Students of Color are Less Likely to Attend “Well-Rounded” Schools: Three Reasons This Hurts Students — and Their Schools

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Earlier this summer, I attended a launch event for Learn Together Live Together, a D.C.-based coalition that promotes racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in schools. The event featured a conversation with John King, CEO of The Education Trust and a former U.S. Secretary of Education. King spoke on many of the issues affecting poor children and children of color in our education system — they’re more likely to attend segregated schools, where students score below proficient on standardized tests in math and reading and which receive less per-pupil funding. But King made another surprising comment about these students: they’re also less likely to attend “well-rounded schools.”  

What is a well-rounded school? The National Center on Time and Learning describes well-rounded schools as ones that provide students with opportunities to engage in “critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork,” and that include “arts, music, and other enrichments in their curriculum.” These enrichments can include classes like physical education, drama, or debate, as well as hands-on versions of science and more in-depth social studies and civics classes than are offered in many schools. The instructional time being spent on these subjects is declining nationwide and King is right: students of color are less likely to be in schools that offer these opportunities.

I’ve seen this decline first-hand, teaching both urban and rural public school districts that serve predominantly children of color. At one school, there was no science or social studies time on my administrator-provided schedule, only a block for teaching “informational text.” There was one art teacher for 500 students, and it was impossible to fit every class on her schedule each year. At another school I had a 20-minute block on my schedule in which to teach science, social studies, and P.E. There were no art, music, or other enrichment teachers at all.

Those who make curriculum decisions often choose to prioritize reading and math instruction with good intentions. They might believe they’re doing right by their students, ensuring that they have the necessary grade-level reading and math skills they’ll need to be successful. They might also believe they’re doing right by their schools: as instruction time in “tested” subjects increases, increased test scores will follow, bringing more students, funds, and opportunities to their schools.

But there are three big reasons why increasing the instructional time spent on the arts, science, and social studies might help accomplish these same goals:

1. These classes have academic benefits for the students who take them.

Some studies have found that participation in school-based arts programs can improve students’ self-confidence, self-efficacy, and attitudes toward school. Others have found a positive link between children’s physical activity and their executive function, as well as their performance on tests measuring cognitive ability. While it makes sense that these gains will lead to student’s improved academic performance, researchers at Mississippi State University have shown results, at least on a small scale. They studied the state’s Whole Schools Initiative, a program launched in 1991 that focuses on integrating the arts into daily instruction, and found that it raised standardized test scores overall and reduced the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students in schools that implemented the initiative.

2. These classes provide background knowledge that can help kids be more successful on traditional standardized tests.

E.D. Hirsch, a proponent of broad cultural literacy curriculums in schools, argues that standardized reading tests do not really measure students’ ability to use reading comprehension strategies they’ve been taught. They measure students’ background knowledge. The passages students read on standardized tests are rarely fictional — they’re informational. Students are asked to use reading strategies to identify the main idea and unfamiliar vocabulary words on topics like the Oregon Trail, the Appalachian Mountains, and photosynthesis. Reading skills instruction alone can only do so much to prepare students to successfully comprehend these passages. They’ll be more prepared by receiving high-quality, in-depth instruction in social studies, science, and the arts. Unfortunately, as teachers feel pressure to spend less time on “untested” subjects, these concepts tend to become footnotes in the curriculum, and students miss out on the chance to engage with them deeply.

Building students’ background knowledge and cultural literacy also has positive effects on their future academic achievement. Educational researchers have linked the scope of students’ academic background knowledge with how well they are able to process, store, and make connections to new information.

3. These classes prepare our most vulnerable students to advocate for themselves and their communities.

After the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, the public school students became eloquent, informed, and passionate activists for gun control. They were prepared to advocate for themselves, in part, by a “well-rounded” public education that included high-quality debate, journalism, and drama programs. Depriving poor students and students of color access to course offerings that develop their civic awareness, historical knowledge, and speaking skills leaves these students less prepared to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Implementing a more well-rounded curriculum doesn’t need to entail hiring new staff, purchasing new curriculum, or adding more hours to the school day. It can be accomplished by giving teachers more flexibility with their schedules and the freedom and support to supplement the curricula they already teach. It can also be an opportunity to allow high-performing teachers to develop and teach enrichment classes they are passionate about for a portion of the school day. To avoid putting the burden of mastering whole new curricula on teachers’ plates, schools can experiment with departmentalization or platooning, where students receive instruction in different subjects from different teachers. This would allow teachers to gain more expertise in the subjects they do teach, and for individual teachers with expertise in one area to impact more than just one class of students.  

Summer is the time when school leaders make curriculum decisions for the upcoming school year, so why not prioritize creating a well-rounded educational experience, especially for our most vulnerable students?