Educational Vacations Versus Standardized Testing

Should schools mark kids' absences as unexcused even when they're missing class for valuable real-world lessons?

Children greet runners at the 2015 Boston Marathon.  (Dominick Reuter / Reuters)

Perhaps many of the parents who are disillusioned with America's hyper-standardized education system are channeling the famous scene from the 1976 film Network, when a news anchor—in the midst of an epic on-air soliloquy about modern society—declares, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore."

Michael Rossi—the author of a now-famous letter to the principal of his children's school—probably wasn't as fed-up as the character in the film. But looking at his letter, he may have been close to it.

Rossi and his wife Cindy brought their two young children—Jack and Victoria, who attend Rydal Elementary School in Pennsylvania—to Boston earlier this month to watch Rossi compete in this year's marathon. That meant the kids missed three days of school.

Their vacation didn't sit too well with the school's principal, Rochelle S. Marbury, who after the trip penned a letter to Rossi explaining that the absences would not be excused, regardless of whether the trip had educational benefits.

Michael Rossi/Facebook

The family vacation was justified in Rossi's eyes. For one, the 47-year-old had fulfilled a "lifelong dream" when he competed in the marathon for the first time, and the kids got to witness this accomplishment. But the family also got to walk the Freedom Trail, visit the site of the Boston Tea Party, and pay homage to the graves of several Declaration of Independence signers.

Rossi and his wife received the dressing-down from the principal upon returning to Pennsylvania. He responded to the principal with a letter, later posting it on Facebook.

Dear Madam Principal,

While I appreciate your concern for our children's education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.

Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can't be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book.

In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history culinary arts and physical education.

They watched their father overcome ... injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.

They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal.

At the marathon, they watched blind runners, runners with prosthetic limbs and debilitating diseases and people running to raise money for great causes run in the most prestigious and historic marathon in the world.

They also paid tribute to the victims of a senseless act of terrorism and learned that no matter what evil may occur, terrorists can not deter the American spirit.

These are things they won't ever truly learn in the classroom.

In addition our children walked the Freedom Trail, visited the site of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the graves of several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

These are things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.

They also visited an aquarium, sampled great cuisine and spent many hours of physical activity walking and swimming.

We appreciate the efforts of the wonderful teachers and staff and cherish the education they are receiving at Rydal Elementary School. We truly love our school.

But I wouldn't hesitate to pull them out of school again for an experience like the one they had this past week.

Thank you for your time.

Michael Rossi

To be fair, Marbury was just doing her job, and the family did violate school policy. But it's worth noting that under Pennsylvania law, "educational" trips can be treated as excused absences—it's up to school districts to create their own rules. In Rossi's school district, such trips simply don't fly.

In an interview with Philadelphia magazine Rossi elaborated on his letter: “This is the zero tolerance that everyone loves. They’ve taken common sense out of the equation. You’ve violated the rules and here’s your letter. It definitely rubbed me the wrong way," he said.

Rossi, who's become a bit of a media darling because of the whole ordeal, reportedly met with the principal on Wednesday. Speaking to Philadelphia again after the meeting, he said, "They stand by their policy, and I'm OK with that." He continued: "My biggest beef is the clarity or lack of clarity of the policy and then the way and the tone and the accusatory nastiness of the letter. How many days unexcused is it before I get a knock on the door from the police? They couldn't answer that. But as far as the letter is concerned, they said they would look into that." Rossi also appeared on Fox and Friends yesterday. The entire drama has become fodder for larger debates about the country's public-education priorities. Parents are certainly cheering Rossi on for his gumption and well-worded response. But, more importantly, their cheerleading is a testament to widespread frustration with test-focused education reform—the outcomes of which are tied to school rankings and funding—at the expense of student creativity and engagement. While this system is designed to bring every student on the same page, the fear is that skills and standards are taking precedence over student individuality, and that values like joy and wisdom are being phased out. As Rossi suggests, the three days his kids missed from school—when compared to the real-world lessons they likely gleaned from the Boston experience—will probably be more consequential for the school than it will be for the children in the long run.