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Reading, math eat up class hours

Resource type: News

Baltimore Sun |

By Ruma Kumar

The pressure for elementary schools to show progress under No Child Left Behind has come at a cost – less time is being devoted to social studies, science, art and music.

But time for reading and math has received a substantial boost, according to a study that examined 349 of the nation’s school systems.

The report released yesterday by the Center on Education Policy shows that some school districts increased math and reading time by as much as 150 minutes a week, while cutting time for social studies, science, music and art by one-third.

The center, a nonpartisan group that has followed the effects of the law over the past six years, has provided annual updates analyzing its effectiveness.

The report was a geographically representative sampling of districts and did not break out results by state, so it was not possible to glean information specific to Maryland schools.

However, a check of school systems in the Baltimore area confirms that the trend is in effect here.

“What we’re finding is, high-stakes testing is driving curriculum and driving the practices that teachers use because they’re under pressure to raise test scores, and that’s especially true in poorer districts where the scores tend to be lower,” said the center’s president, Jack Jennings.

The study is a deeper look into findings released by the center in July and offers the most detailed account yet of the changing public school day since NCLB took effect in 2002.

Jennings said research showed that test scores were rising, presumably because of the emphasis being placed on reading and math. He said he was surprised by the degree to which school systems had reduced teaching time in the other subjects to achieve increases on standardized tests.

2014 deadline

No Child Left Behind requires every public school student to perform at or above grade level in key subjects such as reading, math and science by 2014.

The sweeping federal testing mandate is in its sixth year, and President Bush is struggling to renew it against a backdrop of growing bipartisan opposition. The new report provides fodder for detractors of No Child Left Behind who dislike the sanctions placed on schools that don’t show gains. Critics also say the act has forced school systems to weaken their curriculums in a harried quest for higher scores on state tests.

Backers of high-stakes testing, including Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, say it’s natural for reading and math to dominate the school day because they form the foundation for success in other subjects.

“Reading and math are so fundamental that [students] cannot do well in other subject areas unless they have mastery of those skills,” Grasmick said yesterday.


“There’s an old saying: ‘You treasure what you measure,’ she said. “Schools know that they’re being held accountable in reading and math, so some of the other subject areas don’t have the same high profile.”

According to the report, about 62 percent of the 349 school systems surveyed reported that they increased time in reading/language arts and math. The study focused on elementary schools, where shifts in instructional time were most starkly seen, Jennings said, but similar trends have been noticed in middle and high schools.

Eighty percent of those systems that reported they increased time in reading and math did so by at least 75 minutes a week in each subject. Meanwhile, 44 percent of districts said they created more time for reading and math by reducing time for social studies and science by 75 minutes a week.

The practice is evident in Baltimore-area schools.

At Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary in Baltimore, the district’s move two years ago to add 30 minutes to math classes made it so hard for students to preserve time in music and art that they sacrificed 15 minutes of lunchtime to squeeze in some cultural arts.

“There are only so many hours in the school day,” said Irma Johnson, who was principal at Nicholas last year and is now Baltimore City’s director of elementary/K-8 schools.

“We are being asked to do more and more, but the school day hasn’t changed. You can’t do it all in 6 1/2 hours. We just need a longer school day to fit everything in.”

Rob some minutes

At some Anne Arundel County schools such as Van Bokkelen Elementary, providing an extra 30 to 45 minutes for students who are falling behind in math and reading has meant carving time away from social studies and recess.

“Social studies and science is where we’ve traditionally had to rob some minutes when you’re trying to get students ready for the [state tests],” said Catherine Herbert, an Anne Arundel County schools performance director.
“This is a great time of pressure for principals and schools. You have to find creative ways to make time to give students the extra support they need, and sometimes that means less time in other areas.”
School officials in the Baltimore region said there has been less of an effect on science classes as Maryland fifth-graders gear up to take the first state tests in science this school year. But the focus on reading and math has taken a toll on social studies, recess/physical education, music and art in the state.

Damage control

Teachers are searching for ways to minimize the damage to other subjects. Under pressure to jam more concepts into the same 390 minutes allotted to American schoolchildren decades ago, teachers are getting creative about delivering reading and math in new ways without completely sacrificing other subjects.

At Van Bokkelen Elementary, for instance, teachers integrate reading and math concepts into science and social studies.

Measuring and graphing needed for science are used to reinforce math concepts, and essay writing or reading comprehension lessons are taught while reading aloud passages in social studies class. The same strategies are being used in Carroll and Howard counties.

“You have only so many minutes in the school day, so you have to prioritize and consider that some skills can be taught in another subject areas,” said Andrea Kane, principal at Van Bokkelen.

The school was one of five in Anne Arundel County to be recognized recently by the state for steady gains in student performance, despite the school’s high-poverty population.

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