CHICAGO – Two Chicago-area parents and a veteran educator say they aren’t surprised by the recent revelation that one of the city’s pre-K-8 schools is cracking down on kids’ bathroom breaks in order to “maximize student learning and reduce the loss of instructional time.”
As first reported by Education Week, the principal of the unidentified school is requiring teachers to sign up for a “restroom time slot” during which their entire class can use the facilities each day. Teachers have also been instructed that potty breaks “should last only five minutes,” and that students will only be allowed two unscheduled trips to the facilities per quarter.
Apparently a number of schools in Illinois – and presumably throughout the United States – are dealing with a similar problem of students taking an excessive number of bathroom breaks, though none (as far as we can tell) have taken such extreme measures to deal with it.
According to our three sources, a growing number of young elementary students are hiding out in school bathrooms as a way of coping with the stress caused by the new learning approaches required by Common Core, the set of nationalized math and English standards that schools in some 45 states are scrambling to implement.
For example, our sources say young students are finding Common Core math problems so confusing – and the amount of class time devoted to working on them so overwhelming – that they’re looking for ways to escape the classroom just to get a mental break. Some elementary students have reportedly started an “I Hate Math Club” that meets on the playground during recess to share horror stories from math class.
One veteran, Chicago-area elementary school teacher, who spoke with EAGnews on the condition of anonymity, says educators are under so much pressure to prepare students for the upcoming Common Core-aligned standardized tests – known as the PARCC exam, which will debut in 2015 – that they’re ramping up math and reading instruction and eliminating a number of other activities from the school day.
The result is that students in the early grades are feeling so “bogged down” that “during the last hour of the day, they’re unteachable,” she says.
Her students are dealing with the stress not only by frequently asking to use the bathroom, but also by saying they have a headache or stomach ache. The teacher adds that students are even blowing their noses and sharpening their pencils more than normal, anything that allows them to stop working and catch their breath.
Youngsters feeling ‘overwhelmed and panicky’
As one of the leaders of “Stop Common Core Illinois,” Erin Raasch says she’s heard similar stories from parents across the state, especially from those with kids in elementary schools that have doubled the amount of daily math instruction – to two hours – in order to prepare students for the upcoming PARCC tests.
Two hours of math instruction appear to be too stressful for too many students. Parents tell Raasch their kids are complaining of stomach aches during math class in hopes of finding refuge in the school nurse’s office.
Raasch suspects that in many of those cases, the stomach aches are genuine.
“Two periods of math is not appropriate for little ones,” Raasch says. “They start feeling overwhelmed and panicky. They literally feel sick.”
That’s been true for Raasch’s fourth-grade son, who occasionally hangs out in the boys’ room to escape the pressures of the extended math sessions.
School leaders are trying to counteract the negativity by holding pep rallies that tell students how “awesome” math really is, according to Raasch.
“They’re trying to keep the kids’ spirits up, and telling them not to get down in the dumps over Common Core,” she says.
‘It’s not what it used to be’
The problem isn’t just the amount of time that’s being spent on math – it’s also the type of math being given to kids.
A mother of a Chicago Public Schools first-grader, who spoke to EAGnews on the condition of anonymity, believes the Common Core math work “isn’t age appropriate.”
She says the math problems are often in the form of word problems – “paragraphs of word problems” – that are stress-inducing for first-graders who are still learning to read and write.
The CPS mother adds that her daughter’s school is so focused on driving up students’ math scores that earlier this school year, the principal was using the daily announcements to encourage students to get after-school tutoring. Her daughter finds the school atmosphere so stressful that “some days she begs me not to go to school.”
“It really bothers me to hear her say she doesn’t want to go to school, that she’s so unhappy,” the Chicago Public Schools mom says. “I dread taking her to school.”
She adds that her older kids – who are now college-age – didn’t have any of these problems when they were going through school just a few years ago.
Like Raasch, the CPS mother says her complaint isn’t with the teachers. The two moms have nothing but praise for their children’s teachers, and say the educators are only doing what they’re told by school leaders.
That’ll be welcome news to the Chicago-area elementary teacher, who notes that educators are perhaps even more stressed out by the transition to Common Core than students.
“Nobody knows what they’re doing – it’s a lesson-planning nightmare,” the teacher says. “We don’t have the curriculum to teach the new standards. We’re spending our own money to buy (Common Core-aligned) supplemental materials.”
She adds that teachers know the new PARCC exam will be really difficult for students, and that most of them won’t meet or exceed expectations.
“It will be bad – district leaders and principals are all really concerned about it,” she says, adding, “I used to love teaching, but it’s not what it used to be.”