Instructional Time in Elementary Schools: A Closer Look at Changes for Specific Subjects

Center on Education Policy
February 2008

Although this report could be more rigorous in its methodology (on which more below), it touches an important issue: the suspected "narrowing of the curriculum" resulting from NCLB's emphasis on reading and math. CEP conducted a nationally representative survey of 349 school districts during the 2006-2007 school year. It found that elementary schools in 58 percent of those districts had, since NCLB went into effect, increased instructional time in reading by an average of 141 minutes per week. In math, 45 percent of districts had increased instructional time by an average of 89 minutes per week. As averages of total weekly instructional time spent on the subjects, these were increases of 47 percent and 37 percent, respectively. On the other side of the scale, weekly time spent on social studies decreased by 32 percent, science by 33 percent, and art and music by 35 percent--a real tragedy, but one that's thankfully receiving some attention (see here and here). As for the methodology, one must always approach self-reported data with caution, but in this case especially so because they come from the district level. Are we to believe that district officials have a clear picture of just how much time is being spent on specific subjects in the various elementary-school classrooms they oversee? Furthermore, many if not most of the district officials surveyed have their own opinions on the narrowing of the curriculum, by which their responses were undoubtedly influenced. Martin West, in Fordham's Beyond the Basics, takes a more solid tack, using data from full-time teachers in self-contained classrooms. His findings confirm that narrowing has occurred, though to a lesser degree and over a longer time period than CEP's figures indicate. Find West's paper here and CEP's report here.

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