Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is our district powerless to lengthen lunch? (Part one)

As I’ve posted about before, the lunch break in our district’s elementary schools is a measly fifteen minutes long – and sometimes even shorter, if you’re one of the last kids through the line. When I’ve asked our school superintendent about the issue, he has repeatedly deflected responsibility (that is, passed the buck) to the state. In particular, he has repeatedly cited the state’s requirement that there be 27.5 hours of weekly instructional time.

In my recent Q&A with the district’s central administrators, for example, the superintendent said:
there’s no room in our schedule to increase lunch, because the state requires that we have twenty-seven-and-a-half hours of instruction in a rolling five-period – five-day period. So for us to get more time for lunch, we would have to take time away from other unstructured periods of the day, or lengthen the school day.

. . .

we’ve looked at it, and what I can tell you without having it in front of me is that there wasn’t – that we didn’t have time in the schedule to build that in, when you look at the early releases that we have on Thursday for professional development, there isn’t, there isn’t that time available that would allow us to increase lunch ten or fifteen minutes a day, which is what most parents ask, and when I then ask parents, “well, what do you think about lengthening the school day?” that got a universally negative reaction from parents about lengthening the school day in order to provide that time for lunch. And that’s, that’s a tough one, because if they’re not comfortable with lengthening the school day, and there isn’t enough time in the day to carve it out for lunch, we can’t solve the problem.
Full context here.

In an email exchange last year, the superintendent cited that same 27.5-hour requirement. But when I looked at my kids’ schedules, I couldn’t understand how that requirement could affect the length of lunch. If you exclude lunch and recess, my kids weren’t getting anywhere near 27.5 hours of instruction every week. If recess counts as instructional time, though, we were more than satisfying the requirement, with ample time left over to increase the lunch period. When I pressed the superintendent on the issue, I found it hard to get a straight answer about the instructional time requirement. (See below.)

Granted, the superintendent has also talked about the need to maximize instructional time to teach everything that is required by the state. But one issue at a time: does the state’s 27.5-hour instructional-time requirement have any bearing on whether our district can lengthen lunch?

Continued in tomorrow’s post. To read my email exchange with the district about the issue, click on the “Continue Reading” link.

My initial email to the superintendent:
Dear Superintendent Murley:

I am one of the dozens of people who signed the petition urging you to give elementary school students more than fifteen minutes in which to eat lunch. I was disappointed to hear from Katina Lillios that the district has decided not to require that students be given more than fifteen minutes to eat lunch. Can you confirm that that is the district’s decision on this issue? And if so, can you explain why the district has chosen to disregard so many parents’ concerns on this issue?

Thank you,
The superintendent’s response:
Good Morning Chris,

The resolution with the elementary principals for this school year was to insure “no less than 15 minutes for every child to eat”. Discussion among the elementary principals determined that by insuring that all children would receive a minimum of 15 minutes, most would receive more than 15 minutes.

If you would like to discuss this in more detail, please call.

My response:
Thanks for getting back so quickly. But I don’t really get it: that doesn’t seem like any change at all. Are you saying that, before this new rule, some kids were getting even less than fifteen minutes to eat?
His response:
Good Morning Chris,

That was exactly the case that was presented to me by many students and parents. The lunch period was either 15 or 20 minutes long depending on the school and that included the time it took kids to get to the lunch room, stand in line, and then eat. Some students told me that they sometimes had as little as 5-10 minutes to eat.
My response:
Thanks again for getting back to me. You’re never going to convince me that anyone could come away from reading that petition, and listening to parents at that December meeting, with the impression that the parents were asking that the kids get only fifteen minutes to eat. What’s really going on?
His response:
Good Afternoon Chris,

I apologize if I gave the impression that the students or parents were seeking only 15 minutes for lunch. I understand that the parents who wrote, called, and/or came to the meeting were seeking more time for lunch. Many were also seeking to maintain or increase the time allotted for recess. When the building administrators looked to solve the problem they attempted to balance the two issues with the intent to create more time for students to eat. The end result was the decision to provide no less than 15 minutes for each student knowing that this would provide more than 15 minutes for most students. This solution allowed for the maintenance of an adequate lunch recess period.

One more piece of information that may be beneficial. The state of Iowa requires that each 5 day period have no less than 27.5 hours of instruction. Due to the short elementary school day in Iowa City, we have a limited ability to change the lunch and recess times in our schedule. With that said, our administrative team continues to look at the situation with the intent to seek out additional short- and long-term solutions that afford adequate lunch and recess time.

My response:
Thanks -- That’s very helpful information. By my calculation, there are 31.5 hours in our school week, so if 27.5 have to be instructional time, that leaves only four hours a week for things that do not qualify as instructional time.

That’s very disturbing to hear. My first-grader currently gets over five-and-a-half hours of recess and lunch over the course of the week, which I don’t think is at all excessive. She falls short of that 27.5-hour weekly minimum by at least 95 minutes. I know that you’re a believer in a longer school day -- for what it’s worth, I’m not -- but in the meantime, is the district planning on cutting 95 minutes out of lunch/recess for first-graders to comply with that state regulation?

So one thing I’m wondering is why all of a sudden this minimum instructional time has become an issue. Is the regulation new? And if the district is willing to violate the regulation by over an hour and a half (as it is apparently doing, at least for the younger kids), what difference would it make to throw in five more minutes for lunch? In other words, it seems like the regulation is being raised selectively to justify a refusal to give the kids adequate time at lunch, when the district otherwise seems perfectly comfortable ignoring it.

Finally, I notice that the regulation (281-12.1(9)) specifically states that “The minimum hours shall be exclusive of the lunch period.” It says nothing similar about recess. Does that imply that recess actually counts as instructional time? That interpretation seems at least plausible, given that the regulation explicitly defines instructional time to include passing time between classes and even time spent on teacher-parent conferences, when the student isn’t even there. Moreover, recess clearly plays an integral role in the learning process -- that’s one of the main reasons parents are concerned about the shortage of lunch and recess time.

Thanks again for your replies,
His response:
Good Afternoon Chris,

Thanks for the continued dialogue and questions. It is my understanding that we are in compliance with the state regulations for instructional minutes. I will forward our email conversation to one of the Assistant Superintendents who works with this to make sure that my answers to you are accurate.

I am not sure if the instructional minute issue is a new one as I have only been here for seven months. I do know that as we struggle with the benchmarks set under the No Child Left Behind legislation, the focus on intervention for those who are not proficient has become increasingly important.

As a parent, I believe that my children do best in an educational environment that meets their academic needs, provides adequate time eat and socialize at lunch, and provides appropriate non-structured recess times during the day to recharge. Although my children would agree with you that they are not interested in a longer school day, I will have limited opportunities to address the lunch and recess issue within the structure that we currently use at the elementary level.
My response:
Hi -- Thanks again for your replies.

I’m confused. Would giving the kids five or ten more minutes at lunch cause the district to violate the state-mandated 27.5 hours per week of instructional time? I’m having a hard time seeing how that could be true. Either recess counts as instructional time, in which case lunch could be expanded without violating the regulation, or recess doesn’t count, in which case we’re already way below 27.5 hours, at least in the early grades. No?
His response:
Good Afternoon Chris,

In order to insure that I am providing accurate answers to your questions, I have asked for feedback from other members of the administrative team that are better versed in Iowa code regulations than I am. I have not yet heard back from them.
My response, a month later:
Hi -- I haven’t heard anything back from you about those regulations, but from your last two responses it seems like you are not actually suggesting that giving the kids twenty or twenty-five minutes for lunch would make the difference in whether the district is complying with the instructional minutes requirement.

The other reason for shortened lunch periods that you mentioned was that “as we struggle with the benchmarks set under the No Child Left Behind legislation, the focus on intervention for those who are not proficient has become increasingly important.”

This makes me wonder about two questions:

1. Is there any reason to think that cutting lunch and recess back to these levels will help children score better on standardized tests?

2. Suppose the district concluded that lunch periods this short helped us meet NCLB benchmarks but were not good for the children overall. Would you keep the lunch periods this short anyway?

Thanks again for your replies,
His response:
Good Morning Chris,

I apologize for the delay in my follow-up. I have a request for an update out to the administrative team working on this and will follow up with you as soon as I get some additional information.

Thanks for your patience with me,
A few days later, I received this email from assistant superintendent Ann Feldmann:
Good evening, Chris and Steve…

Our plan as an administrative team is to assess the impact of guaranteeing at least 15 minutes for every student to eat lunch each day. If our data indicates that many students are not able to complete their meal in the time allotted, we will review our procedures.

We realize there is clear evidence to support the provision of adequate time for students to eat their mid-day meal and we will continue to review our efforts in this regard. The actual number of minutes that are “adequate” in our students’ circumstances is what we will strive to determine beginning next fall.

To respond to your questions, we know that there is a correlation between the number of minutes of instruction and student achievement. Just as we don’t know exactly the impact of an addition 5 minutes of lunch time (versus 6 minutes or 7 minutes or 10 minutes, etc.), we cannot cite what is the exactly the impact of 5 fewer minutes of instructional time (or 6 or 7 or 10, etc.) In addition, we know that we as public schools are charged with far more than providing core academic instruction. For example, we teach a bullying/harassement curriculum, a health foods curriculum (in several schools with grant money) and financial literacy. We, along with community partners, provide free health clinics and family resource centers to students and families. It is all a matter of finding the best balance we can regarding all the interests that compete for our students’ school day.

Thank you for your continued interest in our students’ health! Please let us know if you have any additional thoughts or questions.
That email at least seemed to recognize that the short lunch period resulted from a district decision about balancing priorities, rather than from the state instructional-time requirement.  I responded:
Thank you! I guess I’m still wondering about a few things --

1. Steve had mentioned that one reason lunch could not be extended further was because of a state regulation (281-12.1(9)) mandating a minimum of 27.5 hours of instructional time per week. I was confused, because I know my first grader’s schedule provides at most about 26 hours of instructional time per week (unless recess counts as instructional time, which, as I explain in my email to Steve below, does not seem crazy to me). Now I’m afraid that somehow this regulation will mean that the district has to cut 90+ minutes of lunch and recess time from the first-grade schedule, which I think would be disastrous. Can you shed any light on this issue? My specific question is: would extending lunch by five, ten, or even fifteen minutes make any difference in whether the district is complying with this regulation?

2. You mention that “we know that there is a correlation between the number of minutes of instruction and student achievement,” and I suppose that in some general sense that’s undeniable. But is there evidence that that’s a straight-line relationship, or that it doesn’t max out at some point? I’m trying to get a sense of the extent to which the decision to cut lunch back to fifteen minutes (or, in practice, less) is evidence-based. It seems like you’re saying that the balancing of these various needs is being decided on some basis other than actual empirical evidence. Is that correct? (I don’t think that would be so terrible -- I don’t think empirical evidence always provides clear answers to specific policy choices. But I do think it would change the way we talk about the issue.)

3. As far as that relationship between instructional time and student achievement, how is student achievement being measured? Are we talking about short-term standardized test score results, or actual measurable impact on the kids later in life?

As you can probably tell, I’m skeptical that cutting lunch to 15 minutes or less finds any real support in empirical evidence; it seems like we’re talking more about preconceptions and conventional wisdom. But it’s hard to discuss that question without getting some specific empirical studies on the table and taking a close look at them. Are there specific studies that you think it would be helpful for me to take a look at?

Thanks again for your reply and your time,
I never received any further response.


KD said...

How frustrating that we can't get the 15 minute lunch issue solved.

I'm curious about the 27.5 hours of instructional time. How do late starts/early outs due to weather affect this? I know my oldest kid had one week when she first started school where they were dismissed early almost daily for a week due to heat. Does someone really monitor compliance here?

I don't mind the early outs on Thursday. Really though, if it is a choice between restructuring time for professional development and 15 minute lunches...shouldn't we eliminate the early dismissals?

Chris said...

KD -- The state regulation makes an exception "if emergency health or safety factors require the late arrival or early dismissal of students on a specific day," which I assume covers late-start snow days.

As for whether the regulation would permit us to lengthen lunch without eliminating the early dismissals, more in tomorrow's post.

Duane Swacker said...

Chris, (although we haven't been formally introduced, I do like working on a first name basis-which has driven some administrators nuts before, "Call me Dr. So & So" Okay, Fred,later on". Vamos a tutearnos, eh?)

I see why you have a brick wall as the wallpaper for your blog. You might as well beat your head against it as to try to get some seriously cogent answers from the district administrators. Obfuscations, misdirection, outright ignorance, i.e., not knowing what should be known (especially on the part of the super) are staples of too many public school administrators and their dealings with the district's patrons. It has to do with the administrator preparation programs and the fact that many administrators are way too inexperienced, not only in the classroom but also "outside of education" experiences but that's a story for another time.

We had a similar situation at our high school where we get 22 minutes which includes "travel" time for lunch. The admin wanted to fit in an advisory period and perhaps lengthen the lunch times. Well I gave them a schedule that accomplished both without lengthening the school day. Did we institute it?-of course not.

If you like or need I would be willing to look at your children's elementary schedule to see if I can "fix" the problem that your current administrators seem unwilling and/or unable to do.

Email a copy to me at and I'll see what I can do.

A certified Mr. Teachbad "Difficult Teacher"

Chris said...

Duane -- Thanks for commenting. In my view, it is not a problem about the logistics of scheduling; it's a problem of the district's (and the state and federal governments') priorities.

Duane Swacker said...


Yes, your observation about priorities is correct. And those priorities are skewed by the "F" words-fear and failure. They go hand in hand. Here is what I wrote in response to another blog about testing, which is what is really driving the insanities you are seeing in your child's school and district and I believe it helps illuminate the problem of priorities.

One of the things with all the testing is the fact that these policies, NCLB and RATT, use a carrot and stick approach (mainly stick in the form of “fear” of “losing” monies-these are “fear”-based regimes). So the state fears not getting federal dollars, the states then put pressure on the districts by threatening them with withholding accreditation which can lead to a state takeover. Then the district central office threatens the building administrators with their livelihood if they don’t raise the test scores who in turn threaten the staff with their jobs (especially with idiocies like VAM) if they don’t get the students scores up.

I hope you know where this is going by now! Yes, the students then are cajoled, threatened, DISCIPLINED into “doing their best” to “help the team”. Now, maybe it’s not taught in schools of education anymore but I was taught that the best teaching and learning environment is one that is threat-free where the students feel safe and secure. So we have federal, state and district policies that tend to make the teaching and learning environment more “threatening” for the students. And they smell a “RATT”.

The students know that they are caught in a battle amongst the adults and are essentially helpless in defending themselves against the onslaught. “They only test us so they can get more money.” “If I don’t take it, it’s ten percent off my semester grade” (in other districts and states it may be withholding credit or not graduating or moving on). or “The teachers really put pressure on us because they are afraid of losing their jobs”. Yes, I’ve heard all of these multiple times and many more similar.

An aphorism: Any public educational practice that is based on threats and using fear as a motivator is dead wrong.

Duane Swacker said...

Oops, forgot to add that I think you deserve a Mr. Teachbad certificate for excellence in being a "difficult" parent!!

Chris said...

Ha, thanks! Yeah, "threat-free, safe, and secure" does not seem to describe much about the learning environment in today's world of high-stakes testing.