Some alert readers may be wondering about a couple of statistics that are often cited to raise the alarm about disappearing recess. Why don't they appear in this analysis?
We have seen these data points and did some investigating. What we found is an object lesson in how data can take on a life of its own, separate from the good intentions of its authors.
The first statistic shows up as some variation of the following statement:
"Nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools have either eliminated or are considering eliminating recess".
Partial list of citations: Education Leadership 2007, PTA 2006, Seattle Times 2006, New York Times 2006, US News & World Report 2000, Time-Picayune 1998, Ed Daily 1998, AP wire story 1998.
The origin of the “40 percent” figure is an unpublished survey conducted by the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play in either 1998 or 1999. According to Rhonda Clements, one of the study’s authors, the survey was sent to elementary PE teachers in 14,840 school districts. Dr. Clements wrote in an e-mail: “All results at the time indicated that 40 percent of these schools had either eliminated one or more recess periods, or were in the process of revising their school’s curriculum to increase academics.”
How many schools actually had eliminated recess is unknown. It’s also unclear whether the PE teachers had hard information about plans to eliminate recess or were responding to rumor. Finally, the survey is a decade old. Whatever value the information may have once provided, it is now out of date.
The second recess statistic that shows up frequently, again with variations, is this:
"Nearly one-third of elementary schools do not schedule recess on a regular basis".
Citations: Alliance for a Healthier Generation, downloaded 2008; the Future of Children 2006.
This statistic originated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) of 2000. In their analysis of the 2000 survey, authors Burgeson et al wrote: “More than two-thirds of elementary schools (71.4%) provide regularly scheduled recess for students in all grades in the school” (Journal of School Health 2001).
The reverse of this statement, of course, is that 28.6 percent of elementary schools do NOT regularly schedule recess in all grades, hence the “nearly one-third” statement from above.
However, the same paper reports that when computed by individual grade level, between 82.6 and 92.5 percent of schools had regularly scheduled recess, depending on the grade. Something does not quite compute.
The analysis of the SHPPS 2006 survey reported on the same recess data points as the 2000 survey. This time the authors wrote: “Seventy-four percent of all elementary schools provided regularly scheduled recess for students in all grades in the school” (Journal of School Health 2007). Again they showed that when reporting by grade level the figures are 90.4 percent at grade one to 86.6 percent at grade five.
In response to our e-mail query, one of the study’s authors, Nancy Brener, wrote: “After some investigation, I have discovered that the way we calculated the 74 percent does not match the way we report the variable. Seventy-four percent is the percent of elementary schools that provide regularly scheduled recess for all students in grades K–5 [emphasis Brener’s]. The problem is, not all elementary schools contain grades K–5...some only contain K–2, or 3–5, etc. Those would have been counted as ‘no’ in the analysis (which is really not appropriate). So, if we were to recalculate the variable so that it took the grade span of the school into account, it would certainly be much closer to what you'd expect” (July 24, 2008).
The same calculation was done in 2001 as in 2006, meaning the “nearly one-third” figure is no doubt an overstatement.
CDC has since recalculated the percent of elementary schools providing daily recess to children in all grades in 2006 so that it takes into account different school configurations. The corrected figure is 79.1 percent -- a substantial increase over the originally reported 67.8 percent. The adjusted figure can be found on the SHPPS 2006 physical activity fact sheet on the CDC website.
So with data, as with other things, it’s always good to keep in mind Mother’s warning: Do you know where that came from?