Pre-NCLB, reading and math came first

Test-pressed schools are devoting more time to reading and math, squeezing out science, history, music and art — or so they say. Forty to 150 years ago,  elementary schools devoted  as much or more time to reading and math and very little to other subjects,writes Stuart Buck.

Today, the average school spends about 1.5 hours a day on reading and a little more than an hour on math, according to a Center on Education Policy survey. Some urban schools devote nearly two hours to reading.

Buck cites a study of California classrooms in the ’70s, which found second graders “spent 1.5 hours per day on reading, 35 minutes on math, and all of 8 minutes on other academic subjects (which included social studies and science, but not music or art). Fifth grade classrooms spent an hour and 50 minutes on reading, 45 minutes on math, and 17 minutes on social studies and science.”

He also posts a chart reviewing previous studies from the 1860s, 1904, 1914, and 1926:

. . . 2nd grade classrooms were spending well over 2 hours per day on reading — more than the amount of time that is today cited as a “narrowing” of the curriculum. Fifth grade classrooms spent between 108 and 146 minutes per day on reading. In math, the classrooms spent between 29 and 61 minutes per day. Classrooms spent between 15 and 63 minutes per day on other academic subjects such as geography, history, and science.

I attended elementary school in the late ’50s and early ’60s. We did almost no history, geography or science until fifth grade, when we got a dreadful social studies book (very big on the “principal products” of various places) and a science book.  We had daily P.E., music once a week, art once a week, shop in fourth and fifth grade, occasional Spanish in fourth grade . . . I don’t remember how we spent our time.

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  1. K-8 was 1951-1960 for me. There was no science at all until 5th grade (that’s the year Sputnik went up, and the school districts panicked and tried to add science, but not very effectively). Social studies was geography until 6th grade. It was pretty much all reading and math. And this was in a highly regarded school system with excellent outcomes.

  2. What I remember is that the math we were doing was not algebra until 9th grade and I think that is one of the defining differences. In all subjects, we are taking material and ideas that were once 9th grade level and, since kids can understand some of the broader aspects of the topic with a calculator, push the entirety of the course down to middle school, or even below. I’d much rather see elementary students master elementary subjects and have a solid base of knowledge and ability than to have them attempt higher-level courses and leave out the rigor.

    Elementary school should be numbers, fractions, decimals, calculations by hand, memorizing. It’s only on this base that you can possibly build a true understanding of algebra.

  3. I did grades 1-4 in the mid 50s and actually had a pretty good science sequence. It reflected the interests of the teachers; primarily plants in first grade, animals in second (we found and hatched frog eggs, butterlies, did terrariums etc.), rocks and minerals in third and the solar system in fourth. I can’t remember when, but I remember learning simple chemistry and physics principles. We also did geography, both physical and political and had history and civics. I remember doing the voyages of discovery, the ancient world and early America and we must have had government structure in books because I remember being surprised that the book discussed county government as if everyone had that system. I was in a state that did almost nothing by county; government was run at the town/city level. We were taught to read with phonics, learned math the old-fashioned way and were explicitly taught spelling, grammar and composition.

  4. PS – Only one of my first 4 teachers had a college degree; the third-grade teacher was a new grad who replaced the normal-school grad who had taught that grade for almost 60 years. Two of the others were normal-school grads and the other had had a year or two of college. They knew their material, knew how to teach it and knew how to run a classroom. The new grad was just learning how to teach and how to run a classroom.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    I did elementary school in the 1960s…we had art, in the early years, music/band in 5th grade and up, history and research papers as early as fourth grade…

    I am reading Rick Hess’ book: the same thing over and over. So far it is a good read and asking good questions. I am reviewing the early days of government education in the US and most of the focus is on reading but also mat, writing and religion or reading, writing and some math.

    My understanding in the early days of american education all “free” children were encouraged to go to school three years…my question is how long was the school day and year? I am pretty certain what the kids learned in those three years was much, much more than schools kids learn in three years now…

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    PS. We started science in 4th grade, too. While I missed, sadly missed, the phonics training we diagramed sentences and had grammar drilled into us. Of course, I still screw up and my english teacher mother still corrects me. Heaven help me when she is gone…of course when she taught women had few career options so the best and brightest truly were available for the classroom…

    We did algebra 1 and physical science in 9th grade…we had two years of prep math for algebra 1 in 7th and 8th grade (wish I hadn’t been scared of my teacher…) we also had science and labs, a foreign language, US history, english, band, music and PE is 8th grade. Basically we had art, music and pe all of my years in K-12 school…both private and public…I started kindergarten (private K-2) in 1960, public (3 – 8) in 1963 and high school (private) in 1968.

  7. Buck may be right, but I doubt that reading used to consist of metacognitive skills practice on third-rate fiction. There’s a big difference between reading Treasure Island and the “literacy” teaching that goes on today.

  8. We had art and music, taught by our regular teachers- except for prep for the Christmas and spring concerts, when we were taught the songs by a local lady – not a teacher – who could play the piano. I assume she was paid something, but it was strictly part-time, for a few weeks prior to the concerts. Classroom teachers taught us the patriotic songs, folk songs etc. that are part of the American heritage and we also had what was essentially art and music history. As we went through the major trends, pictures of artworks, artists and composers were displayed in the classroom and records were used to teach us about the compositions and styles. My teachers would have been insulted by the idea that they couldn’t handle this. The doing of art was mostly projects relating to major holidays, both for the classroom and to take home. We never had PE; we had recess and we all played and worked indoors and outside at home. We all were expected to help with gardening, lawn care, foraging for wild fruits and vegetables (often fishing and hunting, as well) and routine housework.

  9. palisadesk says:

    Buck may be right, but I doubt that reading used to consist of metacognitive skills practice on third-rate fiction.

    It didn’t. I remember reading The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliffe) in 6th grade, and I recently found the anthology we used in 5th. It had stories like “The Ransom of Red Chief” and poems like “The White Cliffs of Dover” that would be tough for 8th graders now. The language was much more intricate and sophisticated (with vocabulary to boot) than today’s “young adult” works.

  10. I was just intrigued to see that the “narrowing” claim is so often made (even by those whose sole claim to expertise is as historians) without even hinting at historical evidence about how classroom time was spent before.