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Academic Progress May Come at a Cost


Four years ago, President Bush's signature education policy -- boldly called No Child Left Behind -- made public schools more accountable for their students' academic achievements. The law requires regular testing in math and reading to assess their progress. Low-performing schools are subject to penalties. National surveys show that reading and math scores for elementary school students have risen over the past few years, and the achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed. But another survey suggests that progress has come at the expense of art, science, history and other subjects.

When the No Child Left Behind policy became law in 2002, it was touted as a reform that would improve student performance in math and reading, especially in schools with large numbers of poor and minority students. "A lot of our low-income students aren't reading at grade level and aren't doing math at grade level," says Department of Education spokesman Chad Colby. He explains that the law's focus is on those two subjects in the early grades because they are the foundation for future success. "If you've learned to read by 3rd grade, you can read to learn for the rest of your schooling, the rest of your life. It's the same thing with math, if you have basic math skills, [you're prepared for] chemistry, science, physics, personal finance. All these things stem from a basic understanding of math."

Four years of focusing intensely on those two basic skills has had an impact, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. This annual 'report card' prepared by the Department of Education, shows that elementary school student achievement in reading and math is at all-time highs and the achievement gap between white and minority students is closing.

An independent assessment, by the Center for Education Policy, also documented improvement in test scores, but noted what CEP president Jack Jennings called 'a narrowing trend' in school curriculum. "71% of school districts said that in their elementary schools they had in fact put more emphasis on reading and math, and had devoted less time to other subjects," he says, adding that the shift was most noticeable in school districts with the highest rates of poverty. He says there were mixed messages about the trend. "Some school districts say that narrowing the curriculum is very good because they can concentrate double time or triple time on reading and math for kids that are farthest behind and help to bring them up to speed. Other school districts are very concerned that this is pushing out of the curriculum arts and science and social sciences and that some kids will not be exposed to these different subject areas."

In an effort to ensure that exposure, school districts and individual teachers have come up with creative new teaching strategies. One school in New Jersey began after-school clubs so students could experience subjects that had been cut from the regular school day. At Haycock Elementary School in Virginia, 4th graders produced a musical about the state's history.

Teacher Donna Emmanuel, who wrote the play with the school's music teacher, says the project incorporated many areas of the curriculum. As the students milled around backstage, getting ready for their performance, Emmanuel explained, "Plays [require] team building, following directions, creative expression, problem solving, because much of the staging and organization, I let the children figure that out." She showed off the playbill the class had produced. "The children write little reports about themselves and we looked at whether we thought that was the best word choice and interesting … then they re-wrote them, so it's also a time to involve language arts in the program. And since it's all based on our curriculum, it was easy to say that was our social studies time or part of our language arts time, because that's what the play is based on."

As schools across the United States work to ensure that no child is left behind, and that all children are challenged to be the best they can be, lawmakers and educators continue to debate the best way to do that… and where to find the federal money to pay for it.

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