Narrowing The Hysteria…It’s "Somewhat" Out Of Hand

I’m even less blown away by this week’s curriculum narrowing hysteria than I was when the NYT’s story first ran on Sunday. The Center on Education Policy report is fine, in-line with their previous work, and is a useful source of No Child implementation data. The problem is, it’s not as definitive as No Child Left Behind critics would like because it’s (a) self-reported and (b) in this specific case not clearly reported at all and to the extent the data do point in a direction it’s away from rampant cutting of other subjects to make room for math and reading. Worth noting, on the first issue that Russo says the Chicago case study is a mess.

On the latter, CEP tells us that “According to our surveys, 71% of districts reported that they had reduced time in at least one subject to expand time for reading and math in 2005-06.” That’s the data point, based on the findings for elementary schools, that landed in the top slot of the Sunday Times front page. I don’t doubt that this is going on in some places (though it doesn’t have to) but what we don’t know are specifics like (a) exactly how much time is being cut, 10 minutes or 2 hours?, or (b) how much of this is attributable to NCLB, state policies, or even state and local budget issues being blamed on NCLB.

The CEP study doesn’t help answer those questions, even really the time one, because when they drill down to examine time gradations in the survey CEP asks districts if they’re cutting other subjects to make time for reading and math: (1) Somewhat/to a Great Extent (2) Not at All/Minimally (3) Don’t Know. Interesting way of measuring something as truly difficult to quantify as time. From a social science perspective, what the hell does “somewhat” mean anyway?

Now that notwithstanding, what the hysterics this week haven’t told you is that even within this clumsy metric (which I think you can argue creates an upward bias) 64 percent of districts said they’d reduced social studies “minimally or not at all”, 68 percent said the same thing about science, 76 percent about art and music, and 83 percent about physical education! In other words they couldn’t even say “somewhat.” That, says CEP, are the data on the great narrowing scare of 2006.

Russo basically says CEP is in the tank on this. Could be, CEP head Jack Jennings’ quote in the Times was more gasoline than water on the storyline, but I’m not quite sure and will give them the benefit of the doubt. A good test will be the extent to which CEP lets this anti-NCLB brush fire they’ve fueled burn or tries to tamp it down. This “narrowing” finding has taken on a life of its own this week. Since making various monetary offers is apparently the order of the day, here’s mine to sweeten the pot for CEP: I will donate $500 a charity of Jack Jennings’ choice if CEP makes a high profile effort (widely circulated press release, open letter, etc…) to set the record straight.

Other related tidbits: (a) In the appendix CEP lists panelists at their NCLB forums. Word on the edustreet from reliable sources is that there was some back and forth with the civil rights crowd about the composition of at least one forum (b) here is NPR’s “On Point” on the narrowing issue from Wednesday’s show (c) I had thought the claim was that NCLB was unfairly labeling suburban schools as “needing improvement” when they were really good but just not doing well with one or two subgroups of kids…but now, apparently, it’s that the law is unfair to urban schools…really hard to keep up with the talking points these days, you take a couple of days off and you’re lost! But seriously, pace Willie Sutton, you would expect a law aimed at low-performing schools to touch a lot of urban schools, no?

Update: My colleague Tom Toch also makes an important point that we don’t really know that these schools were so wonderfully rich before and it’s a good bet that many were not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.