The School Measurement Trap

Empty PlaygroundParents in my town have formed a group, #BringBackRecessMedway, to advocate for more recess for our school children. K – 4th grades get a mere 15 minutes of recess per day. 5th grade and older do not get any recess. This is unacceptable. How did we get here? When did school become so high stakes that young children can’t even get recess?

Recess is not just “play”
Recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development”, and that “minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement”. The AAP continues “Recess promotes social and emotional learning and development for children by offering them a time to engage in peer interactions in which they practice and role play essential social skills… Through play at recess, children learn valuable communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control. These skills become fundamental, lifelong personal tools.”

In my opinion, Medway K – 4th grade should get at least 40 minutes per day (15 minutes in the morning and 25 minutes in the afternoon). 5th – 8th grades should get at least 20 minutes per day.

And don’t even get me started on homework
Stressed Desserts
My 5th grader often spends two hours each day on homework. On top of that she has reading every night. She is desperate for free time during the week. She is 10. She deserves more self-directed free time. My 3rd grader gets daily homework too. Worksheets. Reflex Math. Typing Agent. Reading. To paraphrase my dear friend Tracy G. – there is scarce evidence indicating that assigning homework to elementary schoolers is beneficial.

Medway schools are listening
I am not going to vilify Medway school officials. We have great schools with wonderful teachers and dedicated school officials. School officials have been receptive to having the recess & homework conversations with parents. Our Elementary School Councils (K – 4th grades) have agreed to take up the recess issue in a subcommittee. We hope the Middle School Council (5th – 8th grades) will follow suit.

What is recess?
Recess is self-directed play and physical activity. This is NOT gym class. This is NOT movement breaks.

The False Choice: What are we giving up?
Conversations about adding recess to the school day lead us to the dilemma about what should we take away. If we add 25 more minutes of recess each day, then what are the kids losing? Losing time to master math concepts? Losing time to absorb grammar & literature? Less history? Less Arts? Will we fall behind other schools? These are great questions, but they are false choices. Aside from the social, emotional, & physical benefits of recess, recess leads to more attentive students better able to perform cognitively.

Development “buckets”
I don’t think many parents have ever stepped back to consider what we should be developing in our kids at school. Below are four “buckets” I came up with based on research by people much smarter than me. Academics may be the largest bucket, but it is the least important for child development. (click to enlarge)


Bucket Interplay
Next consider how these four “buckets” play together. Students perform better academically when their social, emotional, and physical health needs are met. As it happens, recess builds social, emotional, & physical health. This rearranges our chart into the flow diagram shown below.


Understanding the interplay above puts a different lens on our present hyper-emphasis on structured academic learning. It becomes apparent that developing our students in non-academic ways bolsters academic success. Therefore, I am refuting the false choice about what we give up when we add recess. Instead, we should be talking about what we gain when we add recess. We gain social, emotional, & physical health AND reap academic benefits. Adding recess is a win-win-win-win.

The School Measurement Trap
The lack of recess and overabundance of homework are both stepchildren of the modern culture of education. The modern culture of education is rigor, competition, measurement, & high stakes testing. Children and schools are measured by what is measurable. Often left behind are the most important competencies that can’t be measured by any tests. It's A Measurement Trap“Naming letters and numbers is superficial and almost irrelevant in relation to the capacities we want to help children develop: self-regulation, problem solving ability, social and emotional competence, imagination, initiative, curiosity, original thinking” (Washington Post 11/24).

Of our four “buckets” above, only academics is measurable. Hence, we have the Measurement Trap.

Look at the Measurement Monster we have created
We have no shortage of Measurement (high stakes standardized tests) in Massachusetts; MCAS, PARCC, AP Exams, SAT, ACT, NAEP, TIMMS, & PISA are among them. Standardized tests aren’t just high stakes for the children. They are high stakes for teachers & school administrators too. Teacher and administrator performance evaluations and compensation can be tied to student standardized test scores. A few years back Massachusetts even explored tying teacher licensure to standardized test scores. And finally, maximizing test scores is a priority for State and Federal education officials seeking professional success.

Massachusetts DOE does not think recess is important

  • Massachusetts requires 900 hours per school year for structured time on learning.
  • Massachusetts requires  0  hours  per  school year for recess.

Putting those school rankings into perspective
For years I have looked upon Medway’s various favorable school rankings with pride. And I looked upon Massachusetts’ top rankings in the US (and near tops in the world) with pride.Medway Schools are challenging But now I wonder if I too was feeding the Measurement Monster. I put Measurements on a pedestal while we let recess fall by the wayside. The Measurement Trap can distort school curricula into hyper-academic rigor and high stakes testing at the expense of the “buckets” that matter most.

Let the kids be kids!
It is time to escape the Measurement Trap. Let’s stop hammering academics and develop the whole child. This is not an appeal to lower academic standards. This is an appeal to bring some fun back into the schools and watch how our students will be better prepared to meet those academic challenges.

I can still have my pride in Medway schools being highly ranked academically. Our path to academic excellence should be paved with free play, creativity, relationship building, nature walks, original thinking, self-expression, games of tag, problem solving, imagination, self-regulation, & playground kickball. Bringing back recess & dialing down homework are great places to start. Game on!


Medway residents are invited to join the conversation here.
(Medway peeps only please!)



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