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Posted at 10:49 PM ET, 02/23/2011

Changing my mind on high school recess

By Jay Mathews

Julia Staron was not sure what to do when, during her sophomore year at West Springfield High School, she was diagnosed with a chronic illness. Her hard work had made her a straight-A student, but much of her time would now be filled with medical appointments.

West Springfield’s new plan for more catching-up time, adopted in similar ways by other Fairfax County high schools, saved her. With two extra 45-minute free periods each week, she made up missed tests, finished homework and could still participate in after-school drama productions.

Staron is among many West Springfield students happy with what they call “Spartan Time,” in honor of the school mascot. But she and others were unhappy with me for dumping on the idea in a recent column. I reported teacher Ed Linz’s campaign against the program. He called it recess and said it wastes time, rewards sloth and hurts teachers throughout the county.

Linz calculated that Spartan Time consumed the equivalent of 10 school days a year. It made it harder, he said, for physics teachers such as him to stay on schedule. In his view, too many students used the time to chat with friends or watch television in the cafeteria (a special privilege extended to about 600 West Springfield students who qualify for the honor roll).

Linz and I were dismissed by many students as out-of-touch geezers who don’t understand how much more is demanded of high school students these days. Having read their many e-mails, I think they have a point.

U.S. high school students on average don’t do much schoolwork and have not had significant gains in reading or math achievement in the past 30 years. But Fairfax County and most other school districts here are not average. Staron works much harder on her studies than I ever did, and more than the typical American teen does now.

Fairfax County’s extra periods are an innovative response to the pressures of state testing and competition for admission to top colleges. Teachers and parents told me they help keep kids sane and productive. There are similar programs in other area districts.

Joanna Lewton said the STEP program at Wilson High School in the District allows her son to attend club meetings or just get a breather in the middle of the day. Traci Barela said her daughter, a junior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, has “the chance to do homework and also then get help” with difficult parts of an assignment.

At Fairfax County’s Oakton High School, math teacher Becky Lyon said she has 30 extra minutes some days to present and explain an Advanced Placement calculus free-response question from a previous exam.

Not everyone is happy about the new periods. Martha Somers, who teaches in a Loudoun County high school with a program similar to Spartan Time, said the “vast majority of students do nothing during that time whether they should be or not.”

Cole Gould, a junior at West Springfield, was one of the few students rejecting Spartan Time. Students who use it properly, he said, would have found other ways to catch up on work. He recommended the extra periods be eliminated to make room for a more important reform: a later opening bell. That would help the students in his first two periods who “doze off and fall asleep,” he said.

One of the purposes of the extra periods is to give teachers more time to work with struggling students. Linz said many of the students needing help don’t show up for such tutoring.

I understand that problem but see a different solution: Get their names and get them to class. Why deny the extra time to students such as Staron who use it responsibly?

Keeping appointments is a useful habit in the outside world. Making sure students are doing what they are supposed to be doing during Spartan Time might be a good start.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 23, 2011; 10:49 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Becky Lyon, Cole Gould, Ed Linz, Joanna Lewton, Julia Staron, Martha Somers, Spartan Times, Traci Barela, West Springfield High School, high school recess  
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Just FYI, the STEP program at Wilson HS is lunch time. A lot of teachers do offer help during that time and the administration very much encourages teachers to meet and do club things, but it is not a time that is taken out of the school day.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | February 23, 2011 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews:

With a bit of research you might learn that many of the nations "beating us academically" have more recess than us, not less. For example, every Australian school has "morning tea," K-12. It's a most civilized tradition that accompanies post-lunch elementary school recess.

I recommend the following books to you:

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground

Schools That Do Too Much: How Schools Waste Time and Money and What We Can All Do About It

Posted by: DrStager | February 24, 2011 12:44 AM | Report abuse

Why not a mid-week "recess" day instead of recess periods.

I've been putting some thought into an extended school calendar that would designate every Wednesday as a teacher "workday".

Those "workdays" would provide not only time for students to make up work or get remedial help, but also allow teachers a bit more sorely needed planning time.

Also these Wednesdays could be used for other activities that normally would take students out of class like field trips, job shadowing experiences, college visitations, etc.

I have posted this calendar idea at the following link:

I realize it's a wild idea and would need tweaking, but I think it's something to consider.

Posted by: MisterRog | February 24, 2011 5:34 AM | Report abuse

Our HS has an Advisory period, a class of students with whom one teacher remains throughout their HS career. During our first year I tried doing some academic-related work during that period but the resistance was quite high. I decided instead to just circulate through the room and interact with the students socially. We developed a bond that was unique, and I don't think it was a coincidence that by the end of the 2nd year my Advisory had the highest percentage of 1st time students passing our High School Exit Exam (California). As Juniors they now use that time as they see fit, weather to just 'kick it,' or get some work done, and the consensus at my school is I have the 'best Advisory period of all,' over half of them either on the honor roll or student-athletes.
In the words of everyone's favorite news outlet :-)
"I report, you decide."

Posted by: pdexiii | February 24, 2011 7:37 AM | Report abuse

For some areas of the curriculum especially science and technology classes, students can not make up work at home. So a student who is behind or is sick has to get caught up at school. Having a time during the school day when a student can work in a lab allows them to catch up

Posted by: sopranovcm | February 24, 2011 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I suppose there is nothing wrong with recess. Never had it in high school so not sure of the advantage.

I have thought about, after reading this, having student study halls hosted by teachers in their subject areas or having student collaboration periods. Either way, students can win especially with the collaboration issues.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 24, 2011 9:04 AM | Report abuse

If we are preparing students for college, we need more policies like this. We can't expect a student to have 35 structured hours of class time per week senior year and be able to cope with doing more work with only 15 hours of in-class instruction

Posted by: someguy100 | February 24, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for these excellent posts. I appreciate DrStager's reading list.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 24, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Everyone always focuses on the ideal. Now try the reality. What do you do with the kids who don't want to do any work and don't care if they are failing? Do you put them all together in one room, with a teacher who doesn't have any other students to deal with who might be academically behind? Or do you spread them out among the population, creating yet another management problem for teachers and allow them to suck in a few other kids who might otherwise get work done?

Honestly, some of you must teach in little utopias. You may as well put "Suburban middle class issue only", Jay, on many of your posts.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 24, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Cal - Your problems are not unique to study/makeup time, these students behave the same way in all their classes already.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 24, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Use lunch for make-up? Schools now giving students 42 minutes to go to their lockers, go to the cafeteria, go through the lunch line, eat lunch, go to the bathroom, and get back to class. This process is even slower because 1/3 to 1/2 of the student body is on the same schedule. And school cafeterias, with their noise levels and lack of sound-absorbing material, are hardly a relaxing atmosphere. Teachers have the same schedule. And, unlike most jobs that schedule coffee breaks morning and night, this is often the only break in the class schedule. (A teacher's "free period" is more likely spent supervising the cafeteria or in conference with other teachers.)

Sure, let's make students and teachers work through lunch. After all, we need to make sure students learn to WORK non-stop and never have a moment to think; it's time they learned life is unremitting toil that you are not supposed to like. And as for medical findings that gulping lunch at your desk increases stress and obesity, we'll just take the time that would have been devoted to make-up work and make they play dodgeball to fight the growing obesity.

Students are not machines you can run 24 hours a day. Just as an adult may like to sit down with a cocktail or the newspaper when he gets home before fixing dinner, doing household chores, or tackling work he has brought home, students need a break too. And with non-stop classes, after-school activities, homework, and church activities, most of them are working a lot more hours than any adults.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 24, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

"Your problems are not unique to study/makeup time, these students behave the same way in all their classes already."

Um. Duh? If you can't figure out how that ties in to my point, then I don't know what to tell you.

And for suburban utopias,thus spaketh sides with the kids.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 24, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Some 100 public high schools have adopted later (much later) start times than the 7:15 or 7:30 a.m. standard. (Private schools never used this crazy start time, to their credit.)
Not a single district has resumed the crack-of-dawn start time. Better attendance, much better wakefulness and more efficient first periods are the hallmark of starting teens at 8:45, 9 or even 9:15 a.m.
Concerns about buses have been resolved. Sending young kids on early buses is popular with parents, who want to get to work and and skip before-school care. A district in Minnesota spends less on bus transport, with more teens having time to walk or ride a bike or carpool.
The no-time-for-team-sports hedge was also evaporated. Practice and game times shifted as little as 20 mins. as student athletes used free periods, study hall and PE credit for sports.
Test scores and promotions have been shown to improve when teens are not awakened at 5:30 a.m.
This would seem to be self-evident but it is now provable fact. Teachers who like the 2:20 p.m. bell, and an early out, are the only remaining roadblock in coming to better schedules for teens.

Posted by: FloridaChick | February 24, 2011 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I've talked to a number of families who home schooled their kids and they all told me it took about 3 hours a day of "structured" study to cover all the core materials. From the way they described it the "structure" really wasn't all that structured but was whatever activity was appropriate to the situation. From what I could tell all the kids ended up ahead of their age peers and were emotionally and socially well adjusted. Kids are natural learning machines, full of curiosity, love of adventure, and wonder at the world around them. The way k-12 education is conducted in the US today is tailor made to destroy all that. In large part it seems designed to make work for people with college degrees who can't do anything else. Arguing about RECESS is totally irrelevant.

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 25, 2011 1:55 AM | Report abuse

Home school is apples to oranges. They get 3 hours/day of personalized, individual instruction... if you consider that a public school student is in a class with 30 kids, they actually get about 12 minutes of this a day.

Yeah i missed that. I thought you were saying "you can't have study time because kids that don't care will waste it". Not "if this is your biggest problem, we don't really need to worry about you".

Posted by: someguy100 | February 25, 2011 9:42 AM | Report abuse


In the school district I'm the most familiar with the total employee to student ratio is about 10 to 1, not 30 to 1. They spend over $20,000 per student. Most of the instruction of these home schooled kids is not one-on-one instruction - its reading, watching videos, using computerized/online resources, working on projects, taking quizes and tests, peer teaching(older kids helping the younger kids), etc. Also, none of the parents of these kids is a so-called "professional educator". How is it that non-professionals get good results and the so-called "professional educator" don't? The reason the so-called "professional educators" are failing is that they are forcing students and their families to buy what they're selling, which is basically the same thing educators were selling 100 years ago. It's a disgrace.

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 25, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

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