The Incredible Shrinking School Year
Every time a new study comes out showing just how far behind the rest of the world American schoolchildren lag, we hear a flurry of agitation for various ways to keep kids in school longer--longer days, more days, year-round classes.
Nice dreams, but reality is moving quickly and steadily in the opposite direction.
Vacations get longer, school ends earlier, and actual instructional days get converted into ever more staff training days, which is one of the biggest rackets going. In the District's public schools this fall, the conversion of nine--count 'em nine--additional days from regular school days into half days for teacher training means that the D.C. schools now provide so few days of instruction that they are in technical violation of the law on minimum schooling.
This is a perennial issue all across the country. In New York City a few years ago, the situation got so bad that five of the 15 school days in September were half-days so teachers could sit and listen to overpaid consultants telling them what to do. (My own kids' school vacations have nearly doubled over the past decade; I've yet to find a single parent who thinks there's anything good about this.)
As a number of parent activists around Washington are now shouting as loudly as they can (one parent's plea to the school board is on the jump), the new D.C. school calendar--despite D.C. law requiring a minimum of 180 regular instructional days and a maximum of two half-days for staff development each semester--contains twelve half days and slyly counts them as full days of instruction in an effort to meet the legal minimum. (From the D.C. Municipal Regulations: "Each regular instructional day shall be at least six (6) hours in length for students." And this: "A maximum of two (2) half-day staff development sessions may be scheduled each semester; provided, that days when students attend school for less than a full regular instructional day shall count as a one-half (1/2) instructional day toward the minimum requirement....")
D.C. school board member Victor Reinoso (Wards 3 and 4) has come riding to the assistance of parents on this, hammering the school administration for slipping the calendar changes past the board and parents with little if any notice. The changes, Reinoso found, came from negotiations with the teachers union and ignored the vociferous objections of parents and board members.
The shrinking of the school year comes at a time when the D.C. schools' performance on standardized tests are as low or lower than ever, the great majority of students are not performing at grade level, and graduation rates are shamefully low. "The importance of actual time in the classroom cannot be underestimated," Reinoso says. "DCPS has historically had one of the shortest school days and school years in the region." The current teachers contract allows for 185 instructional days, but the system limits class days to 180, and that's counting all those half-days as full-days.
Reinoso is now arguing that the new calendar cannot be legal and official until and unless the school board votes its approval, and he, at least, is ready to vote the thing down. A vote could come as soon as Wednesday.
Like many smart and earnest people who get deeply involved in the D.C. schools, Reinoso is often frustrated by how difficult it is to bring about change. But with the city government now pumping massive money into a rebuilding of the system, and with the Mayor-Apparent ready to take over control of the system and appoint a deputy mayor/education czar, the moment for real change seems to be at hand. Halting a foolish rollback of school days would be an easy step in the long march toward higher quality.
Here's the text of a plea by a parent activist to the D.C. school board to reject the latest reductions in instructional time in the city's schools:
Good evening. My name is Tracy Zorpette and I have children enrolled at Murch Elementary School. In addition to eliminating almost a full week of instructional time, the Superintendent's proposed calendar could easily win an award for the most irritating and family-unfriendly calendar in the United States. I strongly urge you to reject it for the following reasons:
First, this calendar short-changes our children. In the Collective Bargaining Agreement world of fuzzy math, one-half equals one: half days are counted as full days toward the 180-day requirement. But in reality, our children will probably have the least amount of instructional time in the country. How can you approve a calendar with only 18 full weeks and 171 full days of school when the vast majority of students in the district are not meeting national testing standards?
Second, the proposed calendar blatantly ignores the needs of families and children. A full Friday off every other month is preferable to a half day each month, both in terms of spending quality family time and finding appropriate childcare. I searched school calendars on the internet and could not find one with anything close to 9 half days. To the contrary, I found plenty of evidence to suggest that schools have widely rejected early release days because they are ineffective for teacher training as compared to intensive, full day sessions, and encourage irregular student attendance.
Moreover, the express language of the contract with the teacher's union does not specify when teacher development half days should be scheduled. If you must include them, at a minimum, they should be scheduled for Fridays when it would be the least disruptive for parents and students. And, please, hardworking, juggling parents don't want to hear that DCPS avoids Friday trainings because too many teachers will be tempted by a long weekend. If this is the case, revise the union contract to include appropriate consequences for failing to report for scheduled professional development.
Why can't we get even this simple matter right in the District? The Fairfax County schools calendar provides 183 days of school for students, ample professional development, and there are no half days posing as full days, no midweek professional days. The only half day, in fact, is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to help facilitate travel plans for teachers and students. In Fairfax County, it seems, children really do come first.
Do children come first in the District? If they do, you will reject this hastily proposed and ill-considered calendar.
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