When Samuel Rather II taught fifth-graders a decade ago, he felt pressure to raise his math test scores. So three days a week, he would spend 90-minute blocks with students teaching the subject — at the expense, he says, of other material.
“I thought my students were the best in Maryland, and I wanted the data to show that,” he says. “I would spend a lot more time on math, and just drilling those concepts, instead of getting to science as much as I would have liked.”
As principal of Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary School in West Baltimore, Rather says, he wants his teachers to avoid that pitfall.
“We’re … looking at educating the whole child,” he says. “It’ll be beneficial for students, and make them more well-rounded.”
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises agrees. In her vision for the school year that begins in Baltimore and across the state Tuesday, she wants to offer students an academic diet that’s richer in variety. She wants to pare back the double doses of math and reading that have been fed to students to improve standardized test scores to make room for more science, social studies, art, and music — the subjects, she says, that make kids want to come to school.
The limited time that has been spent on those subjects, Santelises says, has “kind of undercut, or helped stymie, our literacy achievement.” What makes kindergartners want to write, she says, is seeing a great bug and spending time looking at it under the microscope, or going to see the tall ships in the Inner Harbor.
“Kids actually need something to write about,” Santelises says.
Parents have long called for broader variety in their children’s education.
“Parents would love to have more social studies, science, music in the classroom,” says Debbie Demery, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore City. “You want a well-rounded child.”
The city is full of talented students who need more than the “rigidity of math and reading” to entice them to come to school, she says.
“We need to have something that holds their interest.”
When Melissa Schober chose a new city school for her fourth-grader, she says, one of her criteria was that it offered varied subjects and incorporated the arts into teaching.
“To me, college- and career-ready is not just about multiplying and dividing,” she says. “It is about being a well-rounded person and the arts influence that.”
For more than a decade under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, public schools nationwide were subjected to a tough accountability system that punished them for poor test results.
Under pressure to improve, many schools — and particularly low-performing urban elementary schools — doubled the length of time students spent learning math and English. The justification was that students wouldn’t do well in social studies and science if they couldn’t read and do math.
But that philosophy is changing with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the 2015 legislation that replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA, as it’s known, allows each state to build its own accountability system.
The Maryland General Assembly, under pressure from parents and teachers, directed the State Board of Education to assess schools in part on the range of subjects they offer.
Schools across the state now will be expected to offer students a balanced course load. In the five-star rating system approved by the state board last month, test scores make up only 65 percent of a school’s grade.
“Policymakers are beginning to see what educators have been saying for a long time: Students need more than just reading and math,” says Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state’s teachers. “There is plenty of evidence that students who have access to all those courses actually do better in math and reading.”
Maryland school board member David Steiner calls the focus on math and reading “subject-matter apartheid.”
But educators say that’s only one reason to offer a greater variety of subjects. The Common Core standards Maryland adopted several years ago require a high level of analysis and sophistication, they say, and students won’t do well unless they have broad knowledge across a range of subjects.
Come October, Sidney Thomas’ eighth-grade English students at Holabird Academy will be reading Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 bestseller on the female African-American mathematicians at NASA who helped put men on the moon.
The learning won’t be limited to Thomas’ classroom. Students will talk about space exploration during their science classes, and civil rights during social studies.
“Students can be whole learners across all subjects,” Thomas says. “If they’re able to handle these different subjects and materials, they’ll be better prepared for when it’s time for college.”
Justin Nicholas, who teaches English language arts and social studies at Holabird, says incorporating literacy across different subjects will keep students from turning off of reading.
“Some kids will love whatever we’re learning in the ELA (English Language Arts) classroom, but some will find it incredibly boring,” he says. “We should be teaching reading as more of a skill, rather than a compartmentalized thing.”
The district has changed the amount of instructional time recommended for different subjects this year. Last year, elementary schools devoted 150 minutes a day to English Language Arts. Now, they’ll offer two hours, with the leftover time available for social studies or science.
Math will still take between 70 and 95 minutes. The district is recommending 45 minutes for science and 30 minutes for social studies.
“We’ve tried to create more flexibility,” says Janise Lane, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning. “Reading and math can’t be everything. There’s also got to be this balance.”
Holabird middle schoolers are gaining a dedicated social studies teacher this year. In previous years, the subject was handled by the teacher who was in charge of seventh- and eighth-grade science.
Allowing separate teachers to focus on single subjects will allow them to “become more of content-area experts,” Principal Stephanie Pappas says. This new teacher plans to introduce the National History Day program into the school’s curriculum. Students will transform yearlong historical research into projects — documentaries, websites or performances — and compete with other schools.
Lakeland Elementary School is offering 45 minutes a day of science and 45 minutes of social studies.
“Those interdisciplinary learning opportunities are going to have an effect on math and reading,” principal Najib Jammal says.
Some Baltimore schools took steps to broaden the curriculum several years ago. Hampstead Hill Elementary/Middle School has added full-time music, art and theater teachers in recent years. Students in grades three through eight take 95 minutes of science every day.
“There is a renewed emphasis on making sure that the curriculum is rich across content areas,” Principal Matthew Hornbeck says. “The rich application of knowledge is key to student success. They can’t just decode. They have to be able to read for information.”
Leaders of the state’s teacher unions have been chafing at the narrowing of the curriculum for years. They applaud the changes.
Dance, Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English says, can show a child what turning 360 degrees means. Teachers can use a subject students love, such as art, to teach other skills.
“If you work with the whole child, when you find out what it is that turns on the light bulb for them, it helps them soar,” she says.
A challenge, some say, is that many schools don’t have enough money to have full-time teachers for social studies or the arts.
Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle School principal Aaron Clark Jr. supports the idea of a broader curriculum. But he has concerns about how the wider focus could affect his school’s test scores. Just 14 percent of Dickey Hill students passed the standardized PARCC exams this year.
“Where are we going to find time to fit this all in?” Clark asks. “Are we going to take away from reading? Are we going to take away from math? And how will this affect our test scores?”
Steiner, the state school board member, agrees that working toward a broader curriculum can’t come at the expense of literacy.
“We cannot take our eye off the ball,” he says. “You can’t read to learn if you have failed to learn to read.”