NCLB Curriculum Menu: Pump Up Math and Reading; Forget Social Studies and Science
For the seven years North Carolina schools have been judged by test scores in reading and math, educators have worried that subjects left untested get short shrift in the classroom.
Educators also have new fears that demands in the federal No Child Left Behind law will put even more pressure on schools to forgo lessons in social studies and science to devote more time and effort to passing key tests in reading and math.
"There's a lot of pressure on teachers that if there's something that can be dropped, then it's social studies and science," said Allison Kuhns, a fourth-grade teacher at Reedy Creek Elementary School in Cary and an advocate for strong social studies instruction.
High school scores suggest that testing pressures already have had an effect in North Carolina. The emphasis that elementary and middle schools place on reading and math are paying off in high school, with significant gains in Algebra I and English I scores. The percentage of students passing both tests has increased 23 points during the seven years of the state's ABCs accountability program.
But high school tests in other core subjects required for graduation -- civics, U.S. history and biology -- have shown more modest gains. The percentage of students passing those tests has increased between 4 and 7 points since 1997, suggesting to some educators that students have had less preparation before high school.
"It says a lot about prior knowledge," said Esther Dunnegan, a social studies specialist with the state Department of Public Instruction. "A high school teacher is having to teach students a lot more basic material."
North Carolina's public schools are required to teach the state's curriculum, known as the standard course of study, which includes subjects such as social studies and science. But elementary and middle schools are accountable only for how well they teach reading and math.
No Child Left Behind, put in place last year, requires schools to report test results of students grouped by various factors, including race, economic disadvantage and learning disabilities. If any single group fails to pass in adequate numbers, in reading or math, a school can be penalized.
"We find that a lot of the groundwork that was laid in elementary grades is no longer provided," said Carol Vogler, a high school social studies teacher in Winston-Salem and past president of the N.C. Council for the Social Studies. "It's still part of the standard course of study, but a teacher only has only so much time in the day."
Some schools, in part because they recognize this problem, are trying to blend more social studies and science into reading and math instruction as a way to solve the time crunch.
Lou Fabrizio, accountability chief for the state Department of Public Instruction, said he hears that schools are making bigger efforts to combine different subjects, he said.
"The main thing I hear from schools is that they're looking for better ways to integrate the curriculum," he said.
Some educators argue that lagging results on high school tests in science and social studies reflect students coming to high school with weaker backgrounds in those subjects.
"We can't assume anything anymore," said Susan Hirsch, a longtime social studies teacher at East Wake High School in Wendell. Many students begin her class with little or no historical frame of reference or understanding of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, she said.
A survey of teens this year by the N.C. Civic Education Consortium found similar results. Less than 20 percent of the youths, ages 13 to 17, could name one of North Carolina's U.S. senators. Only 30 percent of the survey participants could name the legislature as the government body responsible for making laws in the state.
Just more than a third of those included in the survey said they'd learned "a lot" about government and community issues from classes in school.
Kuhns, the fourth-grade teacher, said some students coming to her from third grade have been unable to tell her that Raleigh is the state capital or that the country includes 50 states.
"The kids who know that are usually from outside the country," said Kuhns, who was named elementary social studies teacher of the year in 2002 by the N.C. Council for the Social Studies.
Science instruction could benefit from the emphasis on testing. Science tests will be required in coming years under the No Child Left Behind program. North Carolina students in fifth and eighth grades are scheduled to start taking science exams in 2008.
Now social studies educators argue that their subject needs to be tested, too, because testing now helps to set priorities in today's classrooms.
"With No Child Left Behind, social studies is left behind because there is no testing," said Vogler, of the social studies council. "We're putting it on the back burner."
Tests put civics, science behind
Raleigh News & Observer
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES