NCLB: Impact on Curriculum

David C Berliner. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication, 2008.

Attend in the last half of the 20th century, corresponding to the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States, saw much of the financing and decision making about educational matters move from the local to the state level. This was usually to ensure that all the children in a state received a free, high-quality, public education, regardless of their income, race, or the ability of their community to support its public schools. Not surprisingly, with financing as well as decisions about textbooks and teacher education moving inexorably to the state level, many curriculum issues also moved away from the local level, where they had been situated for a century or more. State decisions increasingly influenced what was taught in local schools. Thus, by the time the 20th century ended, the authority and power of the local school board to determine who will teach and what they will teach had been eroded. That may not have been all bad, however, as many local school boards did not have the capacity to make the wisest decision about curriculum for the 21st century, with its need for labor that possess the appropriate skill set to compete in a global labor market. Indeed, many local boards preferred to teach intelligent design rather than Darwinian biology in their science classes (cf. Nova, 2007), and therefore could not adequately prepare students for the kind of world in which they will live. The trend away from local control of curriculum accelerated under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now understood to be the greatest intrusion in local educational matters by the federal government in the history of our nation (Elmore, 2002). This trend away from local curriculum control increased in intensity with the development of curriculum content standards, an integral part of the NCLB law.

The Standards Movement and Curriculum in the United States

Toward the end of the last century, there arose a “standards” movement. Standards often come in three kinds and are easily confused. First are curriculum standards, or goals to be achieved by students at various ages or grade levels. It is these kinds of standards that are the primary concern of this chapter, because such standards determine the curriculum to be mastered by students. It is recognized that the concept of curriculum could mean the whole panoply of events and expectations that students are exposed to, both what is hidden and what is manifest. For some curriculum theorists, virtually everything can be counted as the school curriculum, from the philosophy of the school and its rules and regulations, to its teachers, texts, tests, and buildings. Students must negotiate all of these phenomena in some, and thus all affect what students learn in and from school. For this chapter, however, we will use curriculum in its restricted sense, as the school subjects taught, or the elements of a particular subject matter.

In the best of worlds, a set of standards to guide instruction are determined after intense and prolonged debate by teachers, parents, developmental psychologists, assessment experts, and the business community. In the real world, however, curriculum standards may be overly influenced by special interests. Publishers with interest in phonics have helped write literacy standards, representatives of manufacturers helped write economic standards, lobbyists of the dairy council, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies have influenced science standards, and so forth. Thus curriculum can be made to serve economic and political ends. There is no science, only politics and values, from which to derive curriculum, and it is this that accounts for the passion aroused by some curricula issues.

Nevertheless, if done well, the standards are designed to answer the single most important question in education, namely, what is it that should be taught in our schools? Without a clear conception of curriculum to be mastered, there is no need to organize schools. Without clear conceptions of what should be taught, every teacher and school district would be free to teach whatever they wanted. For some citizens and educators, this has advantages. Those who have romantic views of teachers, who rely on their professional training, and who believe in protecting local community and family values argue that such heterogeneity in curriculum has advantages for a democracy. In fact, recent trends in the promotion of private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling uphold and celebrate such variation in school curriculum. Those who think that a national curriculum is needed to unify our diverse population and to ensure the nation’s economic future, prefer more standardization of what is to be taught in our schools. Balancing these two opposing forces is the curriculum designers’ dilemma. When wonderful, creative teachers and schools exist, it appears not to be in the national interest to put them in a straight] acket and force upon them a standardized curriculum. When a subgroup wants its language and culture also reflected in what is taught in our public schools, it appears not to be in the national interest to deny their request for special curriculum. On the other hand, shouldn’t all teachers, particularly new teachers, have explicit guidelines about what is expected of them? Shouldn’t every teacher at a grade ahead know what was taught at a grade below? Shouldn’t employers know what was taught in the schools near their work site? Wouldn’t it be difficult to know how we are doing as a nation, a city, a school or a teacher if the curriculum wasn’t reasonably specific and regulated? Clearly, what is to be taught, when it is to be taught, and by whom are no easy set of questions to answer. Thus, the curriculum field is always contentious!

Currently, the movement in the United States appears to be toward national content standards. These standards are proposed as an answer to the crucial question about what is to be taught in our schools. The standards represent the aspirations of a nation, state, or local community for what an educated fifth-grader, 15-year-old, or high school graduate should know and be able to do. Many of the standards now guiding educators have been the product of professional associations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), or sponsored by prestigious organizations such as the involvement by the National Research Council in the national science standards. Contemporary standards are usually drawn up at the state level and imposed on local districts. The state standards serve as the blueprint for state assessments. The content standards are often not too different from state to state, resulting in similar, though not identical, curricula throughout the United States. Oregon, for an example, states that “Standards-based education is … teaching, learning and assessment that focuses on national, state, and local educational standards” (Oregon Department of Education, 2006). Oregonians believe that standards-based education tells everyone—students, parents, teachers, administrators—what all students are expected to know and be able to do at specified grade level. Standards help to make educational goals transparent. Oregonians have developed standards in English/ language arts, English language proficiency, mathematics, science, social sciences, physical education, health education, second language, and the arts. An example of an Oregon standard in the arts, in the area of aesthetics and criticism, requires that a fifth-grade student “be able to apply critical analysis to works of art, and to do so by identifying essential elements, organizational principles and aesthetic criteria that can be used to analyze works of art” (Oregon Department of Education, n.d.). It is not clear that such a standard tells students, teachers and others precisely what to do or learn, but it certainly is an expression of the expectations of a community for what it wants its young to know. The standards movement began before NCLB was authorized, but the NCLB bill makes it mandatory for every state to have highly challenging curriculum content standards, to assess the learning of those standards, and for their to be consequences for poor performance on the assessments.

This leads to the second use of the term standards. In addition to requiring every state to have curricula content standards, NCLB has set a performance standard for the state assessments that it mandates. The performance standard in NCLB is the aspiration of Congress for the nation’s students. Performance standards are expressions of the desired score on some indicator. For example, a performance standard for mile runners might be 4 minutes and 10 seconds, while a performance standard for a spelling quiz might be 80% correct. In order to qualify for a team, or to be excused from taking the spelling test again, the performance standard has to be met or exceeded. There is no scientific way to set performance standards. They are always arbitrary, though not necessarily done capriciously (Glass, 2003).

The goal demanded in the NCLB law was to have 100% of the children in each state “proficient,” and to reach that goal in a little over a decade after implementation of the law. Of course, this performance standard is impossible to obtain without deviousness, perhaps immorality (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Rothstein, Jacobson, & Wilder, 2006). It is a bad law because it demands that every child perform at a high level of achievement, an obvious impossibility. To comply with the NCLB law, one must find ways to deny that human variability exists, redefine the term proficient to mean something much more modest (e.g., lower the performance standard but still call it “proficient”) or do other devious things to avoid the severe consequences of not meeting the law. Until Congress reconsiders the law, one of the many devious ways that schools have chosen to appear compliant is through narrowing the curriculum to enhance the time spent in the areas that are most tested. In this way, more students appear to be making progress toward the goal of 100% proficient at every school, although the validity of the test scores is compromised when test preparation and curriculum narrowing is excessive. Obviously, by concentrating time in the areas that are tested, other curricular goals cannot be met in the ordinary 6-hour, 180-day school schedule that is common throughout the United States. This problem is elaborated on in the chapter.

The third use of the term standards is in the term opportunity-to-learn standards. Here, too, the term standard is used as a goal or aspiration, referring to whether children have been provided the opportunities for learning the desired curriculum at the level of performance required. Children who have poor English language skills, or have had no medical treatment for simple illnesses, miss many of the opportunities to learn that are characteristic of middle-class, native English speakers (Berliner, 2006). Yet, these children must meet the same performance standard, and that is a problem. Compared to children of the middle class, children attending schools in poverty areas are likely to have many more substitute teachers, many more new teachers, many more teachers teaching out of field, and to be offered a curriculum with fewer honors or advanced placement classes. But still, these children (and their school) must meet the same performance standards as others whose opportunities to learn may not have been as constricted. Thus, it is clear that if opportunity-to-learn standards are not set and are not met, the content and performance standards to which we aspire may be well be out of reach for many of the nation’s children. The recent monitoring of the effects of NCLB has shown no closing of the achievement gap between lower- and middle-class students, probably because opportunity-to-learn standards have been ignored in NCLB (Berliner, 2006; Fuller, Wright, Gesiki, & Kang, 2007; Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006).

Approximately 2 decades of work on the improvement of schools has been strongly tied to standards. Content standards and performance standards are of particular interest because they are the basis of the intended curriculum for each state’s schools. Although curriculum usually refers to what is intended to be taught, two other kinds of curriculum must be recognized. First is the implemented curriculum, because not everything that is intended is actually implemented. And, some things that are implemented may not have been intended (e.g., instruction in a child’s native language in states such as Arizona that have laws against that). Additionally, we can also think about the learned curriculum, what students actually come away with from their classes and schools. NCLB has affected all three kinds of curricula—the intended, the implemented, and the learned. We now turn to how that happened.

How Does NCLB Affect Curriculum?

The Public’s Curriculum Goals and NCLB

There never was a golden age in which a broad liberal arts curriculum flourished in the public schools. The U.S. citizenry was always more concerned about public education being practical. For much of the 20th century, school leaders pushed the 3Rs of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic so that youth could be productive workers and citizens later in life. But even with their emphasis on the practical and the instrumental, the public always maintained a multiplicity of goals for its schools. The NCLB Act completely ignores these other aspirations for schooling.

As other articles in this volume have noted, under NCLB, high stakes are attached to the tests that are given in each state. Low performance, or a failure to make adequate yearly progress toward the goal of 100% proficient, could require local school districts to expend large amounts of money to improve their students’ test scores. The threat of school closings also exists for low-performing schools, while the possibility of monetary bonuses for high-achieving or greatly improving schools also exists. Because the consequences associated with test scores are not trivial, and the tests have only been in the areas of reading and mathematics, these have become the areas of the school curriculum that have received the most attention once NCLB became law. Other curriculum areas do not receive as much attention as the public desires.

Science assessments are required by NCLB in 2008. These are to be administered at one grade in the elementary, middle, and high school level, but the scores on these tests will not be used to determine adequate yearly progress. The consequential tests for educators will continue to be reading and mathematics tests. So it is these areas of the curriculum that will continue to be the focus of attention by educators, even though Americans have always wanted other aspects of the curriculum emphasized. Richard Roth-stein and Rebecca Jacobson (2007) point out that our founding fathers had a broader vision of schooling than that promoted in NCLB. Benjamin Franklin, for example, wanted history emphasized because it forced the young to think about issues of right and wrong, and about the nature of justice and injustice. He also wanted more emphasis on physical fitness. Those who recognize the contemporary obesity problems of our youth will echo Franklin’s call for the schools to be concerned about this. But someone in each state has to make a decision about how much time physical education, history, or algebra will be allotted out of the time that schools have budgeted to provide public education. If teachers and schools are to be judged by their performance in one of these fields, and not another, it should be no surprise to find that distortion of the curriculum has taken place. Subject matter that is tested and consequential will be emphasized, while other subject matter is likely to be ignored. Thus, Franklin loses: Under NCLB the time allocated for history and physical education have been reduced.

George Washington wanted public support of schools to help unify divergent social groups. Today, his would be a call for multicultural education. He thought schools were most needed to understand oppression and to teach citizens their rights. Thomas Jefferson, while recognizing the need for vocationally relevant school curricula, also saw schools as serving to improve morality, and to help youth learn their rights and their obligations to both their neighbors and their country. John Adams, in a May 12, 1780, letter of his wife, Abigail, said:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

For Adams, the ultimate goal of education in a free society was to foster the arts, for other founders of the nation it was morality and citizenship that ranked highest. These are curriculum aspirations absent from the conversation about the NCLB legislation. Our founding fathers saw the basic skills merely as tools, as means to an end, with that end being a virtuous life. The basic skills were not considered as ends in themselves, which tests in mathematics and reading have become under NCLB.

Rothstein and Jacobson used the historical record to see if school administrators, school board members, and the general public still prized such goals for our schools. They had members of each group rank eight goals. Remarkably, all three groups performed almost identically, indicating that the educators and board members thought about the goals of schooling much as the general public did. Highest ratings were to the basic skills. All Americans agree that this is an important curriculum goal. But not far behind in the concerns of the respondents was the goal of critical thinking. NCLB pays lip service to this goal, but in a high-stakes testing environment with predominantly decontextualized multiple-choice measures used to assess what has been learned, there appears to be no place in the curriculum to teach and no way to assess critical thinking. Thus, a major curricula goal for U.S. education, perhaps never taught well, is made even less likely to be included in the implemented, or the learned, curriculum.

Six other areas were close to being tied for third place among these desirable curriculum goals. Large percentages of the respondents wanted to be sure that our schools teach social skills and a work ethic, citizenship, and physical education. They wanted, as well, curriculum that worked on emotional health, the arts and literature, and that prepared our youth for skilled employment. None of the three groups of respondents wanted to see U.S. schools narrow what they offer. But because of the basic skills orientation promoted by the assessment systems required by NCLB, such narrowing is occurring. Surveys of teachers reveal how the NCLB high-stakes testing culture affects the intended and the implemented curriculum in our schools. In Colorado, teachers say (Taylor, Sheppard, Kin-ner, & Rosenthal, 2003):

We only teach to the test even at 2nd grade, and have stopped teaching science and social studies. We don’t have assemblies, take few field trips, or have musical productions at grade levels. We even hesitate to ever show a video. Our 2nd graders have no recess except for 20 minutes at lunch, (p. 31) I eliminated a lot of my social studies and science. I eliminated Colorado History. What else? Electricity. Most of that because it’s more stressed that the kids know the reading and the math, so, it was pretty much said, you know, do what you gotta do. (p. 30) … We don’t take as many field trips. We don’t do community outreach like we used to like visiting the nursing home or cleaning up the park because we had adopted a part and that was our job was to keep it clean. Well, we don’t have time for that anymore, (p. 30)

Florida teachers, echoing those in Colorado, show the problem to be national in scope (Jones & Egley, 2004):

Our total curriculum is focused on reading, writing, and math. There is no extra time for students to study the arts, have physical education, science, or social studies. Our curriculum is very unbalanced. While it is a way of testing some components of standards based performance, it leaves many gaps in the educational process. If we just ‘teach to the test’ which many teachers in our district are pressured to do, then the students are left with HUGE educational gaps that have not been covered in their education. Students deserve a well-rounded education, not just bits and pieces that are presented on a state test. Before [the Florida state test] I was a better teacher. I was exposing my children to a wide range of science and social studies experiences. I taught using themes that really immersed the children into learning about a topic using their reading, writing, math, and technology skills. Now I’m basically afraid to NOT teach to the test. I know that the way I was teaching was building a better foundation for my kids as well as a love of learning. Now each year I can’t wait until March is over so I can spend the last two and a half months of school teaching the way I want to teach, the way I know students will be excited about.

These teacher reports are validated by more traditional surveys. The Council on Basic Education (Zastrow & Janc, 2004) looked at school curricula in the post-NCLB world and discovered that the liberal arts in contemporary America had atrophied. Most of the areas the council has been concerned about (history, social studies, civics, geography, art and music, and foreign language) are not usually the focus of high-stakes testing. Therefore, under the pressure to succeed on the high-stakes tests in reading and mathematics, these courses have been abridged or dropped all across the nation. Hours per school week or days per school year have only rarely been increased to allow these courses to be taught, while simultaneously increasing instruction in reading and mathematics. The loss of these courses was found to be greatest in minority communities, a topic discussed next.

Reporting on a survey of 350 school districts, the Center on Education Policy (CEP; 2006) revealed that about 62% of those districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English/language arts or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess. In some districts, struggling students received double periods of reading or math or both. Examples of declines in the untested areas of the curriculum, post-NCLB, are found in the loss of 23 middle school art teachers in Anne Arundel County, Maryland; the cancellation of seventh-and eighth-grade foreign language classes in Rosenburg, Oregon; the loss of almost 10% of its art, music, and physical education teachers in Milwaukee; and the loss of 178 teachers of the arts (visual arts, dance, music, and theater) in Massachusetts over a 2-year stretch from 2002–03 to 2004–05. Some in Massachusetts attributed this decline in arts instruction to shrinking budgets, rather than to NCLB. This is, of course, an equally poor reason for destroying students’ opportunities for exposure to the kind of rich curriculum offerings envisioned by American revolutionaries and supported by contemporary Americans. But during the same 2-year stretch noted above, Massachusetts hired 141 English and 341 math teachers —making it seem that they were trading in their arts teachers for those who taught the basic skills (Nichols & Berliner, 2007).

California has its problems with the arts, too. It recently ranked 50th in the nation in the ratio of music teachers to students. And there was a 50% decline in the percentage of music students in California public schools over the first few years of NCLB, a drop from 19.5% in 1999–00 to 9.3% in 2003–04. The greatest decline came in general music, which suffered an 85% decrease in student enrollment, while music teachers declined 26.7% during that same time period. In some wealthier communities, special homeowner assessments help supplement music programs. But when curriculum changes this way, it disproportionately affects poor and minority students. According to the CEP (2006) report, 97% of high-poverty districts (where more than 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) had policies that restricted the curriculum offered to their students. We turn now to that issue.

NCLB and the Curriculum for Poorer and Wealthier Students

The CEP report makes it clear that the pressure to do well on the tests is felt most where students historically do not do well on achievement tests, in the schools that serve poorer students. The high stakes attached to the tests make it almost inevitable that the narrowest of test-preparation curriculum will be offered to the lowest-income/lowest-performing students. Thus, we deny our most vulnerable students a curriculum that might make them more successful in the world—a curriculum that features the humanities and liberal arts.

The root of the term liberal in the liberal arts has nothing to do with the term liberal in the political realm. Instead, the root of the term liberal in the liberal arts is in liberty—with art, music, government, rhetoric, philosophy, and the like, being the arts of free men and women. Instead, we teach our poor and minority students to take tests, and if they proceed in school, we too often teach them what Benjamin Barber (1994) called the servile arts, business and law enforcement, catering and medical assistance, aerospace mechanics, and computer technology. Wealthier students, if they are lucky, will get some of the liberal arts in their high schools because the breadth of the curriculum offerings need not be cut back. These students usually are passing their state tests, their schools usually make adequate yearly progress, and their parents have the political power and resources to maintain a broader curriculum. These wealthier students, even if missing some of the humanities and arts in the public schools, have parents who pay to provide them with extracurriculum activities (music lessons, sports), and they are much more likely to encounter the liberal arts in their colleges. But poorer public school students may not be exposed to the ways of thinking embedded in the liberal arts at all, and because their college attendance rates are low and apparently getting lower at the most prestigious institutions of higher education, they may never get adequate education in the liberal arts. Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch (2007), once ardent supporters of NCLB, have seen how the focus on only one or two goals of education distorts the whole system. They recently concluded that

[If NCLB continues] rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities. Some will find no opportunities at all [and] frustration will tempt them to prey upon the fortunate, who in turn will retreat into gated communities, exclusive clubs, and private this-and-that’s, thereby widening domestic rifts and worsening our prospects for social cohesion and civility.

Evidence exists that poor people can change their lives enormously through exposure to a rich curriculum in moral philosophy, art history, logic, poetry, and American history at the level they might encounter at a first-rate university (Shorris, 2000). While our nation’s poor never had much access to curricula like this, under NCLB, their exposure to such curricula is even less likely. Not only is there unfairness in a system that is clearly running separate curriculum tracks for the wealthy and the poor, but as Barber notes, by the lack of exposure to the humanities and the arts, we may be endangering our democracy as well.

Time as a Metric for Looking at Curriculum

Decisions about the intended curriculum require decisions about textbooks and other materials needed, teacher preparation required, space allocation, and so forth. But among the most important decisions about curriculum implementation is the one determining the allocation of time for instruction in the area to be taught. Instructional time decisions are always choices between competing beliefs about what to teach. Some person or group has to decide how much time should be allocated to reading instruction, mathematics, science, social studies, lunch, and so forth within a fixed-time system, usually 6 hours a day, for about 180 days a year. Local and state school boards generally influence the amount of time available for instruction in two ways. Together, they determine budgets and that influence how much time can be purchased to support public schooling and school-related activities. For example, payments to the coaches of sports and activities such as the debating society, or to the adviser for the yearbook, impact the school curriculum. Time for such activities is purchased or not purchased by school boards. The second way that school boards influence time allocations is by determining how the overall time they have paid for is to be used. Thus, school boards frequently specify a certain number of minutes a week to be spent on this curriculum area or that. Because time is a costly and a scarce commodity, how it is used reflects school board and school staff curriculum priorities. School budgets, therefore, are reflections of the philosophy of education held by a school system. If a great deal of school time is used for a test preparation curriculum, then clearly test scores are among the highest priority for that school.

In the state of Colorado, for example, more than one third of the teachers studied spent more than 2 weeks giving students old forms of standardized tests for practice before high-stakes testing (Shepard & Cutts, 1991). In Buffalo, New York, however, fourth graders at D’Youville Porter Campus School engage in work every morning that prepares them for the state assessment tests. According to the principal, “It’s test after test after test. It’s getting to the point where we’re doing test preparation the whole year. We think we’re testing kids to death” (Simon, 2005). Students apparently will be taking a consequential assessment in New York and many other communities at a pace of about one a month. This severely limits what else can be taught in our schools.

North Carolina, however, seems to be winning the race toward having schooling be only about test preparation, with many school days devoid of genuine instruction (Jones et al., 1999). Survey research found that 80% of elementary teachers in North Carolina reported that they spent, on average, more than 20% of their total teaching time practicing for high-stakes tests. This is about the equivalent of 36 days of test preparation. But even more dismaying was that 28% of those teachers reported spending more than 60% of their time practicing for the state’s tests. That would require over 100 of the typical 180 days of instruction be spent in various forms of test preparation. In other surveys of teachers and students (Public Agenda, 2001, 2002), 83% of teachers indicated concern that teaching to the test could become the norm, and 20% of responding students felt that teachers focused so much on test preparation that “real learning” was neglected. These teachers and students appear to be correct.

As this chapter is being written, the only state known to be seriously dealing with the issues of time for instruction directly is Massachusetts, and the only district that has acted strongly on what is known about the role of time in curriculum mastery is Miami (Massachusetts 2020, 2005). In that state and district, they recognize that the time needed to achieve all the desired curricula goals in the United States must be expanded, especially for less advantaged learners. This requires fiscal expenditures for public education many in our country apparently will not make, and financial support for public schools may even be on the decrease (Glass, 2008). But without expanded time to learn the broad and highly challenging curricula our nation desires all our students’ to learn, we end up sacrificing learning time and substituting instead test preparation time when high-stakes tests are used to judge the outcomes of our schools. Thus, the intended curriculum is quite different from the implemented or the learned curriculum, and what is learned is a far cry from what was intended. This problem becomes even sadder when test scores in basic skills become the desired end of education for our youngest students, a topic discussed next.

NCLB and Curriculum for Young Learners

The pressure on the young to curtail their play and engage in a more academic curriculum is also a by-product of the NCLB law. Required testing under NCLB begins in third grade, necessitating, therefore, that much reading and mathematics curriculum has to be taught and learned by then. School districts must have their students pass state tests or face serious consequences, and so they want school children taking tests as early as possible, presumably to prepare them for what is required in later grades. Similarly, there is an accountability movement for the federal Head Start program, and for other early childhood programs (Meisels, 2006). Those responsible for the early childhood programs have adopted the same accountability demands for the mastery of academic skills for young children that the NCLB architects have adopted for the rest of the nation’s students (cf. Nichols & Berliner, 2008). Thus, test preparation and practice in taking tests is now widespread in preschool, first grade, and second grade. The pressures of NCLB from above, and a narrow but pervasive accountability mind-set for the evaluation of early education programs, are leading to the death of the traditional childhood curriculum as Americans have known it.

The federal government promotes these policies, threatening to deny funds from any program that cannot meet their criteria of success in early childhood education. For example, the Head Start National Reporting System (NRS) uses a high-stakes test made up mostly of multiple-choice items in vocabulary, letter naming, and mathematics, administered twice a year to 450,000 4-year-olds. The mathematics subtest assumes “… that Head Start 4-year-olds can attribute causality, do subtraction, use standard metric units, and understand the subjunctive case” (Meisels, 2006, p. 12).

Because these tests are highly consequential in themselves, and because the school systems of which Head Start programs are a part must contend with the NCLB tests to be given a few years later, teachers in the early childhood programs are under extreme pressure to change their curricula to accommodate the tests. Evidence exists that this is happening (Government Accounting Office, 2005). The effectiveness of those older programs were largely unknown, but replacing them with more academic, test-focused curricula is likely to have negative effects on children. This is because, as Meisels (2006) notes, Head Start does not employ a high percentage of workers who hold bachelor or associate degrees. So Head Start teachers are not likely to be able to critically analyze what is being asked of them and are likely, therefore, to adopt the pedagogy and the curriculum implicit in the test. Demanded of them will be a pedagogy relying on

… passive reception, of pouring into a vessel knowledge and skills that are needed for competence, rather than recognizing learning as active and teaching as a joint process of interaction between child and adult. An active view of learning, fundamentally based on enhancing relationships between teachers, children, and challenging materials, is nowhere to be seen in this test…. (Meisels, 2006, p. 14).

The potential impact of this test on 3-year-olds as their teachers spend a year preparing them to identify vocabulary words, name letters, and solve counting and measuring tasks also cannot be overlooked. In devoting their time and energy to preparing children to perform well on the tests for 4-year-olds, teachers may be ignoring many other elements of learning that are critical for acquiring more advanced skills later on.

In brief, the curriculum demanded and the pedagogical model required to score high on the NRS test is highly questionable for young children. A contemporary mother of an ordinary kindergartner recently expressed her thoughts about this national trend toward academics at the earliest age (Berris, 2008):

“I never expected my child to be writing three-sentence paragraphs or reading by the end of kindergarten. I never knew that was an expectation of kindergarten … [I think] [t]he kindergarten curriculum is very difficult.”’

While the accountability demands of the NRS and NCLB are influencing curriculum and instruction, many educators and counselors recognize that our society would be well served if our students actually enjoyed attending school. It is not just early educators who recognize the need for students to bond to the school culture. Educators at all levels have long known that such school bonds are among the best predictors that youth will finish high school (Finn, 1989). But it may be impossible to establish bonds of belonging and feelings of security under current curricula constraints. The incessant and almost exclusive concern about achievement in the basic skills curriculum, where students compete for favor with their teachers through their attainment of high scores on tests, makes bonding with the school culture difficult for many students. Evidence exists that many schools feeling the pressure of NCLB begin to identify students as “score increasers” and “score suppressers,” visibly favoring some students and consigning others to the schools’ dustbins, hoping they will leave or drop out of school, sometimes forcing the score suppressors out (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Particularly disadvantaged in the race to demonstrate high levels of basic skills on tests are those with the lowest academic ability, those who have special education needs, and those who are not fully competent in English.

It is worth noting here that in all schools there is a hidden curriculum. These are the subtle messages that are communicated to students through the intended and implemented curriculum. Informally communicated, but learned quickly, are such things as who and what is important; what the nature of “good work” is and how competence is to be defined; what value the school places on creative and convergent thoughts; and how the schools tolerate individual differences that are not mainstream (cf. McCaslin & Good, 1996). A highly academic, basic skills, competitive curriculum, therefore, may not be the best curriculum to offer our youngest children, as it must communicate to many young students that they are “losers.” Such students cannot be expected to bond well to the culture of school and attain the best of what schooling can offer.

The pressure on the young to engage in a highly academic and competitive curriculum shows up in curricula decisions to curtail traditional early childhood activities such as naps for infants, and the time allocated for lunch and recess. Nap time, for example, has been a long-standing daily ritual embedded into the curriculum of prekindergarten students at countless schools across the country. But in the increasingly test-pressured world of public education, it has become a luxury that 4-year-olds can no longer afford. “Nap time needs to go away,” Prince George’s County, Maryland, schools chief Andre J. Horn-sby said during a recent meeting with Maryland legislators. “We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do” (Trejos, 2004).

Recess is questioned, too. One Massachusetts district reported cutting 1 day a week of recess for elementary students to put in preparation time for the high-stakes testing required by NCLB, while some neighboring districts did away with recess at the elementary grades completely (Class requirements cut into recess time, 2004). Educators around St. Louis have cut back on recess and done away with physical education as well (Aquillar, 2004). At one low-performing elementary school in Texas where the pressure to raise test scores is incessant, teachers have also been taking away recess from students:

We only have recess one day a week for 15 minutes. You can’t be caught out there. Oooo—I’m not sure what would happen. These people [legislators/the state department of education] don’t understand child development. I wonder if they ever went to college. Where are they getting their ideas from? They think we shouldn’t have recess because we should focus on academics. This year I said, forget it, there’s no way I can teach these kids if they don’t have a break, so I’ve been taking them out. (Booher-Jennings, 2005, p. 255)

Lunch is obviously wasted time for those who succumb to the NCLB testing pressure. A teacher at a Massachusetts district expressed concern that lunch had been reduced at her elementary school to less than 15 minutes on many days “so that more time could be put in on the rigorous curriculum areas.” “Rigorous curriculum areas” is code, meaning the areas that are tested. In the post-NCLB era, music, art, and social studies are not considered rigorous curriculum areas. The school had actually abandoned traditional luncheon meals and started serving finger food—wraps and chicken nuggets—to get the students in and out of the cafeteria faster (Nichols & Berliner, 2007).

When economic fortunes change, as they always do in the ordinary ebb and flow of complex systems, schools are often blamed for slowdowns and problems with the economy. It has always been such (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Cremin, 1990). Under the present uncertainty about our nation’s economic health, we are assuming that what schools were doing was inappropriate, as usual, and so through NCLB we have imposed on our youth the requirement for high levels of achievement of a basic skills curriculum at earlier and earlier ages. But the U.S. economy actually did quite well over many years with the curriculum intended, implemented, and learned, and no one really knows with any certainty what curriculum would be best for the youth of our nation. The employment histories predicted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for our citizens (many different jobs, in many different fields) makes job preparation in any narrow sense impossible. Perhaps the only thing we are reasonably sure of is that our youth will live in a VUCA world, one characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (Johan-sen, 2007). So curriculum planning is more difficult now than at any time in history. Despite a good deal of uncertainty, however, there are many reasons to believe that the NCLB law, with its overemphasis on high-stakes testing of basic skills and its disruption of childhood, may have many more negative effects than positive ones on the outcomes of education and on the U.S. economy. That issue is discussed next.

The Economy of the Future and NCLB

NCLB has been supported by the business roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of Education Spellings (cf. The Business Coalition for Student Achievement, 2007) and others concerned about the ability of the U.S. workforce to compete economically in the 21st century (see also Friedman, 2005). Those individuals all believe we need much more mathematics and science in our curriculum and NCLB demands precisely what they desire, as well as requiring rigorous assessments to monitor progress toward high levels of proficiency in those areas. But it is possible that all this concern about designing the curriculum of today to compete in the economy of the future is misplaced. In fact, by narrowing the curriculum and introducing more drill and more test preparation, we are probably designing precisely the wrong curriculum for the 21st century.

Despite the rhetoric of prominent members of the business community such as Bill Gates (Gates voices concerns, 2007), the United States actually has enough mathematicians and scientists for the economy. In fact, it appears that we are overproducing college graduates, particularly those with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills. Most students who have mastered these curriculum areas end up taking take jobs outside the areas in which they were trained (Lowell & Salzman, 2007). Additionally, the jobs of the future, say in the year 2016, look no different than the jobs of 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007). The message of NCLB is to move more students into college, and curriculum changes in the schools have reflected that desire. Certainly, more people with advanced education are good for our democracy and that education is good for personal development. However, the jobs of the future do not require as many college graduates as defenders of the NCLB curriculum believe. Policy analyst Dennis Redovitch (2007) notes that over 50% of the jobs in 2016 require short-term or moderate-length on-the-job training, experience, or education. He reminds us that technology makes jobs simpler and more productive, and does not make most jobs more difficult. It appears that by 2016, about 21% of jobs might require a bachelor’s degree or more. Currently about 32% of the workforce that is 25 years and over have a bachelor’s degree or more, and the supply of college graduates over the next few years now appears to be greater than the needs of the labor force. A reasonable estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that in about 10 years about 5% of the jobs in the United States might require higher math and/or science coursework. Thus, a curriculum that emphasizes achievement in the STEM areas for all students appears to be unreasonable.

The narrowing of the curriculum documented above has its critics, even among those who originally were positive about NCLB. For example, Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch (2007) express well many of the curricula concerns of those see danger in the marriage of NCLB with STEM preparation:

Worthy though [STEM] skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a “well rounded” education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics, and geography. … This is a mistake that will ill-serve our children while misconstruing the true nature of American competitiveness and the challenges we face in the 21st century. (Finn & Ravitch, 2007) The liberal arts make us “competitive” in the ways that matter most. They make us wise, thoughtful and appropriately humble. They help our human potential to bloom. And they are the foundation for a democratic civic polity, where each of us bears equal rights and responsibilities. History and literature also impart to their students healthy skepticism and doubt, the ability to question, to ask both “why?” and “why not?” and, perhaps most important, readiness to challenge authority, push back against conventional wisdom, and make one’s own way despite pressure to conform…. We’re already at risk of turning U.S. schools into test-prepping skill factories where nothing matters except exam scores on basic subjects. That’s not what America needs nor is it a sufficient conception of educational accountability. We need schools that prepare our children to excel and compete not only in the global workforce but also as full participants in our society, our culture, our polity, and our economy…. Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment of the Arts said it well “We need a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty, and wonder. It is the best way to create citizens who are awakened not only to their humanity, but to the human enterprise that they inherit and will—for good or ill—perpetuate.”

The arts are a way to think differently about the human experience. The visual arts, dance, and music, in particular, provide the basis for expressing ideas that cannot be rendered well in story or through formulas, the ordinary symbol systems used for communication. People in all kinds of jobs, including the STEM areas who possess such alternative ways to think about the world, and who have learned to express their ideas in these metaphoric ways, are the likeliest to provide the creative inventions, entrepreneurship, and energy that will make the United States successful in the 21st century. Curriculum breadth needs defending in the era of NCLB, worries about STEM preparation and corporate influence on curriculum decisions.

NCLB Aspirations and the Narrowing of the Curriculum Through Test Design

There is a little noted consequence of pushing commercial publishers into doing tests cheaply, as all states try to do. This problem is related to the “dumbing down” of the curriculum and of the test. Richard Rothstein (2004) describes this problem:

Consider a typical elementary school reading standard, common in many states, that expects children to be able to identify both the main idea and the supporting details in a passage. There is nothing wrong with such a standard. If state tests actually assessed it, there would be nothing wrong with teachers “teaching to the test.” But in actuality, students are more likely to find questions on state tests that simply require identification of details, not the main idea. For example, a passage about Christopher Columbus might ask pupils to identify his ships’ names without asking if they understood that, by sailing west, he planned to confirm that the world was spherical. In math, a typical middle-school geometry standard expects students to be able to measure various figures and shapes, like triangles, squares, prisms and cones. Again, that is an appropriate standard, and teachers should prepare students for a test that assessed it. But, in actuality, students are more likely to find questions on state tests that ask only for measurement of the simpler forms, like triangles and squares. It is not unusual to find states claiming that they have “aligned” such tests with their high standards when they have done nothing of the kind.

In this narrowing of vision about what students should know and be able to do as we go from standards to curriculum to test items, we see a number of factors at play. Writing complex items that are inexpensive to score and can be scored in a timely manner is not easy. Writing new items of this type that are equated with old items of this type, so that annual administration of the tests can take place, makes the task still harder. But if costs limit the complexity of the items written to assess whether a state’s standards have been achieved, the curriculum that prepares students for the tests will be dumbed down to match the test. The second most important goal of the public and the skill most likely to help our youth in a VUCA world—critical thinking—is rarely assessed in the NCLB tests. These tests do drive curriculum and instruction, of that there is little doubt, so such tests have to be very good or the tests will be passed by the simplest of test preparation curricula, narrowing the learned curricula dramatically, both turning off too many students to school and ill preparing many of them for the world they must face.


Assessment always affects curriculum and instruction. The hopes of politicians who designed NCLB is that those effects would be positive. Five years into NCLB there is little evidence of that. The gap between advantaged and poor students is not noticeably narrowing, but curriculum certainly is. And it is narrowing more in the schools that serve the poor than it is in schools that serve the wealthy. It has also narrowed in the nation’s early education programs, changing them dramatically. Part of the narrowing has resulted in reductions in curricula offerings in the humanities and arts, areas of the curriculum that were never emphasized strongly in our schools.

The loss of childhood as we knew it, the loss of the arts and humanities, the emphasis on test preparation and test taking, and the tracking of poor students into curricula least likely to transform their lives may ill-prepare our youth for the world they will face. Although there are many supporters of NCLB, there are many critics as well. So the next few years will see logic and passion, evidence and opinion, facts and disinformation brought to bear on the politicians who framed and can revise the NCLB law. As has happened throughout U.S. history, curriculum is contested terrain. Our times are providing more of the same, but the terrain in question has shifted from local to state and is now located at the national level.