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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.

By Marc Fisher |  September 19, 2006; 12:02 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I agree with you, Marc, that kids spend too much time OUT of schools. Pay teachers right and make them work full days and weeks. However, Fairfax is hardly a model since, for elementary students, EVERY MONDAY is a half day. Teacher development time EVERY WEEK.

Posted by: Fairfax | September 19, 2006 12:49 PM

Yes, there are way too many of these "Teacher workdays" or "Teacher/Parent Conference Days" or whatever they're called, but the Arlington school year lasts from Labor Day until the week before the 4th of July, and Christmas break is barely a week. The school year's about 3 weeks too long. I doubt I'm breaking new ground here, but it's my observation that neither teaching nor learning occurs after Memorial Day.

Posted by: mart | September 19, 2006 12:54 PM

Wow, Fairfax, thanks for letting us know. I have no idea how Fairfax gets away with that.

Posted by: Ward 4 D.C. | September 19, 2006 1:07 PM

First of all, the half day is only in the elementary schools, where they have to be with the children all day and there is no time in the schedule for planning lessons.

High school and middle school teachers on the other hand generally teach 5 periods and have one off period for planning and one professional responsibility period for the school.

We also attend school 193 days as opposed to the 180 norm.

As for teacher workdays (too many!!??) you've got to be kidding. We have two days in the fall due to the election schedule in order to process (at the high school level) 150-200 student grades for the quarter and plan a new quarter's worth of lessons. There are also two days for the second quarter, but only one of them is a true work day for processing grades and planning, the other is a county wide inservice. The third quarter we have one day to do this and there is no time in the 4th quarter due to the exam schedule.

I love people who complain about teacher's schedules and have absolutely no clue what we do, and the hours we spend in the building. I am a high school chemistry teacher and a class sponsor so I am generally here from 10 to 12 hours a day, grading, planning, meeting with students.

Posted by: fairfax teacher... | September 19, 2006 1:14 PM

Recall what Disraeli said "thre are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." A lot of "consultants" and "experts" rattle off numbers about education. However, how many actually spent time on the ground teaching? As a spouse of a teacher, I recognize her and her co-teachers' tireless work. They have an uphill battle against federal rules, mountains of paperwork, and indifferent or incompetent parents. These factors and people unwilling to support schools by volunterring and other efforts are part of the problem.

Posted by: Husband of a FCPS teacher | September 19, 2006 1:26 PM

Posted by: Wikipedia | September 19, 2006 1:46 PM

It is sad how quickly this has degenerated into a teachers vs. families forum. If parents advocate on behalf of their children and insist that school districts adhere to the lawful and widely accepted 180 (Full) day calendar, why are they viewed to be criticizing teachers? After all, teachers have a union to advocate on their behalf -- children and families do not.

Let's agree that a lof of people work hard, including teachers -- and parents. Parents who are concerned about the shrinking school year are not attacking teachers. We are simply asking for transparency, accountability and consideration in the planning of these early release days. Readers should also know that DC schools have a TWO week winter break -- it was lengthened last year for teacher training, and we were told that the half days would be eliminated, which they were in 05-06. All of a sudden, we have both the extra week off, and 9 teacher training half days, with no explanation offered.

Posted by: Ward 3 DC | September 19, 2006 1:54 PM

I've been teaching in Catholic Schools for 21 years and the reduction and elimination of class time & school days is the biggest scam going in education. Teachers complain constantly but the fact of the matter is that I have 178 teaching days in a year and 18& days off! Plus 10 leave/sick days plus however many snow days, delayed openings and early dismissals. Teachers like to joke that the best three things about teaching are "June, July & August". Actually the best three things about teaching are November, December and January when I have 41 days off and that's before the weather paranoia intervenes!

Posted by: Mt St Joseph HS Baltimore Maryland | September 19, 2006 2:09 PM

Less instruction time means less learning. Now I understand how the schools got where they are.

Posted by: Steve | September 19, 2006 2:17 PM

Are you kidding me? In Fairfax the school year continues to get longer and longer. We have 193 days of instruction. Parents are constantly taking kids out of school to go on vacation (some extremely educational, some just for fun), others like to return to their home country for months at a time, and some just keep their kids home for a mental day. Why? It seems that these parents want a shorter school year.

Posted by: _cimabue_ | September 19, 2006 2:18 PM

In the country my wife went to school, elementary school education is a full two years shorter (7-17). You are a fool if you think poor quality can be made up with more quantity.

I am the son of a still-working elementary school teacher. I had such excessive abscences that it threatened my high school graduation prospects. So you can tell what my maother though about how well her own profession functioned. Yet I had straight A's.

I would say maybe a third of students benefit from being in the classroom longer. We're just wasting everyone else's time. When I was a teen, I was pissed about this. No wonder our teenagers still are.

Posted by: bkp | September 19, 2006 3:15 PM

Is that the same Teacher's Union that endorsed Paul Strauss for Ward 3 Council? And I thought he was for making the schools better.

This is a travesty that needs to be corrected by the DC School Board immediately.

Posted by: Ward 3 | September 19, 2006 3:46 PM

Parents should be penalized for taking their kids out of school for vacations. It's utterly ridiculous. Go on vacation at a time school is out!

Teachers who complain about too much work conveniently forget they don't have to work for three months out of the year! Try working 10-12 hours a day 12 months a year with a bunch of adults in an office who act like children.

Why not extend the school year and put more breaks in between? In Europe, just for example, there is a week long break for All Saint's and two spring breaks (Carnival and Easter). With more breaks, longer school years would not seem as long.

Oh, and those of you who say "my school goes longer!" are being pretty thoughtless. Just because one school is above average doesn't make the fact that school years are getting shorter not true.

One other thing - quit babying your kids. I am sick and tired of hearing parents complain about how their kids have too much work. They don't have enough. They should be studying four hours a night so they actually learn something. We're producing a society of imbeciles.

Posted by: daedalus | September 19, 2006 4:05 PM

Thanks for writing about this. The new proposed DC schedule is ridiculous. We were told that the 2-week vacation over the holidays was to give teachers extra time. Now, they start before Labor Day in the sweltering heat AND take away 9 half-days. And, they do it all in secret, with no planning or communication. They should stop playing musical chairs with the schedule and just improve the level of instruction while the kids are in school. I'm glad that Mr. Reinoso supports the parents on this, but I fully support Adrian Fenty's bid to take over the schools and make the school board advisory only. If the superintendent has to answer to one person, and that person answers to the voters, it will make things much better.

Posted by: Ward 3 Parent | September 19, 2006 4:45 PM

I have spent the last eight years in schools as an independent observer and I agree that much of teacher training (professional development, whatever you want to call it) is useless. Half days are useless to kids, too. And all these days off are completely ridiculous. The amount of instructional time kids get in general is far too low.

Let's be fair across the board, though. Daedalus, teachers have TWO MONTHS off a year: mid-June through mid-August. That is, unless they teach summer school or develop curriculum or whatever over the summer, which many of them do.

Posted by: Alice | September 19, 2006 5:53 PM

The more time kids spend in school the more kids will learn. Period. I am so weary of the unions dictating how we run our schools! What about early dismissal days in Fairfax County? Give me a break. My kids get out at 12:20. Fortunately, we have child care but what about all the parents who can't afford it? Many small kids are going home to empty houses. Keeping kids safe should be priority one.

Posted by: takebackourschools | September 19, 2006 6:37 PM

Instead of compensating teachers with money, districts are compensating them with time, to the detriment of our children. I say, have them work 8 hour days(like everyone else) and stay after the kids leave to do grading and planning if needed. I know there are many teachers who put in long days (like the rest of us) but so many do the union mandated 6.5 (or less on teacher workdays) and are done. And pay them like professionals. They'll still have summers off.

Posted by: NoVa | September 19, 2006 8:27 PM

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