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October 20, 2017

From rowdy to ready to learn: The cognitive, physical, and social-emotional benefits of daily recess

Any teacher knows the signs. It starts with a rustle here, a giggle there—and suddenly, the whole class is off task. Hopefully, the restlessness will kick in just before recess, and the kids will be able to run off some energy before returning to class refreshed. But many teachers across the country have had to find another approach—for many classes, recess may mean just a short break, or may only be scheduled on certain days of the week.

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As schools have emphasized the importance of literacy and mathematics in recent years, many schedules have been adapted to accommodate increased time devoted to tested subjects. Along with oft-lamented cuts to arts and music programs, daily recess has faced challenges of its own.

This month, experts have weighed in to reiterate what teachers already know to be true: recess is good for kids. It supports cognitive and social-emotional development, and helps kids return to the classroom ready to learn.

A study out this month adds more evidence to support the belief widely held by teachers that students will be more focused after taking a ‘brain break’ at recess. The study’s authors tested third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and found that the children had significantly higher measures of sustained attention after recess than before. Even students who did not participate in intensely active play and instead used recess as a time to socialize showed cognitive benefits, suggesting that the mental break away from the classroom is perhaps the most significant aspect of recess. Additionally, students build social-emotional skills by playing and socializing at recess in ways that complement their learning in the classroom. Active games and sports, role playing and imagination, and even chatting with friends develop skills like cooperation, problem solving, and sharing—all valuable skills that may not be directly taught in the traditional classroom.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also expressed clear support for daily recess: not only is the mental break beneficial for students to recharge and process their learning throughout the day, but active play also comes with clear physical benefits. The CDC recommends that children get 60 minutes of physical activity every day, but few students meet this guideline. This level of activity helps build strong bones, muscles, and hearts, and improves memory and concentration. Because many students are not sufficiently physically active outside of school, providing an environment during the school day where students have the opportunity to play during recess helps every child meet their daily physical activity goals, encouraging them to build and benefit from a healthy body.

Teachers already know it, and the evidence supports it: kids are more able to focus after recess. But the benefits don’t stop there. Recess helps kids develop cognitively by allowing them a break to process what they’ve learned. Students who participate in active play build healthy bodies, and even students who choose to socialize during recess develop important social-emotional skills. When students start to become antsy in class, the mental break of daily recess can help them internalize what they have already learned and prepare to absorb new material.






June 6, 2017

Does a four-day school week sacrifice learning in the interest of a balanced budget? Part II: Academic impact

This week, we revisit our two-part series on the increasingly popular four-day school week. Adopted as a cost-cutting measure in nearly 150 districts across the country, this schedule has been shown to produce limited savings. What are the academic effects of such a change? How does a four-day school week change classroom learning? How might students use their “free” day?

Parents and educators have expressed concerns about the academic viability of a four-day school week in most districts where the switch has been suggested. However, thus far, any evidence of students’ academic performance in four-day districts is limited and mixed. A recent study found evidence of slightly higher scores in mathematics for students on a four-day schedule than those on a five-day schedule , however this is certainly not part of a broader pattern. Just a few years prior, one study found “little difference”  in achievement between the two schedules, while another found slightly higher achievement in students on the five-day schedule. Evidence of any academic benefit or detriment to students is inconclusive at this time and cannot yet be used to make a decision about the use of a four-day schedule.

Academically, we know very little about the effect of a four-day school week. Some proponents suggest, however, that there may be other potential benefits to students and staff from the shift. Absenteeism may be reduced for both students and staff, particularly in rural areas, as the “free” fifth day may be used to schedule appointments that would otherwise create time missed from school. Teachers may be able to use the increased time in the daily schedule to implement new teaching methods, and may use the fifth day for planning and collaboration. Students may use the fifth day for enrichment activities, remediation, or class preparation. Proponents suggest that the four-day week brings benefits to students and teachers by allowing for greater flexibility and creativity with the use of the school day, which may have a positive impact on student learning.

Unfortunately, these potential benefits come with detrimental drawbacks. Teachers and parents both voice the concern that five days of learning may not effectively be consolidated into four. Fewer, longer days may be particularly difficult for younger students who may become fatigued and unfocused by the end of the day. While absenteeism may be reduced, any student who is absent for a single day misses a larger portion of the week’s material than a student who is absent for one day of a five-day schedule. For many districts making this switch, a large portion of the students may be receiving free- and reduced-price lunch and breakfast. By eliminating one day of the school week, schools push the responsibility of providing one or two extra meals onto already struggling families. In some communities with four-day school weeks, food banks have had to step in to fill this gap in students’ nutrition. The extra “free” day created by a four-day calendar also raises the question of how students spend this increased time out of school, and how that may vary across socioeconomic groups. Families with more resources may be more able to pursue enrichment activities for their child, whereas families with fewer resources, already stretched thin, may be required to seek out alternative day care or even leave older children unsupervised. There is some evidence that moving to a four-day school schedule may even increase youth criminality as older students left unsupervised fill their time with illegal activity. Each of these unintended consequences may have long-term impacts on students’ academic achievement that should be considered and accounted for before shifting to a four-day schedule.

We have reached the end of our two-part series on the four-day week. Though the switch continues to gain popularity due to tight budgets, we know very little about its effects on student learning outcomes, particularly regarding longer-term indicators like college attendance and career success. As this schedule gains popularity as a method to cut budgets in districts across the nation, we will almost certainly gain a more conclusive understanding of its implications. As of now, there is little support for the theory of large potential savings, current evidence on academic success is incomplete, and there remain questions of potentially negative implications for students both inside and outside of the classroom.






June 1, 2017

Does a four-day school week sacrifice learning in the interest of a balanced budget? Part I: Slim savings

The four-day schedule is not an entirely novel idea—first used in the 1930s, the system gained popularity in the 1970s as surging oil prices drove districts to seek alternative solutions to cut their growing transportation budgets. More recently, shifts in the definition of instructional time by many states toward instructional hours rather than instructional days has opened the door to the resurgence of the four-day week. This change grants districts the flexibility to implement a calendar with fewer, longer school days, generally adding about 45 minutes on to the end of the school day.

In the wake of the Great Recession, states continue to make deep cuts to education budgets, leaving already struggling communities to find innovative solutions. Today, about 150 districts in 21 states have adopted the calendar. A potential cost saver like the four-day week can be appealing under tight budgetary circumstances, but how much money does a four-day week really save? Does the four-day week hold up as a viable option for districts struggling with tight budgets?

2017-06-01_11-35-57Proponents of the four-day school week foresee significant savings, particularly in the areas of transportation, food service, and building operations. By eliminating these costs from one whole day of the usual five-day school week, districts predict a 20% savings in each area. However, each of these areas individually makes up a relatively small portion of a district’s overall budget. Cutting transportation completely for one day of the week, a commonly indicated source of potential savings in rural districts, leads to only a 0.85% savings to the overall budget.

The largest portion of the budget (approximately 60.82% on average) is dedicated to instruction, primarily made up of teacher salaries and benefits, which are not affected by a move to a four-day schedule. Despite the initial inclination of many proponents, teachers continue to provide the same number of instructional hours and thus receive the same salary and benefits. The largest portion of the budget, then, is not impacted by a shift to a four-day week.

In fact, estimates suggest that a four-day week brings a maximum potential savings of only about 5.43% to the overall district budget. Most districts that have already made the shift have seen much lower savings. A study out of Oklahoma, a state that has been making national headlines for its controversial use of the four-day week, recently found no evidence that districts that switched saved money at all.

While budgetary considerations have been the primary driver of the four-day week’s recent spike in popularity, these suggested savings appear to be unfounded. Despite these limited savings, districts continue to shift to a four-day schedule. What impact might this change have on students and staff? What considerations must districts weigh before making the change? Next week, we will examine the potential academic effects of changing to a four-day week.






May 8, 2017

Black and Latino parents express their views on education

School choice advocates seemed surprised earlier this year when the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools. The need for school choice, according to many advocates, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stems from lack of choices and underperformance of public schools for low-income students and students of color. However, a new survey by the civil rights group The Leadership Conference asks black and Latino parents about their views on education. Instead of education advocates and policymakers presupposing that all parents want is choice, we should stop and listen to them.

Parents want changes that would provide fair opportunities to their students. Most of their criticism is centered around race-based inequalities in funding and resources, as well as biased treatment of their students. Some parents may use school choice to attain greater equality, but until every school provides a high-quality education, providing options alone isn’t enough.

The Leadership Conference surveyed 600 black parents and 600 Latino parents across the U.S., all with children ages 5-18. The margin of error for each group is 4 percent. In addition to ensuring that our education system hears the voices of all groups of parents, this survey is particularly important because it helps peel back the layers on why black and Latino students often lag behind in educational attainment. They also make up nearly half of the student population.

Surveyed parents overwhelmingly felt that schools in black and Latino communities received less funding than schools in white neighborhoods. Research from EdBuild, an organization that studies education funding, would back up that sentiment. Black parents whose children attended majority white schools were more likely to rate their school as excellent than parents of students at majority-black schools (61 versus 14 percent). If funding tends to follow white students, then minority students at majority-white schools would also benefit from better supported schools. Socioeconomic status may also play a role in this perception; black and Latino students are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students.

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Parents also cite racism and bias as contributors to their children receiving an inferior education. When their children had mostly white teachers, parents were more likely to believe that U.S. schools weren’t really trying to educate black/Latino students. This aligns with recent research that shows that black students are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college if they had at least one black teacher in upper elementary school. While the mechanisms for the research findings are unclear, it is apparent that black and Latino parents feel that schools aren’t giving their children an equitable education.

Parents also shared what they feel will improve their schools: high-quality teachers, access to educational resources and technology, and high expectations for their students. They also care about extracurricular activities and after-school programs. In an open-ended question, nearly half of respondents cited good teachers as the most important characteristic to make a great school, placing it far above the number who cited a core/general curriculum or safe and nurturing environment. Eighty-nine percent of black parents and 81 percent of Latino parents wished that their children were challenged more.

All of these sentiments have been backed up in importance by research. High-quality teachers are paramount to students’ learning. Strong learning materials support great teaching by ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers. Students with same-race teachers tend to have higher performance. Schools receive inequitable funding, with poor and minority students typically concentrated in schools with fewer resources.

And yet, many policy-makers and education advocates have spent the last couple of years debating the merits of school choice. It seems that we’re missing the more important policy questions. Charters perform at about the same level as district schools, and large voucher programs actually have worse achievement results for students. So, instead of trying to create new systems, maybe we should focus on what really matters; just ask the parents.






April 28, 2017

New federal study of DC voucher program shows academic decline

A new federal analysis of the District of Columbia’s voucher program has found that students who transferred to private schools posted similar and, in some cases, worse scores than their peers who remained in public schools.

The findings appear to be the first time the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) has noted that voucher recipients performed worse on some academic measures than DC public school pupils in general.

It comes on the heels of new research on Louisiana and Ohio’s statewide voucher programs, which showed precipitous declines in test scores between students who took advantage of the voucher and transferred to a private school and similar students who stayed in public schools.

Created by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was intended to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with tuition subsidies to attend private schools. Reauthorized in 2011 as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, it was the first and remains the only federally-funded voucher program in the U.S.

Ongoing evaluation of SOAR was a key feature of the 2004 and 2011 bill, hence IES has conducted numerous studies in the past that looked at student outcomes, parent satisfaction and general characteristics of the participants. But this is the first time researchers have observed a sharp difference between the test scores of SOAR participants and non-participants. Before we get to the specifics, some background: the study’s sample included students who applied to the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and were either offered or not offered a scholarship; the difference between the two on a variety of measures was studied one year after SOAR students transferred to private schools.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • Math scores dropped, on average, 7.3 percentile points for voucher recipients compared to students who applied but had not been selected for the program.
  • Reading scores dropped among elementary students (7.1 percentile points) who participated in SOAR compared to those who did not, but there was little discernible difference at the secondary level between these two groups.
  • Students who transferred from low performing schools (the very students the program is intended to help) saw no significant gain on their test scores one year after transferring to private school.
  • Meanwhile, voucher participants who had not transferred from schools designated as “in need of improvement” saw their math scores drop, on average, 14.1 percentile points and their reading scores by 11.3 percentile points compared to students who were in public schools.

While these findings aren’t as dramatic as Louisiana, where students saw a 27 percentile point drop in math one year after transferring to private schools, it’s yet another chink in the, let’s face it, drafty armor known as school choice.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having options. The problem is when one equates more options with better outcomes. This is not always the case, as this and other studies are showing.






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