Photo: father daughter riding camel rear view

Field Trip: Kids learn while traveling in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands.

Photograph by Tim Flach, Getty Images

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.

Contributing editor Christopher Elliott also addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail him your story at celliott@ngs.org.

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