their nonacademic competencies showed gains, rather than having their math scores improved. The researchers did something else that was interesting in this study. They asked what the benefits would be on earnings and post-secondary college attendance had they raised everyoneÃ¢€™s mathematics score 20 percentile points. This is the kind of one size fits all policy that Germany, the United States, and some other nations seem to adopt when those nations worry that their students' scores are too low on NAEP or PISA. The researchers contrasted this one size fits all policy with an individualized strategyÃ¢€”-one based instead on raising the scores of each student in the area in which they showed the highest correlation with a future outcome; that is, the researchers asked what would happen if the schools had tailored their work with students to use the talents that the students had already demonstrated were important for that student. The results of this contrast were quite clear. Greater gains in earnings to the person and to the economic viability of the community were predicted to have come from individualizing and tailoring the educational programs of the students, rather than by having adopted a one size fits all policy to the student population. In the industrialized world, national policies to improve literacy, mathematics, and scientific knowledge, after some minimum level is achieved, may not be as good as local school policies to develop student skills in whichever areas such skills exist. By assessing the academic competencies of literacy, mathematics, and scientific knowledge, we certainly measure the constructs that the politicians value. But, we too often forget to remind people that those scores do not do a great job in predicting the future performance of nations or of individuals. Nurturing the diverse talents of studentsÃ¢€”not just the ones the test selects onÃ¢€”-is likely to get them further in life and enrich their nation more.
Evidence of the effects of narrowing the curriculum also shows up in analyses that look at the effects of high-stakes high school exit exams on studentsÃ¢€™ Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) performanceÃ¢€”-the tests students take for college entrance (Marchant and Paulson 2005). One study examined SAT performance in states that required students to pass a high-stakes high school exit exam versus those states that did not have the requirement. The researchers controlled for a number of obvious demographic differences in the states and still found a significant difference in SAT performance. Students in states without an exit exam statistically outperformed students in states with an exit exam! The researchers hypothesize that the high-stakes test preparation, focused on narrow skills and discrete bits of knowledge, reduced students' reasoning ability in the verbal and mathematics curriculum areas. And, it is precisely these reasoning skills that the SAT was designed to measure, and the kinds of skills more likely to be needed in an unstable world economy.
England, which also invested heavily in high-stakes testing and witnessed the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum, seems to have the same problem. Recent research in primary schools reveals few opportunities for expressing anything that resembles creative reasoning (Galton 2007). In one study, the lead researcher followed up his own research of the 1970s and found that teacher- centered pedagogy had increased between 1976 and 1996. In science lessons, more than one half of the interactions took place in a whole-class setting, with pupils having few opportunities to question or to explore new ideas. Those teacherÃ¢€“ pupil exchanges that did occur were coded as "low level," mostly having to do with task supervision.
All this informs us that high-stakes tests narrow both the espoused curriculum and the enacted curriculum, forcing on our teachers and our students alike the kinds of instruction that more resembles the instruction of the 19th century rather than the instruction that might be needed for the 21st century. This century seems almost surely to require more than basic literacy and numeracy, though we certainly want those skills. What Americans have always wanted from their schools seems more necessary now than ever. For 100 years, Americans have been remarkably consistent in asking their schools to develop among students the ability to analyze and interpret information, apply ideas to new situations, think critically, and engage in problem-solving activities both alone and with others (Bonnet 2002). American schools have never done this well. There never was a golden age of public schooling of the type we crave. But, in a global economy, such oversight can be much more harmful than in the factory economy that characterized most of the past century.
National Exams and Lost Opportunities
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) supports the PISA testing that has so captivated industrialized nations, and whose results are generating concern about national curriculum alignment with PISA. But, the OECD has stated that giving schools a greater say, rather than a lesser say, in curricular decision making is positively related to student performance. The data reviewed suggest that in countries where principals reported higher degrees of decision-making responsibility, performance on PISA science tests tended to be higher. Findings from the last PISA study demonstrate that the percentage of schools reporting that they have considerable responsibility for decision making about course content accounted for 27 percent of cross-country performance differences. Similarly, 26 percent of cross-country differences could be accounted for in the level of decision-making responsibility about the choice of textbooks (Pont, Nusche, and Moorman 2008).
Apparently, on PISA tests, achievement is higher in nations where school leaders are not told what to do or ordered to use certain tools to accomplish their nationsÃ¢€™ goals. Nevertheless, in the United States, as happened with the Reading First program of instruction, federal and state agencies have mandated the curriculum and forms of instruction to be used at the school site. This U.S. trend contrasts with OECD data suggesting that autonomy in leadership, as well as diversity in the methods chosen to accomplish the goals of learning, are more supportive of a nation's aspirations for achievement than are bureaucratic prescriptions and strong sanctions.
When high-stakes tests and the narrow curriculum they engender become ingrained in society, the testing program may place limits on the economic productivity of a nation. For example, the French have extremely old forms of assessment, such as the baccalaurÃƒÂ©at, created by Napoleon in 1808, resulting in huge school-failure rates (Beck 2007). About 17 percent of children repeat a grade because of these exams, and that number more than doubles to 38 percent in the quartiers dÃƒÂ©favorisÃƒÂ©s (underprivileged neighborhoods). So, this is not a system that is trying hard to produce many educated students, though it is proud that the students it does produce are of "high quality." The question, of course, is whether French high-quality students are well-prepared for the wrong century. For example, less well-known outside of France is L'AgrÃƒÂ©gation. This is the most difficult of the exams taken by individuals who wish to work in the finest lycÃƒÂ©es in FranceÃ¢€™s public school system. LÃ¢€™AgrÃƒÂ©gation was first developed in 1766 and was revised in 1885 to resemble today's form. The portion of L'AgrÃƒÂ©gation that enables individuals to teach English requires a dissertation that is hand-written, in French, during a seven-hour period.
The dissertation is a dissertation cartÃƒÂ©sienne, which must be written in the haughtiest form of French. Rules seem to be ancient, precise, exacting, and practically impossible for someone to master who did not grow up speaking, hearing, reading, and writing formal French. It is the dissertation, with its impossibly archaic demands, that works to weed out those without the necessary cultural capital from teaching English in French schoolsÃ¢€”-most notably, intelligent and experienced native speakers of English. The codes are too complex and the distinctions too subtle. Students who pass this examination are the ones who survived the baccalaurÃƒÂ©at and survived the huge dropout rates characteristic of French colleges, and then go on to pass L'AgrÃƒÂ©gation exam, within which the dissertation cartÃƒÂ©sienne is required. It is these students who get to teach English while college-educated native English speakers experience repeated failures at L'AgrÃƒÂ©gation, despite intense motivation and effort.
As with any high-stakes testing situation, testing drives instruction. This statement is as true in the public schools of the United States as it is in the courses offered by the Sorbonne to prepare students to take the test that might allow them to teach English. The test-preparation classes are reported to be conducted solely in French and totally dominated by professors who speak at length while students dutifully record all they
say. Speaking English is not emphasized, and there is no sense that anything having to do with pedagogy is ever highlighted, though the course is part of a teacher education program. Apparently, discussion showing any sign of critical thinking is taken as a sign of indiscipline. Such activities are resented by the professors and students alike because they steal time from preparation for the all-important licensing test.
Notably absent from this high-stakes English teacher licensing exam are demonstrations of any ability to speak English or to understand spoken English, or any demonstrated ability to operate successfully in a classroom. These oversights have profound implications for French education and French society. One example is that French students in 2002 scored at the bottom in a European Union study of student skills in English (Bonnet 2002). The French were last in four different tests of English language proficiency: oral comprehension, linguistic competence, reading comprehension, and written production. Because English, not French, is one of the major languages of international commerce and science, France has disadvantaged itself through its love of high standards achieved by tough, discriminatory, narrow, high-stakes testing.
A second case of high-stakes testing thought to affect the economy in a negative way is a much older oneÃ¢€”-the case of China, a nation that may have suffered greatly because of its love of its high-stakes testing (Suen and Yu 2006). The Keju examination system in China began in 606 A.D. and continued until 1905. In this exam, scholars competed for positions in the civil service. A high score in the provincial or court exams could gain someone a ministerial role in government, often bestowing prestige and power, as well as tax exemptions, on successful candidates and their families. These were, indeed, high-stakes exams! What was learned from studying this history can be summarized quite inelegantly: The candidates cheated as much as they could (Nichols and Berliner 2007). Historical records indicate that over the 1,298 years of testing, whenever one form of cheating was discovered and guarded against, a new form of cheating was conceived. And, when that new form of cheating was discovered, still another kind of cheating would be tried. Over the years, the form of the test changed, eventually requiring memorization of entire tracts and poems of Confucius and other great teachers, often learned in test-preparation programs run by those who had previously passed the tests.
At one time, China led the world in science and technology. Its scholars looked outside national boundaries, and its tests asked for creative answersÃ¢€”-analytic and interpretive answers to questions about the Chinese masters of art and philosophy. But, by the 1400s, the tests had changed markedly. They had become mimetic. Memory, not creativity, was what was needed to pass the tests. No longer was Confucius interpreted; but instead, he or another past master had to be quoted verbatim. No longer were candidates for promotion to write a poem; they were asked instead to recall the poems of a master. To recall such poems and philosophical tracts might require years of memorization before sitting for the examination. As the tests became more dependent on memory and less dependent on imagination or creativity, China lost its social, political, and economic edge. It became a state to exploit, and it lost its international leadership in the arts and sciences to Europe, to nations that were far inferior to them in most ways. This interpretation of the role of high- stakes assessment and economic growth is surely worth pondering.
Curriculum narrowing appears to be an inevitable response to high-stakes testing. When the curriculum is narrowed, many teachers lose the opportunity to teach in ways that are compatible with their professional identities. The narrowing that occurs appears to be much worse in schools that serve the poor; and thus, apartheid conditions along socioeconomic and racial lines are created. Test-preparation activities fill instructional time too often. Sometimes, in the schools of the poor, test preparation becomes the predominant instructional activity in which students engage. Test preparation is often in the form of drills designed to answer multiple-choice questions correctly and quickly. Sadly, the record shows that America's founding fathers clearly envisioned a school system quite different from the one we have now. And, although American parents are certainly not against assessment, the recent narrowing of the curriculum to improve test scores is antithetical to what they want for their public schools. Furthermore, empirical evidence demonstrates that narrow and prescribed curriculum and instructional materials can harm students and their nations. Finally, some thoughtful case studies illustrate that overly narrow testing programs, particularly those that assess the mimetic abilities of an individual, can weaken the economic prospects of a nation.
Because of high-stakes accountability systems imposed by the federal government, every state in the United States appears to be moving toward greater control over a narrower curriculum aligned to the standards created by each state. This perfectly rational response to federal requirements, without thinking about the issues raised in this article, may undercut the professionalism of America's teachers, increase student disaffection with the schools, increase the gap between the amount of knowledge held and the number of thinking skills available to wealthier and poorer children, and limit America's economic prosperity.
It surely is worth noting that Finland is both the highest-scoring nation on the PISAftests and one of the world's most productive economies. Yet, it places no emphasis on individual testing or measurement-driven accountability. It has no regular national tests, and it does not inflict structured programs on younger age groups to enhance skill development. Teachers and principals have a great deal of autonomy in curriculum choices for the production of learning outcomes (Pont, Nusche, and Hopkins 2008). This all means that Finland provides an existence proof that other models of successful public schooling can exist that are quite different from the model of school reform adopted in the United States. Reforms reliant on high-stakes testing may have side-effects that are not supportive of student or teacher personal growth, or of U.S. economic growth. A reform movement based on high-stakes testing may ultimately prove to be a calamity for the United States.
A similar paper was first presented at the meetings of the International Sociological Association, Barcelona, Spain, September 6, 2008.
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David C. Berliner is RegentsÃ¢€™ Professor of Education at Arizona State University,
and has also taught at leading universities around the world. He is a member
of the National Academy of Education, and a past president of both the American
Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Division of Educational
Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA). Professor Berliner
has authored more than 200 published articles, chapters, and books, the latest of
which is co-authored with Sharon Nichols, and titled Collateral Damage: How
High-Stakes Testing Corrupts American Education (Harvard Education Press 2007).
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