In case you didn’t know, Bill Dunn is the driving force in the State House behind legislation that would cut funding for pre-k, change requirements for teacher tenure, and create a state school voucher program. Luckily, he hasn’t been very successful at getting most of his agenda passed, as vouchers have continued to fail in the House year after year and the importance of pre-K is becoming more and more universally recognized. Last year, his love of poor children so overwhelmed him that he was willing to modify his dream to only apply to poor children in Memphis. Fortunately, that failed as well. The creation of a voucher program is akin to the dispatching of life boats, some students will benefit but many more will suffer. Republicans decry government picking winners and losers, but that’s exactly what a voucher program does.
One would think that all this love of children would mean that Representative Dunn would be fully committed to making sure that our public schools are fully funded. But one would be wrong. Last year, Tennessee school districts began suing the state over recognized funding inadequacies. Dunn’s response was to bring forth a constitutional amendment barring courts from interfering in educational issues. It would have effectively killed any lawsuits from school districts. Of course it failed.
Based on his track record of passing legislation, if Dunn was a school, he’d be subject to takeover by the Achievement School District. (Though I will give him credit for passing the dyslexia bill last year, as one of 40 bipartisan sponsors of the bill. A much needed piece of legislation.) But Dunn is not easily deterred, so this year he’s doubling down. Buoyed by the election of Trump, who supports vouchers and charter schools, he’s bringing the voucher initiative back once again. And he’s got another bill poised to get rid of that pesky mandatory recess law that got passed last year. According to Dunn, “I think this might be something where the local schools need to decide how best do we burn off that energy that students may have.” Because that was working so well before.
When asked about that mandatory recess law, Lauren Hopson, the President of the Knox County Education Association, has gone on record stating that “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it.” and I agree with her. The mandates that the state puts on our schools are just too oppressive. Tennessee’s lawmakers have put an unreasonable burden on the teachers of the Tennessee. So to add a requirement that kids need to have a certain amount of time weekly spent on physical activity may have been a step too far, however well intentioned it was. It mandates something that ought to be happening anyway, but with all the other mandates, it’s hard – or nearly impossible – to get them all done. The problem is this – if we get rid of it, will schools then take away recess time to make more time for literacy and math? The demand for focus on literacy and math (because that’s what is tested), now coupled with the expectations of social studies and science, fail to take into account what actually encompasses a school day. So perhaps we shouldn’t repeal the recess bill but rather adjust our standards.
Let’s look at those standards. Tennessee was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. It didn’t take long for criticism to mount and lead to the repeal and replacement of Common Core with the Tennessee State Standards. According to State Board of Education Executive Director Sara Heyburn, “We started with the current state standards. From there, we executed an unprecedented transparent, comprehensive review and replacement process.” There was rigorous review to ensure that the standards were appropriate and that they were stacked; in other words, each year built on the previous year’s work. Funny thing, though, is that the “new” state standards look pretty much like the Common Core. Hmm. My question, though, is, how much time was spent on studying how they realistically aligned with an actual school day and the increased accountability that we are expecting from our teachers?
I love to use running metaphors, so let’s apply one here. Say I’m 16 years old. Say a bunch of track coaches get together and based on comparisons of other high school runners, they decide that they are going to set the standard for running a 100 yard dash at 10.5 seconds. Odds are that most kids will be able to hit that time, but not without significant sacrifice. For example, they will have to change their diet, and some favorite foods will have to be sacrificed. Training time will take away from family time and impact the ability to help around the house. Time with friends and music classes after school will also have to be sacrificed. If we run a cost/reward analysis, whether or not we hit the mark becomes irrelevant because the cost will far outweigh the reward. In my humble opinion, that’s what we have done with state education standards. We’ve set the bar so high that attainment comes at a detrimental cost.
The experts got together with some outside input and evaluated what kids were capable of learning, but nobody looked at how that fit in to an actual school day. How much time would be required for kids to acquire the required knowledge? How would that time affect lunch times? Would it impact recess? What kind of after school time would be required? Would there be time to feed kids in the morning and still be able to present the required instruction? And would this time frame be the same for every single student? As Hopson recently observed, “[Lawmakers] also didn’t understand that fifteen minutes to adults is not the same as fifteen minutes to children…. who have to get coats, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, walk to the playground with the sense of urgency of a 7-year-old, and completely refocus when those breaks occur.” Was this ever taken into account? Shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t teachers be the ones to have that say?
Recently, I wrote about how teachers need more time, and that hasn’t changed. Talk to a teacher – I know that is a novel idea – and they will tell you their day is made up of never-ending compromises. Do you spend more time on the literacy standards or the math standards? Which bit of paperwork do you sacrifice in order to be more prepared for tomorrow? How much time can you afford to spend on social studies? Do you stick to the district pacing guide, or do you focus on mastery? Do you focus on teaching to the test or try to ensure students are getting the necessary depth of instruction? That’s a lot of questions, a lot of compromise, and a lot of moral issues to expect from anyone on a daily basis. But not only do we do it, we add to the challenges each year with new legislation.
Back to the recess issue. I don’t think you’ll find a single teacher who wouldn’t acknowledge the importance of physical activity. As a parent of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old, I can certainly testify to the need for daily physical activity for children. I learned really quick to make sure that every day out of school contained at least an hour or so of physical activity for the kids in order to maintain my sanity. Without recess, my son would lose learning time every day because he would be unable to shed his excess energy, resulting in decreased concentration. As Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, points out, “Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.” Yes, it is.
Further compounding the problem is poverty. A teacher at a school with a higher income demographic has a little bit of cushion because they know that the lessons taught in school are being reinforced at home. Schools with concentrations of kids from high poverty levels unfortunately don’t have that benefit. But it’s not because parents don’t care. Many of those children are being raised by families or single parents who work two jobs just to provide basic necessities. They leave early for work and come home late at night, often too exhausted to even interact with their children. The result is that teachers need every single moment in the school day, resulting in them making compromises that they don’t neccesarily agree with, like sacrificing play time for extra instructional time. But what are you going to do if your entire professional career depends on test results?
Poverty presents very real barriers to physical activity for children as well. Many of our impoverished children live in neighborhoods and apartment complexes that don’t have play facilities, or the environment is unsafe, requiring them to remain indoors when they get home. Financial restraints can make organized sports unavailable to them. It amazes me that we have elected officials in this state who would introduce legislation to curtail what food stamps can purchase at the same time we attempt to take away required periods of physical activity. And they do it all under the guise of caring for people.
It’s not like there isn’t evidence that shows the link between physical activity and learning. Recently, a school in Texas went to four recesses a day and discovered that it lead to increased academic performance. Initially, there was some nervousness from teachers. According to 1st grade teacher Donna McBride, “I was trying to wrap my head around my class going outside four times a day and still being able to teach those children all the things they needed to learn.” This experiment may sound far-fetched, but it has yielded some real results. “Some five months into the experiment, McBride’s fears have been alleviated. Her students are less fidgety and more focused, she said. They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.”
I hate to evoke Finland in educational discussions – it becomes almost like Godwin’s Law – but the truth is, Finland has long recognized the link between physical activity and academic performance. They key is “unstructured play,” which is described as kids being allowed to run, play, and make up their own games while teachers mostly stay on the sidelines to make sure everyone is safe. And that’s the very thing that Dunn’s bill is trying to restrict.
Here’s a little sense of irony for you. According to Wikipedia, Dunn first earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science during 1983 and later completed a Master of Science degree in Extension Education from the University of Tennessee during 1985. He worked as a federal employee for the U.S. Agricultural Extension Service as a 4-H agent in Grainger County, Tennessee, for approximately eight years. William L. Sanders, a then (in the 1980s/90s) Adjunct Professor of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, developed the TVAAS. Both have been detrimental to Tennessee students and educators and I never realized there was such a correlation between agriculture and education.
So what’s the solution? I think it’s imperative that parents and teachers start to educate legislators. Let them know exactly what a school day looks like. Let them know exactly how their legislation is impacting teachers and their ability to educate kids. Teachers can’t just go behind closed doors and try to make things work on their own, like they have so often to date. They need to demand more time. Parents need to speak out as well. Together we can educate legislators, many of whom just don’t know anything about public education. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) sets up weekly days at Legislative Plaza during spring breaks across the state that provide the perfect opportunity for teachers to come educate our legislators. I’d specifically drop Bill Dunn a line or pay him a visit. Between his repeated support of vouchers, despite opposition by educators, and now the recess bill, he’s potentially doing real damage to our kids. We owe it to them to educate him.
The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Mom: What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this.” In it parent Laura Eberhart Goodman observes “The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers and leave them alone for an hour to decompress.” This is the result of an over emphasis on standards and measurement and a heavy handed State Department of Education. Goodman goes on to document the damage we are doing to our kids with our unrealistic expectations. She sums things up succinctly in the following passage:
From a parental perspective, a good learning environment is one with positive energy. The teachers want to be there, and the children want to be there. No one is counting the minutes to the end of the day before it has even started.
From an educator’s perspective, an environment that is engaging, hands-on, with opportunities for meaningful learning, practice, discussions and creativity, makes kids happy. When kids are happy, they learn more, and without having to resort to bribery. It’s not rocket science.
When the learning environment becomes very serious and relies heavily on assessment and grades, learning targets and goals, it is not as enjoyable. It is “work,” and children don’t enjoy work. It’s not in their nature to enjoy work; children are created to learn through play.
Mr. Dunn this is something you would do if you truly loved kids.