This time of year, many people visit their local schools for ball games, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas programs, and other events. For some, it is their first time inside a school building for many years, so they inevitably have some questions. For example, they often ask “Why do schools close more often nowadays?” After eating a slice of sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free, and spice-free pumpkin pie, they also want to know “why don’t you serve home-made food anymore?”
Both of these are good examples of good intentions with unintended consequences. Child nutrition laws functionally eliminate the “home-made” meals once served in cafeterias. Likewise, schools close more frequently due to new laws penalizing schools for chronic absenteeism. Enough absences for early holidays, deer hunting, or bad weather can drop a school’s A-F rating, so when kids will be absent, it is sometimes better to close.
Of course, we know that kids are not getting fat at school and that closing for the entire week of Thanksgiving is a burden on some families, but local schools increasingly must choose between bad or worse decisions lately. Faraway politicians and activists determine what they can teach locally, how to teach it, and what goes into their pies. They may have had the best of intentions, but many laws have been adopted without consideration of the local, kid-level implications, and bad pies are not the only unintended outcomes.
For example, many of us remember learning cursive in third grade, but standardized test scores now determine just about everything regarding your children’s, teachers,’ and schools’ success. Third-graders must also take those tests on a computer, so cursive writing has been pushed aside for keyboarding skills. Old-fashioned recess has suffered a similar fate. Neither hopscotch nor freeze tag are on the tests, so many schools have greatly reduced or eliminated recesses to ensure enough time for teaching to the tests. Thankfully, we have rediscovered the academic benefit of play, so recess is making a comeback. Cursive, on the other hand, may never return. Eventually, Mrs. Fields will have to change her pie logo.
High school physical education, performing arts, and trade classes have suffered similar impacts because they are not tested or required for graduation. Shop class, auto mechanics, HVAC, plumbing, and similar offerings have disappeared from most high schools. Likewise, fewer schools offer technology, business, or family/career sciences (home economics). They are not college-track, so they are valued less, due to legislation. Small and rural schools suffer the most under these good intentions, which is why so many have closed, even when they had the best pies.
The deepest impacts are less visible, however, because so much has been imbedded in schools that teachers now have less time to teach their subjects. All of the medical, psychiatric, social work, law-enforcement, and other mandates must be met, so instructional time is lessened. Add the mountains of meaningless paperwork, and schools are forced to focus more on compliance than teaching, learning, or nurturing. Most of these laws arose out of the best motivations, but educational policy has now become a bad pie full of good intentions.
If you are fortunate enough to visit your local school this season, remember that they can make better pumpkin pie if given a chance. They can meet the highest of standards, but they cannot do this anymore with only state-approved ingredients. Keep the high standards, but trust them with kid-level, local decisions. If we do that, our schools will once again make pies that nurture kids and meet their academic needs, because the best (and tastiest) educational decisions are almost always local recipes.
Tom Deighan is an educator and author of Restoring Sanity in Public Schools: Common Ground for Local Parents and Educators. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org