Piling into a school bus for a field trip to a museum or play is as central to the public school experience as mystery meat in the cafeteria. Such trips gobble up scarce time and money, true, but they can expand students’ cultural and intellectual horizons, bringing abstract classroom learning to life. Since schools can offer only a limited number of trips, it makes sense not to waste them visiting places that don’t serve educational goals.

Unfortunately, many schools across the nation don’t seem to agree. In fact, they’ve been regularly removing kids from classes and zooming them off on day trips to—we’re not kidding—such educational landmarks as Six Flags, Universal Studios, PETCO, Dodger Stadium, and even the local mall’s food court. The schools use these excursions as “rewards” to motivate students to behave, improve attendance, complete homework, and achieve high grades.

Sometimes the unconventional field trips have an alleged educational benefit. Disney World offers schools the Youth Education Series (Y.E.S.), in which “your students can swirl through G-force motion to test the laws of physics, meet people and experience what life is like on the other side of the globe, and check out all kinds of careers from business to acting.” But just in case you worried that the trip would be all work and no play, the Y.E.S. website promises: “Awesome attractions like Space Mountain®, Splash Mountain® and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are ready to engage the playful side of your students. These and other favorite Magic Kingdom® attractions are all available to your Youth Group in discounted Theme Park ticket packages, so the sky’s the limit for your group fun!”

A Chicago-based company, the Field Trip Factory, facilitates 20,000 school trips a year to retail stores, imploring educators “to start thinking differently and to ask our institutions and the business community to step up and help children learn fundamental skills through valuable experiences.” And what fundamental skills might those be? At PETCO, students can learn about “animal welfare and responsibility.” At H.E.B. supermarkets, they can discover how to “become passionate about incorporating health and wellness into their day-to-day lives.”

It’s worth noting that students aren’t the only ones rewarded by going to an amusement park or a shopping mall instead of spending the day in school. A key feature of these trips is that someone other than the teacher is primarily responsible for supervising students. Theme parks, for instance, often have a surrounding fence, with only one entrance and exit. Teachers need only to guard the exit; otherwise, they don’t have much to do. Teachers can also relax when retail staff lead student groups on tours and market their wares. The teachers generally view these unconventional field trips as a break from the daily grind of classroom instruction.

The educational value of such trips is dubious, however. Do students really need school help to “experience” the local mall? The desire to go to a museum or historic site, by contrast, is something that educators might need to cultivate among students. But if we’re to make good use of the resources devoted to field trips, such hard work is necessary.

And when kids get good grades, let their parents be the ones who reward them with roller-coaster rides.


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