KANSAS CITY, Kan. – High school student Frank Oakley received a double dose of math and English during his freshman year. He says an extra elective would have been nice, but the emphasis on the three R's helped him overcome his math fears.
"Since I understand it more and got the hang of it better, I enjoy doing math and stuff," the 15-year-old said over the summer as he prepared to return to Wyandotte High School for his sophomore year. Before, he said: "Math was like my worst subject. Every time I had to go to math class, I dreaded it."
Across the country, middle and high school students like Oakley are being required to spend more class time on English and math as officials try to raise test scores and meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Variations of the double-dose approach are being used in districts in such places as Kansas, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey and California.
Some students attend two class periods each day of English and math, and often one of those English classes is devoted to reading instruction — something that traditionally ends when students leave elementary school.
Some schools offer longer classes, or classes that meet every day instead of every other day, or classes that are offered for a full year instead of a single semester.
The approach appears to pay off at test time, but some educators worry that youngsters forced to give up some of their electives are being deprived of a well-rounded education and the opportunity to explore new subjects.
Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland, Calif., decided to require two class periods of the core subjects for all students. The change left no time for electives and forced the school to drop wood shop, art, music and Spanish. Now, those electives and others are offered before and after school as extras.
"We can't say it's OK to spend so much time on the basics that we let the broader curriculum slide," said American Federation of Teachers spokesman John See, a former math teacher.
The union said 87 percent of its members — across all grade levels — reported in an April 2005 survey that increases in testing have pushed important subjects and activities out of the curriculum.
In March, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy released a survey that showed 71 percent of a sampling of 299 of the nation's 15,000 school districts were spending more time on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects.
In Kansas, students at Oakley's high school have switched to a new program that requires freshmen and sophomores to prove they understand math concepts on two tests to get credit for a skill. Also, all ninth-graders are enrolled in two English classes, with one aimed at improving their reading skills.
Steve Gering, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the district, said it is a balancing act between basic skills and electives.
"We are constantly trying to figure out, how can we get this young person in band because it's the right thing and double-block math and English," Gering said. "What's wrong is to wholesale eliminate electives."