Rhode Island is finally being held up as a model for something related to education. While we find ourselves worst in New England for teacher absenteeism and a middling state in terms of student outcomes, we are suddenly being celebrated far and wide.
We passed a law that mandates recess. And Governor Gina Raimondo signed it.
There is no doubt that recess is important and as the mother of three very active boys I know first hand how crucial physical movement is for children throughout the day. I’m by no means some sort of anti-recess freak. I am frustrated actually by how many schools do not even allow kids to go outside for recess during the winter. Sure, the mental break of indoor recess is good but it doesn’t do much for the kids who need to run, jump, and get a whole lot of energy out. Where are the recess advocates on that point?
And I must admit that I do find myself wishing that we were being celebrated for something more substantive when it comes to student learning. Certainly recess is a piece of student learning but it seems tangential to the real mission of our educational system. Why isn’t the pro-recess crowd in an uproar over how many Rhode Island children don’t read at grade level? Where are their voices on behalf of children being promoted year after year to the next grade even though they are years behind in skills? Isn’t that at least as important as recess?
While recess advocates make the claim that recess is a “student’s right”, I certainly wish they’d say the same about a student’s right to learn to read, or work with numbers, or write coherently.
And autonomy is a defining characteristic of the most successful schools. Legislative mandates strip school leaders, and in this case even teachers, of their autonomy. That seems like a very bad idea to me, especially when the vast majority of legislators lack any expertise as to how run a school. We all know that kids should be moving in their classrooms and the most gifted educators know this and make it happen seamlessly. They don’t need a mandate from the statehouse telling them how to structure their school day.
Interestingly, one of the few “no” votes, Representative Karen MacBeth, is an elementary school principal.
And another problem. The inclusion of sixth graders in the mandate is a bridge too far and as the statute is written, any 6th grader who attends a school that is K-6 must also have 20 consecutive minutes of recess while 6th graders in middle schools don’t have to have any recess. So Rhode Island’s recess mandate lacks any consistency when it comes to age of students and is instead based on school model. Fifth graders in 5-8 schools do not have to get recess but 6th graders in K-8 do. Absurd is the word that comes to mind.
I was also less comfortable with the original language in the bill which would have forbidden teachers or building principals from taking away recess as a punishment. Ever. Again, I understand where it’s coming from and see how it could be misused, even abused, by misguided educators. But I also know that two levers work with my own kids: PE and recess.
So while I understand parents and recess advocates being against the taking away of recess as a consequence, I know that it would eliminate an effective tool from my own kids’ teachers.
Parent groups had pushed for the recess mandate and had wanted to ban teachers from taking a child’s recess away as punishment. That ban was dropped in the compromise legislation that passed the state’s General Assembly this month, but the new law says teachers should make a good-faith effort not to withhold recess.
And while rare, Rhode Island’s American Federation of Teachers agrees with me on this point. They did not support their members losing the ability to withhold recess.
Providence Superintendent Chris Maher applauded the new law and said his district was already moving to adopt 20 minutes of recess.
“I think it’s a reflection of the fact that 21st-century skills include working in teams, and working with different kinds of people,” he said. “The notion that students aren’t learning when they’re playing is erroneous.”
State education commissioner Ken Wagner is on record as being against any mandate of daily or weekly recess minutes. This is not surprising considering his commitment to empowering building principals and teachers to having more autonomy, not less. So clearly Governor Raimondo’s own staff doesn’t see this whole recess thing her way.
Community members dissatisfied with matters such as the scheduling of recess time should discuss their concerns with school leaders or bring their concerns to their school committees,” he said. “If these issues cannot be resolved locally, community members can seek a hearing that will lead to a commissioner’s decision.
One surprise (at least to some) in the bill is that it defines recess as “instructional time”, allowing districts to squeeze in the mandated recess minutes without having to extend the day. On this point, the AFT and I diverge. In their usual efforts to ensure no additional instruction time or minutes added to the day, they support counting recess as instructional time. While I think recess is a necessary part of the elementary school day, I don’t see how it’s considered “instructional time.” Just because something is valuable does not mean that it is instructional. Kids learn lots of things during recess — the coolest new swear words, how to share, the art of compromise, and what bullying looks like — but does that qualify it as instructional time?
And for the record, Massachusetts does not allow for recess to count as instructional time.
Mandatory recess proponents are prone to say that kids achieve more academically when they have daily recess. Great news. But if we do not see significant gains in student achievement statewide — Rhode Island spends the same as Massachusetts and under-performs them in spades — then perhaps we need to do some serious reflection about what is happening in our classrooms during all that real instructional time.
Recess is supposed to support and improve student learning. Let’s hope it does.
Until then, I gladly give my permission for my kids’ teachers to take away recess if any of them deserves it. And I suggest making them stand at the window to watch all their classmates playing outside while they reflect on their behavior.