Neglecting history, civics, literature and the arts threatens U.S. economic competitiveness, leaders say

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Doubling the time that schools devote to math and reading in response to state and federal testing requirements won’t truly prepare young Americans for life in the 21st century. It probably won’t even boost reading and math scores long term, concluded a conference of policymakers, business leaders, and educators today.

At the event, hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and supported by the Louis Calder Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, scholars and education leaders highlighted alternatives to a hyper-narrow curriculum, including testing added subjects like history, lengthening the school day to encompass art and music, and providing stronger curricular guidance and instructional materials for teachers.

“Narrowing the K-12 curriculum isn’t just a problem that arrived with No Child Left Behind,” said Fordham president Chester E. Finn, Jr. “Since the dawn of standards-based education reform, some states and schools have reacted to pressure for better basic skills by squeezing out history, civics, literature, and the arts. This is wrong. Our kids need both to walk and chew gum and our schools must prepare them accordingly, ensuring that they’re adept in the basic skills while also acquiring a broad liberal arts education.”

Business leaders, including technology mastermind Dr. Sidney Harman; artists, including poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia; statesmen, historians, and practicing educators from around the country gathered at the Fordham symposium, Beyond The Basics: Why reading, math, and science aren’t sufficient for a 21st century education, to ponder possible remedies, including:

Increasing instructional time in U.S. classrooms. According to data newly analyzed by Kate Walsh, president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, students in some cities (e.g. Chicago) spend the equivalent of eight weeks less in school per year than their peers in other cities (e.g. New York). Such sharp differences mean less time for learning basics—and everything else.

Adding subjects to the testing docket. Brown University scholar Martin West presented research showing that, at a national level, instructional time for reading has risen dramatically while time for non-tested subjects such as history has eroded. However, states that test students in history haven’t experienced these same declines; their students spend more time studying history than in other states. UNESCO researcher Aaron Benavot also found that U.S. primary schools spend more time on reading instruction—and less on the arts—than do other OECD nations.
Equipping teachers with better instructional materials and professional development to teach a well-rounded curriculum. A range of leaders including Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and Antonia Cortese of the American Federation of Teachers faulted states for lacking a coherent curriculum that teachers can use in class. As most state standards are too vague to be helpful, teachers crave clear expectations and powerful classroom tools.

“The narrowing of the curriculum is not an inevitable response to testing and accountability,” said education historian Diane Ravitch. “Some schools, districts, and states have done a better job ensuring a broad education for all of their students, and they deserve to be emulated. The educators in charge of schools must hew close to a vision of a good education for their students, regardless of NCLB requirements.”

In the coming months, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will release a volume highlighting today’s discussions and conclusions.

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