The report, by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group that studies the law’s implementation in school districts nationwide, said that about 44 percent of districts have cut time from one or more subjects or activities in elementary schools to extend time for longer daily math and reading lessons. Among the subjects or activities getting less attention since the law took effect in 2002 are science, social studies, art and music, gym, lunch and recess, the report said.
The report, based on a survey of nearly 350 of the nation’s 15,000 districts, said 62 percent of school districts had increased daily class time in reading and math since the law took effect.
Within a year of the law’s implementation, teachers and their associations were reporting that schools and districts were suggesting or requiring that they spend more time on reading and math to improve test scores, and that they cut back time spent on other disciplines.
The narrowing of the nation’s elementary school curriculum has been significant, according to the report, but may not be affecting as many schools as previously thought.
A report that the center issued in March 2006, based on a similar survey, gave one of the first measures of the extent of the narrowing trend. It said 71 percent of districts had reduced elementary school instruction in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics. That finding attracted considerable attention, with many groups opposed to the law decrying the trend.
The law’s backers, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, argued that the intensification of English and math instruction made good sense on its own because, they said, students who could not read or calculate with fluency would flounder in other subjects, too.
The center’s new report raises the question of how to explain the considerable discrepancy between last year’s finding, that 71 percent of districts had reduced instructional time in subjects other than math and reading, and this year’s, which gives the number as 44 percent.
Jack Jennings, the center’s president, said in an interview that the discrepancy was a result of a change in the wording of the questionnaire. Last year’s survey asked districts to say whether they had reduced instructional time in subjects other than reading and math “to a great extent,” “somewhat,” “minimally” or “not at all.” Districts that reported even minimally reduced instructional time on other subjects were included in the 71 percent, along with districts that carried out more substantial changes, Mr. Jennings said.
This year, the center listed English/language arts and math as well as social studies, art and music, science and other subjects on the survey, and asked districts whether class time in each had increased, stayed the same or decreased since the law’s enactment. In a second column, the survey asked districts to indicate the number of minutes by which instructional time had increased or decreased.
Districts that made only small reductions this year, 10 minutes a day or less, in the time devoted to courses other than reading or math, may have chosen to report that instructional time had remained the same, Mr. Jennings said. On last year’s survey, the same districts may instead have acknowledged reducing the time, while characterizing the reduction as minimal, he said.
According to the new survey, the average change in instructional time in elementary schools since the law’s enactment has been 140 additional minutes per week for reading, 87 additional minutes per week for math, 76 fewer minutes per week for social studies, 75 fewer minutes for science, 57 fewer minutes for art and 40 fewer minutes for gym.
In a statement, Secretary Spellings said the report’s scope was “too limited to draw broad conclusions.”
“In fact,” she said, “there is much evidence that shows schools are adding time to the school day in order to focus on reading and math, not cutting time from other subjects.”