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Kids Need More Than ‘The Basics’ to Learn


Education Secretary John King says it's time for a return to a more well-rounded education for schoolchildren. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Education Secretary John King says it's time for a return to a more well-rounded education for schoolchildren. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)


America’s top education official says many schools are spending too much time teaching the “basics” – reading, math and writing.

That might seem opposite to what educators have been saying in America. But U.S. Education Secretary John King says children really need a well-rounded education that includes music and the arts.

“The simple fact is every child in this country needs and deserves access to the subjects that go into being a well-rounded, well-educated person,” King says.

He says that should include music, art, world languages, science and geography.

Laura Bay is president of the National Parent Teacher Association, which represents parents and teachers. She agrees with King that a well-rounded education helps children learn.

Bay says students are more likely to “reach their full potential” – meaning do their best -- if they have time during the school day for the arts, physical education and other subjects.

King spoke about his own education when explaining why schools need to teach more than math, reading and writing.

King grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His mother died when he was eight. His father died four years later.

In his house, he said, things were often crazy and frightening.

It was his teacher in grades four, five and six -- Mr. Osterweil -- who helped him escape his difficult life at home, King says.

Each day in Mr. Osterweil’s class, students would read a newspaper. The teacher took him and his classmates to the theater, to the zoo, the ballet and famous Museum of Natural History.

“Those were powerful, life-changing experiences,” King says.

King went on to graduate from Harvard University. He received his law degree from Yale University. He took charge of New York State public schools from 2011-2015.

The U.S. Senate approved him as Education secretary last month. He was chosen for the job by President Barack Obama.

“I’m alive today, I’m doing the work that I do today because I had Mr. Osterweil during that critical period of my life,” King says.

Many schools spend almost all funding on math, reading and writing because they lack money for other subjects, King says. Or they want students to do better on tests used to compare student performance. Those tests are mostly in math, reading and writing.

Students need to connect their studies and things that matter to them personally, such as music, if they are to become “sophisticated thinkers,” King says.

A 2013 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, says today’s world needs people able to solve new and unusual problems. It says arts can help students find those answers.

In the report, UNESCO said teaching the arts in China, South Korea and Japan is different than in many Western countries.

The emphasis in those three countries “is on joyful experiences and children’s interests,” the report says. In the West, educators are more likely to connect the arts to reading, writing and math.

Comparing countries is hard because they have different ways of defining success.

A 2014 report by the Program for International Student Assessment tried to compare how well countries teach children how to solve problems. It found Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, Canada, Australia and Finland with the highest scores for 15-year-olds.

Singapore led the way with a score of 562 out of a possible 1,000. The average score was 500. The United States had a score of 508, one point behind Germany and the same score as Belgium.

I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

basics n. just the regular, nothing special or different

deservev. used to say that someone should have or be given something

accessn. a way of being able to use or get something

potentialn. ability that someone has that can be developed to help that person become successful

crazyadj. wild and uncontrolled

sophisticatedadj. having or showing a lot of experience and knowledge about the world and about culture, art and literature

joyfuladj. full of happiness

scoren. the number of points that someone gets for correct answers on a test

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