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How to Miss School Even When You're in School

My colleague Dan de Vise's wonderful piece Tuesday about the Darnestown, Md., student who never missed a day of school has had a terrific reaction. Like me, readers appreciated Dan's tribute to old-fashioned values, such as dependability and persistence, which some of us thought had died out in the younger generations.

The research shows that absenteeism is a major educational problem, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods. The fewer days a student spends in school, the lower their level of achievement. But there is a related problem that is more difficult to measure in a way that would allow us to celebrate those students who overcome it. What do we do about students who are forced to miss school when they are in school?

Many people assume that if the kid shows up before the first bell and stays until the final bell, he has gotten a good education that day. If only that were so. Here are some bad habits of modern school administration that, when added up, significantly reduce learning time:

Loudspeakers: One of my teacher heroes is Colleen Dippel, who found the frequent announcements piped into her Houston elementary school classroom so annoying, and so disruptive to her lessons, that she popped open one of the ceiling tiles and cut the wires to the loudspeaker. Neither she nor her class missed much, and her lessons ran much more smoothly. Some schools have banned in-school loudspeakers for this reason, but many administrators find them so convenient---and such a telling symbol of their power--that they ignore the effect on learning.

Assemblies: A visiting celebrity, a favorite holiday, a pet cause--it doesn't take much of an excuse to stop all classes and invite the students to an assembly. I know teachers who refuse to let their students attend some of them. What are they going to learn from Bozo the Clown? But this is another temptation that few schools can resist.

Field trips: In a few cases, these excursions have great academic merit, but often they don't. If the field trip is not preceded by a lesson or two on what is going to be seen, and its importance and relevance to the subject of the course, then it is likely a waste of time. A few schools that have longer days and set very high learning standards use the trips as a break from all that hard work, which is fine. But most schools add the excursions to a schedule that is not very challenging, creating an impression that they are not as serious as they ought to be about what they are teaching.

By Washington Post editors  | May 27, 2009; 1:06 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  
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There's a lot I don't remember about my time in elementary and middle school. But I have very vivid memories of the "experiential learning" I did- visiting museums and historical sites, a trip to a local observatory to view Halley's Comet through their telescope, the nature unit we did for a month in my 5th grade science class, and so on.

It saddens me that so many of today's students do not get these kind of experiences because administrators share Mr. Matthews' negative view of them.

Now if one wants to talk about wasted time during the school day- how about all the standardized test prep?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 27, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I agree completely with CrimsonWife. One of the highlights of my childhood was the class field trip. Just getting on that bus and going Somewhere was a thrill for me. Sometimes adults forget that there is a lot of natural learning that takes place in the elementary school child. Often the experience alone exposes the student to many new things. Of course, a good lesson before and after often enhances the experience but the trip alone can, and often does, stay with the child forever.

Since NCLB, the arts, PE, and field experiences have been taken away from many poor children (You can be certain they're still getting them at Sidwell Friends). Please don't contribute to this travesty.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 27, 2009 7:29 PM | Report abuse

The perfect school would be one in which academic enrichment coincides with excitement and cherished memories...
But this is the real world and research shows that things that students find most interesting and fun (field trips, dissections, etc) are often implemented improperly and do NOT lead to higher student achievement.

Posted by: someguy100 | May 28, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Several years ago at my daughter's middle school in Oakland (one which had core classes which were either "accelerated" or not), a 7th grade teacher told me a story.

He said that in one of his classes almost 50% of his students had already been to Europe. In his other class, 50% of his students had never even been to San Francisco (about 15 miles away). I'm sure you can figure out which class was which.

To me, this difference just begins to illustrate the magnitude of the out-of-school experience gaps which exist. It bluntly reveals why the academic achievement gap will be impossible for each-and-every-one of our poorly-funded urban public schools to ever singularly close.

With school expenditures and staffing kept at at constant minimum, is it better for poor kids to be kept at their desks doing test prep, or might they get a better, more inspiring education from finding out what's across the Bay Bridge?

Posted by: pondoora | May 28, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Jay list the biggest complaints of all teachers. I might add one more. Testing.
We sat down in a school in southernCalifornia and figured out that from September to June, six weeks of school were lost. Yes, six weeks. And that doesn't count the first week or so of each semester (some times a month) of screwed up schedules, reconfiguring classes, counselling appointments, not being able to get into the library to get text books or even get into the library during the year when some tests were going on or some VIP was visiting and didn't want to be bothered by the reason we were all there. Add that to your fine list. And it is a fine list.

Posted by: diamond2 | May 28, 2009 10:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Jay Matthews is arguing not to have any feild trips, but that when classes do have feild trips they should be relevant experiences. My sons school is having a ton of feild trips shoved into the last month of school. Why not spread these out? Or, at least seek out venue's that promote education. In DC, the National Building Museum has a lot of programming to provide lessons to students who visit and the Textile Museum (at least when I visited about 2 years ago) had similar programs. Tied into the curriculum these can be wonderful and memorable experiences, that advance education.

Posted by: KH20003 | May 28, 2009 11:37 PM | Report abuse

As to field trips. Hello, we live in DC. There are FREE museums everywhere. You can spend many weekends at each museum. Parents, YOU can take your kid to the museums. You don't have to go to Europe to be smart. Many rich brats grow up clueless. Many smart people never travel anywhere.

As to testing. The problem is not the test, although the test is the easiest thing to blame. The problem may be the parent, the student, or the teacher, usually in that order. Is there something wrong with requiring our kids to know how to read, write, and do arithmetic? That's what is in the test, basic skills that every one need if they were to grow up and be productive. Anyone who can read, write, and do arithmatic will pass the tests.

Posted by: AT_MD | May 29, 2009 12:32 AM | Report abuse

Before NCLB, reading, writing, arithmatic, and math were taken away from all students.

The poor/less educated parents have a much better chance at teaching their kid how to run around than teaching them math.

Posted by: AT_MD | May 29, 2009 12:39 AM | Report abuse

I teach in Virginia, and at my school the kids have 2 field trips in the entire year, and administration is talking about cancelling one of them. For us they are both squeezed in at the end of the year because that is when we are finally done with testing. (We're pretty much done with teaching things that are from the curriculum too, since we had to cover all of it before the test.)

We've had 3 honor-roll assemblies (30 minutes each), 2 rule-review assemblies (20 minutes), 3 student-concerts (45 minutes), and 2 test-strategies assemblies (30 minutes). That adds up to less than 5 hours of assemblies.

Look, obviously as a teacher, I'm a proponent of using school time wisely and getting every kid the best education available, BUT...I've been watching my kids take their SOLs every few days for the last couple weeks, (5 tests, about 2 hours each, one test every three days.) and they are exhausted. They have circles from under their eyes from not sleeping, they throw up some mornings because of test anxiety, and they are being pushed, pushed, pushed by every adult in their lives, including me, their principal, and their parents.

I can't believe that depriving my kids of the few field-trips and assemblies we have left would serve any good purpose.

Accountability is important, but sometimes I fear that all the testing is sucking everything that's fun and worthwhile about learning out of school. I'm scared that for some of my kids it will never occur to them to read for fun, or to go out and learn something just because it interests them.

There has GOT to be a way to find an intelligent balance between testing and measuring our kids, and actually educating and helping them. The two should be completely compatible, but right now they often seem to be working at cross-purposes.

(Announcements you're right; they're a pain and a time waster, as least 10 minutes or more a day; easily an hour each week that I could really use.)

I'm sorry to get up on my soapbox (this was supposed to be a SHORT post...) but my students are 9-years-old, and I want what is best for them. I want them to get a great education, AND to be happy and healthy. I know that that's not a priority for the Department of Education, but it should be one for parents and educators.

-Natalie H.
3rd grade teacher

Posted by: Natalie3 | May 29, 2009 1:17 AM | Report abuse

"Not very challenging" neatly sums up the American educational experience.

I attended elementary and high school in both US and Western European schools. US schools, with their abysmally low expectations, unruly classrooms, and inexplicable emphasis on extracurriculars, were by far the inferior learning environment.

Posted by: DupontJay | May 29, 2009 1:36 AM | Report abuse

Hear, hear, Natalie H. Well said.

Posted by: cc1221 | May 29, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

I worked at a nature center that brought kids on field trips. The 5th graders explained two things to me over and over: "Learning is something that happens in a classroom, at a desk, with a teacher talking at you" and "Education is stupid and boring". They may have done better on a multiple choice test on the topics we covered if they had sat quietly at their desks and studied. This test doesn't measure everything though. If a field trip changes either of those two beliefs it is their most valuable day of school.

Posted by: rose876 | May 29, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I'll also add a story of my senior year of hight school. At my school, we had the AP tests, pre-testing of the MSA for 9th graders, and Senior Finals going at the same time. The disruption was so great that they decided to leave the non-AP sophomores and juniors at home and send around a second bus for them mid-morning. During the gaps in testing they warehoused us and told us to sit quietly. I spent the time playing blackjack and tetris on my graphing calculator (I got really good too). The second bus lasted 2 weeks, but I remember the disruption being complete for about 6.

Posted by: rose876 | May 29, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Good article, but how about one on what happens OUT of the classroom, particularly with teacher evaluation of student work?

One of the reasons I pulled all of my kids out of DC public school is that there was very little evidence of teacher evaluation of their assignments. Papers, essays, projects were assigned, and the teacher was therefore allowed to check the "standards" box that verifies that the class has "covered" the material. However, there was no feedback, no comments, no editing -- nothing -- from the teachers. Just a check or check-plus. That's not rigor and it doesn't move the each child to the next level.

Posted by: trace1 | May 29, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Waste of ed time? How about Channel One the in-school tv program shown mostly in the poorer school districts. Only 12 minutes a day but that amounts to a week of class time. Check for details.

Posted by: rjma1 | May 29, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I teach outside the D.C. area, but still in Virginia. Our schools have been limited to one field trip and that was originally cut from next year's budget.
In our school system the teacher must fill out a form specifing how the planned field trip relates to the curriculum or it is denied.

Same with assemblies. They must be related to the curriculum. Those have been drastically cut over the last several years.

Interruptions from loudspeaker announcements: That issue was addressed when we still had Meet and Confer and interruptions were dramatically curtailed. We no longer have Meet and Confer, so those kinds of issues are no longer addressed and solved.

The newest trend in public education is block scheduling. The administration, like many administrations had to go with the latest educational idea and instituted block scheduling about 10 years ago. Teachers conducted their own research and found that block scheduling actually reduces the total number of hours spent on instruction. Again...this was an administrative decision.

Having said all of that. I went to school in Fairfax County. When I was in elementary school we attended concerts at Constitution Hall. We learned how to behave at concerts, when to clap, how to dress appropriately, and developed an appreciation of the symphony. I have never forgotten that experience and treasure it to this day. I have forgotten 99% of the presentations delivered by my teachers and as a teacher I know they spent much of their then non-existant planning time developing them.

In today's world of education, all the dots are suppose to connect with nice, neat lines; all bubbles filled in perfectly; all learning has to be data connected. Unfortunately life isn't always neat, the bubbles are often outside the lines, and data can not provide the answers to all of our problems.

If you want field trips to be relevant, then the curriculum should be age appropriate and relevant to these children's lives, especially the younger ones. If second graders are studying China or Mali, I don't know of one school division that can afford, much less would even consider, sending students to these countries. Perhaps a trip to the local municipal center would be more manageable and appropriate. Many of my elementary students have never been to the ocean front, much less Norfolk, and we live in Virginia Beach. When I try to encourage a discussion on architecture comparing the buildings in our community with those in other communities, it is discouraging to see how many of them have no idea.

While the idea behind this article is appropriate and needed, the examples are too generalized. There is a lot of wasted instructional time, but the examples you gave are the least of my concerns. Many of the posts are right on need to investigate their claims and you will really discover the "Class Struggle."

Posted by: ilcn | May 29, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget watching TV! I was helping at dd's second grade class one morning and hung around the rest of the day. They watched a video on telling time during math. The music teacher was out so the sub put on a video. And it was Friday, which was "movie day" for the last 45 minutes or so. (I think the movie was Pocahontas, on account of them studying native Americans and all.) And of course computers and the smart board were both available during various free times.

Now, of course some of this screen time might be educational, but even if it all were, the AAP recommendation that kids watch no more than 2 hours of quality programming each day. School screen time left no time for us to watch Nature that night as a family. (Or the Simpsons. I admit it.)

Posted by: jackaroe | May 29, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I am a Reading Specialist in PW county Public Schools. We just finished scoring the VGLA binders that are offered to students who qualify for accommodations from the SOL testing. These binders are filled with student evidence of mastering the curriculum standards.

The best part was that the teachers were required to grade and comment on each piece. It was up to the teacher to ensure that the student learned the curriculum and then conference with them on their classwork.

I thought this was a way to truly test what the student learned and what the student needed more help with.

Posted by: readingteacher | May 29, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

What about the missed time due to the Every Child Left Behind exams (SOL exams)? The tests are administered in late May, leaving a full month of the school calendar mostly unused. The students and teachers both shut down after the exams. Sure, there might be a project or two, but there is precious little teaching in that final month of school.

And that doesn't include the time wasted preparing for the exams. I can see why some poorly funded school districts might need them, but Fairfax and Loudoun? Get real, most of these kids are going to be highly successful without them, so why waste the time and resources?

As for field trips, I have fond memories of visiting the Supreme Court to view arguments and attending Congressional hearings on the Hill. We also spend a long weekend at the Marine Science Consortium at Wallop's Island, VA. For non-academic field trips, I visited the Harley Davidson assembly plant in York, PA and the GM factory in Baltimore as part of an auto shop course.

All very relevant, very interesting, and not things I was likely to do on my own.

Posted by: snarfsnarfsnarf | May 29, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Unbelievable, except it isn't. I mean all the negatives on Jay's article posted above. The educational establishment actually wonders why they're not included in the reform dialogue. It's so predictable what they'll say on every topic.

If the assemblies and field trips (redundant, much?) are so bloody important hold them all on Saturday mornings (attendance voluntary) and just see how many students AND TEACHERS show up for them. As for loudspeakers; call in the Taliban and have them booby-trap them all.

Great piece Jay with some VERY valid points.

Posted by: phoss1 | May 29, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

On field trips:
Does it really make education dollar sense to spend $55 per child for a field trip to The Midieval Times in Maryland?

Posted by: AJJJ | May 29, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

One teacher mentioned that he/she remembered the field trip to a concert clear as day, but forgotten 99% of the academic lessons. Doesn't that tell you how well the school system worked before NCLB? I don't think I can make a living knowing only 1% of what's taught. I don't know what job I can hold as an expert concert goer. I guess I can be a teacher.

Posted by: AT_MD | May 29, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

People, the test you like to hate so much is the MINIMUM requirement from a country with probably the LOWEST education standard. Kids should be able to fly through the test w/o breaking a sweat. I was in Singapore recently and bought a set of 3rd grade assement test. I suspect vast majority of the college graduate here will have a hard time with the math portion.

Posted by: AT_MD | May 29, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

"Many people assume that if the kid shows up before the first bell and stays until the final bell, he has gotten a good education that day."

The test scores indicate that there are serious problems in public education in America. It is strange that the columnist does not recognize the serious problem of public education and that children are not getting a good education.

If recruits in the US Army were failing at the rate of children in public schools would there be cute articles about the time spent about kitchen patrol?

At some point there might be recognition that public education in America is important.

Posted by: bsallamack | May 29, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Phoss1 - How about having the tests on Saturday then and see how many students and teachers show up?

I agree with Natalie H. - Adults should focus more on educating children rather than constantly testing or drilling them for the test.

I think children are genetically predisposed to learning how to find a place for themselves in our society. If the opposite were true humans would not be so numerous. Our modern system of education trips over itself and fumbles its mission so that now we're happy when a kid shows up every day.

I think that the solution is to change the structure of schools. Among other things, the material offered be enticing to the child, inviting him to continue his exploration outside the classroom, and classrooms should include children of many ages.

Posted by: PublicMontessoriTeacher | May 29, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse


You need to read more carefully.... I didn't say I'd forgotten 99% of the "academic lesson" of what I'd learned. I said I'd forgotten 99% of all the presentations. There is a little more to teaching than just standing in front of a class and spouting out facts and figures. And if you knew more about the teaching profession you'd understand the difference.

Posted by: ilcn | May 29, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I teach in Virginia now, but when I first started teaching I taught in a really poor part of Tennessee. I grew up in Fairfax County, so I was shocked by how they did things down there. There may have been a couple educational field trips, but the one I heard about most often was taking the kids to the movies! And then for lunch and games at an arcade!! It was crazy! They always went to see the new kids movies that came out if they were based on a children's book. Like when The Polar Express movie came out, all the first grade classes went to see it in the morning. Then, instead of coming back to school and having half a day of class, they'd go to the arcade for lunch and then let the kids play for the rest of the day! It was insane!

Posted by: rrap1 | May 29, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article. When I was in a public high school in Mississippi in the 1960's, the frequent loudspeaker announcements were almost always about stuff no one cared about and in some cases illegal, like reading the Bible.

I don't recall many assemblies held at odd times that interrupted classes, but a large number of them were repulsive, right wing, racist propaganda. I suppose this kind of thing continues on a much larger scale in the private white academies.

Field trips were rare. The only ones I can recall were walks from my elementary school to the state capitol building a couple of blocks away to listne a new governor being inaugurated, which was fun and interesting at the time.

Posted by: dewey_norton | May 29, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I love how so many articles turn into whining about testing. Is there some better solution for the inconsistent standards in our schools that allow for social promotion? If we didn't have testing, how would even know there is a problem?

If you wanted some real data about how ineffective schooling is, you could measure how many students there are that are so advanced they could pass high school graduation tests before they start school. We undersell our best kids, or simply overload them with repetitive work on subjects they have already mastered. We let our kids that are behind float forward in classes that go further and further beyond what they know, increasing their frustration with school.

Standardized tests give you the information you need to design individualized curricula around what each student knows. It's the mass instruction style that is going to be left behind in the future of education.

Posted by: staticvars | May 29, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The young people I personally know tell me various reasons why they absolutely cannot stand high school; and they count the days to graduation. These young people also are going to have a difficult time making it in the world as far as getting a job on which they can build a "good" life. This is because they have received very little usable education. Their respective experiences in school usually indicate that each of them have perhaps one or two teachers that actually were able to teach them something, teachers these young people respected because they felt the teacher cared enough to teach.

For the most part however, students are extremely bored and certainly not challenged on any real intellectual level. Too much Barney or Sesame Street at the house? I think so. These young people I know can barely hold an informed intelligent conversation, they cannot write, they hate to "argue" or discuss anything that is controversial and therefore have no skills for critical thinking.

And then to top that all off, they are unprepared in any professional skill that could be of economic value to the society and to themselves. These kids are in some middle ground where they couldn't get into college (no money there for that anyway) and they will only have the opportunities to work for the major corporations of the many service industries in the United States.

The students in most public schools, those whose parents live on "bad" property, property that cannot generate the necessary wealth to support even a decent infrastructure for their schools, find themselves in a prison-like environment. The stories these kids tell me are depressing. They are always under surveillance and they are not expected to rise to any level of personal responsibility. They feel like their passing time, or perhaps more accurately, doing time.

The public school I went to has been taken over by the Christians. The students now graduating (I've attended three nieces' graduations) are perfect for the military and for the corporate environment. If I were attending the schools we have now you can bet I too would be getting high before first period every morning.

Posted by: gwymer | May 29, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

This time of year there is a lot of movie watching in school. In this day and age if the teacher wants to illustrate a long novel with the movie they could be running selected scenes, but it seemed more like everybody just sat there falling asleep.

My other gripe was fundraisers. Particularly in Middle School they consumed a lot of time in the fall.

Posted by: RedBird27 | May 29, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

>>What about the missed time due to the Every Child Left Behind exams (SOL exams)? The tests are administered in late May, leaving a full month of the school calendar mostly unused. The students and teachers both shut down after the exams. Sure, there might be a project or two, but there is precious little teaching in that final month of school.>>

The sad thing is there are many of us teachers who are still teaching to prepare our students for their final exam (more difficult than the SOL's) and the students feel that their year is over after SOL's/AP testing. We do in our science curriculum further lab work that is not covered on the SOL, and we continue to fight a battle against students and parents that we still hold their students to high behavioral and academic standards. Not every teacher is showing movies.

Posted by: annwhite1 | May 31, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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