If there are two things that get my blood boiling they must be the devastating influence that high stakes standardized testing is having on schools, and hence our children, and the denial of time to play that accompanies this.
I had a wonderful opportunity when I was a school principal in the USA. Testing had finished and we were faced with the daunting task of keeping the kids focused and gainfully occupied during the last couple of weeks before the summer holidays. They sniff freedom in the wind at that time of year.
Adjacent to my school there was a open air swimming pool. It was a private subscription pool and none of my kids had ever entered the water of that pool. Around 95% of them were African American and about 60% were living below the poverty line. Private pool membership was not high on their parents’ priorities.
I received an unexpected phone call from the pool manager who offered us the pool for the next two weeks, complete with life guards. The season wasn’t due to begin until after school finished and he thought this would be a neighborly gesture.
I was delighted and immediately contacted all my teachers to see how they felt. They expressed the same enthusiasm and so we set about putting together a schedule so that the kids could all have several opportunities to go to the pool, with a particular emphasis on grades 3 and 5 who had just completed a tense week of testing.
I’m an Aussie, so this was all very familiar territory. In Australia we attempt to make all our youngest children ‘drown proof’ with swimming lessons during school time. Sometimes it is held one morning a week for ten weeks but more commonly the little ones will go every morning for two weeks. The buses arrive in the morning, they head for the pool with their teachers and a few parents in tow, and return tired and ready for a quiet afternoon two or three hours later. I was also used to being in charge of my own school. You see, in Australia – as in Finland – the principal actually has the authority to lead and to manage, to make decisions about staffing, budgets, how money will be spent, what contracts will be issued, how schedules will be formulated, what specialist teachers will be employed. I was learning, with great frustration, the straight jacket of micro management that was in place in my new school district.
And so I decided that I probably ought to inform my supervisor of my intentions and my plans.
That showed me my first mistake.
I had not asked permission.
The response was swift and final.
“This activity is not approved. It is an inappropriate use of instructional time.”
Apparently we were meant to spend the last two weeks of the school year getting the kids ready for the next year and the next round of testing.
We did have a field day, and some of the kids did get to have a dip in the pool. But that was all.
Every year I was there I struggled with the instruction that my kids were only to have 15 or 20 minutes of recess each day. I would walk around classrooms in the afternoons and see children dozing off at their desks simply because they had spent almost all of their day physically understimulated, sitting down or walking in lines from one room to another.
In my first year I submitted the daily schedules to my supervisors for approval. I had included a thirty minute ‘rest’ period each afternoon for my 4 and 5 year olds.
You guessed it. “Not approved. They are here to learn, not to rest.”
In the end I resigned.
Why does this all still upset me?
Because as long as we place such emphasis on high stakes standardized tests we will see more and more of this kind of thing. We will see the needs of childhood pushed aside in the interests of high test scores. I watch with dismay as Australia moves more and more closely to the USA model.
At the International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand last month, UNESCO had a stand. On the back wall was a poster with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 31 states:
“States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”
There are only three members of the UN that have not ratified this : Somalia, because there is no government in Somalia, South Sudan because it is such a new nation, and the United States of America.
We may be justifiably concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum, the superficiality of the tests, the loss of the arts because they are not tested. There is another consequence that must not be ignored – the loss of play.
In my belief system, to remove opportunities for free play from children is a form of child abuse. It is a systemic denial of a fundamental right of childhood. And schools all over the United States are doing just this and if we allow it we will see the same in Australian schools and any that subscribe to GERM.
A principal friend of mine in Australia had 23 plastic milk cartons delivered to the school and left in the playground. He watched what the children would do with them when left to their own resources and what he saw amazed and delighted him. The thing is, these children had a 30 minute free play recess mid morning and a 50 minute free play recess after eating lunch. How long will it be before our Australian policy makers decide this is not an “appropriate instructional” use of time?