It’s Closing Time

IMG 0826

This sign is in front of a local elementary school. The end of the academic year is June 15.

Which means the library is basically closed for the last two weeks of school.

Unless things have changed drastically in the two or so years since I left the overly-large school district, almost every student computer in the school has been used for testing this month. And the IT tech support people will likely begin collecting them for summer storage around the same time the library wants it’s books back.

Which means technology will largely also unavailable for instruction during the final six weeks of school.

Of course, there are plenty of other activities that don’t require computers or library books going on during the final two weeks of the school year.

But I wonder how much more learning would be possible if we didn’t “open” and “close” schools each year. If we treated learning as a continuous, open-ended process, rather than something with a fixed start and end.

Just a thought.

I’ve ranted about the waste, intellectual and monetary, inherent in the traditional academic calendar many times in this space. Feel free to let me know just how wrong I am.

Artificial Ending

Next week the year in Fairfax County1 comes to an end, with students beginning a nine week or so summer break. This will be the first time in many, many years that I will not be directly involved in closing schools for the year.

And I have absolutely no feelings of loss or nostalgia. None. I will not miss it. At all.

The whole process of closing schools in the spring (around here it’s more like early summer) and opening them again a few months later always seemed like a huge waste of time, money, opportunity, effort – whatever you got. In fact, I suspect most staff in the high schools I worked with have been packing up and doing a lot of reviewing for final exams since standardized testing ended.

But it’s not all about those inefficiencies. The traditional open-in-September-close-in-June calendar (plus or minus a month or so) used in most American K12 schools reinforces several very bad educational practices that need to go. Starting with the concept that knowledge comes neatly packaged in 180 day chunks, and that kids also advance in their learning uniformly over those same 180 days.

Now I’m not one of those who believe we need a longer school year or that more time in the classroom will magically fix all education problems. Instead I’m suggesting there are many opportunities that would come from spreading the time we have more evenly. Something like ten weeks in school with three week breaks.

That approach would allow changes like more flexibility in scheduling and grouping students by factors other than age. The revised calendar could also lead to faster remediation for kids who need it (as opposed to pushing it off to an almost equally worthless summer school) with less “learning loss” from excessively long breaks. Plus other advantages like regular time for professional development.

Yes, I know this idea won’t be popular with those parents and others who consider the summer break as a tradition passed down on tablets (don’t believe that origin myth). Or the tourist industry who count on a large audience for those few months. Everyone will adjust.

However, if American schools are ever going to progress from the 1950’s, Leave it to Beaver model to one more suited for the age of ubiquitous information and instant communication, the traditional calendar is one of the first things that has to go.

The Magic Number

Around this time every year, the school board for our overly large school district approves the calendar for the next academic year. The process involves working around inviolable holidays, setting teacher workdays, finding room for professional development days, and so on.

And somebody on the board staff calculates everything so that the calendar includes at least 990 hours of class time.

Why 990 hours? Because the state of Virginia says so.

Why did the wise folks in Richmond settle on 990 hours? No clue.

A search for that number on the DOE site finds more than 500 documents, mostly relating to forms that must be filed and what happens if a district misses that target (it seems to start with a loss of cash).

Nothing about why 990 hours.2 No references to research showing that to be the ideal amount of time for student classroom learning in a 12 month period.

The 990 number doesn’t even seem to stem from the traditional 180 days in a school year. Or to the 120 hours of “contact time” in a traditional Carnegie Unit for high school courses. It just seems to be the number that everyone has agreed on.

And no one, least of all our school board, wants to tempt the consequences resulting from kids having one less minute of that magic seat time.

Time to Kill This Long Summer Break

It’s been quiet recently here in Lake Wobegon the overly-large school district.

Because, of course, it’s July, with most teachers and students on their far too extended summer break, a monumental waste of time, money, energy and learning that I was planning to write about once again.

However, rather than inflicting the web with yet another rant on the subject, go read A Teacher’s Case Against Summer Vacation, a better and certainly more concise argument for making much needed alterations to our archaic academic calendar.

As she points out, we hold on to our current system1 largely due to tradition and emotion, and despite much evidence that it is actually detrimental to learning for many kids. Or at least to the type of student learning we most value, that assessed on standardized tests.

However, this not about increasing school time, just rearranging it. Taking the long summer block and spreading the still very much needed breaks more evenly throughout the year. Allowing for family vacations and assorted kid camps in other months, regular building maintenance, embedded professional development time for teachers, and remediation for students who need it when it will be more relevant.

Like this writer, I’m also puzzled why this kind of calendar change is not a big part of the education reform discussion. Maybe it really is just too simple of an idea.

Or maybe a new approach to school time like this never occurred to the politicians and billionaires leading the debate because it doesn’t contribute larger profits to owners of charter schools, standardized testing creators, or the many vendors of Common Core “solutions”.

1. Which, contrary to popular folklore, does NOT have agrarian roots.

Puttin’ In The (Seat) Time

And the alterations to life here in the overly-large school district just keep coming. The superintendent and school board also want to change the calendar, although their proposal and the reasons for it are rather mundane, and more about administrative convenience than instructional improvement.

Currently students in our system are scheduled to attend 183 days of school, which include 3 more than the state requires to allow for weather closings. But this year we had 11 snow days, resulting in canceled holidays and teacher workdays, and pushing the closing date to June 25. In the not too distant past we’ve missed more days, like the Snowmageddon of 2010.

To better cope with such disruptions2, the plan is to use the alternative accounting method allowed by the state, counting class time in hours, 990 of them to be exact. But that switch would require a much bigger alteration for many students.

Elementary schools in our system would fall short of the 990 number of hours because they send the kids home a few hours early on Mondays to give their teachers time for planning. So the superintendent says that early closing has to go, which is something that’s been pushed by some very vocal parents for many years anyway, thus making another constituent group happy.

Anyway, as I said, rather mundane changes and really, in the long term, meaningless.

Because whether your unit is days or hours, we continue to measure the value of learning based on seat time. Someone in Richmond decided that 180 days/990 hours was the magic number, and if a student spends less that amount of time in a classroom they cannot possibly accumulate enough knowledge to… well, we all know “enough” is a passing grade on the SOL.

However, that accounting method completely ignores the fact that some students require less time than their peers to master a subject, and that it’s very possible for many kids to meet class requirements without sitting in a classroom for a prescribed number of hours.

What doesn’t change in all this hoopla is the century-old concept of the “academic” calendar, where learning starts in August or September, ends in May or June, and breaks for the summer months. Except, of course, for those kids who received failing grades in something and must make up everything they didn’t understand in one-fourth the time during summer school. 2

Wasting a lot of time and effort on the process of starting up schools in the fall and shutting them down in the fall, not to mention conveying to both students and community the message that “official” learning is limited by the clock and calendar.

Jen, who teaches in one of our elementary schools, as well has having her own children in the system, will be impacted far more than I will by these calendar changes and sees another reason for eliminating the early Monday closing. Go read her thoughts on this issue.