May 31, 2006
The No Child Left Behind Act makes no bones about the primacy of reading. According to Bloomberg News, a forthcoming NCES report shows that schools are responding to the law's signals by boosting the instructional time in reading while reducing it in everything else, at least in grades 1-4. The question is whether this "narrowing" is good or bad, and if other subjects suffer because of it. The Washington Post squeezed in a Sunday editorial on the topic, jumping off last week's science NAEP results. "Far from discouraging science education," the Post wrote, "the new emphasis on reading and math standards in elementary school appears to have helped boost science achievement among younger students.... As the Education Trust hypothesizes, higher reading and math standards may have made science textbooks more accessible to more students." That's certainly one plausible interpretation of the NAEP results (here's another), and if there's ever a time to focus narrowly on reading, the early elementary grades are it. But as E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues in his new book, reading instruction should switch as soon as possible from decoding letters, phonemes and words to the acquisition of content-in other words, students study science, history, and literature within reading curricula. Yes, reading should come first. But if the nation is serious about preparing high school graduates for increasingly competitive jobs (especially those requiring advanced science and math), the other subjects shouldn't come last.
"Science test," Washington Post, May 28, 2006