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Federal Education Law Squeezes Out Recess

Ohanian Comment: Maybe all these people, including the reporter, should take a look at recess in Finland, the land that values children's play and comes out tops in international education ratings.

Many Washington area public schools have cut back on recess and field trips to spend more time on reading and math, prompting complaints that the No Child Left Behind law has made school too much of a chore.

Districts are letting their principals decide how to adjust schedules to squeeze in more reading and math -- the subjects tested under the two-year-old federal education law -- so statistics were not available to quantify these changes in the school day. But educators say there is no question that a shift has occurred.

At Bradley Hills Elementary in Bethesda, Principal Daniel T. Bennett said that, in the past, his school would organize five or six field trips a year. This year, there was time for two. The school also "used to hold more book clubs for discussion of literature," Bennett said, but now that time is spent helping students who are struggling with reading.

The change "is not a bad thing, just less enjoyable and challenging for able students," he said.

Terry Bosworth, a first-grade teacher at Deale Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, said, "Recess periods have been shortened, and there is less time available for cultural arts activities such as assemblies, chorus, band, orchestra" and an annual student performance.

Spring field trips have been reduced in Spotsylvania County since students began taking the Virginia Standards of Learning tests in 1998, said Donald Alvey, secondary education director for county schools. Like most states, Virginia uses its statewide exams to measure achievement as required by No Child Left Behind. "Our principals are most protective of preserving class time, especially as the testing draws near," he said.

Alvey said that when he was a high school principal, he told his faculty, "If this field trip is not the best thing a teacher can use to meet SOLs, then do the best thing instead."

Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said she surveyed principals and found widespread, if small, cuts in recess time. "Shortening recess by five minutes daily provides 25 minutes of additional instruction time" each week, she said. One principal also told her that cutting recess from 30 minutes to 20 minutes reduced discipline problems.

Many parents praised schools' devotion to raising achievement but worry about the strain on their children. "These little guys have a heavy schedule," said Colleen O'Malley, whose kindergartner is at Alexandria's Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy.

"Most parents I've talked to are happy with the new emphasis on the basics and improving test scores," said Brian Bachman, whose daughter attends Fairhill Elementary School in Fairfax County. "But I do know that school for my daughter is nowhere near as much fun as it was for me when I was growing up, and that makes me sad."

Some school officials say they have resisted pressure to cut recess time, which educators consider a more expendable activity than lunch. Fran Donaldson, principal of Deep Run Elementary School in Howard, said her school's daily recess was cut from 30 to 20 minutes a few years ago to increase instructional time. "When we tried to reduce it again to 15 minutes, we received a lot of concerns from parents and kept it at 20 minutes," she said.

Many elementary school principals say they have not reduced time for recess or for subjects not on the required tests but have instead moved them to later in the day to make room for a solid 90 minutes of morning reading instruction -- and often an hour of math -- when students are fresh and attentive.

"The change is that there is less flexibility in our instructional program," said Karen Singer, principal of Berwyn Heights Elementary School in Prince George's County. "All school activities take place in the afternoon after reading and math." Some special events, such as assemblies, have been scaled down as a result.

Some educators say they are protecting their extra activities by making sure they relate to instruction. Janet K. Funk, principal of Halley Elementary School in Fairfax, said that rather than eliminating field trips, she has made sure such trips "relate to SOL objectives and provide specific learning opportunities for the children."

And many principals say children don't learn as well without breaks. Rima Vesilind, principal of Woodley Hills Elementary School in Fairfax, said she has protected recess and lunchtime because "our children work very hard during their instructional times and they need some downtime during which they can socialize and enjoy their peers."

Ginny Mahlke, principal of Wolftrap Elementary School in Fairfax, said the increased academic demands on schools mean "it's even more important now for students to get outside, relax and get some exercise." She said she thinks that every minute at school is instructional time, right down to learning the skills of negotiating by "deciding whose turn it is on the swing."

— Jay Mathews
Washington Post


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