The good news in the newspapers recently was that the New York State Regents had decided to loosen its rules on which subjects students in middle schools should take and the exact number of minutes of instruction required in each.

New York is one of many states where agencies overseeing education set rules on curriculum and teaching that individual school districts must follow. People with political skills and connections often head these agencies, but they do not necessarily have any educational background or knowledge, which can lead to rules and regulations that are not educationally sound.

In New York’s case, the regents did realize that, despite their tight regulations, middle school students were not doing well as measured by standardized tests in reading and math. Students who did fine in the fourth grade (and, often, in grade 12) did very poorly on tests given in the eighth grade.

Under the changed regulations, schools with poor performance on standardized tests could propose to exclude some or all stand-alone exploratory courses, including technology, visual arts, music, foreign language and library skills.

On the other hand, schools that were doing well on the standard tests would be encouraged to redesign traditional exploratory courses into mini-courses. The result would be“high-interest, relevant topics such as fad diets, youth fitness, student leadership, engineering design, science and technology research and the arts as political expression,” says the State Education Department.

In other words, schools whose students do well will be given a chance to do even better with high-interest courses that will grab student attention, give them higher level skills and broaden their education.

Schools where students are not doing well will be free to deprive students of anything beyond reading and arithmetic, including the very subjects that might catch their interest, spark them and give them an understanding of why it is important for them to learn the basic skills involved in reading and mathematics.

There was a time when industrial arts was a significant exploratory course at the junior high school or middle school level. I, who had little difficulty with English or math, was all thumbs when it came to industrial arts projects. Whatever I built or designed tilted, came apart, fell over and looked terrible.

A couple of my classmates, who struggled with reading and arithmetic, walked into the industrial arts shop and took over. They could produce all sorts of interesting projects. They used tools with a skill I will never possess and were easily the stars of the class. Finally, after years of being at the bottom of the grading heap, they were the students getting the high marks and the teacher’s praise.

A number of years ago, I expressed concern about what would happen to students like my classmates when industrial arts began to turn into industrial technology, making it necessary to apply mathematics, problem solving and conceptual skills before students could start using their skilled hands. Instead of standing out because of their skills, were they once again going to be frustrated by what they could not do well?

I have been reassured many times in the intervening years teachers work to help their students understand the need for academic skills and help their students learn them so that they can apply them in interesting and productive ways.

It’s not just industrial technology. There are students who are turned on by painting and sculpture, by singing and playing instruments, by cooking and baking, and who, with the encouragement of their teachers, come to understand the importance of learning to read and compute in order to advance in the areas that have caught their interest. That may well be why, by the time they are in high school, their scores on standardized tests begin to rise.

Now, however, at least in New York State, the very students who could be turned on by exploratory subjects may no longer get that stimulation. Instead, their schools will be free, actually encouraged, to substitute another dose of the very reading and arithmetic they see no reason to learn. Is that educationally sound? To me, it appears to be counter-productive.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."