Friday, May 21, 2010

Menino's Plan for Increasing Students' Performance

“Is Mr. Menino going crazy?” says Adrian, a third grade student at a Boston Public School. “He can’t stop recess. That is when we have the most fun at school. We run around and chase each other and play on the playground.” This is the reaction that many elementary school students have in response to Mayor Menino’s plan of eliminating recess in order to improve the low scores of last year’s MCAS exams. If you were to visit and observe Adrian and his classmates during recess, you can easily understand that recess plays a crucial role in elementary students’ day. So why would Mayor Menino want to take that way from students?

According to the 2009 MCAS results, the scores have indicated that schools are out of compliance with federal achievement standards. In 2001, former president George W. Bush and his administration proposed The No Child Left Behind Act. This bill enacted the theories of standard-based education reform, which is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades.

Massachusetts though has been practicing these new reforms long before The No Child Left Behind Act. In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Education Reform Act. This law called for the creation of curriculum frameworks or guidelines for what should be taught in all schools in different grade levels. This law also called for a comprehensive assessment system that would measure whether schools were teaching the state curriculum. Massachusetts fulfills the requirements of this federal Act by administering a standardized examination, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or the MCAS. The MCAS has three primary purposes; to inform and improve curriculum and instruction, evaluate the student, school and district performance according to the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework and to determine if a student is eligible to receive a high school diploma.But according to the consistent low MCAS scores, Massachusetts still has not been able to fully comply with both the Education Reform Act and The No Child Left Behind Act. The 2009 results demonstrate that 937 elementary, middle, and high schools, or approximately 54% of all schools statewide, failed to meet the benchmark. Out of those 937 schools, 135 were Boston Public Schools.

Recently, Mayor Menino proposed various methods in increasing student performance in Boston Public Schools. One method is to eliminate recess and most extracurricular activities, such as art and music. Another method is to extend the school day from 6 hours to 8 hours. Menino believes that one of these methods would allow for more extensive practice for MCAS examination and has already initiated a plan. For many weeks now, Mayor Menino has been working alongside the Superintendent and School Committee Chairman to form Team BPS, which is a group of Boston Public School alumni, teachers, parents and civic leaders to represent Boston Public Schools. In a couple of weeks, the launching of this new group will become public and their plan for improving standardized scores will be announced.

While many parents are excited that their children will be given more school time, for it could potentially save them money on after school programs, what do students think? Is it healthy for students to be stripped of their playtime or forced to be in a classroom for another 2 hours? Adrian and many of his classmates do not support Menino’s proposal, but neither does his concerned mother who believes that “recess defines the joys of childhood. There is no need to take this away from our young children.” Adrian and his mother have a very good point here. Recess is the time when the energy received from lunch can be released. It’s a time when children can step away from the classroom, and enjoy some playtime with their classmates. When students return to the classroom, they will pay more attention to the teacher and get back to work.

Research has been able to clearly indicate that children do indeed need recess. As far back as 1885 and 1901, research shows that both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods). More recently, the “novelty-arousal theory” has suggested that people function better when they have a change of pace. Because young children don’t process most information as effectively as older children, they can especially benefit from breaks. Also, Dr. Olga Jarrett and her colleagues were able to prove that “children become more on-task and less fidgety on days when they have recess.”

Being stuck in a place for a lengthy amount of time will also lead to even more complications. Many child psychologists concur with these facts, stating that recess and extracurricular activities such as gym, is a crucial part of the day, especially for elementary school students. Melinda Bossenmeyer, child psychologist and author of Peaceful Playgrounds says, “Recess is the time when kids can take pleasure in the outdoors while cultivate a passion for physical activity.” Children in elementary school have so much energy, recess and the freedom to run around permits a lot of the extra energy to be burned off. Not only is all that energy released, but students engage in physical activity, a very beneficial factor in a child’s fitness. If you eliminate recess and gym time, it will only cause students to be inactive. By implementing physical activity throughout a child’s day, it will help decrease their risk of obesity, which has become a huge concern over the past few years.

What about extending the school day? Adrian also comments on this proposal, stating that “making the school day longer will not be good. I just want to go home after a long day at school. Plus, we already do enough at school. I can’t be there any longer.” An anonymous Boston Public Elementary School Teacher responds to Adrian’s comment, saying that “even though I am all for the students and their performance, eliminating recess or even extending the school day may not be the best choice. We really do not want the hours to be longer. If you were to visit my classroom during the last period of school, then you would understand why students and teachers do not want the school days to be longer. By the last hour of school, not only are students fatigued from all the learning that has taken place during the day, but the teachers are fatigued from teaching all day. It takes so much effort from the students to be willing to learn and from the teachers willing to teach that by the time is it the last hour of school, everyone is ready to go home and relax.”

Even though teachers and students may not approve of these two approaches, there has been evidence that lengthening the school day may indeed be Menino’s plan of choice. In 2007, a few charter schools and 10 public schools in Massachusettes lengthened the school day by 25%, allowing more time for hands-on learning. Students received extra reading and writing time and math practices. These schools also reinstated former programs, such as Arts and sports, that were cut because of the extra math and reading time added in order to focus on the No Child Left Behind challenges. After only one year, the schools received alarming results, indicating a correlation between longer school days and students’ performance. Students who scored as “least proficient” increased their math scores by 7.2%, their science scores by 4.7% and their English scores by 10.8%. The average growth of students achieving proficiency in the initial 10 schools was a total of 12.7 points in math on the exam. After U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy reviewed these statistics, he urged Congress to pass a bill that would give schools funding to begin the longer day format. The future funding to continue the programs is unknown though. It will take millions of dollars for Mayor Menino to enact his plans and many teachers’ unions do not comply with this because their pay comes into question. A union source said teachers would not oppose longer days but would seek increased pay, which is a difficult task given current economic crisis. Hopefully though Mayor Menino will look beyond all that and focus on what benefits a child more.

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