Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Case for Skipping Class

Schools need to ease up on family travel restrictions.

By Christopher Elliott

(From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler)

What do America’s schools have against travel?

In Darien, Connecticut, the public high schools’ attendance policy warns: “Inexpensive airfares are not an excuse for extended student vacations.” Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., also discourages absences for family trips, and at least one of the county’s high schools, Annandale, seems to have an outright travel ban. “Family trips and vacations will not be excused,” states the posted attendance regulations. Notably, school-sponsored sporting events are generally exempt.

Alright, I get it. Mom and Dad sipping piña coladas while Junior lands cannonballs in the resort pool on a school day—it’s just wrong. I don’t care how cheap the Priceline tickets to Cancún were. And this kind of truancy certainly won’t help American students, already lagging behind their Chinese counterparts in math and science.

But some trips are worth skipping school for. What about the cruise to the Galápagos to witness evolutionary theory in action? Or a tour of Europe’s castles to immerse the family in medieval history? That’s not the same thing as hanging out at the beach, is it?

“Time in the field adds context, meaning, and challenge to the one-dimensional classroom feed,” says Scott Pankratz of Ecology Project International, cultural exchange program. “Traveling is learning in 3-D; it’s an opportunity to grow and become what otherwise isn’t possible.”

Tell me about it. While my own spotty school attendance record may have affected my grades, it certainly didn’t interfere with my education. In fact, my youthful travels across Europe and the United States with my parents, when I was supposed to be sitting in a classroom, inspired my career.

Educational travel may have other benefits, too. More than 88 percent of students who traveled before the age of 18 receive a college degree, according to a recent survey endorsed by the Student Youth & Travel Association. Slightly more than 8 in 10 had a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and more than 40 percent had GPAs of greater than 3.6. What’s more, half of the respondents reported a household income of more than $75,000 as adults. These correlations add up to some pretty intriguing math.

And yet many U.S. school systems are taking an increasingly hard line against pulling children out of school for learning trips, even as they forgive absences with questionable educational value, such as sports competitions. Junior can’t be excused for traveling to the Grand Canyon to reinforce earth science lessons, but he can leave early with the rest of the football team for away games with the school’s blessing? Puh-leeze.

There’s a reason schools are reluctant to issue waivers for educational travel. Rigid testing requirements under the ten-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is meant to hold school districts accountable to national standards, have made schools mindful of every unexcused absence, according to Ezekiel Dixon-Román, an authority on international supplementary education and out-of-school learning. “What’s being covered in school is specifically targeted at what the school is assessed on in the tests,” he says. In other words, schools teach to the tests, and traveling kids may not be learning what they will be tested on.

I have a horse in this race. Three, actually—two sons and a daughter. Taking them out of school for educational travel involved negotiation and creativity, and we sometimes were made to feel as if we were depriving them of an education. By the time my older son started third grade, it was clear that the school calendar and school leave policy were too restrictive. Last January, we withdrew Aren from public school and enrolled him in an accredited homeschool program. His two younger siblings soon followed.

The solution isn’t to push parents out but to reform schools. Real change must come from the top. “Federal policy around education should be changed,” says Dixon-Román. “There’s too much of a focus on testing and not enough on a rich and meaningful pedagogical experience.”

To get an idea of how the system should work, consider what happened when Sonja Lother asked to take her daughter, Pippa, out of school for 12 days to visit Washington’s Orcas Island last year. Yes, there was some red tape. She applied in writing for permission from the principal at Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama. Then she met with Pippa’s teacher, Mrs. Evans, who asked Pippa to keep a travel journal. Finally the school green-lighted her request, classifying her trip as a pre-excused absence. Pippa’s trip “expanded her thinking” and was worth the bureaucratic obstacles, says Lother. Pippa created a 28-page journal with daily entries and drawings of the islands, complete with postcards and other mementos, which she shared with her classmates, who learned something from the trip as well.

My kids already know that sometimes the best place to learn is outside the classroom. They’ll never forget standing on the edge of Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, inhaling the sulfuric air, and listening to a park ranger tell them the secrets of a volcano. Or the fascinating story of northwest Florida’s rare sand dune lakes, formed by a combination of tidal flows and weather, presented by a nature guide named Snookie as they walked along a narrow, sandy trail. They know there’s no substitute for being there.

Hey parents, this is an issue worth getting pushy over (unlike the B that should have been an A on Junior’s last history test). You’re most likely to be successful if you can first work with a teacher to ensure your child will keep up with the schoolwork before approaching the school administration.

Skipping class to travel isn’t something all families can afford, unfortunately, but it may be more affordable than you think. Remember, not every trip has to—nor should—include a five-star resort. When I was young, my family crisscrossed two continents on a shoestring budget, often staying with friends or camping. (For truly needy students, groups such as the SYTA Youth Foundation and ACIS offer scholarships for organized travel.)

Travel shouldn’t be an option for only the elite; it should be an opportunity available to any student or family who wishes to expand their horizons. Schools shouldn’t get in the way of a good education.


  1. I know of one child who has been forced to leave 2 ESs because he was unenrolled from each after a family vacation to his home country that caused him to miss over a month of school time. I suspect that since he was a particularly challenging child, this was the ES's way of unloading him onto another school.

  2. I LOVE traveling and learning about different cutures and definitely see the educational value in it. However! It should not be done during school year. School for a child is like a job for an adult. You can't just start skipping days when you feel like it and have bigger and better things to do. I think it would give the wrong message to children if they could just miss classes for the sake of family travel. That's what summers and breaks are for. I am the kind of parent that will move the earth when the time comes to try to enrich my childrens' lives with trips to overseas depending on our likes and wishes ( think Louvre for arts, or castles for History) but I would never sacrafice time from school for that. Children too need to learn to commit to their obligations. ( I must also mention that I grew up in Europe where traveling is a given for most families and our summer breaks were a true 3- month period ...)

  3. Who does this? Children should not miss school. This is just an excuse for parents to travel when ever they want (like before they had kids). Give it up...You had children.

  4. Two words: Summer vacation.

    Also, the studies you cite seem very questionable. Obviously, families that can afford extensive travel are wealthier. It's likely the higher SES that leads to the greater likelihood of going to college, earning more money, etc. rather than simply the travel itself.

    If anything, we need to be fighting for our kids to have MORE time in school, not less.

  5. Hm, interesting that you brought this up since my kid's new private school has a very strict policy about this, and of course a private school can decide not to renew your contract, as it were. I found myself mourning a bit that we could not take mental-health-day trips or vacations on the off season when things are less crowded and rushed and therefore it's easier to engage with your kid. But I figure, well, I guess when you turn 5, real life begins.

  6. The District loses money if you skip. Do you really want a week in Cancun to cause your child to not get into Lowell knowing that could mean ISA or Marshall, 4 years ruined by a week in the sun? Sure, you learn a lot on vacation but school is only 176 days a year. They give 10 weeks off for Summer, 2 for winter break, plus a spring break, plus about 10 3-day weekends. Show respect for the schedule and adjust your schedule, which you can, to make sure your child is in school 176 days. Also, your child needs more educational activities during the Summer, during the year it's a distraction. I agree, you should not take a vacation during the school year. Nor should teachers, who work 176 days, take vacation time during the school year, which many do. OK they work what, 186 days, including prep days and conferences, but most of us work 250 days, so be honest and save the District the cost of a substitute and take vacation when school is out.

  7. Opportunity to travel may not always be a vacation choice. We are an academic family and sometimes have the option to take our kids with us to places they would otherwise never see and experiences they might never have if we did not seize the moment. As the child of a UN worker, sometimes pulled out of school for similar reasons I can attest to the mind-broadening and educationally enriching value of experiencing life in far flung countries (Im not talking about queuing with 1000 other people to see La Giaconda in the height of summer). While sitting at a resort (this is not travel, it's a gated playground in a warm place) is no reason to miss some days of school, most people will always remember and value what they see and learn abroad. How many of us retain every single week of the long thirteen years of schoolwork?

  8. We certainly will not pull our 7 year old kid out during the school year but have skipped the last week of school to travel to Italy and China in the last two years.
    (Full disclosure: tickets are less expensive if the departure date is in May instead of June.) First, we are mindful that the school will lose the money; second, we also don't want to send the wrong message to our kid that it's ok to skip school. While we instill in her that school is the most important task of her life for the next twenty years, we also believe that we, as parents, are responsible for providing her with the best learning experience of Western and Eastern civilizations by taking her to Rome, Venice, Florence,London, Paris, China and Vietnam.

  9. I've pulled my kids out during the school year to travel to my husband's home country, and I'd do it again. We always ask well in advance of our trip (at least 2 mos notice) , we arrange for Independent Study assignments, and we complete them all -- homework time is part of our travel. SFUSD gets the money as though our kids were there (that's what excused absences mean), and our kids' lives are enriched.

    Yes, travel to Europe or other Northern hemisphere destinations on the same seasonal calendar should be done during school breaks -- but what do you do when your South American family plans a wedding for their summer (Nov-Mar)? We go, that's what we do. And our kids are smarter, and better world citizens, for it. We 're fortunate to be able to do this for them, and for our family.

  10. I only pulled my kid out once -- I got a weeklong work trip to the country he was adopted from. It is a country I could never have afforded to go on my own with him. My co-workers on the trip helped share care. His public school could not have been more understanding. They gave me a packet of work for him to do for the week. He LOVED the trip. It gave him a sense of belonging.

  11. When the opportunities arose, we took our kid out of school to attend the Obama inauguration in DC and we took him out of school for a week to attend a major family event in England. Fortunately we're in private school so the decision did not affect the school's funding. The school was very accommodating about giving us assignments to take with us. We essentially "home-schooled" his regular curriculum while we were away, just as we took our laptops with us to get our own work done while we were gone. He also wrote age-appropriate journals about his travel experiences, and we made sure he had at least one educational (but very fun) adventure every day. Our whole family treasures those memories. Neither were events that could have been put off until school breaks.

    Of course parents have to exercise good judgment. You don't pull a kid out of school to go sit on the beach or ski or visit Disney World. You don't pull a kid out of school during standardized testing weeks or when other major exams are being administered, or if their absence would impair a group effort of which they are part, such as science fair project or a play. And you don't abuse the privilege just to save money by traveling off season.

    Nonetheless, for many fields of work and study, the portable office is today's reality. As long as kids are held accountable for keeping up with their class and their absence is not detrimental to the other kids in their class, I see nothing wrong or irresponsible about being physically absent from school for travel for special family events or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as witnessing in person the inauguration of our first African-American president.

    It's most unfortunate that public schools cannot look at individual situations and be flexible without losing funding.

  12. This is incorrect: "We always ask well in advance of our trip (at least 2 mos notice) , we arrange for Independent Study assignments, and we complete them all -- homework time is part of our travel. SFUSD gets the money as though our kids were there (that's what excused absences mean), and our kids' lives are enriched."

    We used to think that too, but this year the district made a point of saying that Indep. Study for travel unrelated to a funeral is not excused so the district does not get the money.

  13. My child will always miss a few - a week of school every school year. Since I care that the school misses money, I just make up an illness. It's elementary school. Big deal. This is one of the "perks" of public school.

  14. I think that travel can be very enriching and that it is closed minded to think that education only comes from school instruction. No one should abuse the time off but one or two trips to Vietnam, China, Chile, Ecuador, the Ukraine, etc. during their 13 years of public school is not abuse.