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Bruno: The *Real* Causes Of "Teaching To The Test"

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He doesn't frame them exactly this way, but Daniel Willingham's recent posts on the lack of elementary-level science instruction shed more light on a point I've made previously: that many concerns about "teaching to the test" are at least partially misguided. 

As he points out,  much of the marginalization of science in elementary schools predates NCLB, which suggests that curriculum narrowing can't be entirely explained by high-stakes testing. (A more likely culprit? Only 1/3 of elementary school teachers feel prepared to teach science in the first place.)

Additionally, Willingham elaborates on the importance of teaching content to promote reading comprehension.  Even as late as 3rd grade elementary students are spending nearly half of their school time on English Language Arts, which leaves little time for the numerous other subjects - like science and history - that are so important to building students' content knowledge and, in turn, their ability to understand what they read.

To reiterate, I think it's pretty clear that many of the practices that are labeled "teaching to the test" are, in fact, problematic. What I believe we need to take more seriously, however, is the possibility that these practices are attributable as much to other factors (e.g., misconceptions about educational psychology and inadequate teacher preparation) as they are to the perverse incentives of high-stakes testing. If we're piling all of the blame on NCLB we're probably misdiagnosing the problem. - PB (@MrPABruno)

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Paul,

Yes, bubble-in accountability predates NCLB. We've aways had ineffective read "three pages and answer the questions" and "worksheet science." In the past, that was called bad teaching. Now its called "best practices."

Yes, we should teach teachers to do lab science, but the inability to do that is an opportunity cost of data-driven accountabiility, which, by the way, made the narrowing of the curriculum worse.

@John - As I said, high-stakes testing undoubtedly bears some of the blame for these practices. Again, however, my point is that it seems to have become an article of faith in some circles that high-stakes testing is "the cause" of these practices, but that the logic & evidence behind that assumption are often pretty dubious. There seem to be a lot of other things going on, in some cases - like with elementary science time - to the extent that it's not even clear that high-stakes testing is the *biggest* cause.

I diagree. Here in SFUSD, our higher-poverty middle schools had all eliminated their onetime arts and music programs under pressure to get test scores up, replacing them with remedial English and math -- yes, eliminated them. The lower-poverty middle schools kept rich arts and music programs, and the ones on the edge fought to keep some arts and music going.

This has been most clear-cut in the middle schools because in elementary schools, arts and music have been more blended into the day, as opposed to part of the curriculum; and high schools have a wider array of electives so it's not so apparent. But the middle schools are stark. I was shocked when I first looked at middle schools for my kids, thinking it was just naked racism that meant low-income (higher black & Latino) MS's lacked arts.

If this hasn't occurred across the bay in Oakland too, I'm surprised, but I strongly suspect you're not looking hard enough.

This trend has been reversed in SF because of Prop. H, a ballot measure providing city funds to the school district designated for enrichment programs. But it was clear, sharp and ugly previously.

@Caroline - I think you're misunderstanding my post. My argument is not that curriculum narrowing hasn't happened. Indeed, I explicitly say that it has. My point is just that 1) this doesn't have as much to do with high-stakes testing as people seem to assume and 2) even if it does, a lot of it is misguided and not likely to improve scores on balance, so educators share some of the blame.

Note that the evidence also suggests you're mistaken about elementary schools: "blendedness" not withstanding, time devoted to non-ELA/math subjects has been quite limited since before NCLB. That was one of the points in the post.

The way you describe the problem actually suggests that funding is a big part of the problem. I find that plausible, but note that this would be a further argument in favor of my position, that factors *other* than high-stakes testing are to blame in one way or another.

If I were arguing that curriculum is not too narrow in public schools you would be correct in your dissent, but that wasn't my claim. Nor would it be: I'm a big fan of a rich, broad curriculum.

The combination of relentless focus on test scores and lack of funding (which is the chronic condition in schools today) resulted in the highest-need, most vulnerable kids in my district being deprived of enrichments. I definitely blame the entire attitude promoted by No Child Left Behind and the general accountability obsession.

Personally -- I think you're too new to these issues to have sufficient perspective to see this, Paul.

(And I maintain that educators are under relentless pressure -- all of it applied by non-educators who have no clue whatsoever -- and that they essentially have no choice. So no, they are not to blame for not being miracle workers and superheroes.)

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