Shaping the school day

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, it was seen, for good or ill, as a federal intrusion into an area — elementary and secondary education — that was traditionally a local and state prerogative.

Now comes evidence that over the five years of the act it has reshaped, often in major fashion, the school day, particularly in the elementary schools.

According to a sample of the nation’s school districts by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, 62 percent of the districts reported their grade schools spending substantially more time on reading and math, the two subjects on which the law requires annual testing between the third and eighth grades. The increases in instruction time were substantial, 46 percent for English and 37 percent for math.

In 44 percent of school districts, the stepped-up instruction came at the expense of other subjects — a 36 percent drop in time spent on social studies, 28 percent on science, 16 percent in art and music, and even cuts in lunch, recess and gym.

The law contains sanctions for schools that fail to perform on the tests and, not surprisingly, the shift in emphasis was greatest in districts where at least one school was identified as underperforming.

Whether this is good or bad seems to depend on the educator. Some say that the emphasis on reading and math at the expense of other subjects makes the school day too narrow and uninteresting, and others argue that reading and math are the indispensable foundation to studying those other subjects, particularly science and history.

Congress will thoroughly hash over these arguments when the act is reauthorized this year, but, undeniably, the federal government is now a force in local education.