Taking 175 6th graders on two forms of transportation, then leading them on a one-mile walk through San Francisco to a downtown science museum is no small task. But it’s what teacher Linda Holt may be doing far more regularly in the coming years. That’s because her school district here in Vallejo made the decision last summer to allocate more money to field trips over the next several school years.
The decision comes as a result of California’s new school funding rules, which eliminated many of the traditional earmarks on state funding and handed the privilege, and the challenge, of allocating funds to the districts. Known as the “Local Control Funding Formula,” the new rules require that district leaders make funding decisions only after asking for input from teachers, parents, and students.
Vallejo Superintendent Ramona Bishop took that directive very seriously for her 15,500-student district. In addition to collecting surveys from a quarter of the student body, which is about one-third black, one-third Latino and 18 percent Filipino, she set up small-group meetings at the middle and high schools.
The idea to spend more money on field trips—students also asked for new textbooks, yummier lunches, and more after-school activities—came from students at the district’s alternative high school.
“It was all about, ‘take us places where you take your kids, Dr. Bishop,’” she said. Students listed museums, college campuses, and military bases as examples of where they might want to go.
Jake Howland, 17, attends Vallejo’s alternative John W. Finney High School. He said school officials usually don’t ask what students think “because they don’t want to hear about the problems. But if your school’s not all the way it should be, there are problems that you could make clear,” he said.
Tiffany Dotson, 17, said she’d only been on one field trip—to the California Hall of Sciences in San Francisco—during her years in Vallejo’s public schools. But she recalled it vividly.
“Probably, it would have helped me” stay out of trouble to go on more field trips, Tiffany said. “I’m a hands-on learner.”
The students’ field trip idea now appears on page 29 of the 41-page plan that outlines how the Vallejo City Unified School District will spend its money through the 2016-17 school year. Field trips in grades 4 to 12 claimed $120,000 of the budget this school year. By 2016-17, there will be $360,000 available to grades K-12, enough for every child in the district to attend at least one field trip.
The new money was doled out to schools in September, said Mitch Romao, who oversees the district’s funding plan under the state’s new local control laws. Once the school year starts, it’s mostly up to teachers to decide where to take their students on field trips, Mr. Romao said. The district does provide some guidelines: Fourth and 5th graders should see colleges or universities, middle school students are meant to learn more about art or science, and high school students should visit places that teach them about their chosen academy’s area of focus.
“As far as I know, every school is using as much of the money as possible,” Mr. Romao said. “We’re not quite sure if they’re going to use it all or if they’ll need a couple dollars more.”
As transportation is the most expensive part of any trip, Mr. Romao said district officials calculated the field trip budget based on the cost of bus rentals, which he said run around $600 for a day’s excursion
‘Just Let It Be Fun’
And that’s how, after 15 years of teaching at Franklin Middle School and not once taking a single student on a field trip to the Exploratorium, a science museum in nearby San Francisco, Ms. Holt found herself supervising the loading of three buses full of museum-bound 11- and 12-year-olds.
“Just let it be fun,” prayed Ra’ven Powell, 12, as she waited to board the bus to the subway station. Today’s trip would be only her second to a museum, she said, after the time she went to a dinosaur museum with her grandmother. Ra’ven was expecting to see “stuff from the 1970s or something.”
On the second leg of the 90-minute journey, a group of boys clinging to a subway pole were similarly unsure of what they would see. Slime, squids, emeralds, fossils, skeletons, rocks, and candy all made the hoped-for list.
Some of the confusion was probably due to the infrequency with which these students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, go on such trips.
Such opportunities, however, can bring logistical challenges, and confusion over how to take advantage of them. Ms. Holt, for example, didn’t learn until a few weeks before the trip that her class would be going to the museum. Then, no one had told the teacher that the district money was meant to cover a bus ride all the way into the city. Consequently, she reserved buses just to take her students to the subway station and bought half her students subway tickets with money earned from the 6th grade dance. The other half of the tickets were donated by BART, the Bay Area’s subway system.
Nevertheless, they all seemed happy to be going somewhere.
Field trips, as measured by student visits to museums, fell sharply during the recession. One-third of districts nationally cut field trips entirely during the 2010-11 school year, according to an American Association of School Administrators survey.
Schools in California were particularly hard hit by the recession. An informal poll of a half-dozen California museums found that field-trip attendance dropped universally in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.
Attendance has come back up at most museums. In part, that’s because districts like Vallejo have begun loosening their belts. It’s also because museums like the Exploratorium have increased programs that offer free admission for students from low-income schools like Franklin.
Amid increased pressures on schools to produce top test scores, Molly Porter, the manager of school and teacher programs for the Natural History Museum and the Page Museum, worries many will decide to forgo out-of-school field trips.
“It’s expensive and it does take (time) out of the class day, but it is instructional time and it is valuable,” Ms. Porter said. “I hope that we can be seen as a vital component of a well-rounded formal education experience.”
It’s unclear at this point how many other California districts will allocate a portion of the money they receive from the new school funding formula to field trips. For one thing, not all districts will get the same amount. For another, district needs vary widely. Training on the Common Core State Standards, expanding community-engagement efforts, and purchasing materials have ranked high on many district plans for how to spend the new money, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Jay P. Greene, a professor in the school of education at the University of Arkansas, is one of only a few academics to have examined the vitality of field trips. He and his colleagues took advantage of the 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Arkansas, to conduct a study on the effects of a visit to the museum.
In cooperation with the university, Crystal Bridges staff issued field-trip dates to 123 schools that had expressed interest in taking a total of 11,000 students to the museum. Half of the schools made the trip in the fall and the second half traveled in the spring. All students and staff were admitted for free.
Students who attended the fall field trip scored higher than their peers who had not yet made the trip on measures of critical thinking, tolerance, and interest in visiting a museum again. Students from low-income backgrounds and those from rural areas benefitted the most, Mr. Greene said.
“More disadvantaged students have less opportunity to be exposed to cultural activities so they really need the school to do it for them,” he said. “I suspect that the quality of the experience is incredibly important.”
An ideal trip, the Natural History Museum’s Ms. Porter said, would include a preparatory visit by the lead teacher, logistical and academic preparation for students and chaperones, and a clear introduction to the exhibits by museum staff. There should also be clear academic goals for students during the visit, like writing observations of the exhibits in a notebook.
Almost none of that preparation happened as part of the Franklin Middle School trip to the Exploratorium. And because it took so long to get there, students only had an hour and 15 minutes to explore the exhibits, less than half the time they spent traveling to and from the museum.
Upon walking into the vast warehouse that now houses the Exploratorium, students scattered to play with hands-on exhibits that ranged from shooting a basketball while wearing glasses with slanted prisms for lenses to experimenting with shadows in a room lined with light-sensitive vinyl.
One of the students, Taivon Wilson, 11, pushed a button in front of a screen and watched an extreme slow-motion playback of himself waving and clapping. He said he didn’t know how it worked, but he tried moving slowly, then quickly, to see what the camera recorded depending on his speed. Jasmine Capili, 11, and two classmates listened at tubes that were supposed to separate specific sound waves from the rest. Jasmine said she didn’t know what the tubes were supposed to do. Then, to everyone’s delight, a boy started tapping out a song on the various tubes, playing it like a xylophone.
A week after the trip, Ms. Holt listed nearly every item on Porter’s list, without prompting, as something she would like to do in preparation for her next trip.
“If we could prepare them for the activity so they know what they’re going to see, it would be better,” Ms. Holt said. “We didn’t have a lot of info [this year]. I think we could have done a much better job at getting the kids ready.”
Back on the bus, returning to school, there was a fart-noise making contest in the back. In the front, two boys sat glumly by a teacher in anticipation of getting suspended for jumping the subway turnstiles when they couldn’t get their subway tickets to work. And asked if they’d learned anything, most students shrugged and returned their attention to their smartphones and each other.
It was not abundantly clear that the trip had been a success. Certainly, no one was excitedly explaining how she’d just had an insight into how sound waves work; nor going on about the properties of simple pulleys; nor plotting the invention of an improved slow-motion camera.
Specific new knowledge is only one part of what students get out of a field trip though, according to Mr. Greene. The other part, much harder to measure, is greater cultural awareness and broader horizons.
Jake, the student from the alternative high school, had a similar reason for thinking field trips were important.
“If we were going to go on a field trip they should probably be to places where it’s showing us what’s beyond school,” he said.
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week