What would Michelle Obama think about this?

Michelle Obama introduces Let's Move, an initiative to fight childhood obesity at the White House. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Michelle Obama has advocated for more physical activity in schools. (By Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

You’ve got to wonder about a school system that institutes a new requirement that violates its own wellness policy.

That’s just what happened in the Washington D.C. public school system, where Chancellor Kaya Henderson issued new mandates on how much time all elementary school students must have each day in specific subjects. According to this story by my colleague Emma Brown:

Recess time has varied within the District. Some schools saw a reduction this year as Chancellor Kaya Henderson implemented new requirements meant to ensure that all elementary students get a minimum amount of time in each subject each day: two hours of literacy, 90 minutes of math and 45 minutes of science or social studies. Another 45 minutes is required for an elective such as art, music or physical education.

 

And Henderson’s new requirements included a minimum of 15 minutes for recess — five minutes less than the minimum specified in the school system’s own wellness policy.

 

Principals do have 45 minutes of flex time to add to different subjects, so they can add more time for recess if they want — but they don’t have to. If you consider that it can take five minutes to get kids from the classroom onto the playground, and five minutes back into class, that could love a whopping five minutes for recess.

Hmmm, what would first lady Michelle Obama think about this, given that she has been advocating for years that schools beef up the time kids get physical activity in school? Research is clear about what kids need and how much physical activity improves mental processes. Simply, kids do better academically when they get physical activity and aren’t forced to sit hours on end at a desk. So do adults. At one school I visited, scores rose when teachers had students sprint down the hall just before taking a math quiz. Sprinting before every exam is hardly the answer, but a point about physical activity was made.

It should be noted that D.C. schools are not the only place in the Washington region — or the country — where there isn’t enough physical activity scheduled into the day for young students. This all speaks to the continued, damaging obsession with standardized test scores in the District and everywhere else.

Look at the parameters of Henderson’s new time requirements: a minimum of two hours a day of literacy, 90 minutes a day of math and 45 minutes a day of either science or social studies. Forty-five minutes is required for an elective such as physical ed, art or music. There is 45 minutes of flex time for principals to add to different subjects, presumably according to the needs of the students, but all of this means that kids probably get P.E. about once a week. Same with art and music. Students could conceivably have science and very little social studies, or vice versa.

One of the more ironic aspects of school days that do not give adequate attention to science and social studies and the arts is that those who give these subjects short shrift are hoping to boost standardized test scores in reading and math. Yet students who are taught to decode words so that they can read and write them may still have problems comprehending them, because background knowledge matters. Without real knowledge of the world they live in, students may be able to read a sentence but not be able to extract much meaning from it.

That can’t help those almighty test scores.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 30, 2013