LIVE & LEARN: When Did Education Become an Extracurricular Activity?

The world of Virginia education is at its most stressful time: SOL testing! Teachers are conducting last minute reviews in the hopes that one small shred of information will be absorbed into their students’ brains. Students are walking around in a daze, overwhelmed from the amount of testing placed upon them. Study guides are rapidly circulating within school buildings, while SOL practice tests are given to “get students ready.” I am, I shudder to admit, a part of this tyrannical practice.

On Friday, May 23, 8th graders at Bull Run Middle School took their reading SOL test. Many students whip through these tests with ease while others must take their time to read the multiple passages and bubble in the correct answer, thus showing that they made academic progress this school year. During my last block, after all students had finished testing, I observed 32 students stressed out, exhausted, and completely wiped out from taking this test.

I heard, “I’m tired!” “I have a headache from reading so much.” “I just finished one SOL but I have to get ready for another one in a few days.” “I can’t find my study guide; what am I going to do?” I decided that my kids needed a break, so they had 15 minutes to put their heads down and relax.  After the downtime, we got back on track and began reviewing for my civics SOL test.

The pressure put on students to do well on the SOL tests come from their teachers, while teachers feel pressure from administrators. Remember, 40% of all Virginia teachers’ evaluations are based on student academic progress. While the SOL test scores are not the only assessment evaluated, it is closely looked at and used as a measure of progress. But it seems that the “powers that be” have forgotten one thing: so many factors contribute to the success of our students and many of these factors are beyond our control.  One of these is absenteeism.

There are a variety of reasons students are absent, including illness, oversleeping and extracurricular activities. All children get sick; this is normal. We know when the flu season begins when our students start dropping like flies.  I would rather be raked across coals than be a school nurse when the flu season hits! God bless our nurses! Sometimes kids oversleep, and in many situations, both parents go to work very early.  If a student oversleeps and misses the bus, and parents are already at work, that child stays home for the day.  The last reason students miss school is because of extracurricular activity involvement. WHAT?  Yes, extracurricular activity involvement.

Many years ago, I received an email from a parent that said, “Please don’t give my child too much homework.  He is involved in many extracurricular activities and homework gets in the way.”  This is a true statement!  When did extracurricular activities begin to interfere with education?

Research clearly shows the benefits of children participating in extracurricular activities. These benefits may include:

  • Exploring interests and making a positive impact in their school and community
  • Encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and thinking outside the box
  • Gaining leadership skills, developing a positive work ethic
  • Expanding students’ friendship groups
  • Expressing creativity
  • Managing time and priorities

The value of extracurricular activities; however, is a matter of balance. If children participate in so many activities that they have no time for homework, or are tired in school, this negatively impacts grades. Teachers become frustrated and feel children’s extracurricular involvement takes attention away from school work.

My colleagues from across the county are sharing actual absence excuses from parents.  I am just shocked that children are being taken out of school for the following reasons:

“I know that my child will miss one SOL test, review for another SOL test, and parts of her foreign language exam, but we feel that this soccer tournament will benefit her in ways beyond her academics.” (WOW! REALLY?)

“Please excuse my child from school on Monday and Tuesday, as she was in a softball tournament and played all weekend.  She was exhausted and needed to stay home and rest.” (SERIOUSLY?)

“My child had a soccer tournament this weekend in VA Beach, and we decided to stay for a few extra days to have family time. Please excuse her from the Math test and English test.” (I’M SPEECHLESS!)

There are many more that could take up pages and pages of this article. There is no doubt that teachers support their students and encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities. In the past, I have gone to at least one game for each sport in each season to watch my students play. However, when outside activities interfere with the real reason students are in school, there is a problem. Balance is essential!

The Washington Post, on Sunday, April 27 and Sunday, May 4, says this about absenteeism:

“Truancy in schools has dragged down overall school performance and graduation rates and has sent students into academic tailspins from which they never recover. Children who miss the most school tend to score lower in Math & Reading than peers who attend more regularly.” (National Assessment of Education Progress, 2013)

“These kids may have a note from their parent, but they are absent a lot. If they’re absent a lot, it just kind of feeds on itself. They tend to fall behind and stay behind.” (Alan Ginsburg, retired U.S. Education Department, part time teacher)

Parents, please put education first in your child’s life! Teachers want our students to be well-rounded just as much as parents do, but education is the most important part of being well-rounded. Students, missing school and not doing homework because “you were busy playing a sport” is unacceptable! We need you in the classroom, focused on the content, and doing the work that is expected. Participating in extracurricular activities is a privilege that requires balance and time management. Work hard for the extras but work harder for your grades. Your priorities will equal your success. What are your priorities?

Riley O’Casey is a local educator  who teaches middle school social studies. She is also an active member of the Prince William County Education Association.

This column is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of Bristow Beat, its editors, writers or sponsors. 

© 2014, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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