The No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial Bush-era education law, promoted an emphasis on reading and math, sometimes at the expense of other subjects. Now, the nation's new education secretary is calling on schools to expand their focus to other subjects and give students a more balanced set of course offerings.
Secretary John King Jr. -- who was confirmed in March -- is expected to tout the benefits of a "well-rounded education" in a speech at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts on Thursday. Public officials and private citizens, meanwhile, are working to draft the regulations that will implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Passed in December, the law takes the place of No Child Left Behind.
Under No Child Left Behind, students took standardized tests in math and reading every year from third through eighth grade and once in high school. They also took standardized tests in science three times between third and 12th grade. Schools were held accountable for their students' scores. While the Every Student Succeeds Act keeps this testing schedule in place, states have new flexibility to set the goals for which they will be held accountable.
King plans to express hope that this change will allow schools to pursue a broader definition of educational excellence.
"I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who feel that key elements of what makes up a well-rounded education have been neglected in favor of too tight a focus on math and reading," King is expected to say. "Sometimes, that's because of constraints on resources, time and money. Often, teachers and administrators have told me, it’s because math and English language arts were focused on so intensely by some districts and schools under No Child Left Behind that other subjects were under attended to or even ignored."
King will point to his own life to bolster his call to educate the whole child. After both his parents died at a young age, teachers provided him with a valuable support system.
"One of the things that made school such a safe and supportive and enjoyable learning environment for me was the education I got was a well-rounded education," said King on a call with reporters on Wednesday. He grew up to become a social studies teacher before founding a charter school.
In his Thursday speech, King will tout the importance of social studies, the arts and world languages. He will also talk about President Barack Obama's commitment to teaching computer science, which is reflected in his latest budget proposal.
"The evidence doesn't show a vast, nationwide abandonment of subjects outside of math and English language arts, but there is a lot of reason to believe that students are not getting the instruction in science, social studies, the arts and world languages that they need," King will say. "Strong literacy and math skills are surely necessary for success in college, careers and life -- but they just as surely are not sufficient."
Indeed, critics have long complained that current standardized tests promote too singular a focus on math and reading, that they reduce students' strengths and weaknesses to mere scores, and that they make it difficult for educators to teach creatively. The Obama administration has been criticized for pushing policies that add to these problems, like tying student scores to teacher evaluations. In October, the administration called on schools to limit the amount of time they spend testing students, while acknowledging that Washington has played a role in over-testing.
But King will say he hopes schools will embrace the challenge of widening their students' horizons.
"I became a teacher and a principal because I wanted to try to do for other kids what my teachers at P.S. 276 and Mark Twain Junior High School in Brooklyn had done for me," King will say. "I remain focused on that goal as we at the department seek to advance equity and excellence for the nation’s children."