What issues are involved in setting a school calendar?

Yesterday, the Superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools in Colorado summarized the major issues involved in setting a modern school calendar. In an op-ed in  PostIndependent.com, Rob Stein contradicts the common assertion that the that traditional school year with a summer vacation was designed to assist with work on farms.

You know the myth: We still have an agrarian calendar that allows kids to go to school in winter and work in the fields during the summer. But think about it: The busy times for agriculture are during spring planting and fall harvest. If we really had an agrarian school calendar, we would have two breaks, one in planting season and the other for harvest. Midsummer, when days are long and there is less work to do in the fields, would surely allow kids time after school to tend crops.

In reality, our current school calendar is actually a byproduct of urbanization. With the rise of industry in the 19th century, more people crowded into cities. Urban areas were unpleasant places during summer: horse manure and primitive sewage systems, combined with heat and population density, made them stifling and disgusting. Upper and middle classes would escape the urban heat for country getaways. So schools, which at that time were not universally attended (the first state to legislate compulsory attendance was Massachusetts in 1852; the last was Mississippi in 1917), shut down for summer vacation.

He notes that schools can now serve students during the summer and that the academic year is too short:

According to the National Center on Time and Learning, students should have at least 1,440 hours of school per year — that number makes more sense when you realize that it equals 180 school days times eight hours per day. However, very few schools around the country have that much time in session. Most states require 180 days of school per year; Colorado is one of only five states that requires less than 175 days. Roaring Fork Schools have more days per year than most districts in Colorado at 174, as well as slightly longer days at about seven and a half hours. Factoring in early release Wednesdays, our students still spend about 200 hours less per year than recommended.

He advocates investing in full-day kindergarten for all students. He also says it is a worthwhile to provide more extended-day and extended-year enrichment opportunities for low-income students.

He also notes that teenagers need more sleep and could  benefit from a later start to the school day. “This is challenging because transportation schedules, after-school activities schedules and schedules for students who care for younger siblings are all forces of resistance for a later start.”

Stein also points out that teachers need time for planning, collaborative planning, and professional development. “Though parents may be inconvenienced by shortened school days on Wednesdays and professional development days throughout the year, that professional learning time for teachers pays dividends for their children’s learning,” he asserts.



Final exams are a relic of the past

Replacing final exams will allow more time for instruction. Patricia B. O’Neill, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, and Larry A. Bowers, interim superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, convincingly argue that getting rid of final exams is good reform for the high school schedule in Montgomery County.

Here is an excerpt from their letter to the editor of the Washington Post:

This change will restore instructional time that is lost during final exam weeks in January and June. Students will take assessments each marking period during the regular class period. These assessments may take different forms — such as unit tests or in-class projects — and each will be rigorous and consistently graded and count as a significant part of a student’s grade.

Our high school students will take plenty of other tests, including state assessments in algebra 1, biology, English 10 and government. More than two-thirds of them take at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam. And state law requires all 11th-graders to pass a college- and career-readiness exam, which in MCPS is the SAT, ACT or Accuplacer.

Loudoun County Public Schools has also eliminated mid-term and final exams this year. The Washington Post recently  reported that “the decision follows two stormy winters when classes and mid-terms were canceled due to snow.”

In May Loudoun County published an issue brief entitled “Perspectives on Mid-Terms and Final Exams.” It concluded that “most teachers and principals did not believe that teachers had sufficient time to analyze the data from mi-terms and final exams. Most of the respondents did not believe that the assessments are valuable learning experiences for students. Most students and more that 40% of parents believed that mid-terms and final exams lowered students’ grades.”

All school districts should re-evaluate whether it is worthwhile maintaining the old tradition of scheduling final exams.


When will changes be made in elementary school schedules?

Next Monday a progress update on teacher workload in Fairfax County will be presented to the Fairfax County School Board. There is a very brief mention of the elementary school schedule in the PowerPoint presentation. I will have to attend the meeting to find out what it really means. Here is the information that is given so far:

Planning Time

  • Review the Master Schedule of elementary schools.

Planning Time

  • Prior to the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, the Cluster offices reviewed elementary school master schedules and met with teams to make necessary adjustments around planning time. Instruction Services (IS) staff assisted with these discussions.
  • An Elementary School Master Schedule committee was formed to review issues and to consider future alternatives.

Well? What are the future alternatives?

Fairfax County proposals posted for later high school start times

The Fairfax County School Board will consider several proposals for changes in the bell schedules on April 23. The Children’s National Medical Center is recommending four different options to achieve the goal of later high school start times. Currently high schools start at 7:20; elementary schools start between 8:00-9:20, and middle schools start between 7:40-8:05.

Under the first option, which would cost $12.4 million, high schools would start at 8:10, middle schools at 8:50, and elementary schools between 7:35-9:40. For a lower cost ($7.6 million), high schools would start at 8:30, middle schools at 9:30, and elementary schools between 7:50 and 9:15.

There are two options which would start middle schools at 7:20. One option would cost $5.6 million, with high schools starting at 8:00 or 8:10, secondary schools at 7:50 or 8:20, and elementary schools starting between 8:00-9:20.  The other option, costing $4.7 million, would start high schools at 8:10-8:20 and elementary schools between 7:45-9:10.

If we are going to all this trouble to avoid having high school students start school at 7:20, it doesn’t make much sense to say that the middle school students should start school at 7:20.  Either 7:20 is too early for adolescents, and we should be willing to spend money to change it, or it is really OK to have such early start times and there is no need to spend money providing later times for just some of the students.

The Blueprint for Change also provides three other options ranging from no cost (modified high school/middle school flip), to $0.3 million (some elementary schools start at 10:00 and end at 4:40) to $2.8 Million (high schools start at 9:15 and end at 4:05).

CNMC recommends that eight community meetings be held in May and June. They also recommend that a revised proposal be presented as new business to the school board in September with a vote in October. Full implementation would be in September 2015.

Here is the text of the presentation that is on the agenda for April 23: [Read more…]

The current elementary school schedule in Fairfax County is irresponsible

The Fairfax Times article entitled Fairfax elementary schools watch the clock was reprinted in the Washington Post April 10 under the title “A push to clock in longer at school.” This appeared in the Fairfax Edition of Local Living.

“Interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris is leading a working group to study options for improved school schedules across all grade levels, K through 12, according to FCPS spokesman John Torre,” Kate Yanchulis reported. “Yet School Board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) urges caution in considering a change. As with everything in the school system, Strauss said, the elementary school schedule represents a delicate balance.”

I posted some comments after this article:

“A delicate balance” is not how I would describe the elementary school schedule in Fairfax County Public Schools.  “Out of whack” is more like it.

This article explains that Fairfax provides “a combined 40 minutes each day for lunch and recess.”

Only 10 minutes per day for recess. Really?  Does this make any sense at all? No. And yet this is the unrealistic and impractical limit supposedly in effect for the last seven years. The absurdly limited schedule imposed on the elementary school students in Fairfax County is so confusing that few people understand it in the first place.

Thankfully, the 10-minute recess is rarely enforced. However, this leaves students with less than the mandated amount of instructional time. So, please, let’s not pretend that the current schedule should continue any longer. This is educational malpractice.

The current elementary school schedule is not a carefully considered plan with “a delicate balance.”

The current policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday is irresponsible.

See also Fairfax Times reports on the Full Schooldays petition.

Fairfax working group will propose improved school schedules

On Friday Tricia Cowell and I discussed our concerns about the current elementary school schedules with Interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris and our excellent representatives on the Fairfax County School Board: Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) and Sandy Evans (Mason District). Parris is leading a working group that is studying ways of improving the schedules. One of the goals is providing full-day Mondays for the elementary school students.

The current schedule for the elementary schools does not provide sufficient time to allow any more than 10 minutes a day for recess while also meeting the requirements in the Standards of Accreditation for the standard school day. The length of time spent at recess varies from school to school. Parris said he did not have statistics on the amount of time allowed for recess at all of the elementary schools.

Update on snow days

News about snow days:

Snow days are adding up at Washington area schools this winter. (Washington Post)

School districts craft plans to make-up snow days – WTOP.com.

Snows days force changes in school calendars

The Associated Press says, “Schools in at least 10 states and the District of Columbia have run out of wiggle room in their academic calendars, forcing them to cut short planned breaks, hold class on holidays, add extra days to the end of the year or otherwise compensate for the lost time.”

Some Fairfax secondary schools have late starts or early dismissals

Yesterday I mentioned the comments that Ed Linz made about the amount of instructional time in Fairfax high schools. He noted that in response to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, FCPS high schools “were directed to carve a period of time out of the school day to be used for remediation; students who did not require this assistance would be allowed to do homework, complete makeup work, or, in some schools, socialize or surf the internet during the remediation periods. “

Additional time is taken out of the school day by some secondary schools that have some late start or early dismissal days. The buses keep the same schedule, but students have the option of attending only when classes are actually being held. These schedule changes are sometimes called “collaboration days,” since teachers can take that opportunity to meet and collaborate. A few schools have collaboration days every week.

An extra hour for reading is added to schedules in 100 Florida schools

Education Week describes how Florida pushes longer day, more reading in some schools.

In addition to studying the results of longer days, I hope education advocates don’t forget about the school districts such as Fairfax County that provide less than the average amount of time in school for elementary school students. These substandard schedules are sometimes overlooked when reforms are discussed.

Thanks to Blair Brown at the Time to Succeed Coalition for pointing out this excellent article.