Running out of time in elementary?

My copy of a recent, fairly high-profile report from the Center on Education Policy arrived in the mail this week. The title is typically CEP-gray: Instructional Time in Elementary Schools: A Closer Look at Changes for Specific Subjects. But any 8-page report (including seven sizeable tables) able to catch the attention of The Washington Post doesn’t really need a buzzy descriptor. (Although something from the first stanza of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” might work.)

The Post (2/25) summed up the CEP findings this way:

The No Child Left Behind law has led many elementary schools to spend more time on reading and math and less on social studies, science, art and recess, a report released last week finds.

The Center on Education Policy’s survey of 349 school systems across the country bolsters anecdotal evidence that the 2002 federal law’s goal of having every child proficient in reading and math by 2014 has forced schools to focus on those subjects, sometimes squeezing out other lessons.

This finding, of course, comes as no surprise to elementary educators –- nor would similar findings in middle and high school be likely to startle too many teachers in those buildings.

The report follows up on a Summer 2007 study that found 62 percent of U.S. school districts increased time for elementary math and/or English language arts and 44% had cut time in other subjects or activities. This new research bores down to see just how extensive the cuts were — and where they took place.

According to the press release accompanying the report, “districts increasing time for ELA and math had done so by an average of 43 percent, or about three hours each week. To make room for the added time for ELA and math, districts reducing time in other areas averaged cuts of about 32 percent across those subjects, nearly 2.5 hours each week. Some of the districts reduced their time in one subject, while other districts decreased instructional time in several areas.”

CEP president Jack Jennings said the new findings indicate that “changes in curriculum are not only widespread but also deep.” The press release continues:

Of the districts that both increased time for ELA or math and reduced time in other subjects, a large majority—72 percent—cut time by at least 75 minutes per week for one or more of the other subjects. For example, more than half (53 percent) of these districts cut instructional time by at least 75 minutes per week in social studies, and the same percentage (53 percent) cut time by at least 75 minutes per week in science. (Download the report to get more details about the reductions.)

Jennings told the Post that the accountability movement “is having a significant impact. School people are feeling the pressure to do better and raise scores. But they are stuck with the amount of time they have.” (Are they?)

“It certainly puts the question before Congress,” he noted. “Is there a price being paid for raising kids’ math and reading scores?”

Maryland school superintendent Nancy Grasmick suggested that the shifts were appropriate and supported by teachers. “Teachers feel mastery in reading and math are foundational to a student’s success in other subject areas. A student who can’t read will have difficulty with history and with science.” The Post also paraphrased Grasmick as saying that “teachers increasingly are combining lessons in different subjects — for example, reading and history.”

Jennings himself suggested to Education Week that federal leaders and researchers (no mention of teachers as actors in this scenario) should be studying ways for teachers to integrate content from other subject areas into math and reading lessons, and vice versa.

“That’s how schools are dealing with the realities of having to raise test scores and wanting kids to be exposed to other subject areas,” he said. “We should be studying this blending of curriculum and trying to encourage good practices, because we are not going to back down from accountability.”

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