No Child Left Behind: Unintended consequences

How depressing.

Right there on the front page of the New York Times this morning:

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.

Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

Notice that science is not one of the mandated subjects, nor is history. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and these good intentions appear to be contributing to the raising of a generation of students who don’t have enough background in science and history to recognize pseudoscience or pseudohistory when they see it. This deficiency is likely to lead them to become even more easy marks for concepts like “intelligent design” creationism or Holocaust denial, and even less able to critically evaluate claims based in science or analogies based on history than Americans are already.

Don’t get me wrong. If you can’t read, then it’s almost impossible to learn history or science, and if you can’t do basic math a lot of science becomes forever inaccessible. These two subjects are the core, particularly English, given that, in this society illiterate people tend to be forever doomed to low-skill, low-wage jobs. But why limit ourselves to just these two subjects? It’s the law of unintended consequences, but these consequences were not unforeseen. After all, if there’s no testing and accountability in topics other than English or math, it doesn’t take much insight to predict that topics not tested would be emphasized less, and not just in failing schools where the axe might fall, but in all schools subject to this law. This is particularly so because No Child Left Behind was in essence an unfunded mandate on local schools.