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Time for Lunch?

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I feel lucky that I work only part-time. I enjoy the best of two worlds: I maintain a professional career and I spend some weekday time with my children. My daughter, who is in first grade, doesn’t have to go to an after-school program, and my son attends a pre-K class three days per week and spends the other two weekdays at home.

This past Tuesday, my son and I enjoyed a great day together. The weather was blissfully warm, dry, and breezy, which always puts me in a good mood. [Translation: I’m usually not in a good mood from November through April. You might want to keep that in mind in a few weeks.] The boy and I sauntered through the day doing just what he wanted: making a volcano out of an empty apple juice bottle, vinegar, baking soda, and dish soap; playing with his little friend from across the street; playing board games, including a rousing set of junior Yahtzee in which he pummeled me time and again; swinging [“will you push me on da swings?”]; and watching a couple of kid shows.

We had no place to be, no schedule to keep, and no chores to do, except the ones I ignored. No hustle. No bustle. No stress. Incidental learning happened with everything we did — no planning required. And I don’t even remember when we ate lunch or what we had. The meal just uneventfully melded into our day.

[It was one of those days that makes you think, “I love my kids. This is fun — and easy. We should have more!” Then you look in the mirror and see the gray hairs springing out of your head and the crows’ feet bracketing your eyes, and you realize that, if anything, you need to double up on the birth control.]

No Time to Say Hello, Goodbye

Our Tuesday exemplifies how children, especially very young ones, should spend all their days: relaxed and following their whims.

But most American children spend at least part of their week in child care outside of their homes. As good as many of these centers are — and I’ve been beyond satisfied with our provider since my daughter started there as a 12-week-old — they can’t offer the kind of laid-back, do-just-what-I-want day my son had on Tuesday.

Even though some kids never go to day care, almost all kids eventually attend public school, where any hope of learning and playing in a relaxed way is scheduled out of them. Schools chunk each day into 30 or 40-minute segments — just long enough to get fully engaged in something before stopping on a dime and starting something completely unrelated. Start-stop. Start-stop. Start-stop. Even if you’re not done or are really interested in what you’re doing, it’s time to stop and do something else — because the schedule says so. And the schedule rules the day.

Of course, lunch and recess aren’t allotted 30-40 minutes each on that schedule. Today’s kids are lucky to get a single 30-minute period split between lunch and recess. But many don’t even get that. In some Massachusetts schools, for example, lunch has been reduced to an absurd 15 minutes [link requires registration]. That’s the entire lunch period, even for the kids who buy lunch or for those whose teachers don’t get them to the cafeteria on time.

Nadine Binkley, the superintendent of Peabody, MA schools, claims that her district’s 20-minute lunches are just right. She rationalizes, “If we had to keep kids in lunch for an extra 10 minutes, for some kids, just sitting that long is really difficult.”

Really? Then how does Ms. Binkley explain that these same kids are expected to sit still and QUIETLY for longer stretches than that throughout the day? If they can’t handle 30 minutes in the cafeteria –where they’re free to talk and wiggle around — how in the world do they manage 30 minutes of math every day?

Lunch periods are being shortened because they’re the only thing left for schools to cut. In many schools across the country, recess has been eliminated altogether. In others, it’s been reduced to 10 minutes immediately following lunch. Children inhale their lunches and then hurry outside to play for a few minutes before hustling back to the classroom for more of that sitting still they’re supposedly incapable of.

And how much would you like to bet that when you take away free play and exercise, kids actually have a harder time concentrating and sitting still in the classroom?

If It’s Not on the Test, Leave It Behind

Massachusetts State Representative Joyce A. Spiliotis is sponsoring a bill that would require schools to give at least 30 minutes for lunch. How sad that a reasonable time for lunch needs to be enacted into law, but obviously the adults running our schools can’t be trusted to work out a solution on their own.

Some blame the shorter lunch periods on teacher contracts and state laws governing instructional time. In Massachusetts, districts must offer 900 hours of instructional time per year. Of course, teacher contracts, which are negotiated on a district-by-district basis, also limit the hours per day that teachers work on-site. So school superintendents claim that they’re caught between a rock and a hard place: inflexible state laws and equally inflexible teacher contracts.

But that doesn’t explain why school lunch periods in a town near me were reduced this year when teacher contracts and state laws haven’t changed. School starts and ends at the same time this year as it did last year. The same number of instructional hours are required this year as last year. And the teacher’s contract has the same requirements and restrictions as last year. So why has the lunch period been shortened this year?

One word: MCAS, the Massachusetts standardized test that’s used in the No Child Left Behind evaluations. Scores in these schools were not up to someone’s expectations last year, so the district is frantically looking for a magic bullet to raise those scores.

First, the district scrapped the math curriculum, which had been in place for only one year. Student math scores not high enough in 2003? Get a new math curriculum for 2004. Math scores still not high enough in 2004? Get another new math curriculum for 2005. Oh, and cut five minutes from lunch — that’ll show those lazy 7 and 8-year-olds that they need to work harder.

Not convinced NCLB and standardized testing have influenced lunch scheduling? Well, the severely reduced lunch times is a recent, national phenomenon, much like the NCLB act itself:

In just two years, the average lunch period in elementary schools across the nation has decreased from about 30 minutes to 23.7 minutes, according to the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, Va. The association recommends 26 minutes for lunch and another four minutes to get to the cafeteria.

Now that standardized tests results are the sole barometer of school quality, schools are abandoning everything that isn’t on those tests, to the point that meals and exercise are virtually expendable. Thanks to NCLB and similar state-level test-score fetishes, schools consider nutritional health, physical health, and social development unworthy educational subjects.

We’ll see what the future holds for children who are so rushed and pressured through their days. My guess is that the results — and I’m not talking about standardized test results — won’t be pretty.

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  • Les Slater

    Peabody Massachusetts is a mostly white, middle class, north-shore suburb of Boston with a population of about 50,000. Its median income is slightly higher than the Massachusetts average. Nothing too special about the community that would set it apart from many similar communities.

    I don’t know too many details but I have heard many stories of cutbacks in schools. This is also true in some of the more affluent communities but probably less so. The families of the students sometimes must even pay for some of what is left.

    It did not start with No Child Left Behind. This goes back a ways. It seems more related to general fiscal problems than time constraints.

    I don’t think the U.S. in general is doing a good job of educating its population. The majority of public schools are not giving students much of an opportunity to develop thinking skills. I suspect that these are not valued too highly by society.

    People in general, are not a priority by government at any level. E.g., your superintendent rationalizing why shorter lunch break.

  • Keith Sikora

    Wonderful article. In your superlative analysis of what has been taken out of American education, you have eloquently described exactly what should be put back in. I completely agree with your assessment of the appalling treatment of students in primary and secondary education. Having recently ceased my suckling of the teat of high school, I can look back on my experiences with some degree of objectivity (although through the slightly shaded spectacles of sarcasm).What I see is perfectly put forth in your essay–an institution almost devoid of concern for a student’s well-being. Given the competitive nature of the college selection process, students are forced to pack themselves into whatever and however many packages they can. National Honors Society, Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership, varsity athletics etc.. we are forced to maintain this sophistry intended to delude the post-secondary Gods into thinking we are well-informed, inspired and interested citizens. Rather than being focused on spending our formative years trying to find out who we are, the administration goads us into getting into those upper level colleges so that the state education boards might give them a bigger budget and bigger payrolls. Teachers, principles, superintendents do not, should not exist to put more pressure on kids to achieve. They should exist, in the words of David Mamet, “to help us, not to fuck us up…” 20 minute lunches, hour long classes, and apathetic instructors to not help us. I doubt that any law or governmental interference can rectify that. Forgive the inane ramblings, but this topic sort of touched a nerve. I hate seeing some of my best friends walk out of something as meaningless as high school as jaded and cynical as they are.

  • http://jmaximus.blogspot.com John Bil

    School is too hard for kids now, not too easy. No recess? What the hell is that all about? These are kids people, not little adults.

  • Rachel Laiche

    Oh my gosh! I have felt like a complete lunatic for worrying so much about my son’s lunch schedule the last few weeks. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who cares about this or thinks it’s wrong to take everything fun or socially oriented out of school altogether. It really bothers me that he has 20 minutes for lunch (door to door–not eating time). He crams his lunch in his mouth every day. I have seriously considered sending him to school with a can of Ensure. He also gets a whopping 15 minutes of recess. It’s ridiculous. Doesn’t anyone care about the people that these little kids are? I have a hard time knowing what to do about it though. As it is our school has no art or music. They have taken everything fun out of school and to what end? It really doesn’t seem to be helping. Perhaps it is moving in the wrong direction.

  • http://orestia.blogspot.com/ Clytemnestra

    I have argued with my sons schools for a few years over how much time they are given for lunch. Which is even less if a teacher holds a class over for discipline.

    I have argued that we are teaching our children bad eating habits which will follow them through adulthood. Look at the number of obese children we have in our schools. Now look at the ever increasing numbers of obese adults.

    Gym is also only once a week. So not only are we teaching our children bad eating habits but we are not teaching them any corrective measures for those habits. The results will be just as costly in the years to come, with increased heart disease and hypertension. But then you don’t want to get me started there.

    When I grew up in Denver we had 30 minutes for lunch and from 1 – 6 grade, gym every day. We also were allowed to go out and play, stretch, relax and have fun after we finished our meal. So we could take as long or as short as we liked eating and then play or read. I’d have to email my friends, but I think it’s still the same . And yes they have the same high stakes, leave no child behind, testing that we do in MA.

    “And how much would you like to bet that when you take away free play and exercise, kids actually have a harder time concentrating and sitting still in the classroom?”

    It would be interesting to see if the rates of school discipline problems and treatment for ADD/ADHD, etc. have gone up since exercise in school has gone down.

    It is also interesting to note that one of the criticisms of home schooling was the lack of socialization children would be getting. But really, are they getting socialization in their schools now?

    Another interesting phenomenon is happening in Fall River (and other places as well I venture). Teens are so scared of, stressed and paranoid over high stakes testing that they are actually dropping out of school. These drop out rates go under reported and are not tied to MCAS or NCLB.

    You can’t see the children left behind (dropping out) if that information is not tied to MCAS performance.