Reform Efforts Spur Debate on Role of Extracurricular Activities
Matt Calvert is a 17-year-old senior at Moscow High School in Moscow, Idaho. Almost every day during lunch period, when his school schedules meetings of "co-curricular" activities (those related to the academic curriculum) and extracurricular activities, Matt meets with either the honor society, of which he is president, the political-science club, or the student council.
When meetings of the Model United Nations or the Youth Legislature are held in other cities--and sometimes other states--he misses days of school.
In the spring, golf practice takes up his after-school time; when matches are scheduled, he often misses the last two class periods of the day, twice a week. Last semester, Matt estimates, he missed his last-period class in math analysis about 17 days.
And although he recently decided not to attend an activity-related convention because he thought he would miss too much school, Matt says he strongly believes the decision as to how to spend his time should be his, not the state's. After all, he argues, he is able to keep up with the work he misses; Matt has a 4.0 grade-point average and is a semi-finalist in the National Merit Scholarship program.
But the decision about what class time Matt and other Idaho students may miss for other activities has been taken out of their hands nonetheless. The Idaho Board of Education last month approved a rule that requires students to attend at least 90 percent of scheduled classes and specifies that they will be counted as absent if they are out of class for an extracurricular activity.
Similar absenteeism policies are under consideration or in effect in a growing number of states. And some school districts are experimenting with variations, such as penalizing students who miss classes by curtailing their participation in extracurriculars. In Minneapolis, for example, students who miss 15 classes in a nine-week period lose the right to participate in extracurricular activities for two weeks.
These policy changes are part of a broad-based movement to inject more academic rigor into the educational experience of the nation's 13.5 million high-school students.
In its report, "A Nation at Risk," the National Commission on Excellence in Education last spring recommended that more time be devoted to learning the "new basics," which, the report said, would require educators to make more effective use of the existing school day--and possibly to lengthen both the school day and the school year.
Various state commissions have also suggested that the structure of the day should be changed to make instructional time more productive. Education task forces in Nebraska, Utah, and Washington State, for example, have recommended that school officials de-emphasize extracurricular activities.
And the National Association of State Boards of Education last month recommended that extracurricular activities be separated from the academic curriculum and scheduled outside regular school hours. Noting that there is "little evidence that extensions of the school day or school year would lead to increased student achievement," the panel urged state boards instead to "take steps to ensure that time devoted to learning is increased."
But interviews with a wide variety of educators suggest that such reform proposals to increase schools' "productivity" not only disregard the sociological realities of high-school students' lives--such as after-school jobs and transportation schedules--but ignore professional opinion that the "extras" contribute significantly to the educational climate within schools. Many school officials say attempts to downgrade the role of such activities are misguided, unwise, and unnecessary.
Matt Calvert agrees. "I would be against that, because I think a lot of people learn more outside of class and can still do the work," he says. "There are probably a lot of people [for whom such activities are] the thing they're most successful at, and that's what keeps them coming to school."
A 1979 survey by the Educational Research Service Inc. indicated that about 50 percent of the administrators surveyed scheduled extracurricular activities after school in their high schools.
But another 37.2 percent said all activities were scheduled throughout the day in some or all of their high schools. Activities scheduled during the day, according to the survey, took place during "activity period," homeroom, lunch, last period, or a post-lunch break.
In Moscow, Idaho, where an estimated 72.5 percent of students participate in co-curricular, extracurricular, or athletic activities, three-quarters of students' involvement in these activities takes place either during the lunch period, when time is scheduled for club and group meetings, or after school, according to Larry Verdal, activities director for the school district.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, extracurricular activities are scheduled both after school, from 3 P.M. to 5 P.M., and during the 30- to 39-minute lunch period, according to Dan Isaacs, administrator of the senior-high-school division. During the lunch period, Mr. Isaacs explained, club meetings, guest speakers, movies, cultural events such as fairs, and student elections may take place.
And although students sometimes miss classes during the six- to seven-hour school day for field trips and other events, Mr. Isaacs said, such an occurrence is rare and most special activities, such as debate tournaments, are scheduled on weekends.
Los Angeles students who participate in athletics and play in 3 P.M. games usually miss the last one or two periods of the school day, according to Lee Joseph, an interscholastic-athletics specialist who schedules sports activities for the district. The last period is physical-education class, he explained, but work in the class before that must be made up.
One of the few nationally based findings on the subject of participation in extracurricular activities comes from a study of 12,000 secondary-school students conducted by the Laboratory in School and Community Education for John I. Goodlad's A Place Called School. In that survey, students were asked to note whether they participated in each of a list of extracurricular activities, according to Kenneth Sirotnik, senior research associate. Conducted during the 1976-77 academic year, the survey found that 47 percent of the students participated in sports teams; 38.4 percent participated in special-interest clubs, 13.6 percent in student government; 33.1 percent in music, drama, or acting groups; 19.1 percent in the honor society; and 32 percent in school/community-service activities.
Such involvement, many educators say, is an important part of students' lives, and Mr. Goodlad's re-search supports the contention. He reports that the students he surveyed who said they participated in extracurricular activities had higher self-concept scores than those who said they did not participate.
"The extracurricular activities serve a very important social integrative function for the schools," argued Nancy Karweit, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Activities Build School Spirit
Ms. Karweit, who wrote a report on instructional time-on-task for the excellence commission, said instruction should take first priority, but added that "just because the extracurricular activities interfere with the day doesn't mean they are not important."
Such activities, she said, serve to build school spirit and give students who might not excel in academics a way to succeed. "It's an important avenue for kids to participate in the life of the school. It's important to them."
The problem with extracurricular activities, she said, is a scheduling problem, not "a sheer-amount-of-time problem." And removing extracurricular activities from the academic day, she contended, is like "removing your eye because you have a cinder in it."
Ms. Karweit said a solution to the scheduling problem might be found in the four-day-week model, in which students receive instruction for four days and on the fifth day participate in extracurricular activities.
Alonzo A. Crim, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, also voiced concern that removing extracurricular activities from the school day may reduce students' motivation.
"I'm just uncertain at this time because I feel that much of our concern in terms of how well students learn is related to motivation," Mr. Crim said. "And many of these extracurricular activities are activities which tend to motivate students to work more effectively in school. I'm just not sure if we should be so arbitrary as to say that we can divide them so neatly."
Most of Atlanta's extracurricular activities now take place after the school day, according to the superintendent, but such activities as choir and journalism take place during the instructional day. "I don't think we can easily separate the two on such a hard line," Mr. Crim said. "There is a very direct relation to students' feeling a sense of excitement about some of the classes they're engaged in."
It was only a few years ago, Mr. Crim pointed out, that educators were adding more extracurricular activities to motivate students and involve them at school. By moving extracurricular activities outside the school day, Mr. Crim said, "we may get involved in the business of excluding some people."
In Florida, where the state-mandated school day is only five hours long, Herb A. Sang, superintendent of the Duval County schools, suggested that increasing instructional time would be a good idea. But he agreed with Mr. Crim that involving students in extracurricular activities as frequently as possible may be highly desirable. "Where students are involved in extracurricular activities, they do better academically," Mr. Sang said, and they pose fewer discipline problems.
In addition to their motivational value, educators suggest, many of the extras have educational value that should not be discounted.
"You get into very gray areas of whether [activities are] instructional or not," pointed out Robert Y. Dubel, superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. "We don't want to get too definitive in drawing sharp lines. I don't think this is something that a school board can legislate precisely."
"You'd have to be very careful what you call education," added Paul Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, "because many of the things that are extracurricular activities are educational and they are also basic to some people."
Busing Complicates Issue
Busing complicates the issue of scheduling activities in many school districts. In both rural and urban communities in which students are bused, "club activities" often take place during the school day to avoid transportation difficulties, according to William C. Parrish, assistant director of research at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Another determinant in the scheduling of extracurricular activities is the increasing number of students who work after school. According to Nancy Adelman, assistant director of the High School Study for the Carnegie Foundation, "extracurricular activities are not as popular as they were in the late 50's and early 60's [because] there are many more kids working."
For that reason, many administrators who believe activities are an important component of their programs have moved extracurricular activities into time periods during the school day and made them co-curricular activities, Ms. Adelman said.
Such activities, she said, usually include chorus, band, and other art-related endeavors.
Jolly Ann Davidson, president-elect of the state-boards group, admitted that there will be problems in the implementation of nasbe's recommendations, but emphasized that the report's aim is to stress academics. "Extracurricular activities are very important because they, in turn, develop the students, but I don't believe that the academics should suffer," Ms. Davidson said. "They must be put into the proper perspective. [It] is up to each local school district how best they can manage that."
"These are options; we don't ask any state to do them," explained John Watanen of nasbe's recommendations. Mr. Watanen, who served on the nasbe task force's subcommittee on instructional/learning time, is a faculty member at Northern Michigan University at Marquette and vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education.
Mr. Watanen said he anticipates "a considerable amount of cooperation, because this certainly is less costly" than extending the school year. If extracurricular activities are important enough, he added, students, parents, and educators will find a way to develop them in after-school hours.
Vol. 03, Issue 12