Friday, September 08, 2006

Curriculum Narrowing

So for a few days now I have been harping on how I felt like schools needed to cut back on the amount of social studies and science in the earlier grades and concentrating more on reading and math. Today, via eduwonk, I came across this report(pdf) by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement on curriculum narrowing. They come to this conclusion:

Some schools might well need to expand
instructional time in reading to enable students
to become fluent readers. But educators should
be made aware that cutting too deeply into
social studies, science, and the arts imposes
significant long-term costs on students,
hampers reading comprehension and thinking
skills, increases inequity, and makes the job of
secondary level teachers that much harder. Only
when teachers and administrators are fully aware
of the tradeoffs can they make good decisions
about whether, how, and for whom to narrow the
curriculum one educational strategy that should
never be considered lightly.

I am sure that smarter people than I will dissect this report, but I wanted to comment on a couple of things that I read in the article.

Furthermore, the negative consequences of
curriculum narrowing are even greater for low income
students, which means the practice can
end up magnifying achievement gaps. That's
because more affluent students have alternative
ways of gaining "world knowledge" even when
their schools do a poor job of teaching about art,
culture, history, geography, and the natural world.
They can pick it up from trips and vacations,
visits to museums and other cultural settings,
even from adult conversations in the household.
In contrast, disadvantaged students are highly
dependent on schools to provide them with a
rich vocabulary and broad knowledge about the
world outside their neighborhoods. For many
poor urban and rural children, schools provide the
primary access to that background knowledge.

I am skeptical of this argument. I think they are way overestimating both the amount of time that affluent parents spend taking their kids to museums and the amount of "world knowledge" that they pick up at home. My guess is high income parents are more likely to take their kids to Disneyland than they are to the museum, and I don't think the layout of Tomorrowland is the type of background knowledge that the authors mean. I suspect that the real advantage that affluent kids get over disadvantaged kids is more likely to be an inherited high IQ.

Second, even if administrators cannot extend
the school day, week, or year to make the time
to teach a broad, rich curriculum, they might
be able to squeeze more out of the hours
they already have. A growing body of research
suggests that many American schools do not
make very efficient and productive use of their
For example, a study by the Consortium on
Chicago School Research found that elementary
school students received less than four hours of
on-task instructional time on a typical day, and
only 125 days out of the 180 in a school year
were devoted to academic work. All told, the
researchers estimated that students received
about 500 hours of instruction per year, far short
of the district's intended target of 900 hours.

I actually have no problem at all believing this. There is way to much waste time in classrooms. This is one of the reasons I am in favor of Direct Instruction in the early grades . I suspect that the real advantage of DI programs is that they provide instruction in an organized and concise way, as opposed to a more constructivist method of teaching, thereby teaching more in the time allotted. Go visit any 2nd grade classroom for a day, and most people would be astonished at how little "on task" teaching actually gets done in a six and a half hour day.

For many years, we assumed that strong
comprehension skills would follow automatically if
students learned how to decode text fluently and
accurately and were encouraged to read a lot.
But that's not the case. Cognitive psychologists
have found that there's another step in between
fluent decoding and comprehension in which
readers call on background knowledge about a
topic to understand what the text is saying and
what it is not saying. Readers without adequate
background knowledge can comprehend some
of the text, but they will not understand it fully.

I don't think this is any great surprise to anyone. I do believe that our elementary schools should be providing background knowledge, but background knowledge without adequate reading and decoding skills is just as troublesome.

All and all, I think the authors did raise some interesting points, and they certainly caused me to reevaluate my opinion. This is a subject matter that I am going to have to ponder a little more. Obviously there is a balance to be struck, unfortunately the authors didn't tell us what the right balance is.

Update: That didn't take long. K DeRosa pointed me towards this article on Vocabulary Acquisition. I must confess that much of it is over my head, but I noted the following:

The only realistic chance students with poor vocabularies have to catch up to their peers with rich vocabularies requires that they engage in extraordinary amounts of independent reading... the development of strong beginning reading skills facilitated vocabulary growth, which in turn facilitated the further increases in reading. This reciprocal, causal relation between reading and vocabulary seems to continue unabated throughout development.

I am more and more convinced that the key to improving education lies with the early grades... the grades that should theoretically be where students learn the "basics". Improve K-5 education first, then slowly move up the educational chain...

Update #2: From a paper on Centennial Place Elementary School at the Achievement Alliance, that is often held up as an example of how to improve education, especially for minorities.

In addition, they focused the curriculum a little more tightly. “We might
have been guilty of teaching too much, but in not enough depth.”


KDeRosa said...

Take a look at Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of the Research.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, the report you're talking about looks like it came right out of something written by E. D. Hirsch, the cultural literacy guy.

As a social studies person, I would argue that what goes on at home is crucial for kids developing a background in social studies, regardless of the school. I can teach until the cows come home, but if there isn't SOME reinforcement outside my class, once the tests are over, whatever the kids learned will melt away.

Each year I'll ask kids in my classes who the vice-president is, and maybe five hands will go up. If I ask who their congressman is or who their two senators are, I might see two hands.

I always knew that stuff. I might have learned some of it at school, but it was part of my life at home. My parents didn't go out of their way to keep me informed--it was just always there. Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were "dinner guests" every night. We got the Minneapolis Tribune every morning and the Minneapolis Star every night. Every week we'd get Time, Look, and Life Magazines. Politics was certainly not the only topic of conversation in our house, but it did get brought up once in awhile.

A lot of kids today don't have any of that stuff. I can demand that kids know certain things while I've got them, but if there isn't any reinforcement, you can ask them a simple social studies question a year or two later, I'm not going to bet on them. All I can say is that for me it's very frustrating.