No Country For Old Rhetoric

In her growing role as an apologist and propagandist for the status quo, per this post and this point:

I don’t buy the argument that cutting other subjects, especially social studies, is an incentive problem here. Rather, it’s a capacity problem. Too few schools are able to deliver a really powerful instructional program today and in the absence of that they do a lot of counterproductive things.

Eduwonkette responds:

Low capacity schools may be more likely to cut social studies and science than high capacity schools, but NCLB, not low capacity, is the cause of the cuts. After all, low capacity schools taught more social studies and science pre-NCLB than they do now. Even higher capacity schools are affected by incentives – to use the driving parallel, wealthy drivers can handle a more expensive ticket, but many will slow down anyway.

No, it’s not. There is a lot of sleight of hand in that statement. First, No Child Left Behind only requires schools to get kids over relatively modest bars in math and reading — subjects it’s arguably OK to expect schools to teach and subjects that you can also teach while you’re teaching things like social studies and science. In other words, she’s basically saying that requiring schools to teach math and reading means they just have to cut other subjects.* I wouldn’t want to stand on that. Meanwhile, as Charlie Barone pointed out, a lot of schools don’t seem to be having this problem. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because they are focusing on the twin pillars of curriculum and instruction. In addition, while low-capacity schools may have spent time on social studies pre-NCLB, it’s a safe bet that many of them were not teaching it very well, plenty of data on that from state and national assessments. You can’t ignore the problems that pre-date the No Child law when looking at what is happening today.

Bottom line: Overall the issue is that we should worry about the quality of the teaching rather than just the quantity. But this entire conversation, as Eduwonkette’s post indicates, is about the latter.

*She also writes that: One could argue, as many accountability proponents certainly do, that reading and math are more important than science and social studies, or that the test score “gains” that accountability policies yield make these other losses acceptable. I don’t agree with those arguments, but at least they acknowledge what is happening on the ground.

Nice try, but those are strawmen. What some people argue is that math and reading are foundational for learning those other subjects but that’s not the same as what she is saying here. What others, including me, argue is that reading should be integrated into what a school does. E.D. Hirsch has written about that extensively.

Update: Should have also made clear that time is a variable here that educators and policymakers have to think about, too. Time must become a variable in schooling not fixed as it basically is now. Along with using people differently, using time differently is a major challenge facing the education industry today.

Update II: Eduwonkette’s aggrieved partisans are rushing to the comments section and whining, suck it up guys. Lobbing misinformation from behind the veil of anonymity isn’t really straight pool. You may not like my priors, but I don’t hide them. But, there is also a lively debate about the issue down there that you should check out. Couple of thoughts on all that:

Some commenters seem to imply that perhaps cuts to other subjects aren’t happening at all. I did think that the methods underlying the earlier work fueling this issue were pretty shoddy but they’ve improved that and there is enough data on this point that I think we can reasonably conclude that something is going on. The real question, I’d argue and as some commenters also seem to, is whether cuts to other subjects are an inevitable byproduct or merely a counterproductive response that exposes the inability of a lot of schools to deliver really powerful instruction to students?

Re No Child Left Behind, few argue that the law doesn’t have problems. I surely don’t (though I worry that this sort of back and forth minimizes the big issues that need attention (pdf) if the law’s vision, which everyone piously claims to support, has any chance of being a reality). But there has been so much information thrown up, for instance Eduwonkette’s assertion above about the logic model of accountability proponents and the substantial ongoing disinformation campaign against the law, that the public, media, policymakers, and advocates are often confused. That’s worth pushing back on so we can have an honest debate about what is working, what’s not, and what should and shouldn’t be laid at the feet of No Child Left Behind. On this issue, considering how minimal the standards really are in practice, in most cases, people should be outraged when schools cut subjects to meet them, not outraged by the requirements.

Update III: At Core Knowledge Robert Pondiscio weighs-in. Worth reading. But he writes that:

I’m struck by Eduwonk’s self-described bottom line: “Overall the issue is that we should worry about the quality of the teaching rather than just the quantity,” he opines. “But this entire conversation, as Eduwonkette’s post indicates, is about the latter.” To frame the issue as quality vs. quantity of teaching is to remain silent on the quality and quantity of the curriculum. Forgive me from straying from the standard homily about a good teacher being the most important factor in student achievement. A good teacher delivering a bad curriculum is, I believe, no more effective than a bad teacher delivering a good curriculum. The content being taught matters at least as much as how well it’s being taught, and both matter more than how much of it is being taught.

I don’t disagree at all and thought that making that “bottom-line” point on the heels of a discussion about the “twin pillars of curriculum and instruction” made that obvious.

Also, KDRosa is on this, too.

19 thoughts on “No Country For Old Rhetoric

  1. Michael

    It’s fairly clear that some districts are cutting social studies in favor of reading and math; if social studies were tested, they wouldn’t cut it. That’s the reality, and you seem to think it isn’t. Am I misreading you?

  2. Dr. C

    This is silly. What empirical data shows that schools have cut back on other subjects–after NCLB–to focus on reading and math? I mean, data beyond self-reports from principals and teachers?

    There is none. This is a strawman put up by people who don’t like NCLB. In many schools, there wasn’t much instruction in social studies and science before NCLB, and there isn’t much now. The difference is that now these schools are forced to spend time teaching reading and math.

    Eduwonk has it right; curriculum and instruction are indeed the twin pillars here. Eduwonkette needs to spend some time in real schools–high and low performing. It’s hard to write about schools if you don’t spend any time in them, and if you don’t don’t understand what high-quality instruction actually is.

    Also, in several schools I have recently visited subject matter is part of the reading curriculum. I watched second graders reading a leveled text about ancient Egypt and fourth graders reading informational text about science and experiments with plants. All this in reading lessons.

  3. Anonymous

    Social studies is tested in Michigan, starting in 5th grade. So is science. So…test it. There is nothing in NCLB that prevents states from instituting tests in these subjects. It’s not the federal law, it’s the lack of will among state legislators.

  4. Anonymous

    I am from New York State. When I was taking my AP exams (and granted, this was later in HS) and it came time to take the state regents exams, little to no time was diverted away from what we needed for the AP exams in math, science, English OR history. Why? Because the required curriculum at the schools I attended were good enough that I had already learned most of what I needed for the state exams. When it came time to take them, it was child’s play. This was in 2001-2004 or so. So I don’t buy this argument that people need to take out whole periods of science and history to meet the demands for these tests. If your curriculum is sound and teachers are actually teaching for subject mastery, these tests are extraordinarily easy.

    And yes, I went to inner city schools from k-10th grade.

  5. dt

    Please reread the Eduwonkette, the CEP report that supports it,and E.D. Hirsch.

    The CEP contrasted districts with no schools in need of improvement, where 31% cut social studies (just to cite one example). With school systems with one or more schools in need of improvement, 51% cut social studies.

    I wish the CEP had also contrasted districts with a larger numbers of schools needing improvement. The logical conclusion is that the higher the number of low performing schools, the more motivation for narrowing the curriculum. That pattern conforms to the professional judgements of teachers, as well as plenty of other research. If you have reason to argue differently, then conduct your own study, instead of increasng the amount of uninformed rhetoric.

    The Core Knowledge argument is that we have “compelling evidence that content knowledge is the key to reading comprehension.”

    E.D. Hirsch does not say that a rich curriculum is unnecessary if you have a scapegoat to blame.

    Of course, time is the variable. How is this sort of dispute going to get us more capacity? You seem to be arguing that schools that misunderstood NCLB are reducing student performance but that we’ll make it up on volume. The counter-productive approaches that came from NCLB will not be repeated under NCLB II because …? Maybe they will read the scathing wit of the blogs and this time decide to do it right.

    John Thompson

  6. Anonymous

    E.D. Hirsch does not say that a rich curriculum is unnecessary if you have a scapegoat to blame.

    DT, Explain please.

  7. dt

    Firstly, let me issue a correction and apology. During my first hyperbolic draft, I used the word uninformed. But I recognized that it didn’t apply to the Eduwonk so I thought I deleted it. My mistake was that I tried a pun off of the Eduwonk title about rhetoric, and mistyped.

    I was logging on to post this disclaimer when I read the question about Hirsch. I should stop trying to be ironic/sarcastic.

    A rich curriculum is necessary. Let’s stop splitting hairs about how much worse the narrowing of the curriculum has gotten since NCLB. What is more important, the “blame game” or helping kids? How is all of this confrontation going to help kids?

    John Thompson

  8. Anonymous

    That CEP report was based on a question to schools in 2006 asking “a2. How have curriculum and instruction changed since NCLB was enacted?”

    OK, so your basic school principal is supposed to know exactly how many minutes per day were spent in each classroom, on average, in 2001 in each subject.

    That’s what this study is based on.

    It’s a joke. Like, we are going to use it to make changes in federal education policy on the potentially mistaken memories of some principals about how much time was spent in subjects four years earlier?

    These findings are interesting, and certainly provocative. Too bad they aren’t methodologically sound

  9. skoolboy

    Wow, the primary season brings out the entire rhetorical arsenal. “Apologist and propagandist for the status quo”? Hey, I’m the candidate for change, not the other guy. I’m not sure why we’re pitting incentives against capacity, or giving so much weight to the CEP report. School districts are subject to a complex of policies, of which NCLB is just one (although perhaps the 800-lb. gorilla), and reports of instructional time need to take into account the full range of policies to which schools must respond. For example, a district in a state that has science and social studies testing might not reduce instructional time in those subjects; but that doesn’t mean that NCLB isn’t having an impact on instructional time in other districts. Andy, how do you explain the fact that districts with at least one school not making AYP are much more likely to report reduced time in social studies than districts with no such schools? Do you have an alternative explanation?

  10. Giveme A. Break

    As per usual, you’re resorting to name-calling to address someone who disagrees with you. Would you fairly call yourself an “apologist and propagandist” for NCLB? Having followed this blog for a very long time, I can only imagine that Eduwonk wakes up with night sweats at the very notion that NCLB might be imperfect policy or someday dropped or modified.

    How exactly does one have a serious policy discussion with someone who simply applies the “apologist,” “status quo,” or “entrenched interests” lingo to anyone who disagrees or offers evidence to the contrary?”

  11. Anonymous

    Is anyone here, including Eduwonk, arguing that cuts to other subjects are not taking place? The debate is whether it is unavoidable.

  12. Anonymous

    Bottom line, NAEP shows that reading and math AND science AND U.S. history AND civics AND, AND, AND are all seeing score increases…

  13. Northerner

    On this issue, considering how minimal the standards really are in practice, in most cases, people should be outraged when schools cut subjects to meet them, not outraged by the requirements.

    That’s the key point. The NCLB-haters are just trying to shoot the messenger.

  14. Rachel

    in her growing role as an apologist and propagandist for the status quo

    Eduwonkette’s aggrieved partisans are rushing to the comments section and whining…

    I was about to make a comment with some content, but I couldn’t help noticing the irony of the request that commenters keep remarks civil given the tone of the original post.

  15. Rachel

    So, to be more substantive…

    1) I can say with certainty that our district’s understanding of NCLB requirements is that students in Program Improvement schools who score below proficient in reading or math need to be offered extra minutes in that subject. This is done by a combination of extending the school day, and limiting access to electives, with science being classified as an elective.

    2) However low the standards are, there is still a question in my mind of how much schools can do for the average child in 6-or-so hours of formal, largish-group instruction, if this is not supported in the off-hours by the sort of informal instruction that is typical of middle class families with educated parents. Sure, there are exceptional kids, and exceptional teachers, but I think the reality is that effect of informal, out-of-school learning opportunities on test scores (and general academic success) is under-studied, and probably underestimated. One of the best predictors of students test scores is parent educational level.

  16. KDeRosa

    In response to rachel’s comment, let me add:

    1. Another viable option would be to improve instuction so that more learning can be accomplished in less time. The reason why this isn’t done is because monopolies, i.e., public schools, aren’t very good at improving efficiency.

    2. You’ll want to take a look at the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study, the Minnesota Twin Family Study (and Brouchard’s Reanalysis), the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project (and Willerman’s various analyses) which show that parental SES has less of an effect than you think.

  17. ed notes online

    “Eduwonkette needs to spend some time in real schools–high and low performing. It’s hard to write about schools if you don’t spend any time in them, and if you don’t don’t understand what high-quality instruction actually is.”

    Just maybe it is possible Eduwonkette spent years teaching, unlike so many policy wonks who don’t have a clue.

    I know the drill. Schools that are high performing (easy to teach in) = High quality instruction. Schools that are low performing = low quality instruction. To 90% of the teachers with any time in the system = one big joke.

    For the record I spent 30 years on what you would term a “low-performing” school in Brooklyn NY. Guess what? I had years with high performing kids (about 1/3) of my school and (more) years with low-performing kids. Guess that makes me a failure as a teacher 2/3 of the time.

    Real teachers get a laugh every time they read this crap.

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