Untested, untaught

Sixty-two percent percent of school districts are spending more time teaching reading, writing and math in elementary school; 44 percent are spending less time on social studies, science, art and music, concludes a Center on Education Policy report. Schools are even cutting lunchtime. Only recess and phys ed are relatively untouched.

Districts who spent more time on reading and/or math increased instruction by 42 percent; instruction in untested subjects was cut by 31 percent. Nine percent of districts have lengthened the school day by an average of 18 minutes.

Districts with low-scoring schools are the most likely to shift their focus to reading and math.

The Washington Post cites reporter Linda Perlstein’s new book, Tested, on a Maryland school that successfully raised its abysmal test scores by focusing on reading, writing and math and neglecting social studies and science. (I also thought of the book, which I’ve just read.)

In one episode, she wrote that a child looked eagerly at petri dishes, thermometers and other science equipment in the back of her classroom and said, “I’d like to make inventions and experiments.” But her teacher was focused on the reading and math sections of the Maryland School Assessment. “After the MSA,” the teacher said, “we can do social studies and science.”

Overall, scores have gone up in history and science as well as in reading and math, suggesting that students do learn more in all subjects when they can read and calculate competently. However, it should be possible to teach more than the the three ‘rs with a longer day for the neediest students.

CEP suggests staggering testing requirements so students are tested one year in reading and math, the next year in social studies and science. The report also recommends researching how to incorporate reading and math skills into social studies, science, and other subjects. However, the center did not recommend lengthening the school day.

Adding hours, as some high-achieving inner city charter schools have done, is expensive, said Jack Jennings, the center’s president, “and we first have to assure ourselves that the current time is being used well.”

Often announcements, assemblies and other non-academic activities are allowed to eat into class time, says Education Sector’s Elena Silva.

Where you find a low-income, high-minority school with good test scores, like the one in Tested, you’ll find a school that defends its teaching time from interruptions and diversions.

About Joanne


  1. Mark Roulo says:

    I get the impression that this doesn’t happen often,
    but .. . what if the reading instruction used texts about
    … history? Kill two birds with one stone. It isn’t
    like there isn’t a lot of interesting history to read

    Anyone know why this doesn’t seem to happen?

    -Mark R.

  2. At least someone’s counting the damned birds now.

    > Anyone know why this doesn’t seem to happen?

    The transition from no accountability to accountability is a tough one. What used to be an unattainable height is now the minimum that’s acceptable. To make that transition is going to require different ways of thinking about things that never required much thought at all.

    Efficient use of time for one. Time that can be used efficiently for a second.

    What’s sacred about X number of class periods per day? Is that the best way to make learning happen? Maybe one or two class periods provides better continuity and greater learning. It starts to matter when measurements are being taken and coming up short is not an option.

    Can you coordinate classes so that what’s learned in one class is put to use in another instead each class being on a separate educational planet? Can homework be similarly coordinated?

    They become questions worth answering when there are consequences. Now they’re not asked because the administrative headaches remove the question from consideration. The administrative tail wags the educational dog.

    Not a good relationship if getting anywhere is important.

  3. Many home-schoolers do combine history and reading and other language arts. My kids’ literature reading provides the bulk of their history studies… and they love it that way. History through literature is far more interesting.


  1. […] of elementary schools spend less time on science, social studies and other untested subjects, reports The Center on Education Policy.) Only in the last few months of the school year, after the MSA is […]