that narrow curriculum: it’s not all about NCLB

Some time ago, we received a Ford Foundation grant to document the problem that almost everyone decried: because of the testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (the comprehensive federal law related to pre-college education), schools were focusing on math and reading to the exclusion of social studies, art, music, physical education, and extracurriculars. All the data that supposedly demonstrated this problem came from current surveys of educational administrators or citizens, who were asked to say whether they believed curricula had narrowed since the passage of NCLB. They said yes.

We set out to provide supportive evidence by examining historical data about what teachers actually teach and kids actually study (based on contemporaneous surveys of students and teachers). What we found was much more complex and nuanced than our original hypothesis. Instead of “documenting” a problem, we showed that it didn’t exist in the way we had expected.

  • Transcripts show that high school students are studying more diverse subjects. Narrowing is not a problem at the high school level.
  • There is no evidence of curricular change in middle school in the last decade.
  • There has been some narrowing in elementary school, but mostly at first grade. Moreover, the narrowing trend began before NCLB and affects private schools just as much as public schools. Thus the cause is probably not NCLB but rather a combination of parents’ and teachers’ priorities, textbooks, state laws, local policies, etc.
  • We had expected that new teachers would be most likely to focus on reading and math, because they have entered the profession under NCLB. In fact, more experienced teachers offer a narrower curriculum; new teachers are more likely to offer arts and social studies.

I personally believe that the narrowing of the curriculum in the early grades is a significant problem. But it cannot be solved by lifting testing provisions in NCLB. It’s a much broader and more complex issue.