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Implementation of NCLB Curtails Study of History, Civics,
Languages, & the Arts, While Expanding Learning Time for
Literacy, Math, & Science, New Study Says

Minority Students Most Affected by Curriculum Changes, Study Reveals

WASHINGTON - March 8, 2004 - The first significant study of how the No Child Left Behind Act is influencing instructional time and professional development in key subject areas reveals that schools are spending more time on reading, math, and science but squeezing out social studies, civics, geography, languages, and the arts.

The report, conducted by the Council for Basic Education (CBE) and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, says that the shift away from these liberal arts subjects is most pronounced in elementary schools and schools with large minority populations.

The study, Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools , is based on a survey of more than 1,000 principals in four representative states (Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico, and New York) that were chosen for their socio-economic, political, and geographical diversity.

A Shrinking Core Curriculum

According to the report, three-quarters of all principals surveyed say that instructional time for reading, writing, and mathematics is increasing greatly or somewhat, while a similar majority also reported moderate or large increases in time for teachers to hone their skills and knowledge in these areas. Close to half of all principals surveyed reported increased instructional time for science, and even larger numbers project such increases over the next two years.

However, while these courses are receiving greater emphasis, the overall curriculum is becoming narrower, the report reveals. For example, elementary school principals reported decreases in instructional time for social studies, civics, and geography. Nearly three in ten principals (29 percent) overall reported decreases in time for social studies, compared to 21 percent who reported increases.

One of the areas subject to the largest cutbacks is the arts. One quarter (25 percent) of all principals reported decreased instructional time for the arts, with only 8 percent reporting an increase in this area. One third (33 percent) of all principals anticipate further decreases in arts instructional time, while just 7 percent anticipate increases.

In Maryland, which mandates elementary- and middle-school assessment in only mathematics and reading, evidence of waning commitment to certain academic disciplines is especially pronounced. Over half of Maryland elementary school principals reported decreases in instructional time for social studies; nearly four in ten (39 percent) of all Maryland principals foresee reductions in instructional time for the arts, while only two per cent expect increases.

"The narrowing of the curriculum is worrisome because students need exposure to history, social studies, geography, and foreign languages to be fully prepared for citizenship, work, and learning in a rapidly changing world," says Raymond "Buzz" Bartlett, president of the Council for Basic Education. "Truly high expectations cannot begin and end with math, science, and reading."

Cutbacks Most Affect Minority Students

The most troubling evidence of curricular narrowing occurred in schools with large minority populations, the very populations whose access to a full liberal arts curriculum has been historically most limited. Nearly half (47 percent) of principals at high minority schools reported decreases in elementary social studies; four in ten (42 percent) anticipated decreases in instructional time for the arts; and three in ten (29 percent) of high-minority school principals foresaw decreases in instructional time for foreign language.

"These findings raise the specter of a new opportunity gap between white and minority students," says Bartlett. "We're seeing that low-income minority students are being denied the liberal arts curriculum that their more privileged counterparts receive as a matter of course. In our effort to close achievement gaps in literacy and math, we risk substituting one form of educational inequity for another, denying our most vulnerable students the kind of curriculum available to the wealthy."

"No Child Left Behind may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if we define its vision for achievement too narrowly and thus institutionalize long-term academic mediocrity and inequity," says the report's author Claus von Zastrow, director of institutional development at CBE.

Promising Trend in Middle and High Schools

On the positive side, CBE's study did identify promising trends, particularly in higher grades. Principals in middle and high schools are allotting more instructional and teacher professional development time to social studies, civics, and geography. Principals interviewed for the study suggested that events such as September 11 th and the Iraq war had strengthened schools' commitment to these subjects.

Report Urges Tying Liberal Arts to School Improvement Strategies

In the report, CBE urges states to ensure adequate access to a liberal arts curriculum by integrating all of the core subjects into state systems of standards and accountability, maintaining high goals for excellence in the liberal arts, and working to better prepare teachers to integrate the liberal arts into reading instruction.


CBE's study of the liberal arts combined a mail survey of 956 elementary and secondary principals in four states with focus groups of principals from across the country.

The survey sample included a representative selection of urban, suburban, and rural principals in each target state. The databases from which the sample was drawn were supplied by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Federation of School Administrators. The response rate for the survey was approximately 32 percent. 417 surveys were returned from Illinois, 155 from Maryland, 56 from New Mexico, and 310 from New York. The remaining 18 surveys included no information about state of origin and were not included in the state-by-state analyses.

Founded in 1956, The Council for Basic Education is a national non-profit organization advocating high academic standards for all students and working to strengthen teaching and learning of the liberal arts to prepare students for lifelong learning and responsible citizenship. CBE has worked with over 25 states, 28 districts, and 8 countries, as well as the U.S. Departments of Education and State, the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Download the Full Report
(2.6 MB PDF file)

The March 9, 2004 USA Today news story