The Hidden Costs of Curriculum Narrowing. Issue BriefReport as inadecuate

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Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement

A 2003 survey of principals found that middle and high schools were more likely to increase social studies and science instruction than decrease it. This suggests that districts are not cutting social studies and sciences entirely but merely deferring those subjects until the secondary grades. This strategy provides more time for reading during the elementary grades and more time for other subjects in higher grades, especially as states move to increase high school course-taking requirements for a diploma. On the surface, that strategy makes a lot of sense. A persuasive body of research in cognitive science suggests that the deferment strategy most likely will fail. The long-term costs might be much greater than educators and administrators imagine. Cognitive psychologists have found that there is another step in between fluent decoding and comprehension in which readers call on background knowledge about a topic to understand what the text is saying and what it is not saying. Readers without adequate background knowledge can comprehend some of the text, but they will not understand it fully. Available evidence strongly suggests that narrowing the curriculum in elementary school deprives students of an important opportunity to develop broad vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for strong reading comprehension later on. That lack of opportunity results in several negative consequences as students move into upper elementary school and the secondary grades. Educators should be made aware that cutting too deeply into social studies, science, and the arts imposes significant long-term costs on students, hampers reading comprehension and thinking skills, increases inequity, and makes the job of secondary level teachers that much harder. (Contains 4 endnotes.) [This document was produced by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, administered by Learning Point Associates in partnership with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) and WestEd, under contract with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education.]

Descriptors: Educational Strategies, Thinking Skills, Reading Comprehension, Science Instruction, Educational Planning, Secondary Education, Cognitive Psychology, Social Studies, Knowledge Level, Long Range Planning, Decoding (Reading), Vocabulary Development, Graduation Requirements, Change Strategies, Principals, Middle Schools, High Schools, Curriculum Development, Elementary Education, Equal Education

Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. 1100 17th Street NW Suite 500, Washington, DC 20035. Tel: 877-277-2744; Web site:

Author: Jerald, Craig D.


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