With the state's hyper-focus on high-stakes English language arts and math testing, too many schools are doubling math periods, ramping up remedial instruction or stressing test-taking skills.
Along the way, especially at the elementary level, students are missing out on a well-rounded education and meaningful instruction in just about everything else — science, social studies, the arts, physical education and many other areas.
"What's assessed is what's taught," said Rochester TA's Joe Zuniga, a science teacher leader who's watched the time devoted to elementary science slip away during his 34 years in teaching.
In some places, elementary science study is down to half an hour a week, or even less, with some schools saying students are getting their "science instruction" via non-fiction ELA reading passages.
Now that social studies is no longer tested statewide in fifth and eighth grade, teachers say elementary level social studies instruction has also fallen by the wayside, with time for little more than study of the holidays like Columbus Day. And despite numerous studies highlighting the importance of physical activity, early foreign language study and exposure to the arts, those areas are getting short-shrift, too.
"The narrowing of the curriculum has reached a point where it's becoming a serious equity issue — especially for our neediest students," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. It also flies in the face of two major state initiatives in the works right now as the Regents move forward with a Statewide Strategic Plan for Science and the state's p-12 Social Studies Framework.
"I remember when we had 40-45 minutes of social studies every day," said Ausable Valley's Denise Sypek. "Now it's 10-20 minutes at the end of the day and it's either science or social studies. You have to trade out all the fun, creative stuff."
Gone, for example, is a War of 1812 project for fifth- and sixth-graders, who enjoyed re-living their local history complete with costumes and a sleepover. "There's just no time to do it anymore," she said.
The narrowing curriculum is a national problem. A recent survey by the Ford Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers found more than 80 percent of elementary teachers reported that extra time devoted to math or ELA has meant less time for other subjects. Aside from the testing obsession, school district budget cuts have exacerbated the problem, with many districts cutting back on anything not mandated.
"The squeeze for elementary teachers is getting tighter and tighter," said Rochelle Petre, a science teacher at the Bayport-Blue Point School District and co-chair of NYSUT's Math, Science and Technology Subject Area Committee. When parents, educators and administrators sounded the alarm on the issue, the district this year made teaming changes and mandated elementary students must receive at least 30 minutes every day of either social studies or science.
"It's nowhere near enough but I'm excited so far," Petre said. "The district is supporting more team teaching and creating opportunities for teachers to find creative ways to get kids what they were missing."
The change is leading to more integrated work, across disciplines and grade levels, Petre said. "We're meeting as a science department and re-evaluating where the gaps are. We know, for example, that students need more elementary level exposure to light and energy units, so we're brainstorming ways to do that."
The shift to Common Core, if done with training, resources and time, can present new opportunities for cross-disciplinary instruction, said Deborah Kravchuk, a Hyde Park middle-level science teacher.
Kravchuk is researching the benefits of hands-on learning for her doctoral dissertation. "I'm finding inquiry-based learning actually improves student achievement," she said.
Not only is it more interesting for the students, it also teaches them how to analyze, make inferences and think like a scientist."