School’s out

National rankings say that even if kids stay in school, they get a more narrowly focused education

Washoe County Assemblymember Sheila Leslie says the state does not take an integrated approach to addressing youth issues, such as infant mortality, teen pregnancy and high school drop-out rates.

Washoe County Assemblymember Sheila Leslie says the state does not take an integrated approach to addressing youth issues, such as infant mortality, teen pregnancy and high school drop-out rates.

Photo By David Robert

July 25 was a bad day for education, particularly in Nevada.

It was on that day, in one of those cases of political bad luck, that U.S. Sen. Harry Reid sent an e-mail to his Nevada constituents telling them about everything he was doing to get their kids into college. That may have gone down hard, combined with the front pages of their daily newspapers, which reported that an annual survey ranked Nevada last in the nation for keeping kids in school long enough to graduate.

That same day, another national study indicated that because of the national No Child Left Behind law, school districts had begun doing exactly what its supporters said it would not do—teaching to the tests.

The first survey was bad enough on the education front. (Education officials tended to blame it on the state’s transiency, a standard line of defense when the state is ranked poorly in quality-of-life measures.) But it also painted a picture of life in Nevada for children that suggested they would be lucky to get out alive.

Some of them don’t. Infant mortality, childhood mortality, low birthweight babies—all were at the wrong end of the list for Nevada. So were children living in poverty, teen pregnancy and teens having to work, suggesting that the dropout rate was just one part of an overall quality-of-life problem. And there’s no one in politics suggesting that Nevada should treat all those problems together. Instead, they propose tinkering with each symptom.

“We need to grab the web whole,” Robert Kennedy once said, but that’s not a practice followed by many governments at any level.

“We’re definitely not doing an integrated approach,” said Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County. “I’d say that our focus traditionally in Nevada has been one problem at a time. So, yes, we addressed teen pregnancy, and we’re happy when the rate goes down. But we’re not looking at any other contributing factors. I mean, we are in a general discussion, but in terms of programs, what you find are teen pregnancy programs, substance abuse programs, and what you don’t find are programs that are really directed at lifting families out of poverty.”

She notes, for example, that a whole range of job programs have vanished in the last quarter century, such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a job program created during the Nixon administration and phased out in the Reagan administration.

Washington knows best
Given the breadth of Nevada’s problems, the idea that one-size-fits-all guidelines imposed from Washington, D.C., are helping the state seems to be embraced mainly among politicians who are committed to the No Child approach. But a study by the Center on Education Policy threw a lot of cold water on that. CEP sent out a questionnaire to 491 school districts, and 349 responded. They almost uniformly reported that their response to the law’s mandatory emphasis on math and English was to shift away from science, social studies, art and music—and to start pushing the kids harder.

The center found that of school districts surveyed, elementary school class time for social studies has been reduced 36 percent in the past five years, science 28 percent, art and music 16 percent, physical education 9 percent. In addition, lunch time has been reduced by 20 percent and recess by 5. Sixty-two percent of districts increased the amount of time spent on English and math.

The average elementary school shift since the law’s enactment has been 140 more minutes per week for reading, 87 more minutes for math, 76 fewer for social studies, 75 fewer for science, 57 fewer for art and 40 fewer for gym.

Nevertheless, while there is widespread criticism of No Child, few leaders are willing to take it on directly—Republicans because it is a Bush initiative; Democrats because of a reluctance to criticize federal programs.

Little workaholics
The Bush administration responded to the CEP study by saying some districts have made the school day longer.

“While the report is certainly interesting, its scope is too limited to draw broad conclusions, and similar studies point toward different findings,” said Bush education secretary Margaret Spellings. “In fact, 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.”

She didn’t cite the evidence, but in most places, longer school days are being proposed not as general improvements in education but almost entirely to cope with No Child’s requirements. More than 10,000 schools are expected to be designated as “failing” next year under No Child Left Behind.

Former Nevada superintendent of schools Eugene Paslov, who also served as president of Harcourt Educational Measurement, said a longer school day would be great—and he goes even further, suggesting a longer school week of six days.

“Sure, why not? Five and a half, at least. … The business of shorting other academic areas [than English and math] of equal importance—that is, social studies, arts and humanities—these are terrifically important and need to be emphasized. It’s something that the schools have done. They’ve done all or nothing. ‘Let’s work toward reading and math and nothing else.’ I would say let’s expand the accountability and expand the hours of the school day and the days of the school week to accommodate these school subjects.”

The implications of longer school days can be pretty extreme—higher cost per student by about 30 percent, higher pay and benefits for already stressed-out teachers, who spend evenings grading tests or doing prep work.

Leslie and Paslov are both surprised that the business community is not alarmed by the decline in science instruction.

“It baffles me,” Leslie said. “Instead, they seem to focus in on a bad teacher here, or too much administration there. They don’t want to look at the underlying price tag.”

“They should be alarmed,” said Paslov. “I’m alarmed. I think science is a critical subject.”