As I understand the old policy, a certain number of units of study were required for each exploratory course, with many possible models allowed for implementing the curriculum. For example, students could take a foreign language every other day for two years, or daily for one year, and so on. Schools in need of improvement could reduce the unit requirements but not completely eliminate exploratory courses. Every school that I know of in NYC has reduced the unit requirements, including my school. Our kids get Chess, Visual Art, Technology, Health, and Foreign Language, but not necessarily as much as the state would like (although I think we are very close to meeting the art, health, and foreign language requirements). We don't offer library science, home ec, or music, mostly because we are too small to have that many different courses available.
The new policy allows schools to choose from three models. Model A is to continue following the old policy. Model B is for low-performing schools; they can restructure the curriculum to incorporate the "exploratory subjects" into the core subject areas, allowing for more time spent in core subject classes. Model C is for high-performing schools; they can restructure the curriculum to change the exploratory courses into mini-courses on high-interest subjects, like Fad Diets, Politics & the Arts, Engineering, etc. The press release provides examples of how these models might be applied in schools.
I think this policy is extremely well-intentioned, but I think it's going to end up widening, rather than closing, the achievement gap between low-income and middle class students.
The examples given by the state seem romantic to me. I've seen how policies REALLY get implemented, no matter how well-intentioned. The first school I worked in had drastically cut exploratory courses. The students in "top classes" got more art, more foreign language, more PE (which isn't even an exploratory course!), more music, more of everything that makes life rich, that gives people reasons to read, reasons to write, reasons to think. Students in the lowest track classes got lots and lots of reading and math instruction, sometimes more than 2 hours a day, and usually from the same teacher for the entire time.
I think that additional time spent on reading and math instruction could be helpful, if the time is spent with a really great teacher doing really great work with small groups of kids. I fail to see how giving kids twice as much of what already isn't working is going to help them read better. That school had some really good teachers, but it also had some so-so and some terrible teachers, and more time with the same person wasn't going to guarantee anyone a better education. And when you increase the amount of time each child gets reading or math instruction, then you need to hire more teachers in those subject areas. It becomes hard to find enough really great teachers in the core subject areas, especially given that they will have to work in a huge, chaotic middle school in a region with a high cost of living and teacher salaries that barely keep up. And I don't think it's that appealling to teachers to spend 2 hours (or more) per day with the same group of 30 struggling students who feel oppressed by the amount of time they have to spend doing something they find difficult and boring. Wouldn't it be better to hire a smaller number of really good subject area teachers, along with really good exploratory subject teachers?
The state intends for schools to integrate the exploratory subject learning standards into the curriculum in the core subject areas. That implies making art, music, health, etc. a part of reading, math, social studies, and science. It's a great idea, and it's not going to happen. I don't know if the people working at the state have forgotten or just don't know, but failing schools are often permeated by a sense of desperation that makes everything extra fall by the wayside. These schools are under so much pressure to get the kids to pass their tests that even cut time from social studies and science! I just don't see schools putting a lot of time and energy into a thoughtful integration of art into English class or health into science. Some individual teachers will do this on their own - many do already - but most will succumb to the pressure from every direction to keep a narrow-minded focus on the tests.
And what will this cost the students? The richness of life! The reasons for reading, for knowing something about numbers. Most of us don't read for the sake of the words alone, we read to find out about the world. The more we know, the more we want to know. One of the teachers teaching art to our seventh graders (she is really a first-year math teacher, by the way), had them look up kinetic art on the internet. They looked at photographs of works of art and read about the artists and the ideas behind their works. Then they created their own pieces and wrote short paragraphs describing the themes in their works. The art is visually interesting, and a lot of reading and writing was integrated quite naturally into the curriculum in a way that models how real people use language - to find out about interesting things and to express one's own ideas. In health class, my kids read lengthy articles on eating disorders and STDs because these are topics that are riveting when you're twelve. They don't complain about the reading. They don't complain (much) when I ask them to write a letter to a (hypothetical) friend whom you think is taking steroids. No, I'm not teaching reading strategies per se or working on their writing skills, but I'm giving them practice reading and writing, and I'm doing it within a context that is high-interest. Good teachers of exploratory subject areas help kids broaden their experience of the world and give them rich language to describe things. They are good at this because they are teaching the material that they know best and care most about - unlike a Social Studies teacher who may or may not know much about art, or a Science teacher who may or may not feel passionate about health ed.
When we were practicing the listening portion of the 8th grade English Language Arts exam, I read aloud two passages about the Italian Renaissance. The kids didn't do so well. Very few of them had any personal experience with pesto or Palladian windows. Note that a thirteen year old from an upper-middle-class family from Westchester might well have eaten pesto, and might have even travelled to Rome. During the real test, the passage was about Jacques Cousteau. Although it was a poorly-written passage, in my opinion, the kids did much better with it. We hadn't studied Cousteau, but we were studying fish that month, and their experience with the subject matter, and their interest in it, was that much greater. The more they know, the better-prepared they are for standardized tests, because it's always easier to answer questions about something you've heard of before than something you just read about for the first time. I see this as one important reason to make sure we keep the exploratory subjects.
You've already heard all the other arguments for not cutting exploratory subjects:
- Art or woodworking or technology or music might be the only thing some kids enjoy during the school day, or might provide their only taste of being really good at something.
- These are things that educated people need to know about, and we don't create a more just society by teaching kids to read and add but leaving them behind in all other things that make life interesting. Core subjects alone don't get you into a good college.
- Kids need creative outlets!
- Health education is essential given AIDS and other STDs, obesity in our country, and all the other public health concerns which need at least an ounce of prevention.
I guess what I would rather see is the state putting its energy into strengthening the teaching of exploratory subjects so that they reinforce reading, writing, and math skills rather than trying to squeeze the exploratory subjects into the already-overburdened core subject areas. The state's press releases touches on this idea. Who knows if it would be implemented well, but it seems more likely to work than allowing schools to cut exploratory courses altogether.