The Hidden Costs of Curriculum Narrowing

Craig D. Jerald
The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
August 2006

Last April, we reported on a study by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) that claimed the No Child Left Behind Act is pushing schools to abandon subjects such as history and the arts. Here's how that study's press release put it: "The Center also found that a majority of districts surveyed--71 percent--reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics, the topics tested for NCLB purposes." That shocking finding grabbed a headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times and ushered in weeks of debate about how to save the "lost" curriculum. Enter savvy analyst Craig Jerald--formerly of Quality Counts and Education Trust. In a 6-page issue brief for the federally funded Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, he looks at all extant evidence on curricular narrowing and decides that CEP's conclusions are much exaggerated. His words on the CEP study itself: "[It] actually found that about one third of districts reported that their elementary schools had reduced social studies and science 'somewhat' or 'to a great extent,' and about one fifth said the same of art and music." "Somewhat" could have been five minutes or five hours a week--it's impossible to know. Still, that doesn't mean the curriculum isn't narrowing. Jerald finds some mild evidence that there is a slightly greater focus on reading and math than in the past. "For example," he writes, "teacher surveys given as part of the federal Schools and Staffing Survey show that from 1990 to 2004, the amount of time students in grades 1-4 spent on reading and mathematics increased by 96 minutes per week, while social studies and science lost 48 minutes." While this is no cause for Times-style panic, it is still worrying, Jerald argues. He picks up on E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s theme that it's counterproductive for schools to "postpone" content until middle school, since learning content and vocabulary is essential for learning how to read. So schools should embed subjects like history and science within elementary school reading lessons. Amen. This crisp, short summation of the evidence is well worth your attention; you can find it here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is a President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute