Archive for Friday, June 30, 2006

More districts shift focus to basics

As schools trim elective offerings, some say diversity drops

June 30, 2006


— Frank Oakley has always struggled in math class. So last school year, the 15-year-old was in it twice as much.

Like thousands of middle and high school students across the country, he received a double dose of math and English classes. The approach pays off at test time, but it's generating concerns that students are giving up electives and receiving a less well-rounded education.

For Oakley, doubling up on the two core subjects proved beneficial.

"I actually kind of like it," the sophomore at Wyandotte High School said of the once-troublesome subject of math as he finished his final exams. "I'm starting to understand it."

That's music to the ears of Mary Stewart, the head math instructional coach for high schools in the Kansas City, Kan., district.

"Always before, the constant was the amount of time we spent with the kids, and the variable was how much they learned," she said. "What we are looking at is switching that so the constant is what they learn and the variable is the time."

Starting last academic year, Oakley's high school switched to a new program that requires freshmen and sophomores to prove they understand math concepts on two separate tests to get credit for a skill. Students who need extra time to understand pi or the Pythagorean theorem can get it before and after school, over their lunch periods, during the summer or by enrolling in an extra period of the subject.

Meanwhile, all ninth-graders are enrolled in two English classes, with one aimed at improving their reading skills.

What's happening? Some school districts are requiring middle and high school students to spend more time in English and math classes. Why? The approach can help schools boost scores on standardized tests and meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which carries sanctions for low-performing schools. The controversy: Some fear that spending more time in core subjects means students are forgoing electives and receiving a less well-rounded education.

No Child's ripple effects

Schools increasingly are requiring extra class periods of English and math as they seek to boost test scores and meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which carries sanctions for low-performing schools. No Child requires that students be tested annually in the subjects of reading and math in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, usually in 10th grade.

In some districts, students are attending two class periods each day of English and math. Meanwhile, in school districts with college-style block schedules, the core subjects are taught in longer classes that meet every day instead of every other day, or for a full year instead of a single semester.

Often, one of the English classes is devoted to reading instruction - something that traditionally has ended when students leave elementary school.

Variations of the approach are being used in other Kansas school districts, including Shawnee Mission and Topeka, as well as schools in Missouri, Texas, New Jersey and California.

Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland, Calif., decided to require two class periods of the core subjects for all students because so many needed the help. The change left no time for electives, forcing the school to drop wood shop, art, music and Spanish. Now, those electives and others are offered before and after school as extras.

Gabriela Tapia, Havenscourt's math department chair, said students were faring better on district exams. But she said the extra time only helped if the teachers were qualified.

Eliminating electives

The efforts have the educational community divided.

In March, the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education released a survey that showed 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts were spending more time on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects.

The report was focused on elementary schools, where teachers long have lamented that testing has forced them to narrow the curriculum and spend less time on subjects such as science and social studies. Middle and high schools are different because students generally must take a broad range of state-mandated courses to graduate.

"What seems to be happening is that in some high schools they are eliminating the electives," said Jack Jennings, president of the education research group. "They are giving kids a double dose of math or putting in a reading course in lieu of electives. It's a little different situation."

The American Federation of Teachers said 87 percent of its members - across all grade levels - reported in a survey that increases in testing have pushed important subjects and activities out of the curriculum.

"We can't say it's OK to spend so much time on the basics that we let the broader curriculum slide," said union spokesman John See, a former math teacher.

In Kansas City, Kan., administrator Steve Gering said finding that balance could be tricky.

"We are constantly trying to figure out, how can we get this young person in band because it's the right thing and double-block math and English," said Gering, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the district, where struggling middle school students enroll in extra class periods of math and reading. "What's wrong is to wholesale eliminate electives."


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