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Schools Monday: Sorry, No Field Trips--The Testman Cometh

The memo went out to all D.C. school principals on March 3--from that day forward, for the next seven weeks, all schools are instructed to "suspend any non-instructional activities that take students and teachers away from the classroom." Translation: No field trips or other outside activities until after the week of standardized testing that starts April 22.

Ever since Chancellor Michelle Rhee came into office, she has decried the hegemony of test-taking and test prep, promising audiences throughout the city that she is intent on restoring the art, music, physical education, science and literature lessons that have been squeezed out of so many city schools in the ever-more desperate effort to boost perennially awful test scores.

But the federal No Child Left Behind regimen of testing is relentless and unforgiving. Schools are judged by scores, and D.C. school kids as a whole do especially poorly on tests. So now, according to the memo from the District's Chief of Schools, Tracy Martin, and the Chief of Teaching and Learning, Sherry Ulery, the remaining weeks before the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test is administered will be devoted largely to test prep. "We can ensure student success by maximizing the amount of time devoted to quality instruction," their memo says.

"A lot of our kids haven't made AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress, No Child's term for the measurement that determines whether a school's students have progressed sufficiently in reading and math] in a long time," says Rhee's spokesman, Mafara Hobson. "The focus right now is to get them adequate preparation for the tests. It's certainly not the system's goal to stifle any learning going on outside those tested areas."

But arts groups and other organizations that devote resources to getting D.C. kids out of failing schools and into experiences that might help kindle some love of learning are appalled that the new chancellor would push a single-minded focus on test prep. Alarmed arts and humanities group executives have been trading emails since the D.C. schools memo came out, wondering if the chancellor in whom they had invested so much hope could really turn out to be as antagonistic toward enrichment programs offered by outside groups as previous D.C. superintendents have been.

D.C. schools officials say they mean to send no such message. "The chancellor is a very big advocate of expanding education outside the core subject areas," Hobson says. She says the trips that won't be taken are distractions that could impede the system's ability to demonstrate progress. "One class had a ski trip they were scheduled to go on before the test," Hobson says. "A ski trip!"

But while some trips surely represent bogus and inappropriate uses of school time, the overall message being received by cultural and academic organizations that want to help the D.C. schools is that test taking is paramount.

Hobson says the chancellor will show in the coming months that she is serious about restoring programs that previous leaders of the system zapped to worship at the altar of the standardized test. "Just for this small time period, we're trying to drill instruction on core areas that are going to be on the test," Hobson says, "so our test scores can go up."

That sounds awfully like a collective cramming exercise, and cramming is a good way to turn kids off from the joys of learning. It's also an ineffective way to teach facts, let alone concepts. It is, rather, a sign of desperation and cynicism--the kind of clumsy maneuver that District schools have been known for for decades. Hardly the sign that a page has been turned.

By Marc Fisher |  March 17, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
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I would say we need to try this approach and see if the results are better than what was achieved in the past. Math and English should be the core subjects for all students anyway. I also agree the students need the exposure to the arts but not at the expense of the core subjects. We don't know if this will give us better results than what has happened in the past, but using the methods of the past has already been proven NOT to work.

The Democrats running for President are both insisting that "change" is necessary. DC is getting "change" right now, so people should stop complaining, stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution.

BTW: The teacher who scheduled a ski trip should be given his/her walking papers. That is close enough to misappropriation of government funds to get the law involved too.

Posted by: DC Voter | March 17, 2008 9:08 AM

A couple points . . .

First, before decrying the ski trip as a misappropiation of funds, consider that it is likely that the trip was either being paid for by the parents and/or this was an opportunity for kids that never have the opportunity to get out of the city.

On the testing issue, the situation is far worse than a seven week cramming session. The kids have already taken two practice tests that ate away two weeks of instruction time plus additional days of test prep time. So, there are about 180 days of school and 50 of them are now dedicated to test taking and prep. That sounds about right if all that matters is the test.

Posted by: Simon | March 17, 2008 9:23 AM

Fairfax County schools started testing last week, and will test through the end of the term. About one-third of instructional time is eaten up by testing -- of schools, not students. Accountability is one thing, but this is a waste.

Posted by: Mike Licht | March 17, 2008 10:19 AM

I can say that all the ski trips are paid for by the parents or with fundraisers. DC Voter doesn't have a clue.

Posted by: DCer | March 17, 2008 10:51 AM

You can't even get DCPS to pay for paper and pencils, there's no way they'd pay for a ski trip.

Posted by: DC Parent | March 17, 2008 11:09 AM

Oh my G_d, a ski trip organized by the school and paid for with their own money! This must be stopped. There's no way kids should be allowed to get clean air and exercise.

I am so glad I graduated from school before all of this testing crap started. What a joke.

Posted by: EricS | March 17, 2008 11:51 AM

This is yet another result of the "Most Children Held Back" Act and its failure to focus on what is important. Are Math and English important core subjects? Absolutely. But History, Science, and the Arts are also very important -- and they do not "exclude" Math and English. Consider, for example, a theater production which inspires a child to write his or her own play or get involved in a community theater company and learn about budgeting for a production. What about the child who goes to a field trip to Ford's Theater and becomes inspired to learn more about Lincoln (or for that matter Drama from the 1860's.......)

Teaching to pass a test is going to hold back, if not destroy, an entire generation of American School Children.

Posted by: Frustrated | March 17, 2008 12:24 PM

While I agree with the overall tenor of your remarks, Marc, I would suggest that given the fact that NCLB is the be-all and end-all for Federal government funds (isn't it?) that the focus on "acing" the test is not unwarranted. I don't like it either, but if they can improve test scores then maybe they'll have the freedom to get further "outside the box."

You sound as if you'd just like her to blow off the tests....but what would the consequences of such a decision be?

Posted by: BobT | March 17, 2008 12:27 PM

Well, I can't see that this ruling would have an effect on many DC schools. Unless you're in Ward 3, there is no money in the PTA accounts to help pay for field trips. Since DCPS has no school buses, each class must come up with the funds to cover a charter bus.

Now with the the right number of parent chaperones and public transportation, you can do affordable trips, but it's tough taking very young students on the bus or metro without adequate adult supervision.

My son's K class went on one field trip last semester. It cost $11 per person, which is a lot of cash if you're an hourly wage worker, as most of the parents at our school are...

Does anyone know what the short buses do all day while the riders are in class? It would be great if some were available to ferry little kids to some of our great FREE area attractions.

Posted by: threeboysindc | March 17, 2008 12:31 PM

In my child's Maryland school district the buses must be paid for to use for field trips. Even if the trip would be free there is a charge for the buses. I believe it cost me 11.00 for my daughter to go to the post office last year. I think the school district makes a tidy profit from these trips.

At our school the PTA has a fund to help supplement field trips for students that cannot afford them. The teachers just tell us the amount needed never the kids names.

And our principal canceled all holiday celebrations because they take away form class time. Room parents are permitted to bring in a snack to be served during the last 20 minutes of school. No more Halloween Parades, Winter Break / Spring Break parties, no Leprechaun hunts. It is all so sad but the school's test scores are outstanding. I truly wish there could be more of a balance.

Posted by: No Free Rides | March 17, 2008 12:55 PM

And every minute they are on their field trip they are not in class.

If getting out of the city is the main goal of these students/parents they can catch a bus at any time. If their parents are paying for the trip they can buy them a one way bus ticket instead and not have to worry about them coming back.

Silly me, I thought the goal of the education system was to empower the students with the ability to compete with their peers in the job market.

But hey, if getting out of the city is all that matters, see ya, so long.

Posted by: DC Voter | March 17, 2008 1:11 PM

Rhee is chopping heads at 825 and she needs to be able to show that all of the cuts are yielding at least some progress. Losing the field trips is an unpleasant byproduct of that need.

Besides, who schedules a ski trip for March? Are the kids going to ski on rocks?

Posted by: Chris | March 17, 2008 1:27 PM

I sure hope the classes that aren't being tested (starts at 3nd grade, right?) are still allowed to take field trops. The little kids can take their trips, leaving behind a more quiet school for the older test taking kids. Does anyone know if the non test taking classes are excluded from this "edict"?

Posted by: Dc Mom | March 17, 2008 1:44 PM

DCvoter wrote:

And every minute they are on their field trip they are not in class.


Silly me, I thought the goal of the education system was to empower the students with the ability to compete with their peers in the job market.

My reply:

With respect to your first comment, field trips are, themselves, "classes". The famous adage "A Picture is worth a Thousand Words" comes to mind. For example, going to, for example, the Smithsonian and seeing a Dinosaur Skeleton immediately brings to life the size and scale of the Dinosaur. Seeing the a Mercury Capsule makes space travel real (an amazing number of people believe that we "faked" the moon landings - a number that will grow without education).

With respect to the second comment:
The purpose of education IS to empower the student. And limiting their learning to a limited subset of knowledge is the worst possible way of empowering a student. In addition to the knowledge, a student must also be "inspired". And often that inspiration is not found just in the classroom.

The "Most Children Held Back" Act and its false accountability standards is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the process of education. Placing a school and a student on a procrustean bed (and I am guessing that Procrustes is no longer part taught) does not solve the problem, it simply creates more problems.

Posted by: Frustrated | March 17, 2008 3:03 PM

Silly me, I thought the goal of the education system was to empower the students with the ability to compete with their peers in the job market.

Who knew that when I said DC Voter didn't have a clue that they'd come back and prove me even more right.

Posted by: DCer | March 17, 2008 3:29 PM

kids should have trips

Posted by: Anonymous | May 13, 2008 10:30 AM

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