Schools that Do Too Much      

by Etta Kralovec  

OK.  True confession time.  I decided to read this book because I thought I would disagree with much of it (especially its suggestion that sports programs should be removed from schools).  So, perhaps this predisposition biased my understanding.  On the other hand, I sought this experience in the hopes that reading someone who thought differently would give me new insights or approaches – and it did, at least somewhat.  In any event, dear reader, you can now proceed with a forewarning about my own bias.  

Why change?  

Any author that suggests changes in schools should answer the question, “Why?”  Dr. Kralovec spends very little time on this.  Basically, she seems to suggest that the demand for more learning, to higher standards, by all students, requires change.  She also seems to suggest that we change just because it would be so much better the way she envisions it.  

Change what?  

Dr. Kralovec suggests we should change the way time is used in schools every day.  She points to the chopped up nature of time in high schools, interruptions for announcements, bells, crazed rushes between classes with no time for book changes, much less the bathroom, etc.  She suggests that competitive sports drives much of this craziness.  (She also includes drama in this condemnation occasionally, but not consistently, and never suggests that music or art are out of place in schools.)  She argues that school budgets need re-thinking from scratch (zero based budgeting) and re-written to make clear the costs of each program more readily understandable.  

Change how?  

This is the bulk of the book.  Dr Kralovec recommends lots of specific changes, and has checklists for school leaders, school boards, parents and the community to move those changes forward.   

I’m not going to try and document all of these.  Instead, I’ll identify some points I agree with, highlight a few where I find her reasoning particularly weak, and then critique some of her more controversial proposals.  

Good suggestions:  

These are, in my opinion, some good suggestions from this book:  

·        More coherent, focused learning time during the school day.  Amen!  Dr. Kralovec’s description of a hypothetical high school student’s day, with any interest generated in any class almost always immediately killed by either an interrupting announcement or the bell ending the class period, is an approach that’s been used by other authors and, as usual, it’s effective.  How anyone could argue for this type of time utilization is beyond me.  (Of course, the tough part comes in deciding what NOT to do in order to leave more uninterrupted, focused time for the important stuff!)

·        Stop piling it on.  Again, the argument is persuasive that every issue, every concern, cannot be approached through another specially focused activity pulling students out of core classes or a mandated place in the teacher’s lesson plan.  Whether it’s pull-out sessions for drug awareness and resistance education, or mandating that bicycle safety be taught in 3rd grade (as is the case in Tennessee), every worthwhile topic cannot have its on special time and approach.  At least, they can’t if we want real, deep, meaningful education for any significant percentage of our students.

·        Clearer budgets, re-thought from scratch.  Couldn’t agree more.  We need to be clear in the documents that are supposed to communicate to the public what we are doing and why.  And we need to be thoughtful on an on-going basis about how we are allocating resources.

·        Community guides to budgets and to learning standards.  Ditto the last paragraph.  How could anyone oppose this?  

Weak Reasoning

The good points cited above are not novel, and the book contains little how-tow information about them.  Rather, the book’s key points seem to be its more controversial recommendations (especially the jettisoning of sports).  However, repeated examples of poor reasoning, careless arguments that cannot withstand cross-examination, and citations to questionable research weaken her effort to argue for the more radical changes she suggests.  Before looking at the mistakes in the reasoning for her radical changes, here are two examples dealing with other topics:

·        P. 22.  “Alexandra’s day starts much too early.  Recent research suggests that adolescents don’t really wake up until around 9:00 a.m.   She doesn’t cite this research, but many school boards have run into it.  Bottom line: it’s bogus to suggest that there is some inherent “sleep late” gene for teenagers.  If one thinks about the fact that, through millennia of human history, teens were part of families and tribes that generally went to bed at dark and arose at dawn, the suggestion that teens just have to sleep late because their internal clocks change at puberty is exposed as the patent nonsense that it is.  Of course they don’t wake up today.  But that’s because they stay up too late, not because school starts too early.  That doesn’t mean a community might not prefer high schools that start at 9:00 a.m. , but those that argue for this are going to need something other than bogus “sleep research” to support it.

·        P. 49.  “Today, the strongest argument against vouchers and home schooling is that students and their families who select out of public schools fail to get the skills necessary to navigate the give-and-take of democratic life.”  Huh?  Is she saying that the children of US Senators and Congressmen, who are almost exclusively enrolled in private schools rather than in the DC school system, are “failing to get the skills necessary to navigate the give-and-take of democratic life?  And could she really be arguing that those students families, including the parent in elected office, somehow lose those skills because of the enrollment of the student in a private school?  And, if she is right, then elected bodies around the country, including school boards, city councils, legislatures, judiciaries, and the US Congress should be virtually devoid of private school graduates, as should the ranks of the consultants and campaigners who help them get elected.  Of course this is ridiculous.  In fact, if forced to bet, I’d bet that these groups have disproportionate representation from private school graduates.

  Turning sports over to the community.  

The biggest point in this book, and the one she keeps coming back to, is turning sports (she includes drama occasionally but not always) over to the community.  Again, the reasoning requires an extra-large set of utopian blinders.  

This passage is from pp.78-79:

 “Beyond the physical activity that students engage in during recess, physical education classes provide another opportunity during the school day for students to build the important social, physical, and emotional skills associated with sports.

***

“Physical education classes must be part of any well-rounded education program. 

***

All school must have strong physical education programs, ones that help all students to meet education standards in physical fitness and health.”

What is she talking about?  Please, help me on this.  If you remember your PE class experiences as building “important social, physical, and emotional skills”, please e-mail me and tell me about it.  I don’t, and I don’t think I’ve EVER heard ANYONE talk about PE in a way that suggested that they had such memories.  Again, it takes a HUGE set of utopian blinders to see this as reality.

 Now, to look specifically at what she envisions for sports, consider this from p. 79.

“[D]o competitive sports have a role in the public schools?  Or should community organizations take over the responsibility of running competitive sports programs?  Imagine if a bank sponsored the women’s basketball team, bank staff interested and prepared to coach basketball could work with the young women athletes, team practices could be held before work.  The bank could perform meaningful community service by arranging employee schedules to meet the demands of coaching.  The local police department might have an interest in taking on the football team.” 

I suspect many readers of this note will quickly reject this analysis as hopelessly out-of-touch.  For those who may be taken with it as a possibility, think about what exists today in the realm of privately sponsored sports.  It isn’t anything like Dr. Kralovec’s vision.  Rather, at younger ages you have multiple sanctioning organizations sponsoring multiple “national” tournaments, with dads and moms organizing and promoting teams to get their progeny a national championship.  “Traveling” or “select” teams form before age 10.  And, at the high school level, it’s even worse, with AAU coaches and boosters and shoe company-sponsored tournaments and year-round sport specialization by age 13 or 14 almost mandatory.  

Further, what evidence exists that such a step is either necessary or useful to the goal of improving the quality of work produced by high school students?  Do we see that the very best private schools have eliminated sports?  How about top tier public schools?  I haven't seen such evidence.  So, why should we think this would help?  Interestingly, in the book, Dr. Kralovec has her hypothetical student going to both swimming and soccer practice before school!  What happened to the sleep research?

Well, enough.  I read the book.  I didn’t think I would get much out of it, and I didn’t, but at least I’ve exposed myself to her arguments.

Note written:  August, 2003