October 12, 2007

Minorities Hit Hardest by Narrowing Curriculum

By Donal Brown
New America Media


Editor’s Note: As Congress considers changing the No Child Left Behind Act, disadvantaged students remain stuck in schools that have dropped science, art and music classes in favor of round-the-clock test preparation.

Parents are increasingly concerned that the No Child Left Behind Act is limiting their children’s education. According to a PDK/Gallup poll, more than half (52 percent) of parents of students in public schools say that there is too much testing. This number is up 20 percentage points since 2002.

Parents fear that a narrowing curriculum that excludes art, science and social studies isn’t preparing their children for a global society. Since wealthy parents can raise funds to maintain an enriched curriculum, the shrinking curriculum disproportionately affects families with lower incomes.

The unfortunate reality is that low-income students – including many Latino and African-American students – spend a good part of their school day drilling to pass reading and math tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. In 2004, the Council for Basic Education found that in some states, science was knocked from the school day to accommodate a two-and-a-half-hour block of lock-step reading instruction. Schools under testing pressure replaced high interest reading texts with test preparation booklets.

But concentrating solely on test-taking skills often deprives students of educational opportunities, says W. Norton Grubb, professor at University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. Educational standards are sacrificed, he argues, when students who can pass tests get trapped in test preparation classes to prepare for exit exams.

Critics say it is not necessary to narrow the curriculum and dull the students’ minds to meet standards. Some teachers are even finding ways to conduct the testing preparation without trashing academic standards. In the book “Test Talk: Integrating Test Preparation into Reading Workshop,” teachers Amy H. Greene and Glennon Doyle Melton describe how they included study of test wording and concepts in the school’s regular curriculum to make students smart readers and test takers.

With a dedicated staff, Greene and Melton’s school was able to escape the watch list and make their students confident and capable test takers. They accomplished this in a school in Fairfax, Va. in which many students were English learners and from low-income families.

Greene and Melton’s school possessed the attributes needed to address the challenge of No Child Left Behind, but others sorely lack the climate, structure and leadership needed to succeed.

Grubb argues that a wide array of resources must be equalized between schools with high and low populations of minority students. These include effective teachers using classroom time well, positive school climates, capable principals who are able to share leadership, and the elimination of traditional vocational and remedial tracks.

“In addition,” Grubb says, “the racial gaps will not decline until we take the racial and ethnic dimensions of school seriously.”

Grubb proposes making courses of study relevant to the students’ cultures and using classroom observation to eliminate mistreatment of students. He encourages frank discussions about race and ethnic issues in schools, and use of contrastive and code switching to teach standard English. This last technique involves teaching students that all language is patterned and governed by rules, and to substitute standard English codes for those of their own speech.

Students taught with contrastive analysis and code switching have raised their scores to passing on No Child Left Behind exams. Traditional approaches requiring students to correct “errors” in their writing – for instance, in subject-verb agreement and possessive forms – have not enabled students to improve.

In the meantime, students in the wealthy San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley are benefiting from a full curriculum including social studies, science, art and music. Although according to the University of California’s “California Educational Opportunity Report 2006,” California ranks 43rd among states in spending per student, districts in upper-middle class enclaves have not suffered.

This is because parents have been able to mount fund-raising campaigns to pick up the slack. Mill Valley elementary and middle schools are supported by a parent group called Kiddo! which has a-massed an endowment fund of $2.9 million for the district and an operating budget of $1.3 million for the school year. It is paying the salaries of 12 art teachers, four music teachers and has funded drama, dance and poetry programs at various grade levels.

“The district has rejected the notion that high test scores come at the expense of narrowing the curriculum,” says Mill Valley Superintendent of Schools Ken Benny. His teachers teach to the state standards, he says, and use “a model of continuous improvement” to help all students realize their potential.

Congress is currently assessing changes for the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics say that legislators should consider how to change the law to maintain standards but also give teachers the support and flexibility to change their school climates and teaching approaches. Test preparation regimes in place at every grade level do not produce students who are able to solve problems, to analyze and think creatively.

Donal Brown taught for 35 years in California’s public schools.

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