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Chris Rickert: Old-school system needs its own recess

Chris Rickert: Old-school system needs its own recess

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The Janesville Gazette reported last week that principals at some of the city's public elementary school are attributing some major positive academic and behavioral trends to a relatively minor change: moving recess from after to before lunch.

I remember the post-lunch recess — chasing girls, pick-up football, the bloody nose I gave my best friend.

In fact, I remember school-day and school-year schedules being much the same as the ones my 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son experience at their Madison public elementary school — from the timing of recess, to summer vacation, to days off to honor such notables as Polish-born Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski (keep in mind this was the Chicago area, which has a large Polish population).

I suppose that could be because at some point decades ago, the public education establishment discovered the perfect academic schedule and, well, why tinker with something that works?

Janesville's experience suggests something else, though: that post-lunch recess is just another public education tradition among a slew of public education traditions that could benefit from a fresh pair of eyes.

According to the Gazette, Janesville's principals found that having lunch after recess eliminates the problem of kids rushing through lunch so they can get outside. Kids can calm down in the cafeteria before hitting the books again, too, and there's time and a better venue for dealing with the fallout from any playground behavior problems.

Most important, there have been fewer behavioral problems and some principals are even seeing kids' test scores go up.

UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Education Research director Adam Gamoran wasn't aware of any research that looks specifically at the timing of recess and learning. 

Though he did point me to one study the findings of which correlate with what I've heard in the past from nutritionists: Recess before lunch spurs kids to eat more and get more nutrients. It also cuts down on the amount of food wasted.

Even without any empirical proof that pre-lunch recess improves academic performance, its nutritional benefits to kids seem like reason enough to make such a minor change.

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, spokeswoman for the Madison schools, said some schools have pre-lunch recess, depending on a range of factors, such as whether an elementary school and middle school share a cafeteria.

"I think it's just tradition and traditions are hard to break," Kim Peerenboom, principal at Janesville's Wilson Elementary, told me about why most schools still have recess after lunch. "But sometimes it's worth it in the end."

Indeed, there are a lot of traditions in public education, and not just when it comes to schedules. 

In a day when most jobs offer 401(k)s and other retirement plans that essentially function as glorified savings accounts, many teachers enjoy pensions that guarantee them monthly checks after retirement for life.

In a day of sophisticated employee-review systems, human resources professionals and federal anti-job discrimination laws, most teachers' job security and pay rely on a tenure system that dates to the early 20th century and a compensation model that rewards longevity and education over performance.

This is not to say all these tradition-bound practices are bad, or that their endurance is wholly the result of powerful teachers' unions.

Sure, research provides some support for major changes to the school calendar, for example.

"It's certainly not the case that the traditional school calendar remains because it works better than another calendar," Gamoran said. "A longer school year would likely make U.S. schools more competitive with those in other countries that have many more school days, and more frequent, shorter breaks instead of the long summer break would help as well."

And you'd be right to point out that teachers unions don't usually put year-round school at the top of their lobbying agendas.

But it's just as accurate to say the public isn't clamoring to pay the higher taxes that would necessarily accompany such a change.

If education reform is to bear fruit, it will require sacrifice from many quarters, in other words.

In general, I like my kids' school. The teachers are effective, friendly and helpful, and my kids enjoy their classes and learn a lot.

On the other hand, it's hard to know what you might be missing if you've never known anything different.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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