How School Grades led to the Elimination of Recess
On Wednesday, January 25, 2017, during a brief introduction, Florida Commissioner of Education, Pam Stewart, explained both how Florida got to the place where schools were denying recess to small children and why, in her words, it is necessary for the state to step in and rectify the situation. Lucky for them, HB67/SB78. known as the “Recess Bills”, have once again been filed this legislative session.
Ms. Stewart was a panel member during the House Pre-K Quality Subcommittee. You can watch her testimony here, beginning at 1:08:00.
“It is a small percentage of our schools that are not performing well and we believe that the work needs to be done at the local level… but when that’s not happening… what can we do and what should we be doing to ensure that those students, years and years worth of students, get the education that they need?”
As you can probably guess, she wasn’t talking about recess, she was talking about school “turnaround”, but she could have been talking about recess. Recess, or the ability of child to engage in unstructured free play, is an important part of a child’s school day. For young children, the best learning occurs through play. Recess has been shown to be a crucial role in promoting optimal child development and well-being and is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists, etc.
Most elementary school teachers understand the benefits of recess but, sadly, many children in Florida’s public school are not getting recess. Why? It can be traced directly back to Florida’s test based Accountability system. When schools are graded on student performance on grade level, standardized tests, those schools will do whatever is necessary to improve student scores and school grades, even if it is not in the best interests of children. So, even though the many benefits of recess are well known, children, across Florida, are being held captive in their classrooms, preparing for standardized tests.
Loss of recess appears to be most prevalent in low performing schools, where administrators and teachers are desperate to avoid “turnaround options” or other negative consequences of low performance on state assessments. Commissioner Stewart described her own experience as a principal in a critically low performing, high poverty school in the late 1990s. She explained that the first school grade her school received was an F. She claimed that getting the “F” got their attention and they, with help from the Department of Education, made instructional changes, placing “the focus on the classroom”, and their school grade rose to a “C” the following year. She became a believer in the School Grade system.
“There is power in the F. There is power because it got our attention. It also provided me with the power to say, when I was asked ‘Can we watch a movie today?’, ‘No. Are all of your students performing on grade level? Come to me about a movie when your students are performing on grade level. We’ve got work to do here.’ And so it gave me power to say “these are the things we are going to to because it is the right thing for our students” that I didn’t have before.”
I suspect this is how our students lost recess. Can we have recess today? No. Are all of your students performing on grade level? Come to me about recess when your students are performing on grade level. We’ve got work to do here.
What is the work of childhood? Is it measurable on a standardized test? Should it be measured with a standardized test?
Of course, recess and play ARE part of the work of childhood. They are essential for child development. The available research suggests that recess can play an important role in the learning, social development, and health of elementary school children. There is NO research that clearly supports NOT having recess. Recess serves a critical role in our schools:
“Recess serves a critical role in school as a necessary break from the rigors of academic challenges. Recess is a complement to, not a replacement for, physical education. Both promote activity and a healthy lifestyle; however, recess—particularly unstructured recess and free play—provides a unique contribution to a child’s creative, social, and emotional development. From the perspective of children’s health and well-being, recess time should be considered a child’s personal time and should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.” (from the Journal of School Health)
Jeb Bush has famously said “if you don’t measure, you don’t really care.” Does this, therefore, mean that difficult or impossible things to measure (such as the impact of free play on a child’s creative, social and emotional development), should be ignored or dismissed. Should we not care about the things we cannot easily measure?
In Florida, “proficiency” is an arbitrary bar set by the Board of Education, which, frankly, has a political agenda. You can read about the politicized process of setting proficiency levels, or cut scores, here, here and here. Even “grade level” performance is calculated on mean performance on a standardized test, ensuring that 50% of students will be below grade level, and 50% above. It is not possible to have 100% of children “above average” (Lake Wobegon is the exception, of course).
What if 95% of the students were proficient? Should they get recess, should they get to see the movie? What level of proficiency should allow such frivolous activities as field trips, art class or recess? Where does a child’s mental health and fitness become more important than a test score or a school grade? Don’t all children, regardless of circumstance, deserve a school day that supports their creative, social and emotional development?
We are not suggesting that Florida go back to the days of low expectations for students based on their race or socioeconomic level. We are asking that the developmental needs of at-risk children be attended to as much as their academic needs are. Children from families of low socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely to have access to arts, music, physical activities and cultural events. They need these activities as much, if not more, than their more advantaged peers, who often have a full array of after school and summer activities. Public schools should be providing these opportunities for all children. When did school grades become more important than a child’s well being?
Educating the Whole Child is important work. And, in the words of Commissioner Stewart: “we believe that the work needs to be done at the local level… but when that’s not happening… what can and should we be doing to ensure that those students, years and years worth of students, get the education that they need?”
When the education accountability system has resulted in the loss of recess, music, arts and field trips, the Whole Child suffers. Who should be held accountable for that and when will the legislators step in to ensure that all of Florida’s students get the developmentally appropriate, whole child education that they need? Once the Legislators rise to protect young children from the negative consequences of the school grade/accountability system, recess mandates (like HB67/SB78) will no longer be necessary.
Until then, Let Them Play.
You can learn more about the fight for Recess in Florida at https://www.facebook.com/groups/OCPSrecess/