Society and Culture, Education

Checking Claims of ‘Narrowing the Curriculum’

As the Obama administration gears up for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the administration is making its case for an array of major revisions. We already see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan marshaling evidence to make the case for change. Thus far, he’s earning wildly mixed grades for the quality of his team’s homework. Secretary Duncan deserves a thumbs down for his efforts to placate No Child Left Behind critics by blaming the current version of ESEA (a.k.a. NCLB) for a supposed narrowing of the K-12 curriculum. He deserves much higher marks for his forthright charge that states are “dumbing down” their proficiency standards.

Claims about the narrowing of the curriculum need to specify exactly which students have supposedly experienced this change. NCLB was focused mostly on the earlier grades, but it also mandates that students be tested in high school. While there is some evidence about curriculum narrowing in elementary schools (see here, but also see here), the evidence about high school curricula is quite clear and quite to the contrary.

In contrast to the earlier grade levels, which often focus on basic skills, high school years provide students with the opportunity to develop more deeply their skills and knowledge of subjects such as music, arts, and social studies, all supposed victims of a narrower curriculum. Fortunately, we have good data on what subjects high school students study—data gathered as part of the High School Transcript Study conducted by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These data document which courses students actually took, as compared to what parents, school administrators, and others believe happened to the curriculum. Secretary Duncan has used these statements of belief as support for his concern about narrowing the curriculum (see here); but do these beliefs jibe with reality?


Transcript data show that, rather than taking a narrower curriculum, America’s high school students are taking more courses across a broader array of subject areas than ever before. As evident in Figure 1 above, the number of English credits high school graduates completed was unchanged between 2000 (pre-NCLB) and 2005, while the number of math credits increased. Meanwhile, student exposure to science (not mandated under NCLB until 2007) and social studies increased, and there was no change in the average number of foreign language and fine arts credits completed. Things may have radically changed since 2005 when the data were collected, but transcripts show that student exposure to arts, science, social studies, and foreign language, subjects supposedly being crowded out, either went up or remained the same.


Above, Figure 2 displays a longer view of high school graduates’ exposure to social studies. Here we see that at each point over 15 years, high school graduates have had the same exposure to U.S. history and government/civics. In addition, we see a substantial increase in the percentage of high school graduates completing credits in world history and world geography. Here too there is little evidence of crowding out—in fact, we see an increase in exposure to the world beyond the borders of the United States.

In short, there were increases or at least stability across a wide range of subject areas, with no signs of narrowing of the high school curriculum. This was due, in part, to high school graduates increasing the number of credits they have completed (from 25 in 1998 to 26 in 2000 and 27 in 2005) and by taking more academic courses.

Claims about narrowing of the curriculum are already common and will become more so as the reauthorization debates proceed. When these discussions move into high gear, it is important to specify which level of schooling the speaker has in mind, and it is even more important to have better and more recent empirical evidence to support such claims.

It would also be far more productive if the discussion focused on why, given this increase in academic course taking by high school students, we haven’t seen any improvements in student achievement as measured by assessments such as NAEP’s Long Term Trends or the Program for International Student Assessment. Similarly, in light of the recent disappointing fourth and eighth grade NAEP math results, a better question would be: if our elementary schools have indeed focused so much more time on math, why haven’t our students gained more in return? In short, the flimsy evidence regarding narrowing of the curriculum and the continuing poor performance of our students does not justify rethinking the law’s focus on math and reading.

Instead of spending time on much-discussed but poorly documented complaints, like curriculum-narrowing, Secretary Duncan’s reauthorization agenda should focus on better-documented issues such as the laughable “proficiency” standards that states have developed to fulfill NCLB’s accountability mandate. Fortunately, the secretary has acknowledged that low state standards are a major flaw, arguing that “the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when, in fact, they are not.”

The evidence behind this claim, especially National Center for Education Statistics studies that show many states set their proficiency standards at or below NAEP’s basic standard, is far more compelling than the evidence about narrowing the curriculum. Indeed, this evidence justifies wiping clean NCLB’s compromise that set national proficiency goals but allowed each state to define its own level of proficiency and to write their own tests to judge progress.

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