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Reading and Math Gain Ground with Education Law

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Reading and Math Gain Ground with Education Law

Education

Reading and Math Gain Ground with Education Law

Reading and Math Gain Ground with Education Law

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New research shows that the No Child Left Behind law is changing the way individual schools work. Many schools say they're giving greater emphasis to reading and math than before. But some educators worry that other subjects are getting short shrift.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Bush administration's sweeping school reform law, known as No Child Left Behind, has had its skeptics. Education groups, teachers, and some researchers have criticized it as unworkable and punitive. Now comes word from researchers that the law's laser-like focus on math and reading could be depriving students of a well-rounded education.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez Reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

The Center on Education Policy, based in Washington, D.C., surveyed 299 school districts in 50 states, and found that the No Child Left Behind law has had a profound impact on instruction and learning.

Mr. JOHN JENNINGS (President and CEO, The Center on Education Policy): But it's also having the effect of narrowing the curriculum, so that the overwhelming majority of school districts are saying they are teaching other subjects less, in order to teach reading and math more.

SANCHEZ: Jack Jennings is the center's director, and a former aide to congressional Democrats on education issues.

Mr. JENNINGS: Most of the kids who are getting this extra attention for reading and math tend to be kids of color, tend to be poor kids. And you had hoped that they would be well educated and well rounded.

SANCHEZ: Too many students, though, especially in urban school systems, are not getting nearly enough instruction in history, science, or the arts. In fact, says Jennings, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts now spend less instructional time on everything else in order to devote more time to reading and math.

Mr. JENNINGS: The saying in education is that what's tested is what going to be taught. And what is being tested now, under this federal law, is math and reading to the neglect of other subjects.

SANCHEZ: In some states, this fight over the curriculum boils down to a turf war. In California, for example, state law requires that schools spend an allotted amount of time on core subjects. No Child Left Behind, though, has put teachers under enormous pressure to skimp on subjects like history or science.

Ms. PAT PETERSON (Administrator, Escondido Union School District): It's a complaint from our classroom teachers.

SANCHEZ: Pat Peterson is an administrator with the Escondido Union School District, a system with 17,000 students in grades K through eight. Kids here, she says are doing better academically overall.

Ms. PETERSON: We also feel that if children can't read, they can't really do much else in the other content areas. So, the fact that we are putting more emphasis on reading, language arts, is justified to that degree.

SANCHEZ: Which is precisely the point that U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has made repeatedly about this issue. The Education Department's Chief of Staff David Dunn said Spellings wasn't able to comment. And he wasn't sure if anybody at the department had read the full report.

Mr. DAVID DUNN (Chief of Staff, Department of Education): But the key point, I think, is that you can't learn other subjects if you can't read, or if you can't, you know, add and subtract and divide. Those are the key foundational skills.

SANCHEZ: The question that the survey raises, though, is, is the focus on math and reading excessive? Dunn had no comment about that. The Center on Education Policy survey did point out that most educators think the law has done a lot of good in other areas: helping teachers make better use of data, tying academic standards to instruction, and exposing schools that don't do enough for children. And yet, if parents want an answer to the question, is my child's school better because of this law, or is it worse? The survey makes clear the record is very, very mixed.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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