Liberal arts may be left behind in Md.


Study: A poll of principals finds schools are spending less time on social studies and the arts than on subjects that are the focus of state tests.

March 10, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE MARYLAND School Performance Assessment Program, may it rest in peace, was criticized as cumbersome and useless because it measured the progress of schools, not children.

But if MSPAP was a poor diagnostic tool, it had one thing going for it that its successor Maryland School Assessment lacks: In addition to reading and math, it tested performance in writing, science and social studies. It didn't snub the liberal arts.

MSA defenders argue that they had no choice but to concentrate on reading and math. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires testing in those subjects and (still to come) science. And they argue that children are exposed to the liberal arts in the curriculum of every Maryland school, even if they're not tested.

But now a study shows that No Child Left Behind is leaving the liberal arts behind in Maryland and three other states. Based on a survey of principals, the study finds schools are spending more time on reading, math and science and less on social studies, civics, geography, languages and the arts.

In a nutshell, schools are teaching more of what's tested, less of what isn't.

The study, "Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools," was conducted by the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based organization that promotes basic education, including the liberal arts.

The council polled 1,000 principals in Indiana, New Mexico, New York and Maryland. While schools in those states are paying more attention to reading and math, the curriculum is narrowing. Particularly victimized are the arts. A fourth of the principals report decreased instruction time for the visual and performing arts, while only 8 percent report increased time.

Maryland is singled out for its "waning commitment" to the liberal arts now that the MSA is up and running. Just over half of Maryland principals report decreases in social studies instruction; nearly four in 10 anticipate decreases in teaching time for the arts, while only 2 percent expect increases.

The most troubling finding of the new study, released Monday, is that the liberal arts curriculum is shrinking most strikingly in schools with large minority populations.

This "raises the specter of a new opportunity gap between white and minority students," says Raymond "Buzz" Bartlett, president of the council (and former president of the Maryland school board). "We're seeing that low-income minority students are being denied the liberal arts curriculum that their more privileged counterparts receive as a matter of course."

There's ample evidence, of course, that reading and math achievement are enhanced when students study art, and good reading and math instruction can and should incorporate the arts. This study is only about the time spent on instruction, not on how well that time is used.

Still, if this is indeed a "new opportunity gap," how sad it would be if a federal law designed to leave no minority children behind had the effect of denying those children a rich, full-bodied curriculum.

Calif. budget threatens college admission policy

Last week, California State University at Long Beach denied admission to 13,000 applicants fully qualified to enter as freshmen this fall.

That's not a misprint. And since everything but the rising of the sun happens first in California, Maryland policy-makers had better be paying attention.

For four decades California guaranteed admission at the University of California -- schools like Berkeley and UCLA -- to the top eighth of the state's high school graduates, while the top third were guaranteed admission to the second-tier Cal State system.

This fall, however, freshman classes in both systems will be cut by 10 percent in a severe budget crisis. Some students will be guaranteed admission in two years, but there's a hitch: They'll have to attend two years of community college first, at state expense.

All of this comes on top of fee increases -- "tuition" is a forbidden word in California -- of about 40 percent since December 2002.

Many Californians worry that their higher-education system, envied around the world, will slip into mediocrity if it has to bear the brunt of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget-cutting.

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