In Iowa, our Department of Education brags about elementary schools that cut recess

Everyone wants children to be able to read. But unpacking that educational goal – and the political rhetoric that often surrounds it – may require a bit more digging and critical analysis. Here’s an example…

In the 2004-2005 school year, 18 4th graders took the state reading test at Charter Oak-Ute Elementary. Only 14 were deemed proficient, for an AYP percentage of 78%. That apparently sparked a 7-year quest to raise test scores.

2005 Charter Oak Ute Elementary Reading

Today the Iowa Department of Education (DE) touted Charter Oak-Ute Elementary as one of the 5 schools (out of 1,409 in the state) that’s supposedly proving that poverty does not equal destiny. In fact, DE boldly said on its home page:

It may be well known that high-poverty schools will have lower proficiency rates than their more affluent counterparts. Sure, it’s well known. But it is wrong.*  [yes, that was our Department of Education dismissing decades of peer-reviewed research on student learning outcomes in high-poverty schools]

 DE screenshot 01

What did Charter Oak-Ute Elementary do to warrant DE’s publicity? Well, in 2011-2012, 19 of its 21 3rd grade students passed the reading test – for an AYP percentage of 90%** – despite 58% of its students receiving free/reduced price lunch. [for reference, the average statewide reading proficiency for 3rd graders is 76%]

2012 Charter Oak Ute Elementary Reading

From 14 of 18 students to 19 of 21 students. If Charter Oak-Ute Elementary had kept its reading proficiency percentage steady, only 16 3rd graders would have passed the state reading test last year. So it essentially moved the needle for 3 students. In seven years.***

By now many of you may be wondering, “What did this elementary school do to bump up these 3 kids’ reading scores?” Well, according to its principal:

[Teachers and students] weren’t happy with some of the things we had to drop, such as morning recess time because we really don’t need that.

That’s right. Among other interventions, the school cut recess. For 7- and 8-year-olds.

Never mind statements against cutting recess from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Never mind the research that shows how recess breaks maximize children’s cognitive performance or shows recess is important for children’s learning, social development, and health (“no research clearly supports not having recess”) or connects recess to good classroom behavior. Never mind children’s needs for breaks, exercise, and play. Never mind our childhood obesity epidemic, particularly for low-income kids.

And, apparently, never mind DE’s own admonitions for schools to adopt ‘evidence-based practices.’ Whether proposing 3rd grade retention or cutting recess (FYI, for both the research is heavily AGAINST them), DE is beginning to show that is willing to hold up and/or advocate for practices that are anything BUT ‘evidence-based.’

A high-poverty school that gets rid of elementary school recess to feed the always-hungry maw of ever-increasing test score goals should raise concerns for us. Because it’s yet another example of the kinds of dehumanizing microaggressions that happen all too often to children who are in poverty and/or of color. And it’s not what we in Iowa should be encouraging. Because if DE is willing to tout this recess-cutting school as doing what it needed to raise reading scores, the writing is potentially on the wall for ‘whole child’-oriented practices in larger school districts that have even greater concentrations of children in poverty. Yes, that means you, Des Moines, Waterloo, Sioux City, and Davenport (and others)…

I’m concerned that we’re becoming one of THOSE states. In Iowa we always have prided ourselves as being more enlightened than many of those states in which districts were cutting art, music, recess, physical education, foreign language, and other aspects of school necessary to provide well-rounded schooling experiences for children. We took pride in doing our best to attend to the needs of the whole child – for every child. But that commitment to children – and our recognition of decades of child development research – appears to be waning.

So put February 25, 2013 down on your calendar as the day when not only did Iowans learn that one of our own schools cut recess to improve test scores but also that our own Department of Education was willing to brag about it. Welcome to the new #edreform in Iowa.


* At least it’s ‘wrong’ for the 5 schools out of 1,409 that DE cherry-picked [please ignore the other 1,404]
** DE said it was 92%?
*** Of course this ignores ordinary year-to-year variation, differences between cohorts of students, random measurement error, etc. 

13 Responses to “In Iowa, our Department of Education brags about elementary schools that cut recess”

  1. Not just cutting recess, also assigning non-reading staff to teach reading (which I think is code for using art, music, PE, speech, etc. as “interventionists.”). Because the best way to ensure well-rounded students is to remove all instruction except that which increases reading test scores. Oh, and to remove all time for specialist teachers to improve student performance and understanding in a specialized subject area. Or even to remove time for librarians, say, to meet with and support other teachers in recognition that their job might make that 2 1/2 hours a week devoted to scripted intervention for five kids a less effective use of their time than having them do the work they (or gym or art or music) have been trained to do?
    Do the administrators all drink the same Koolaid at some point? Cutting recess and assigning more reading interventions is just what they’ve done in my district. Because kids are better trained for critical thinking in a changing world when they don’t develop knowledge across disciplines, clearly.

  2. I would think this piece of evidence along with your description of what happened at the legislative hearings provide ample evidence that disconnects between reformers are as wide as they have ever been (although little of this is new – it is just getting amplified).

    I had the unique experience of watching our state commissioner of education speak in the same session as Tony Wagner. I’m not sure that many people picked up on the sheer lunacy, but our commissioner started with how well our state fared against the nation on our state tests (to which there was a huge applause as we are proud of our kids and schools). No more than 20 minutes later, Tony Wagner exclaims, “The world does not care what you know anymore.” We all applauded loudly again.

    Perhaps these two should have talked this out before the presentation and let us educators know what the world truly does care about.


    Regardless of research, policymakers in both parties will continue the platform of improving schools through standards and measures aimed to improve teacher performance – (although when people say they would like to reward high-performing teachers and schools, I wonder if they truly mean that they would like to punish and weed out the opposite – but that doesn’t make good spin).

    That the department of education would tout this speaks to how different people view “better”. Increasingly to a lot of people, better must be measured and better must be quantified – and better means higher test scores. It is a train that is picking up speed instead of slowing down or going off the rails. It has been Sputnik.

  3. Scott,

    I sincerely hope you submit this to the Des Moines Register as a guest editorial. Iowans take pride in the quality of their education and what you describe is not high quality education.


  4. Terrific post. I can’t say what Iowa used to be like, but I agree that these schools have little to no regard for the needs of the whole child. The more I see of our Department of Education, the more I support local control.

  5. As a parent from one of the schools mentioned in the article I am very disappointed in the reaction from some people. Being from Charter Oak-Ute I am very proud of the education my children are receiving there. In my opinion, our school individualizes education to fit the needs each child requires. Despite the fact that morning recess was cut my son is a well-rounded, happy, healthy, average 4th grader. Before you criticize the efforts of our school and educators maybe you should research how we in the district feel about those efforts. I am proud of our student achievement and also for all the extra time and effort our teachers have put in to achieve student success. What works for some districts may not work for others. That is what makes our district special. Our district looks at research based practices and work to fit these practices to fit the needs of OUR children in OUR district. What was supposed to be a round of applause for the efforts of our teachers and students you have turned into something negative based on some research. Kudos to Charter Oak-Ute for going against the grain to make the lives of our students better.

    • Leanne, I’m glad that your child is doing well. Of course that’s what we all want. That does NOT mean that your school is a model for the rest of Iowa. There are grave dangers in generalizing the CO-U situation (as the Department of Education does) from what may have worked for a very small school in a particular situation (and I’m willing to question even that given the small sample size, the results (only 3 kids!), other alternatives, and ordinary cohort/statistical fluctuations) to lessons for all schools in Iowa. The DE is using CO-U to make a political point that is overreaching and unjustified given the data. It’s not that critics like myself don’t care about your kids or your school. It’s that we care more about making statewide policy declarations based on cherry-picked results and scenarios that are anomalous and thus unscalable.

  6. Seriously? I applaud Chart Oak-Ute for doing what was necessary to improve the reading skills of their students. This is one of the many goals of schools; teach students the basics and build on it. Too many times the schools are asked to be the “everything” for the student. Plus those who are educated understand we can find ‘research’ to substantiate just about anything or any view. So to CO-U, keep doing what you know works for your students and community.

    • I’m sorry that you feel that the school had to cut recess in order to meet academic goals, particularly since multiple generations of young children lost recess for multiple years in order to move a grand total of 3 children above the proficiency line. Other schools are able to comport with what we know from personal experience and peer-reviewed research and find ways to meet the needs of ‘the whole child.’ It’s a shame that this school couldn’t find other ways to do what it was trying to do. I think it’s also sad that folks are willing to justify such choices instead of searching for better, smarter ways of operating that better meet the needs of young children.

  7. Scott you are using the number of three students as if that is a relatively small number. In the scope of it it does seem minut. That is one percent of our student body pre k-12. Now in a larger district one percent in a district of lets say 3000 that one percent would seem tremendous. I think that you have totally focused this success on dropping recess but in fact that success really has nothing to do with dropping recess. Our teachers have devoted their free time out of school to achieve success. And really if you look at dropping recess how much time are we really talking about. Morning recess was only 15 minutes so by the time the teachers get everyone ready to go outside it really only amounts to 10 or less minutes outside. Cant believe 10 minutes of play is really that big of a deal to eliminate. Our students get 30 minutes at noon and 15 minutes in the afternoon plus P.E. time was increased twice a week so its not like we arent allowing our students down-time or exercise. In a school our size little successes are huge. So forgive me for saying that you really dont understand what our students need or what you think they are deprived of so to speak. We live in small farming communities where family values are treasured and honored and where parental involvement is high. Athletics is available for our students plus these children are participating in family farming activities so our children know how to play and know what outside time is. I didnt say that cutting recess is for everyone nor did i say it should be a model but to criticize our success based on some research is wrong. Come to our district and you will see some of the other great things our school has implemented. To judge us on partial information is wrong too. You focused on cutting recess. You didnt mention nor do you know the time and efforts put into making our students successful. This really wasnt why our reading scores have improved and are continuing to improve. Its because our teachers care and spend time with their students to know what works and what doesnt. Its easy for you to judge. You dont know us so i invite you to come and get to know us. Come see why we love and treasure our school.

  8. I get it. I’m all over this state on a regular basis. I spend a TON of time in small, rural Iowa schools working with teachers and administrators. I don’t know your community or your school specifically but I do understand what education in Iowa looks like, rural, urban, and suburban.

    I have no concern with a focus on reading instruction and helping kids learn to read. I have no concern with all of the wonderful strategies you articulate here. BUT I do have a concern with cutting recess for young children. You say it doesn’t matter for your kids but the research says otherwise. And we should NOT be holding that up as a statewide model of practice no matter how well it might be working there. Because even if you’re being as thoughtful as you can about it (and I’ll give you that even as I disagree with your decision), others will not be. Once the heavy hand of the state starts advocating for things, I guarantee you that it will be implemented poorly for many, many children, especially those that are traditionally underserved.

    The state is putting you forth as an exemplar. And while your results may be desirable, there is great, great danger in upscaling your model statewide. We rightfully should be wary of eliminating opportunities for young children to get outside, exercise, free play, and the like. And that’s EXACTLY what’s happening all across the country – particularly in struggling, urban schools that serve poor children – which is why we should be especially alert to the state advocating such practices. Just do a quick Google search on ‘schools cutting recess’ and you will see that is an increasingly-widespread practice by schools desperate to raise scores on tests of low-level knowledge. I am willing to take a public stand against that and encourage others to do the same.

    Similarly, saying that ‘poverty is not destiny’ – as the state is doing here – also is incredibly irresponsible. The surest path to ruining schools is to pretend that poverty does not matter. Again, we are seeing this all over the country – particularly in those struggling urban school that serve poor children – as they pin blame on teachers and schools for solving the effects of poverty instead of adopting more holistic approaches that also address community and family needs. As soon as DE held you up as a public model, this became much, much bigger than what’s happening there in your small, probably incredibly wonderful, community. As someone who is concerned about policy and the resultant implications for ALL of the children of Iowa (and across the USA), my red flags are up. And they have much less to do with what you’re doing there and much more with how DE is using you to foster its propaganda that poverty doesn’t matter.

    High expectations are good. No argument there. But young children deserve recess and free play. Young children deserve caring adults who don’t pretend that poverty doesn’t matter.

  9. Reading scores on standardized tests may have gone up in these districts, but what we don’t know, and what the Iowa Department of Education isn’t measuring, is whether or not these students are becoming more successful and authentic readers.

    Are the students now picking up books outside of school and reading for pleasure? Do they beg mom and dad to take them to the library to check out stacks of books for the weekend? Are they spending birthday and Christmas money at Barnes & Nobel or

    Or do these students the Iowa DOE is bragging about now dislike reading? Do they now view reading as a chore, as a stuffy school assignment, and avoid it completely outside of school?

    Standardized test scores may have gone up in these districts but we must ask — at what cost? What was given up in order to get higher scores? Recess was sacrificed but was the love of reading also destroyed in the process?

  10. Among other things, how on earth can anybody draw any firm conclusions from changes as small as three in a sample of 21??? Much less conclude that eliminating recess was part of what led to the changes?

    And, as someone not from Iowa (I’m from Massachusetts), I had always thought Iowa was more sensible than the rest of the country, as Iowa was the state that held out against the testing obsession the longest. I’m sad to hear that you are joining the rest of us.

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