Mandatory Recess Is Easy. Changing DISD's Test-Obsessed Culture Is Hard.

On Thursday night, after a couple of months of discussion and one scaldingly hot take by Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland ("I vote YES on recess"), Dallas ISD trustees required all district elementary schools to provide recess, a minimum of 20 minutes through the remainder of the school year jumping to 30 minutes in the fall. In addition, withholding recess can no longer be used as punishment for minor offenses.

The requirement comes after parent complaints prompted DISD trustee Dan Micciche to take a look at the district's recess policy and realize there wasn't one. A survey of individual campuses produced something of a "holy crap" moment when it revealed that a fifth of elementary campuses offered no recess at all and that most of the remainder had play periods of 15 minutes or less. One needn't look to Finland, whose damn near utopian education system gives grade-schoolers three 15 minute recess periods per day, or delve into the academic literature on the benefits of free play, to recognize that recess should be part of the school day. That much is obvious to anyone who a) has a kid; b) knows a kid; or c) can still remember what it was like to be one. Further underscoring the wisdom of mandatory recess were the precocious 6-year-olds who showed up at last night's meeting to lecture trustees on its benefits.

All of which is a long way of saying, "Hooray! DISD is bringing back recess!" But perhaps it's worth re-corking the sparkling grape juice for a moment to reflect on how it came to pass that so many DISD campuses had scaled back recess to a pittance or cut it from the day entirely and remember that the factors that led to that dystopian scenario are still in place.

Notice how smoothly mandatory recess sailed past the board, a body that is incapable of reaching unanimity on anything of substance. Nobody is against recess, at least nobody who's not a misanthrope who enjoys watching children suffer. DISD may employ a few such individuals, but they don't control a fifth of DISD campuses. The only reasonable explanation for such widespread cutbacks in recess is that the pressures and incentives facing campus leaders turned what should obviously be an awful idea into a rational decision. Drilling for standardized tests and cramming in curriculum standards became a more urgent use of the school day than giving kids a break. In other words, lack of recess is a symptom of out-of-whack priorities, not a cause.

On its own, the recess mandate can and probably should be downplayed as low-hanging fruit. It could prove to be more significant if it signals an increasing willingness to tackle the core issue, which is wrapped up in how the district defines and measures student success.

"There has been just a culture for years — it didn't just start yesterday, this has been building for many years — that places the idea of standards and getting to those standards at the forefront of the education agenda," says trustee Miguel Solis. He acknowledges that mandating recess doesn't automatically change that dynamic or the culture it's created, but, he says, it communicates to teachers and campuses' administrators that the district values more than test scores. Particularly in a district as large as DISD, that's a prerequisite of a more fundamental culture shift.

As evidence that there is a more fundamental culture shift in the works, Solis points to another policy approved by the board on Thursday night, albeit with considerably less fanfare. It requires DISD to develop ways to teach and measure "social and emotional learning," a buzzy educational concept encompassing things like teamwork and grit that are vital to life outcomes but which aren't captured by standardized tests. The basic theory is that holding schools accountable for how well they teach social and emotional skills rather than focusing exclusively on test scores will restore a healthier work/play balance to the education system.

But that's a much more elaborate undertaking than mandating recess which, Solis believes, can be easily implemented by all DISD elementary schools, even if it will take some time for campuses to adjust their master schedules. He recently embedded with a kindergarten class at Foster Elementary in Northwest Dallas, where the teacher built a half hour of free play into the day: the standard 15-minute recess plus 15 minutes at the end of the day in centers where kids could build Legos, do arts and crafts, use a toy farm and just play.

"It absolutely can be done," Solis says. "I would not have supported the policy if I did not believe that it could actually be done today — even with all the pressure from standards and expectation."
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson