Dumbed-Down Schools Hurt Students

President Bush signs into law a sweeping federal education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring that students be tested periodically in reading and math in this Jan. 8, 2002, file photo at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.
This column was written by Michael J. Petrilli.

History, science, and the arts are being de-emphasized by most schools in order to make room for teaching basic reading and math skills, according to a recent study. Who's to blame for this? Critics of reform point to the No Child Left Behind law.

And they're right to do so — to a point. NCLB mandates that schools boost achievement in reading and math — only reading and math — or face tough consequences. To the surprise of some, the incentive has worked, but so, too, has the law of unintended consequences.

This is not the only example of that phenomenon. NCLB puts pressure on educators to get all students to a low level of proficiency, so schools ignore kids at the top of the class. The law leaves the standards-setting to the states but ties sanctions to the results, so the states "race to the bottom" and lower their standards. And yes, the statute focuses its accountability provisions on reading and math, so schools ignore everything else. The latter problem is easily fixed (if politically unpopular). Congress should add history testing to the law's requirements, and make the history and science results count. (Science testing will be required next year, but the results won't count for accountability purposes.) Now that we know that schools will respond to incentives, we should be clear about our aims.

But tweaking the law's carrots and sticks is not enough. We must also address the fact that schools are choosing the path of least resistance by narrowing the curriculum. After all, pushing other subjects aside is not the only choice schools face. Great schools beef up their students' basic skills while also providing them a broad, rich education. Why don't most? There are two reasons — one ideological, and the other political.

E. D. Hirsch tackles the ideological problem in his recent book, "The Knowledge Deficit." Hirsch identifies an obvious solution to the challenge schools face: Teach reading through history, science, literature, and the arts. He argues persuasively that most of the students who have been "left behind" have successfully learned to decode words and sentences, but can't comprehend much because of their limited vocabulary and knowledge base. Especially in the upper elementary grades and middle school — where we see student achievement plateau and then begin its long, precipitous decline — the best way to teach reading is to teach content. Instead of "doubling up" on rote, mechanical reading instruction, schools can engage students with compelling historical accounts, fanciful stories, fascinating science, and riveting poetry. In fact, it is exactly the kind of rich content that students find in Hirsch's Core Knowledge schools that account for their strong gains in reading and math achievement.