Assume a spherical cow: The Common Core and recess

The Common Core State Standards are an admirable effort to give our students a firm foundation of knowledge, and teachers guidance about content. I’m an advocate of a rich, content-based (rather than skills-based) curriculum, and I sincerely hope that the Common Core is a big step towards that. E.D. Hirsch seems hopeful here (in 2010), and again recently here, but worried about the connection with testing and bad value-added metrics here. Hirsch’s basic point is that background knowledge is the raw material that make up critical thinking skills:

That principle of building coherent, cumulative content characterizes the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability — which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

He is in favor of the Common Core since it aims to do just that, but wary of a focus on tests that may disrupt those aims. I thought of his wariness as I read this tidbit about my beloved DC Public Schools. Apparently the schedule in DCPS remains 2 hours for literacy, 45 minutes for science/social studies. As Rachel points out,

If you’re spending two hours a day on “literacy” and forty-five minutes a day on non-math content (social studies or science) and if you consider art, music, physical education, or foreign language to be an “elective” rather than crucial content, then the Common Core will not help your students because you’re not getting the Common Core’s supposed intent.

Rachel noticed this in Emma Brown’s article in the Washington Post, entitled “D.C. Parents Push for More Recess.” Which, yes, is true. The parents didn’t notice that recess in elementary school had been cut down to fifteen minutes, and successfully advocated it up to twenty minutes.

But for me, a better headline would be “Batshit Insane School Administrators Think 15 Minutes is Enough Recess for 1st Graders, but 90 Minutes of Stupid Reading Skills Not Enough.” Seriously. Have you guys met any children? Who cares what curriculum you have if you don’t let kids have some play time? What did DCPS say? In a carefully worded email, the representative of DCPS said, “Look, kids can play at home before and after school. School is about getting better at these tests.” Oh no, wait, I’m sorry, that’s what she meant. Here is what she actually wrote: ““DCPS believes strongly that along with strong academics, students need access to physical activity, before, during and after school.” Access to physical activity, indeed.


I cannot believe we are even having this discussion. That guy who keeps writing that column about school being a prison is a crackpot with a great selling intro psych textbook (no, I’m not linking, you can imagine it). Please, please, let’s stop making him look like maybe he has a point.

Ok, all of this got me to thinking about a famous joke about theoretical physicists (text from wikipedia, but this is really prime nerdy folklore):

Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.”

Maybe I am wrong, but my impression of educators (even administrators) is that by inclination and training, they are practical minded. Whether you think education is an art, a craft or an applied science, education is a craft, it is far closer to engineering than to theoretical physics. But in the current wave of reform, something has taken hold that distrusts this practical vision and looks away from the children and down at the data. The attitudes on recess seem as good a testament as any to how in our rush to “scientize” (sciencify? empiricize?) education through careful testing we are making the same mistake that the physicists in this joke do.

This educational system will work great, just assume a child who doesn’t need to play, in an empty classroom.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Assume a spherical cow: The Common Core and recess

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s