Interview: Let’s Get to Work

February 01, 2003 5 min read
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An author says schools do too much.

Three years ago, former high school teacher Etta Kralovec created controversy when she and co- author John Buell argued in The End of Homework that the escalating amounts of out-of-class study assigned to students is excessive, unproductive, and injurious to family life. Now, in Schools That Do Too Much: Wasting Time and Money in Schools and What We Can All Do About It (Beacon), Kralovec assumes the gadfly role again by insisting that schools scale back or even eliminate activities that aren’t central to their educational mission.

She cites a long list of such activities, from drug-awareness programs to student fund-raising events, that she believes distract teachers and students from learning. But competitive sports get most of her attention. While Kralovec acknowledges that athletics have value—indeed, she asserts that they’re “vitally important to adolescent development"—she also feels that they drain resources from classrooms and disrupt the education process. She suggests instead that community organizations take over the operation of sports teams.

Kralovec, who is vice president for learning at the Training and Development Corporation in Maine, recently spoke by phone about the hidden costs of sports and extracurricular activities.

Q. Talk a bit about your own teaching career and how it led you to think about the issues you address in this book.

A. I taught English and social studies for 12 years at Laguna Beach High School in Laguna Beach, California. I felt frustrated by a number of things. One was the enormous emphasis on sports. Now, I consider myself a fun kind of gal, but nevertheless I was upset by all the attention devoted to pep assemblies, the chaos of homecoming week, the cheerleaders bursting into class with cakes for football players. On game days, the boys would pick up and leave class at 1:10— itdidn’t matter if it was for football or golf.

One year, while I was still teaching, I took a course in school finance at the University of California-Irvine. I was trying to discover what competitive sports programs cost at the high school. But I never did find an answer, even though I worked with the district’s budget director. It astonished me to see that there was not one place where we could say, “The item is here, and here’s what it cost.” The sports programs were embedded in a number of different line items in the school budget. No one knew the real cost. Now, this wasn’t a matter of intentional deception; it’s just the way we do school budgeting.

Q. You want sports out of the schools. But aren’t football games and pep rallies a hallowed part of American school culture?

A. Sports is sacred to a lot of people and vitally important to adolescent development. A lot of these activities get people through adolescence. But we need to examine the school’s role in providing these activities to kids. Right now, we embed them in the public school, and that takes time and money away from the things we want our children to achieve. If meeting tough educational standards is as important as we say it is, then we need the community to step up to the plate and take over those activities so that they are not competing with the very intense academic work we’re expecting students to do.

Q. Do teachers and principals share your point of view that schools are trying to do too much?

A. A lot of stuff in my book came from school principals. A principal in Connecticut, for instance, complained that he was spending more time organizing activities for fund raising in the classroom than his teachers do on geography instruction. So when parents say it’s so cute that 2nd graders are selling wrapping paper as a way to raise money for school, I say that it’s taking time and money away from teachers in academic areas. Now, community service is great, but whether 2nd graders need to be raising money for orphans in Bosnia is something we should at least talk about. And if you do it at school, parents won’t do it as part of their family time. I’d rather that my kids be doing community service through scouting programs than doing some mandatory service in public schools.

So, yes, it’s the school people who are frustrated, saying that “The community expects me to do this and this.” Birthday parties in kindergarten, for instance, now sometimes take up entire afternoons. We should understand that this time is lost.

The problem is that parents have heard a lot of rhetoric about parent involvement, so they’re doing all of this stuff without understanding that kids are losing out on basic math, basic reading, et cetera.

Q.Is there a connection between your attack on homework in your earlier book and the argument you make in Schools That Do Too Much?

A. Yes. The end point of every conversation I had with parents about homework was them saying, “My kids are in school seven to eight hours a day. What do they do all day? Why do they have so much homework?” So the homework issue is part of a larger question about why kids don’t get work done during their time at school. Studies show that about 41 percent of the time students spend in school involves academic pursuits. Where is the other 60 percent?

Q. You talk a lot about the need for “zero-based budgeting.” Exactly what is it, and how can it help schools focus on their academic mission?

A. Usually schools do incremental budgeting.If they need to cut 2 percent from this year’s budget, they’ll do that on each line item. Zero-based budgeting, on the other hand, lets schools start from zero and build a budget that meets educational goals instead of continuing to add and subtract to items set a long time ago. Technology is a perfect example. We’ve put computers into school budgets in a whole bunch of different categories, including professional development, equipment, curriculum. Then we add percentages of increases to them. But with zero-based budgeting, we’d go back to zero for computers so we could figure out our real needs. This would help us stop wasting educational resources.

Q. Do you fear that the title “Schools That Do Too Much” will lead people to think you’re advocating a narrow focus on academics, on “drill and kill”?

A. I’m very worried about that, frankly. My actual title for the book was “Schools for Sacred Space.” But metaphorical titles in an age of computer searches don’t do very well. What I really want is the time in the classroom to belong to the teachers and students. I think teachers know what to do with their kids. We think schools should be about football games and drama productions, but if you ask teachers, they’ll say that they ought to have the space to teach their students. That space needs to be honored, and we don’t honor it. We bring policemen into it to do drug education and dentists to talk about how to floss, while the 4th grade math teacher sits back and watches. What an insult to that teacher.

—David Ruenzel


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