Narrowing Education

Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.  I’ve tried to document some of the benefits that students receive from art and theater.

And today Dan Bowen and I tried to defend the role of sports in schools in the New York TImes‘ Room for Debate forum on the issue.

One of the main critics of sports in school is Amanda Ripley, reprising an argument she earlier made in The Atlantic and in her book.  In today’s forum she writes:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to compete in games that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Let’s leave aside that her argument ignores the systematic research demonstrating the benefits of sports in schools.  And let’s leave aside that her book and articles rely on deeply flawed “selection on dependent variable” approaches that try to infer what to do to be successful by looking only at successful places.

I think we can easily see the flaws in her argument if we consider how the same logic she employs can be used to argue against schools having orchestras, theaters, and a host of other activities.  I’ll change just a few words to illustrate how her argument can be used against music instruction in schools.  I’ve bolded the changes so you can see how her argument could be used against any effort in school other than focusing on math and reading instruction:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to play an instrument that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing music and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Or here is how her argument could be used against having school plays:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training students to act in theater that the majority of kids will never get paid to do… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing drama and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

See how easy this is!  The real problem here is the unwillingness to appreciate the breadth of experiences that should be part of a well-rounded education.  Yes, not every student will benefit from music, theater, or sports.  And very few of them will go on to careers in music, acting, or sports.  School is not entirely about vocational training focused on math and reading skills.  Those of us who support a broad education recognize that all of these activities have important benefits for many students and should be part of schools.  And Ripley, like most supporters of efforts that narrow education, would deny that she fails to support a broad education.  She just wants to get rid of the thing she doesn’t like.  But her logic would get rid of everything other than math and reading instruction.  And that would be a very poor education indeed.

(edited for typo and to elaborate argument)

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9 Responses to Narrowing Education

  1. CB says:

    Jay,

    Well said one might also touch on Paul Tough’s book in the same manner. Ripley’s book and the former are two best sellers read by many Ed reformers…

    Might it now be the right time to touch on the last 25 years of Don Hirsch’s advocacy for a knowledge rich and broad cumulative early curriculum …

  2. mike g says:

    Generally, love what you’re doing here in framing the argument.

    A question b/c one can never always fully qualify a blog: is your view that

    a) you’d love parents to have choices of various types of schools, including those that may be narrowly about academic achievement, along with others that might be more well-rounded, and still others that might be themed (heavy in music, or sports, etc)….

    and then

    b) to the degree you’re stuck with limited parent choices, then you tend to prefer the typical school to be more well-rounded?

  3. pdexiii says:

    This year I asked students to rank in order of importance the classes they take (8th grade).
    When they shared them in class (and laughed at those trying to win points with me saying Math was #1) I shared mine:
    1) Health-PE
    2) Art-Music-Drama (electives)
    3) Science
    4) History
    5) Language Arts (3,4, and 5 could be interchangeable)
    6) Math
    You can’t come to math class hungry or tired; the knowledge and experiences you gain in your electives, science, and history are critical to engaging and comprehending ‘real world’ math, and of course you must know what the words mean or imply to do and use math (ELA).
    My colleagues lament that our students’ biggest deficit is not ‘getting out the house’ enough to go places and experience things, which inhibits their academic performance. I tell students I can teach math not because I’m some math genius, but because my parents either dragged us around to places or turned us loose in the (free) Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, the public library, or just to watch the airplanes take off from either National or Dulles airports (when you could do that).

    Our middle school would be boring and sterile if we didn’t have Art, music, drama, and sports. Our goal is to ‘field trip them into submission,’ because those experiences last a long time.

  4. momof4 says:

    I would love to have had the opportunity for my kids to take art/architectural history and music appreciation, but neither were available. Their schools had lots of art and music teachers but they were interested in performance only, as my various conferences with them made clear, even for those kids (like mine) with no musical or artistic talent or interest. They wouldn’t even go for supervising an independent study (with me/online resources doing the work) and none of the ES-MS-HS “regular” teachers included any of that cultural history into their classes (which would have horrified my 1-12 teachers; all of whom considered that part of history). I think that part is important for schools to do, but I see no need for schools to run non-academic extracurriculars (academic defined as NFL debate, literary mag or school paper, math/science team etc). I think extracurriculars are important, but they don’t need to be run by the schools (although could use school facilities). That tail too often wags the dog, especially in the big-name sports. Parks & rec or private clubs already offer many opportunities, and as a parent of 4 elite, full-time athletes, the serious kids in the school extracurriculars typically perform/compete at a higher level in clubs; school stuff is a sideline for many of them. Bottom line; just because something is a good thing doesn’t mean the schools have to, or should, be the one to do it There are community theater, dance,art and music groups/programs even in the small rural city where I currently live – plus sports programs. With the exception of football, most sports have programs running from recreational level all the way to Olympic level; totally separate from schools.

    BTW, I’ve had the opportunity to visit several museums recently, while school groups were there, and I doubt that many kids derived much benefit; the simply wandered/ran around while the teachers/parents chatted on their own. There seemed to be no real purpose to the experience – which was true of my kids’ field trips. My preschool grandkids probably learned more. The exception was homeschool groups, with parents guiding the group and with students having had clear preparation and specific things to observe/analyze. Every kid was taking notes and/or pictures.

  5. Steve K says:

    I come here for the perspective that tends away from my own but I do have a question.

    If I page up to the ALEC report, it stresses advances in math and reading scores exclusively. Later, you stress that a well-rounded experience is better (which I wholeheartedly agree with considering my experiences as a teacher, coach and gaming club [chess and Euro board games] adviser). Don’t these somewhat conflict? If the means of progress is determined by test scores, as evidenced from the ALEC report and pretty much every other piece of research done on education over the last 5-10 years, then what is the motivation of schools to provide a wide-ranging experience?

    Low test scores can mean being put in a recovery district like Memphis, New Orleans or Detroit. Doesn’t that force a school to narrow the curriculum rather than provide time to the richness that you support?

    And while you are an advocate for school choice and argue that parents can make their own choice as to type of school and the possible breadth of enrichments it has, doesn’t this pressure of test scores virtually eliminate the schools in urban areas from such options?

    This is a question, not an inquisition, I’m just not sure how the two ideas can be married in areas where the threats and pressures on test scores are very real.

  6. matthewladner says:

    Steve-

    We have posts written by multiple authors here, so there may be differences of opinion on this subject. Or maybe not.

    I love Jay’s research on the arts, but personally I don’t see any conflict between Jay’s findings and using NAEP to judge state K-12 systems. NAEP is given to random samples of students across an entire state, the test items are carefully guarded, etc. so there is no pressure or ability to teach to test items.

    I’ve seen schools here in AZ batter kids with brain-dead worksheets trying to prep for the state test, and I’ve got my own kids in schools that give the state test as an afterthought. I personally like the second model much better, but you need to be an excellent school to pull it off with confidence.

  7. Steve K says:

    I appreciate the response but it still doesn’t answer the thought I had in my last paragraph. How do schools in urban areas that are threatened with “turnarounds” provide a well-rounded education when they are judged exclusively by reading and math scores? They are judged by state tests or CCSS tests in some places, not by NAEP scores.

    Also, charters frequently tout their test scores as examples of being better. Charters, in fact, have largely made test scores their currency in order to prove their worth. Aren’t these schools of choice painted into a narrow curriculum corner themselves?

    I agree that the second model you mentioned in your post is better. I just don’t know that every place has than option.

    This, to me, is the problem with test scores having such outsized influence on policy.

    I’m enjoying not being in an echo chamber. Thanks.

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