Not that long ago, elementary schools were places where students could discover what they were good at, explore the subjects that appealed to them, or maybe just be content with enjoying school.

But for many elementary school teachers who joined the profession during the last decade, and especially those who work in high-poverty schools, classrooms that provide vigorous learning opportunities to all students never existed—thanks, in large part, to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Today, more than a decade later, the law is uniformly blamed for stripping curriculum opportunities, including art, music, physical education and more, and imposing a brutal testing regime that has forced educators to focus their time and energy on preparing for tests in a narrow range of subjects:  namely, English/language arts and math.  For students in low-income communities, the impact has been devastating.

“Shouldn’t these early grades be a time to discover, play, and explore?” asks Los Angeles art teacher Ginger Rose Fox. “We talk all the time about making our kids ‘college and career ready’—even at such a young age. Let’s make them ‘life ready’ first. But I guess that doesn’t fit into our testing obsession.”

Like countless educators across the U.S., Fox has witnessed the way critical subjects have been crowded out of schools or even eliminated entirely by the lethal one-two punch of deep budget cuts and the singular focus on improving reading and math. In Los Angeles alone, one-third of the 345 arts teachers were given pink slips between 2008 and 2012 and arts programs for elementary students dwindled to practically zero.

The good news is that money has begun to trickle back in—to California, at least. But slowly improving state budgets can only go so far. Breaking the nation’s fever over high stakes testing is a steeper challenge.

Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy, and that old standby, penmanship. Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where “achievement” means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.

“NCLB has corrupted what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Teachers have to teach in secret and hope they don’t get into trouble for teaching to the Whole Child instead of teaching to the test.”

In July, NEA launched a national campaign to bring an end to the testing obsession around the country, and to move real student-centered learning back to the forefront of public schools.

“It’s our job to bring back the arts and Social Studies and world languages and whatever it is our students need to leave behind the corrupting, unconscionable testing culture of blame and punish by test scores and move forward with an education that opens their minds to the infinite possibilities of their lives,” García says.

The One-Size-Fits-All Agenda

In a 2011 national survey, two-thirds of teachers said many academic subjects had been crowded out by an increased focus on math and language arts. About half said art and music were being marginalized, while 40 percent said the same for foreign languages; 36 percent for social studies; and 27 percent for science. The results were particularly striking at the elementary level, where 81 percent of teachers reported that extra time devoted to math or language arts meant less time for other subjects. Over 60 percent of middle school teachers and 54 percent of high school teachers reported the same in their schools.

The culprit? More than 90 percent of teachers blamed state tests in math and language arts.

“I’ve seen students reduced to tears from these tests,” says Tom McLaughlin, a drama teacher in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “We’re robbing our students of the joy and adventure of learning.”

Music education has suffered during the NCLB era.

Music education has suffered during the NCLB era.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When NCLB was implemented more than a decade ago, its promoters trumpeted promises about raising accountability and providing adequate resources to lower income students in struggling schools. But the law, with its sweeping mandates for standardized English and math tests in grades 4-8 and its crushing consequences for schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress,” merely created a toxic culture of “teaching to the test” in order to raise test scores. It wasn’t long after its passage that a narrow, scripted curriculum blanketed schools coast to coast.

High-poverty schools across the nation have been forced to narrow the curriculum much more drastically than wealthier schools—with worse consequences for low-income students. While their more affluent peers may routinely visit museums or other cultural resources, many poor urban and rural students rely on their teachers to expose them to the kind of background knowledge that is essential to subject mastery. “It has been a disaster for social justice,” wrote E.D. Hirsch, a University of Virginia education professor who has championed the link between content knowledge and reading comprehension skills, in his book The Knowledge Deficit.

Richard Milner

Richard Milner

But the architects of these test-driven policies do think they are addressing equity—and that’s frightening, says Richard Milner, a professor of education and director of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh

“We should be appalled. It’s tremendously short-sighted,” says Milner. “They think they are being responsive to kids who are underserved. But they’re clearly not looking at the lasting damage they are inflicting.”

While opposition to NCLB and testing has strengthened over the past few years, Milner has been underwhelmed by the level of outrage, believing that the devastating impact of these policies on students of color in low-income communities hasn’t been given the national attention it deserves.

“It’s really sad when you walk into these classrooms in these urban communities because these kids sit all day,“ Milner adds. “We’re taking away all the things about school they could attach themselves to—physical education, arts, history. All because some adult in some office, somewhere far away, has determined that they don’t need any of that in order to ‘achieve.’”

Integrating Disciplines—But at What Cost?

Thanks to the burgeoning STEM movement (science, technology, engineering and math), Brian Crosby believes science education may soon be removed from the endangered curriculum list. Crosby taught science in the Washoe County School district in Nevada for more than 30 years, recently leaving the classroom to become a STEM facilitator for the state.

“I do think there was what you might call an ‘oops’ moment,” says Crosby. “Decision-makers basically recognized that you can’t educate students, especially at-risk students, by hammering reading and math all day long. At least for science, there’s some good news. We’re getting the curriculum ‘un-narrowed’ if you will.”

Unfortunately teachers of other marginalized subjects can’t say the same.

Brian Crosby

Brian Crosby

In January, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that, among other things, cut the graduation requirement for social studies from four courses to three. The state’s social studies teachers protested, wondering aloud how they would counsel their students to choose between classes: World history or world geography? Civics or U.S. history? How do you make that choice between such valuable courses?

If it’s not outright cutting of requirements, states are commonly rewriting curriculum to more easily “integrate” sidelined subjects into core areas. Physical education becomes part of math. Art becomes part of reading. But tossing a ball with numbers on it isn’t really physical education, and writing about Van Gogh isn’t the same as developing a passion for color or practicing brush technique.

While integrating subjects can foster collaboration between colleagues, a good thing, notes drama teacher Tom McLaughlin, he warns what might be lost in the long term. “I do think integration can be dangerous if (any one subject) becomes too consumed or morphed into reading or math. We run the risk of putting these other subjects out of business.”

Social studies often falls victim to “subject integration” with reading, notes Margit McGuire, director of teacher education at Seattle University and a social studies specialist. “It doesn’t foster a very sophisticated treatment of the subject matter,” she says.

Lisa Steiner, a social studies teacher at George Fischer Middle School in Carmel New York, also has seen her subject receive less time, staff, and professional development opportunities compared to school districts’ chief priorities: math and English arts. Still, integration can work, she says. “Social studies as a discipline can reinforce core reading and writing skills. I have a background and certification as a reading specialist, so I see the close relationship between reading and writing in the content areas and it has influenced my teaching philosophy and approach.”

For many music educators, the most compelling case to be made for music in schools is its value as a stand alone subject—to bring the focus back to the benefits to students, not to their standardized tests.  In April, the National Association for Music Education (NAfMe) began challenge the assumption that music is merely a “supplement” to the core curriculum, and said the organization would no longer frame the importance of music around its potential to raise test scores.

“Every time we profess that students should have access to music so that their brains become better wired to solve math equations, we provide ammunition to the camp of ‘education experts’ who proclaim that music is an interchangeable, or, even worse, expendable, classroom experience,” explains Christopher Woodside of NAfMe’s Center for Advocacy and Public Affairs.

The Inconvenient Truth: Many Students Can’t ‘Catch Up’

While no one discounts the very real problem of students who can’t read or do basic math, defenders of the status quo often claim that glossing over science, arts and social studies is merely a fleeting elementary school experience—later to be recouped in middle and later high school.

But by then, says Rich Milner, it’s probably too late.

“Without learning opportunities, these kids can’t develop the competencies and skills that will help them transition from elementary school,” Milner says. “Kids in urban areas are in most need of a well-rounded education and yet they are the ones who have had it stripped from their classrooms—and they don’t have other avenues available to them that students in suburban communities have to at least partly supplant what is missing in schools.”

Brian Crosby recalls shaking his head in disbelief when he would hear school discussions asserting that it wouldn’t matter in the long run if certain subjects for at-risk elementary students were suspended so they could focus on reading and math.

“The assumption was, you could catch the students up in middle school because by then they would have a science teacher,” Crosby explains. “But they couldn’t just catch up. And by the time they got to high school many of these students were so far behind they were put into remedial classes. And people would wonder why kids were dropping out of school.”

What kind of citizens are these practices creating? Margit McGuire believes that continually pushing aside U.S. History or Civics robs low-income students of the opportunity to tell their stories and become invested in democracy.

“We marginalize our students when we don’t allow them to bring their own lived experiences into the classroom,” says McGuire. “Maybe we’ll get their test score up, but at what cost? We need to help young people, particularly children from impoverished backgrounds, understand or value our democracy and their role in society. That’s why we have public education.”