The age of mandated state testing for all students in grades 3-8 as well as once during the students’ high school years arose from such programs as the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was ostensibly enacted to improve educational performance. However, in response to its enactment, many educational institutions defaulted to increased emphasis on core subjects, particularly English Language Arts and math, since those were the skills being tested. According to Abbie Lieberman of NewAmerica.org, since every school was being graded on test performance, especially in the reading comprehension category, the stakes were so high that many schools chose to narrow their curricula, moving away from their focus on “less essential” subjects so more time could be spent on reading instruction. This practice was especially common in low-performing, low-income schools, and it led some teachers to “teach to the test” in order to produce short-term gains.
However, NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the “Nation’s Report Card”) reading comprehension scores continued to stagnate after the introduction of NCLB, and in a May 2016 brief written by Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio, the authors suggested that “A child does not become a strong reader by learning and practicing reading alone. Reading comprehension — the ability to make meaning from text — is best thought of as a reflection of a child’s overall education. Thus reading comprehension depends on an education rich in science, social studies, and the arts as well as in reading.” A well-rounded education that introduces children to broad knowledge and vocabulary is key to building strong readers.
The authors were hopeful that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB in December 2015, could assist with curricular expansion and with movement toward better approaches to reading instruction. With ESSA in place, states continue to test students in math and English Language Arts at the same grade levels as NCLB, and test results are still used to determine school performance.
However, what differs is that the law gives each state greater flexibility to decide which areas, other than English Language Arts and math, are important to its students’ education. In their reporting, states also need to include at least one measure not tied to academic performance, such as the level of student engagement or the school’s overall climate. Again, Hansel and Pondiscio recommended a broad approach at the onset. They recommended that schools spend more time on social studies, science, music, art, and other subjects that build knowledge and engage students.
To that end, they listed seven recommendations to ensure the ESSA was useful, including two important ones for teachers: First, teachers need greater expertise in a wider range of subjects; many states only require elementary school teachers to have limited content knowledge, especially for those teachers who have early childhood licenses. Without this expertise themselves, teachers cannot build children’s knowledge. Second, teachers need a better understanding of brain science and human development. Today, we have a stronger understanding of how children learn than even a decade ago, and teachers need to understand why general knowledge is important for reading comprehension and critical thinking.
A large part of the public expects schools to provide students with not just an academic curriculum, but also with experiences that nurture aptitude in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, etc., including arts, music, and other enrichments within their curriculum. Two major studies have demonstrated the value of spending time in enrichment activities and courses for developing these broader set of skills and interests, especially in the arts.
- A report from RAND categorizes and summarizes the instrumental benefits claimed in empirical studies: Cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral, health, social, and economic. It discusses the role arts play in individual development as well as their contribution to society as a whole.
- A study of more than 2,000 middle-school students by researchers at Columbia University found that “young people in “high-arts” groups performed better than those in “low-arts” groups on measures of creativity, fluency, originality, elaboration and resistance to closure — capacities central to arts learning. … In schools with high-arts provision, these competencies and dispositions also emerged other subject areas when particular tasks evoked them.”
Physical education is also a vital part of a school’s curriculum, with moderate exercise shown to improve students’ cognitive abilities. You can learn more about this relationship in our blog “Physical Exercise and Learning.”
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Yes, reading comprehension and math are critically important to a child’s education, but they are by no means the only subjects on which schools should focus. Providing a more balanced and well-rounded curriculum can help stimulate skills such as teamwork and critical thinking, both important not just in the school environment but also in society at large. We would be doing ourselves and our children a great service to look at the bigger picture when deciding what subjects to include in our curricula and how to align them to maximize their impact.
 Lieberman, Abbie. (May 19, 2016.) “How a Well-Rounded Education Can Lead to Stronger Readers.” NewAmerica.org. Retrieved from https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/essa-literacy/
 Hansel, Lisa, and Pondiscio, Robert. (May 2016.) “Job One: Build Knowledge ESSA Creates an Opportunity – and an Obligation – to Help Every Child Become a Strong Reader.” Retrieved from knowledgematterscampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ESSA-brief.pdf
 McCarthy, Kevin F., Ondaatje, Elizabeth H., Zakaras, Laura, and Brooks, Arthur. (2004). “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts.” Rand Corporation. Retrieved from www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG218.pdf
 Burton, Judith, Horowitz, Robert, and Abeles, Hal. (July 1999). “Learning In and Through the Arts: Curriculum Implications.” Center for Arts Education Research Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved from artsedge.kennedy-center.org/champions/pdfs/Learning.pdf