Michael D. Clark reports:
No one saw it coming at the time, but when then-President George W. Bush came to Butler County in 2002 to sign the historic No Child Left Behind act, he also signed the death warrant for many school field trips.
That sweeping reform act – signed under the national media spotlight at Hamilton High School – mandated standardized testing across America. But it also had the unintended consequence of killing off the traditional field trip for millions of students.
In the decade since, schools have had to spend more classroom time focusing on test-based instruction, leaving less time for field trips.
Toss in a lousy economy during the last several years and chronic budget woes, and the longtime staple of American education is increasingly thrown under the school bus.
To fill the void, more schools are weaving online “virtual field trips” into their classroom curricula. A growing number of Internet sites provide students the opportunity to take photo or video tours from their classrooms to any museum, nature or historical site that offers such online options.
Some sites provide students a 360-degree visual panoramic scope with pop-ups of facts about the site, all controlled by students or teachers from their computers.
But while educators appreciate the low cost and convenient option, they say it pales in comparison to the real thing.
No one keeps track of school field trips – neither Ohio’s nor Kentucky’s state education departments or nationally. But nearly every education veteran and family with schoolchildren during the last decade will tell you they have seen the decline since the sweeping federal reform.
Tim Sullivan, founder of the national parent-teacher organization PTO Today, said it’s a shame.
“I definitely think there were kids who received many first or only (experiences) through field trips,” Sullivan said from the group’s Massachusetts headquarters. “The first or only time seeing a symphony. The first or only time seeing live theater.
“Many kids will still experience those things without field trips, but a significant chunk – those without the means or the support or interest at home – may miss out on those elements for life.”
Veteran Lakota West High School Latin teacher Sarah Elmore agreed, saying, “I took a lot of trips as a student, but now it’s a rare treat, and it’s sad any time you lose an opportunity to expand a student’s world.”
Finneytown parent Nikki Behanan has seen the impact in her family of seven.
Her older children – from junior high to a recent graduate – had classes in schools that regularly featured field trips to the Cincinnati Zoo, local museums and historical sites. The younger children have taken fewer such trips.
“It’s very disappointing. There is so much more to education than sitting in a classroom with books,” Behanan said.
Field trips represent an important learning opportunity, she said, especially for families watching their money.
“Having a large family, sometimes there are things we can’t do as a whole group because it costs too much,” said Behanan.
Parents are noticing and expressing concern
Smaller families have noticed, too.
Dr. Manjo Singh has two children in Mason Schools.
When he moved his family from Portsmouth, Ohio, seven years ago to one of the top academic school systems in the state, Singh thought his children’s learning would continue to include the three to four field trips annually they had enjoyed at their old school system.
“Now maybe it’s one a year, and most years not even that,” Singh said.
Kenton County Schools parent Mark Habig said his children have benefited greatly from educational excursions.
“There has been a decrease. I’ve definitely noticed that, and I’m concerned,” the Fort Wright resident said.
A young student visiting an art museum can walk around a sculpture or take in a painting from different angles.
“It’s a physical manifestation of what they are trying to teach them in class,” he said.
Kenton County Schools Assistant Superintendent Kim Banta said field trips “are definitely more focused … and they have to have an educational purpose, and it has to fit into the curriculum.”
The trips can make real the vital democratic institutions of our nation, such as state government, Banta said.
“Every elementary kid should see Frankfort,” Kentucky’s capital, she said.
From the federal school reform act’s signing in 2002 to 2007, Greater Cincinnati arts organizations reported a 30 percent drop in student attendance.
Field trip-based arts education student programs at the Aronoff Center and Music Hall have dipped from 18,074 students during the 2007-’08 school year to 9,177 during the 2011-’12 school year.
In 2001-’02, the two performance venues saw field trip visits by 36,689 students.
“There was a time when we might see groups from the same school five or six times a year. Now we are lucky to have a group from that (school) district even once a year,” said Steve Finn, director of education and community relations for the Cincinnati Arts Association.
From 2006 to last school year, the Cincinnati Art Museum saw an initially stable number of students – an average of 12,582 per school year – until school years 2009-’11, when attendance fell to an average of 9,823.
“In order for teachers to justify a field trip to their administrators, they often must show that the content of their field trip will meet a tested standard,” said Regina Russo, director of marketing and communications for the Cincinnati Art Museum.
The field trip of the 21st century
More teachers are using Internet “field trips” to fill the void.
Personal computers, laptops and smart boards at the front of classrooms all can serve as portals for virtual trips around the globe.
“Using virtual tours, Google Earth, Discovery Streaming and other resources has allowed us to ‘travel’ to various parts of the world without having to leave the comfort of our classroom,” said Lindsey Schlabach, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher for Mason Schools.
Since 2006, Mason’s district policy has limited classes to one field trip per school year.
A recent school day found Schlabach standing at the front of her class controlling a video tour of prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France. Pausing the video, pulling out fact boxes, she simultaneously peppers her students with questions.
“We can’t go to France so it’s not quite a field trip, but they can get a sense of the location,” she said.
Student Leah Markvan enjoyed the “trip.”
“It looks realistic and it’s fun to click on the artifacts and get more information,” the 12-year-old said.
But Amy Briggs, Cincinnati Art Museum’s assistant curator for school-based learning, said the modern day, high-tech substitute doesn’t match up to the old-fashioned field trip.
“There is no comparison to seeing a work of art in person. To be in contact with an authentic work of art gives one a sense of awe … and a museum visit has the power to be a truly transformative experience,” said Briggs.
Though young, Leah knows well the difference.
“I like going to the zoo and children’s museum,” she said.
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