My View: Don’t narrow the focus of our schools
August 13th, 2012
10:04 AM ET

My View: Don’t narrow the focus of our schools

Courtesy ASCDBy Gene Carter, Special to CNN

Editor’s note:  Gene Carter is CEO and executive director of ASCD, an international education leadership association with150,000 members—superintendents, principals, teachers, professors, and advocates — in more than 145 countries.  A veteran educator with experience as a teacher, administrator, superintendent and university professor, Carter took over the helm of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) in 1992.

Every parent knows how important it is for a child to experience classes beyond math and reading. Many parents I talk to tell me that their child’s favorite subject is art, history or physical education.

One parent recently described to me how her daughter’s physical education teacher was able to tie science and physics to each lesson. Another parent praised the school gardening program and how much her son was learning about health and math by plotting out garden planters that grew many varieties of vegetables.

Now, I fully understand the importance of the language arts and math education and the tremendous focus placed on these subjects in schools. However, we also know that different students learn in different ways. Some children, for example, have more success improving their language arts skills in a history class because of their interest in the subject, and some understand the laws of physics better from activities in a physical education class than in a math class.

This differentiated learning is why it is so important to keep what those of us in education call a “comprehensive education” in our schools.

ASCD, the organization I lead, is heading a new coalition comprising more than two dozen national education organizations to promote school programs beyond reading, math and science. We believe a comprehensive education in all core academic subjects, including physical education and health education, is necessary to prepare graduates for college and careers.

The problem we’re facing is that the politicians in Washington don’t necessarily see things our way.

The federal budget is reducing or eliminating funding for individual art, civics, economics, foreign languages, geography and history programs and wants to consolidate the funding that is left into one pool of money. With only one, smaller source of funds available to these equally important programs, each of them must compete against one another for money, forcing us to ask questions such as, “What is more important for students: civics or art?”

This isn’t a fair question, especially if you talk to the parents of the girl who loves art and whose brother excels at speaking Spanish. Each of these core subjects needs support, because each of these programs is essential to providing a comprehensive education that prepares our children for the real world.

How often do you, at your job, just read? Or just do math? How often do you use skills you learned in art class to put together an aesthetically pleasing, effective PowerPoint presentation? Do you ever need to translate that presentation into a foreign language for global clients?

Outside of work, think about your hobbies. I have a passion for travel that was born from my grade-school geography lessons. School is where children’s love of learning is nurtured through exposure to the essential subjects of all varieties. We can’t narrow the focus of our schools into just math and reading and still expect to graduate students who are ready for college, a career and citizenship. A comprehensive education provides students the opportunity to discover what they excel at and inspires a boost in overall student performance and confidence across all subjects.

We must ensure that policymakers at the local, state and federal levels include all elements of a comprehensive education in any definition of college, career and citizenship readiness and that they maintain funding for each discipline, with each receiving a minimum level of resources. We also need to ensure that any competition for funds is conducted within each discipline; it is one thing to have different foreign language programs competing for funding based on which approach is more effective, but let’s not create situations where art programs compete against language programs.

We must also urge policymakers to ensure that these well-rounded programs are effective - that is, that they improve student learning and that they are constantly evolving. Finally, let’s begin reporting on the student achievement results of these programs at the school, district and state levels.

In a United States that provides a comprehensive education to all students, I envision creative, well-rounded people who are ready for the constantly evolving challenges of our world.

I imagine dance students who are thriving readers, great painters who understand photosynthesis and exemplary history students who are equally comfortable with advanced calculus. Well-rounded students become higher achievers who promote responsibility, a sense of community and a respect for the rights and freedoms that our country cherishes. We must continue to fight for each child, in each classroom to have access to many disciplines. It will make our children, and our society, better.

To learn more about the College, Career,and Citizenship Readiness Coalition and to view the entire list of members, visit the ASCD College, Career and Citizenship Education site.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Carter.


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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. love gift

    hi!,I like your writing so much! percentage we be in contact extra about your article on AOL? I require an expert in this space to unravel my problem. Maybe that is you! Taking a look ahead to see you.

    August 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  2. rightospeak

    Nonsense.The American school system is putting out illiterates and young people with no skills to face the world.The kids are no different from other kids in the world. The failure is in the teaching process.The teachers are too busy teaching Globalist (Marxist) Agenda, Multiculturalism and fed so many lies to the kids that the young people's brains become a "kaleidoscope of contradictory nonsense". Under those conditions most kids would be better off being home schooled .

    August 14, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Ron

      If multiculturalism was really being taught in all schools, we wouldn't have the hate we have today. That's just nonsense.

      August 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  3. inthemiddle77

    What gets me is that the powers that be are actively engaging in a very dangerous game with our educational system. It seems like a Ping-Pong match. On one hand, districts spend thousands of dollars training teachers on the latest theoretical methods (they’ve been doing this for years), offering ground-breaking research and ideas to reach all students. They boast how much money is spent in these trainings to justify their spending on "education". Yet, on the other hand, the same "traditional" system blocks efforts of teachers to utilize these methods fully. Many sneer at them. Not everyone understands their vision or purpose. If you are not actively teaching in the classroom, you'll never understand. Gardner has been around since 1983, yet I find myself TODAY trying to convince an entire faculty to use his multiple intelligences, a wonderful approach to education, school wide. I'm not giving up. On one hand you have a system that "wants" to promote a liberal arts approach to learning (a round system that includes arts, other sciences, foreign languages) while, at the same time, undermining the importance of this type of education by concentrating their efforts in grading schools solely on state testing results that put emphasis on Reading and Math. Soon they will want to test everything else and continue putting badly needed money in the pockets of testing corporations rather than the pockets of those who do all the work in the front lines (just like they do with the military if you think about it!). You have people like Matthew here who want to start paying for education based on interests (the new twist in Aynd Rand's philosophy of Selfishness adopted by a certain party) rather than support a public school system that is in dire need of funding. The money is being redirected somewhere else on purpose. Many want to see our public school system fail. I feel they are deliberately doing so and we all need to wake up to this before it is too late. Don't they understand that privatizing education will alienate millions and completely disseminate the middle class? Wake up America!

    August 14, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  4. ElemEd

    The best jobs require at least basic word processing, spreadsheet, internet search and writing skills. Other subjects are of interest and help us understand ourselves and others, but they are not critical. IMHO, spend two hours in AM doing a team sport, then do math, science, cs, reading and writing, and Spanish and Chinese language classes. Start this at age 6. History and art and other courses can be done as once a month class trips and rainy day nature videos. Maybe a class pet too like a baby bear.

    August 13, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  5. Megan

    Pay attention : 1) art is a skill which can be taught; 2) culture is crucial to society;3) Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is under-utilized in public schools; 4) short-sighted folks like yourself are one of the primary reasons I quit teaching after a mere ten years...thanks so much for helping me to remember why I chose to move into the private sector.

    August 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  6. shauna

    This is what scares me. I believe in a well rounded education as a musician who loves math. With 48 states adopting common core curriculum what can I do as a parent to keep this beautiful broad base of knowledge that starts my children on their way in life?

    August 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. sophia

    Thank you for your thoughts. I am a music teacher and I know that music (and all arts) are an essential (not optional) part of any curriculum. We, as a society, desire to have well-rounded, life-long learners graduate from high school and be active participants in our community and nation. The arts are not optional.

    Where I differ from you is in "reporting student achievement results." NCLB needs to be thrown away and with it, the concept of "teaching to the test." These essential subjects do not fit in the box of standardized testing. Actually, we now see that no subjects do. As education reform moves forward, lets find some new, creative ways to assess our students and our teaching. Let's motive more individuals with excellent credentials to become teachers. Let's teach the parents of our students how to motive their children in school. Let's set the bar higher.

    August 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Gina

      Since communication (not MC tests) is the essence of BEING human. The arts - writing, reading, acting, speaking, singing, playing, music, drawing, painting - are CRUCIAL. Without them, we are dehumanized.

      I did not learn fractions from my terrible math teacher. I learned fractions from my music teacher...from playing clarinet....

      The arts, verbal or non-verbal, are COMMUNICATION. Communication requires imagination. Imagination requires a critical, well-tuned mind!

      August 13, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Sharon

    Matthew, I must respectfully disagree with your statements here. I'm not sure if you have children because if you do you would realize that what the writer explains about children learning in different ways is totally correct. Limiting education to "core classes" is entirely short-sighted. Language arts/foreign languages are becoming much more necessary in the global economy. If children are not exposed to them early it is very difficult to catch up. In most other developed countries students learn at least one and many times several foreign languages. This enables them to have be a step up and compete in a global market and don't we need that for our next generation?

    That child who loves art classes in school may go on to become one of the next great advertising executives or even an acclaimed artist. Without being exposed to art classes at school he/she may never have realized their potential. Art could also help that student learn geometry or other mathematical principles, ones he/she does not get in a dry math class with a questionable teacher. History is also a vital subject because we should be learning from the past – not only what we as a society has done right, but also those things we have gotten wrong to avoid making those same mistakes. History also instills a sense of commonality, a sense of pride in our country.

    What you fail to understand is that if children are not exposed to many things they may never realize their potential. And indeed could be made to feel stupid and inadequate because they just don't get those math principles in math class but might in a drawing or computer class. That a gift for foreign language could translate into a career in the foreign service or multinational business or even as an interpreter in the courtroom.

    As a nation we cannot afford to have our children's lives wasted because they have not been exposed to different things. We are not like China, where they pigeon hole their children into career tracks at a very young age. Just because a subject is not what would be called a "core subject" does not mean it is not valuable. I would challenge you to find a majority of people who actually use geometry or trigonometry in their daily life....and those math classes are considered core subjects. But many designers, graphic artists and advertising people use art every day.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  9. Matthew

    This is what is wrong with education: people with worlds of experience yet don't apply common sense and data analysis to the situation. Is the ability to speak Spanish good? Absolutely it is. Is it necessary? Not at all. Is it a national need? Definitely not, we have plenty of English/Spanish speakers. So we should offer it because a kid finds it easy? Well of course he does, he came from Guatemala... So tell me Sir, what sense does it make to offer Spanish? We should be teaching Mandarin, Arabic, and French. Three languages that have worldwide economic impact and are of high importance the US.

    ART??? Really?? If we have the money, by all means offer a course. Even do a side course in an after school program. If a kid has the passion you exert that he does this one is easily self taught and self developed.

    I find it hard to believe that you assert these things have the same importance as mathematics, the sciences, and the other core classes. They are called core and made mandatory for a reason sir, and that is they are MORE IMPORTANT TO THE NATION which offers children this wonderful free education. If its important to the individual, then the individual can pay for it.

    Now I do agree with you that pen paper practice practice practice problem after problem that has little meaning needs drastic improvement. This, in the free schools at least has improved drastically. It will continue to improve if it has priority funding. Otherwise, we will probably lapse back to the old ways of when you were in school.

    Pen, paper, practice problem.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • sophia

      Dear Matthew,

      Spend a little time doing some research into Bloom's theory of multiple intelligences. Our culture is expanding rapidly past the "core curriculum" and we need individuals who are leaders in their fields. These people need to have the ability to creatively problem solve and think beyond the obvious. We are trying to prepare students for a future that we have no idea what it looks like. "Core Curriculum" cannot fulfill that need.

      August 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
      • Gina

        Core curriculum...reading, writing and basic math are crucial. We just have TOO many.

        I have kids that can't string two words together to make a sentence. My kids in the suburbs did not know that "Jack swam" was a sentence. And if you don't know can't do this...

        Gasping for air, his arms flailing as he choked, JACK SWAM, moving further and further away from the shore, the current strong.

        Helllooooo?? Our kids in the burbs can't do this because they are multiple choice test takers... not creative producers of ART. Even we had a 100% pass rate on these low level tests, are kids are still not educated...

        Core is huge. I had 7th graders who could not tell me the multiplication tables... The majority thought they hated to read, but what they really hated was TEST prep.

        August 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
      • Matthew

        I'm well versed with blooms. Incorporating multiple intelligences into core curriculum is easy. You do not need an outlying class to do such a thing.

        Of course, you probably think that there is only one correct choice in science, and that it isn't about discovering the unknown and defining and exploring that rapidly expanding world of yours. This is the place where math meets reality and history shapes the path of discovery while English enables one to communicate their findings.

        But hey, if you feel drawing pictures is better that is your choice. Please don't bother visiting the voting booth.

        August 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm |