Accountability's fine, but give the kids a break

James Harvey
October 1, 2004

The news coming out of the Tacoma School District recently shines a spotlight on educational policy at its most witless.
Since 1997, according to area news reports, elementary-school recess has been outlawed in Tacoma.

"If we want students learning to high standards, we need them in the classroom, not the playground," said Karyn Clarke, a district assistant superintendent. In a memo to school administrators, Clarke justified the policy on the grounds that, "Our mission is in preparing young people to compete in a global society." What's next? Child labor?

The good news is that public complaints about the district's position have prompted school leaders to start pulling in their horns. By month's end, Tacoma Superintendent James Schoemake was explaining that teachers and principals could decide when "breaks" were necessary. However, amidst this new spin, Whitman Elementary parents in Tacoma let it be known that, since last year, 10 minutes have been shaved from the lunch period.

Thoreau's famous advice about stepping to the music of different drummers, "however measured or far," falls on tin ears in Tacoma. Forget fun, kids. Get back into the regimentation of classroom drill-and-kill.

Some years ago, Unitarian minister and Seattle resident Robert Fulghum gave a talk at a school graduation. It was so well-received that he developed his musings into a little gem of a bestseller, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Here are some of the things Fulghum learned: Share everything; play fair; don't hit people; put things back where you found them; clean up your own mess; don't take things that aren't yours; say you're sorry when you hurt somebody; live a balanced life; and be aware of wonder. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if all of us lived by Fulghum's precepts.

His list outlines a set of standards, too. They govern how we go through life in a democratic society. And if this nation is to survive in a difficult world, it's important that these standards be high as well. These are standards you either learn on the playground or you don't learn at all.

There's no evidence that getting rid of recess increases learning. On the contrary, there's a lot of research suggesting that regular exercise provides important social, physical and emotional benefits ? to adults as well as children. Kids, particularly, need time to blow off steam.

It's in unstructured play, free of the demands and weird views of adults, that children learn how to deal with each other. It's in recess that they find out what creativity, cooperation and constructive competition mean.

Don't take my word for it. That's the basic position of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which urges schools to maintain recess and physical-education programs, even in the face of state and national testing pressures.

The U.S. Surgeon General supports more exercise, too. That's because, according to the National Institutes of Health, childhood obesity in the United States is at epidemic levels. The number of overweight American children has doubled in 30 years. The added pounds foreshadow serious health problems ? including high cholesterol and blood pressure, asthma, Type 2 diabetes, and liver disease. Spiteful childhood taunts about lard and spare tires no longer ring as humorous.

The Tacoma policy developed around the time the state became obsessed with developing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning as the be-all and end-all of education. The obsession is a symptom of a mostly unspoken belief pervading the state and nation that it's all right (and probably a good thing) if learning is turned into joyless rigor.

All of us favor school accountability, but assessment systems that turn students into workers, recess into test preparation and school into drudgery defeat their own purposes.

Writing in the Sept. 15 issue of Education Week, school expert Alfie Kohn describes today's schools as institutions in which students "count off the hours remaining until dismissal, the days until the weekend, the weeks until vacation." Does anyone believe any real learning occurs in such places?

It's not clear everyone agrees that WASL and the dreary classroom environment it encourages are good things. The state's recent primary results, in which Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson received only one of every three votes cast, were widely interpreted as a referendum on her role in developing and defending WASL.

It's time to rethink WASL and its underpinnings. Washington assessments are far more demanding than comparable assessments in other states, according to the well-respected Northwest Evaluation Association. Disappointing WASL results fly in the face of highly credible international assessments of how well Washington students are doing.

And, despite official denials, the assessments seem to have been developed on the quick, as the state turned to private firms for test items on standards built around the accumulated wish lists of academic disciplines. Adding insult to injury, WASL, touted originally as a measure of institutional accountability, is now to be applied inappropriately to individual students, conceivably denying a high-school diploma to two-thirds of the class of 2008.

Whether in Tacoma or Olympia, tin ears are notoriously unreliable. Across our state, we should heed the advice of Thoreau and Fulghum: Cherish wonder. Live a balanced life. Listen for the beat of a different drummer. And for God's sake, give kids a real recess.