Is too much transparency preventing problem-solving actions?

Transparency in government might be overrated. That’s the interesting argument David Frum makes. He says that in the name of reform, Americans over the past half century have weakened political authority. “Instead of yielding more accountability, however, these reforms have yielded more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision.”

Here’s a real-world example from the executive branch. Throughout most of American history, presidents and their staffs have been able to hold confidential meetings in the White House complex. The independent counsels who investigated the Clinton White House jolted this traditional understanding by demanding—and getting—access to White House visitor logs.

Frum explains that the George W. Bush administration attempted to restore the traditional confidentiality of White House visitor lists, then people sued to gain access to the logs.

Reformers keep trying to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing from American governance. What they end up doing instead is eliminating governance itself, not just in the White House but in Congress, too.

This may be true even at the level of school boards. I think it is wonderful that the Fairfax County School Board voted 10-1 to eliminate the weekly Monday early dismissal policy in the elementary schools. I will be writing more about this vote and the debate in the future, since it was very significant.

However, it was so clearly the right decision–and the only logical decision–that the most interesting question might be–what took so long? Could it be that the Fairfax County School Board could use more flexible working arrangements?

Is state law too strict on open meetings? Could backroom wheeling and dealing have gotten this situation fixed years ago?

Clearly most parents did not support the Monday early dismissal policy. Those who complain the decision was made too quickly justify their opposition in the name of “process.”

Perhaps the school board should do a little soul searching about how such a terribly unpopular policy was allowed to drag on year after year. Whatever “process” was in place that served to prop up such a dysfunctional schedule needs to be reevaluated.

Some schools need to update their websites

There are some Fairfax County elementary schools that have been slow to spread the news that there will be no more weekly Monday early dismissals in the new school year. Some of the home pages still list the early dismissal times for Mondays.

Time to update your web pages! Let’s hope these corrections are made by tomorrow.

The school board took lots of time to decide on full-day Mondays

A myth seems to be developing that the Fairfax County School Board acted too quickly to implement full-day Mondays for elementary schools. On the contrary, the school board procrastinated for years and years.

Anyone who says the school board didn’t have enough information has not been paying attention. Also, those who say the school board didn’t give time for community input have it all backwards. The recent poll shows overwhelming support from parents for full-day Mondays. The exact figures in a specific poll are not important. The real problem is that the school board ignored this widespread dissatisfaction for so many years.

Clearly there was something lacking in the governance process to allow this problem to drag on for so long.

Money for full-day Mondays

The Washington Post has an article regarding tonight’s agenda item for the Fairfax County School Board on allocating money for full-day Mondays in the elementary schools.

The article includes comments from some members of the Board of Supervisors on whether they would provide any additional money. I posted a comment to the article, noting that although it is probably true, as Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said, that school officials had not mentioned a need to end half-day Mondays during their lengthy budget negotiations, I mentioned it and discussed it with my supervisor, Penny Gross (D-Mason). She is well aware of how inadequate the Monday early dismissal schedule has been for the elementary schools.

Under this schedule, the only way the elementary schools can comply with the state requirements for the length of the school day would be to limit recess to 10 minutes per day. I have not heard any of the supporters of the status quo argue in favor of a limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. I have also not heard any calls for a deliberate policy of not meeting the state standards for the length of the school day. So, in essence, the school board really has no choice but to fix this inadequate schedule. The Board of Supervisors should encourage and support the schools system’s effort to remedy the serious problem with the elementary school schedule. Following state regulations is critically important. The solution must be implemented immediately, even if it means that nonrecurring funds are used.

Schools set to expand language programs in Fairfax County

The Fairfax Times has an article on the expanded language programs in Fairfax County. Part of the plan is to increase the number of two-way immersion programs in the elementary schools. The other part of the plan is change the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) program to a Language through Content program. Currently FLES serves 46 schools. The Language through Content program would expand to all elementary schools over the next five years.

There are two good reasons to expand this: one to give more students foreign language instruction, and two, to give classroom planning time during the student day. I have been advocating this for several years, and I see no reason for a slow approach. I agree with Kathy Smith (Sully) who expressed frustration that the planned roll-out would take five years: “I’d like to do this tomorrow.”

Perhaps this might be possible for this September, but I don’t see any reason all schools couldn’t have Language through Content taught by specialists by September 2015.

“While the move to Language Through Content would reduce costs at current FLES schools, adding the language program at 93 additional schools would bring the overall cost to $7.5 million annually once fully implemented,” the Fairfax Times reports.

The choice isn’t between spending the money and not spending the money. The choice is between spending the money on foreign language teachers or other specialists. The school system has already committed to providing more time for students through full-day Mondays while providing alternative planning time for the classroom teachers. Foreign language instruction would still be only a portion of the added time needed.

Update on the Fairfax Master Calendar

Revisions to the proposed master calendar for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) were presented as new business to the Fairfax County School Board at its business meeting on Thursday, July 10. The Board is scheduled to vote on the calendar at its July 24 meeting.

The most recent revision to the Master Calendar was approved by the school board on June 26; however, due to testing conflicts, two minor adjustments are being proposed:

    • Strategic Planning Day on 10/14/14 was moved to 9/29/14
    • Strategic Planning Day on 5/4/15 was moved to 3/16/15

Here is the FCPS summary of the Revisions to the Approved 2014-15 Standard Year Calendar:

The proposed revisions include:

  • Adding four strategic planning days for teachers on September 29, February 2, March 16, and April 6. The strategic planning days will be student holidays.

  • Student holidays will be scheduled on staff development days, teacher work days, and strategic planning days.

  • The strategic planning day on Monday, April 6 follows spring break, providing a student holiday immediately following the break.

  • Students will be released two hours early on the last day of the quarter and the day before Thanksgiving break and winter break. Students will be released two hours early on the last day of school instead of attending school for two hours and then being dismissed. On early release days, teachers will use the time for teacher directed time, plus job-embedded collaborative time.

In total, the revised 2014-15 school year calendar includes seven teacher workdays to offer teachers time for staff meetings and professional development, as well as three teacher staff development days, four strategic planning days, and six days with a two-hour early release for teacher directed time.

The press release states that “The length of the school year remains the same, but the number of days for students has been reduced from 183 days to 180 days.”

I am not sure what is meant by the phrase “the length of the school year remains the same.”

However, I will put this question aside for the time being and simply note the ending sentences in the press release:

By eliminating the shortened Monday schedule for elementary schools, FCPS was able to make changes to the calendar that comply with state accreditation for 990 hours of instruction. The change to 990 instructional hours also eliminates the need to make up inclement weather days at the end of the school year if fewer than 13 days are missed.

Post endorses full-day Mondays

Fairfax was right to dismiss half-day Mondays. The Washington Post editorial board says, “hats off to the school officials who finally ended a practice that was a relic of the past and clearly not in the best interest of Fairfax students.”

The Post noted that some critics said the change had been rushed into place. “Never mind that the  practice has been the object of study and discussion for decades, include a recent committee that found parents overwhelmingly opposed to half-day Mondays.”

“Details of the added instruction, estimated to cost $7 million, are still being worked out, but officials are right to be aggressive in bringing about a change,” the Post said.

This excellent editorial ends with a quote from Superintendent Karen Garza: “It’s good for children, so it’s the right thing to do.”

There are two titles for the on-line versions of this editorial. I first noticed it on my iPhone, where the title is “Editorial: A full week of full days.”

On the computer, the upper left corner has “The Post’s View” in small type and then the title is “Fairfax was right to dismiss half-day Mondays.”

The editors at the Post are doing a great job in creating concise and descriptive titles.

Update, July 11: Checking the list of titles under opinions in the mobile web page, here is the entry:

Editorial: A full week of full days
Fairfax was right to end schools’ early dismissal on Mondays.

The print edition has a heading and a subhead:

Back to class
Fairfax County was right to dismiss half-day Mondays.

Hurray for Full Day Mondays!

Editorial: Hurray for Full Day Mondays. Mary Kimm of the  Connection applauds the elimination of the Monday early dismissal policy: “For decades, Fairfax County schools have sent elementary school students home after half a day on Mondays. This was never a good idea, and it has been more damaging to family schedules and student learning with the increase over the years of two-income households and greater economic diversity.”

Letter criticizes the timeframe of the decision on full-day Mondays

A letter to the editor of the Washington Post states that Fairfax County pondered a longer school day in too short a time.

I posted the following comments:

Actually, the Fairfax County School Board has delayed this needed reform for many years. As Dan Storck said at the recent school board meeting, FCPS has been “skating on thin ice” in regards to meeting the state requirements for the standard school day.

Sivan Leviyang says of the new schedule, “With only 20 minutes of recess and lunch as breaks, this is an unhealthy situation for young children.”
She is not the only observer who is apparently unaware of the little-known fact that this school system has had a policy limiting recess to ten minutes per day for the past seven years. Schools which allowed students to have more than 10 minutes per day for recess were not meeting the requirements in the Standards of Accreditation for the length of the standard school day.

In 2006, the Virginia Board of Education adopted revised Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia. These revisions added the words “and recess” to the section on the standard school day: “The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.”

To average a 5 1/2 hour school day, the weekly program hours must be 27.5. Adding a 30-minute lunch period bring the total to 30 hours per week. Any time over 30 hours per week could be available for recess. At the time the clarified language explaining recess went into effect in 2006, most Fairfax County elementary school students were in school for only 30 hours and 30 minutes per week. So if the schools were following the state rules, the students would have had only six minutes of recess per day. (Some schools had even less time during the week.) In 2007 Fairfax adjusted many bell schedules so that all 123 schools that had early dismissal on Mondays had 30 hours and 50 minutes per week in school, enough time to allow only 10 minutes of recess per day. This was not enough.

The ten-minute limit on recess was started in 2007

The Fairfax Connection has a great photo of the audience at the Fairfax County School Board meeting June 26 in this article: Full-Day Mondays Start in September.

However, the article is incorrect in saying, ““When Monday was chopped in half, recess time was also cut. Students had 10 minute recess breaks to make up for lost time in the classroom.”

The 10-minute per day limit on recess has been in effect since 2007, not 1971. When Monday early dismissals were first started in 1971, the length of the other days was increased. Prior to the Monday early dismissal policy, the length of time in the school week was 30 hours and 50 minutes. With Monday early dismissals, the total length was 31 hours per week. It is interesting that in recent years the total amount of time has dipped back to 30 hours and 50 minutes per week because the length of time of the early dismissals increased.

In 2006, the Virginia Board of Education adopted revised Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia. These revisions added the words “and recess” to the section on the standard school day: “The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.”

According to Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday, Jr., this change “clarifies that recess is not part of the instructional program and is not counted as instructional time.”

To average a 5 ½ hour school day, the weekly program hours must be 27.5. Adding a 30 minute lunch period totals 30 hours per week. Any additional time is available for recess. At the time the clarified language explaining that recess went into effect September 7, 2006, most Fairfax County elementary school students were in school for only 30 hours and 30 minutes per week. So 30 minutes per week, or six minutes per day was all the time available for recess for most of the schools. Twelve schools had even less time in the week, with total hours ranging from 29 hours and 50 minutes to 30 hours and 10 minutes. Some schools were in violation of the requirement that a shortened day must be at least four hours long. On the plus side, there were 16 schools that had more time in the week since they had full-day Mondays at the time.

In September 2007, FCPS lengthened the school hours to comply with the four-hour minimum day and to provide 10 minutes per day for recess—thus bringing the total weekly hours back up to 30 hours and 50 minutes. Although this 10-minute limit for recess was not changed until the vote this year on June 26, the limit was seldom actually enforced.