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Field Trips Fading Fast In An Age Of Testing

Ohanian Comment: Eons ago, in my first year of teaching in a New York City high school larger than my home town, I found out my 9th and 10th graders had never been on a field trip. Field trips were reserved for honors classes. I decided to take them to the most beautiful spot I knew in the City, the Cloisters, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, located in upper Manhattan. My colleagues were pretty much dismissive of this notion, but my department chair okayed it.

I "justified" our trip by the presence in our textbook of "Idylls of the King" (King Arthur) by Tennyson, I visited the Cloisters several weeks ahead of time and mapped out a mystery tour, items students should try to find on their visit. I assigned the items degrees of difficulty and tried to make it fun. I explained this need for pedagogical justification to my students, explaining that I had found only one thing related to King Arthur at the Cloisters, and it was their job to find it too.

My students were so excited about the prospect of a field trip that a third of them ate their lunches in homeroom before we even left.

I thought I'd done a pretty good job of preparing my students for the trip so that they would get something of value out of it but when I assigned my students to writing thank you notes to our one chaperone, one girl wrote, "Thank you for going with us to the Cloisters. I'm sorry so many things were broken."

Funny thing about broken items. Before we left, the Cloisters made me sign a personal liability form, promising to be responsible for any damage my students did. I showed my students the form, commenting that they had no faith New York City kids could behave. I vowed we'd show them, and we did. My students, intent on their mystery search, were the best behaved in the place. I was so inexperienced at the practice of field trips that I took 88 students on two buses with only one chaperone. The 18-year-old sister of one of my students rode on the other bus.

Did they learn anything measurable? I doubt it. But I know they learned something of value. They learned that their teacher had faith in them as decent human beings.

By Daniela Altimari

Mark Proffitt still remembers the thrill of being sprung from school for class outings to Old Sturbridge Village or the state Capitol. "You couldn't wait to go on field trips," recalled Proffitt, now an elementary school principal in Middletown.

For today's students, such experiences are increasingly elusive. Tight budgets and rising gas prices, concerns about safety and the sheer hassle of taking kids out into the world are leading some schools to reduce or eliminate field trips.

And now there's a powerful new force keeping students in their seats during the school day: the drive to boost performance on standardized tests. That has led principals to jettison "extras" such as field trips in their quest to wring every minute of instructional time from an already crammed school day.

In other words, an afternoon spent gazing at masterpieces in an art museum is getting harder to justify.

"We have a limited amount of time for instruction," said Karen List, an assistant superintendent in West Hartford. "Given all the demands that are placed upon us these days, we want to make sure every single moment is a valuable moment."

The pressure to improve student performance is especially intense in urban school systems struggling beneath the weight of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. James Thompson, the assistant superintendent in Hartford, said his district is reviewing its field trip policy to make sure every excursion connects to a classroom lesson.

"Schools are still taking field trips, but we want to make sure those trips are in line with the standards," he said. "What we're trying to do is extend our teaching and learning opportunities."

No one is disputing the merit of exposing children to a world beyond the school grounds. Such trips are especially important for poor kids, who may not otherwise have a chance to go.

"The classroom gets to be a very small place," said Sally Hill, associate director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden. "But No Child Left Behind and all of the mastery demands make it very difficult to say, 'I just want my kids to have a cool experience.'"

Principals and teachers say well-crafted field studies still have a place in education, especially if those trips reflect and reinforce the curriculum.

"When a field trip is connected with work in the classroom, it has a strong effect on kids," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "There's no better way to experience something than when it's right in front of you."

Despite that, some institutions that cater to schools say they are noticing a sharp drop in attendance. The number of students visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum dropped from 17,742 during the 2005-06 academic year to 12,221 last year. During that same span, the number of visitors from Hartford schools fell from about 5,000 to about 3,000.

Museum officials aren't sure why school attendance has slipped. "We've done nothing differently. Our programs continue to build," said Dawn Salerno, associate museum educator for school and family audiences. "It makes us wonder what's going on at the school level."

The dwindling number of school groups from Hartford is especially vexing. City students receive free admission; even the cost of transportation is covered.

Museum staff members plan to meet with educators from around the state. "We need to ask the question, 'Why aren't you sending students, and what more can we do?'" Salerno said, adding that she understand the enormous pressure facing schools these days. "They have too much to focus on."

It was with a somewhat heavy heart that Nancy DePalma, principal of Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford, opted to eliminate a popular fourth-grade field trip to Ellis Island. Although the trip resonated strongly in a school with a sizable immigrant population, it was canceled because of spiraling costs, safety worries and the demands of an increasingly rich curriculum.

"It's hard for me. My dad came through Ellis Island," DePalma said. "But the reality is, can we find other ways for kids to get these experiences? When we pull kids out [during] the instructional day, are we getting the best bang for our buck?"

Institutions that depend on school groups are looking for new ways to make themselves relevant in an age when test scores trump all.

At the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, the staff worked with educators in West Hartford to develop a program on the solar system that reflects the content of the Connecticut Mastery Test. "The standards are written specifically to say what the learning outcomes should be," said Jonathan Craig, the center's director. "It's making us rework some of the things we do and giving us new opportunities, too. ... It's a matter of adapting to the changing environment."

Even Old Sturbridge Village, a mainstay on the school field trip calendar for several generations, has begun offering enticements such as free admission to schools. The outdoor history museum also is developing programs that reinforce educational standards in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the three states that provide Old Sturbridge Village with the bulk of its visitors.

"We're having to align what we do with what students are being assessed on," said Shawn Parker, head of the education division. "We're trying to make sure we can show teachers that we can be part of their toolbox for fulfilling what's expected of them."

That's good news to Mark Proffitt, the Middletown principal who remembers his own childhood field trips with fondness.

"I would hate to think these opportunities are being diminished," he said. "I remember my field trip to Sturbridge Village. I remember my field trip to the Capitol. Those kinds of things are part learning experiences. They provide memories and experiences for a lifetime."

— Daniela Altimari
Hartford Courant


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