Education Manifesto #2 – Activities

I teach at a public high school. And I have a concern that I would like to share with everyone who is involved in, or cares about, education:The number of extracurricular activities, and the importance we give them, undermines the education we attempt to impart and claim to value.

I attend more student activities than most other teachers. I go to music events, sporting events, drama events. I send cards through the attendance office congratulating students, I recognize them in class and in the hallways. I am a fan of the students and their activities. But the importance we give to activities has too high of a cost.

Each day when I look out over a half-empty class, or watch half my class get up and leave for some activity, or cringe as class is interrupted/derailed by a loudspeaker announcement about a baseball game schedule change, I think:

“I don’t interrupt your activity, what gives you the right to interrupt my activity? Every class. Every day.”

Worse, even, than just missing the class is the mutation we are causing to education. Every excused absence de-values my class. If you can get out of class for football, baseball, cooking, horses, service, other classes, then why come to class at all? It has brought us to the place we find ourselves: an absolute crisis of absenteeism and apathy.

Teachers feel a silent, embarrassed confusion and fear. I have overheard four different teachers talk about how this year has been the hardest they have ever had for attendance and behavior. I have caught passing comments by others as they are shocked by the staggering amount of missing work. By encouraging absences, we have sent a constant, clear message that class is simply not important. One result is that teachers are going home each day frustrated, exhausted, and, worse yet, feeling like failures: “What did I do wrong that so few students care about my class?”

We are doing just as gross an injustice to the students. We are telling them that their education does not matter; that they do not matter. “Don’t worry about learning. Don’t worry about being competitive in a global market. Just play.”

Are we running schools, or are we running giant, expensive activity clubs?

The argument that activities engage students is, frankly, insane. Of course students like activities. That is the nature of activities. If we added more activities, more students would participate in activities. For every student that football has “saved” there are dozens–hundreds–of students that cartooning, jewelry making, video game design, kayaking could have saved. I have had students who hated school, and performed poorly, but were obsessed with those things. But are activities the saviour students need? Do students need to be “saved” from school. The final challenge to the argument defending activities is the question: why is America near the bottom of high school graduation rates when we offer the most activities?

Some people argue that that is how college operates–with tons of official activities that require tons of excused absences–so what’s the big deal?

The deal is very big. We dare not compare high school to college for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is this: the college graduation rate, which various sources put at 25%, is unacceptable for high school. Maybe college is not a suitable standard by which to measure high school.

Another argument in defense of activities is that activities teach the students valuable things. This is also insane. And we all know it. If sports built character (as we claim), then our professional athletes–those people who have been most dedicated, have put in the most time and sacrifice, who have had the best coaches–would have the strongest character of us all. But we find their character to be no better than the rest of us. If music class taught discipline, then why are my music students missing so many assignments?

The answer to these question is that elevating activities has had precisely the effect we should have expected. It has marginalized academics.

Teachers are the public’s scape-goat. Everyone knows this. From the local coffee shop to the New York Times, people criticize teachers and recognize that people criticize teachers. Teachers feel a great deal of pressure to magically create world-class education. We repeatedly hear, “America has fallen behind the rest of the world in education!” And it is true. The latest stats show that out of 34 wealthy, developed countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math, 13th in college graduation, and 22nd in high school graduation (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40544897/ns/us_news-life/). Here is the explanation: outside of the US, activities are after-school clubs. When students in other countries are at school, they are working on academics. It really is that basic. What you value will be valued.

Our academic achievements, at my school and across the US, now pale in comparison to our extracurricular achievements. Our priorities are clear. Indeed, there are numerous state-sponsored competitions, tournaments, and awards for extracurricular activities. For reading, writing, or thinking there are none. Zero.

Perhaps America is on to something, though. Perhaps the other countries are operating from an un-enlightened perspective. Perhaps cultivating individual interests, of all kinds, is a better way to educate. But we don’t say that. Maybe we should. That certainly is the model from which we operate. It is not inherently wrong. “Know thyself” was the message of half of history’s philosophers and most of history’s literature. An individual, follow-your-bliss approach to educating has value and is very appealing to me. One could make a strong case that it is better way to educate. It certainly would relieve the tremendous pressure that teachers feel to leave no child behind academically, while the entire system focuses on activities instead.

But we talk as though we’re playing the same game as the rest of the world; as though we’re serious about academics.

If we are serious about making education better, as our incessant talk and meetings would indicate, then we need to be serious about making education better. Otherwise we are lying. Otherwise we need to continue making activities more important than school and stop talking as though we are serious about strong, and stronger, education; we must stop talking as though we are measuring our education the same way as the rest of the world.

Whatever we do (which will likely be to Stay the Course), we need to cut official absences. There is no way to gain anything from a class if you are regularly required to NOT be there.

Let’s get our words and actions aligned… by moving either one.

(Originally written May 28, 2011)
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3 comments

  1. Excellent points: choose you this day… we could say to America. It is no secret that European (and Asian) schools emphasize education, languages,and mathematics; the old basics of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. I, personally, had no idea that extracurricular activities were taking students out of class. Extra-curricular should indicate that they are in addition to the curriculum; not instead of.

  2. Well done, Grant, I am so proud and thankful for all you are doing… in time, I know that it will pay off and students will look back on your input and remember the love, time, and care that you poured into their lives. Love always prevails… Love, Grandma Disbrow (Wednesday evening in Portland)

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