January 22, 2006

When To Start The School Year

The Washington Post covers the dispute over when to start school -- an issue being faced in many parts of the country.

The pressures of federally mandated exams have pushed public schools here and in several other states to begin classes weeks earlier than usual to squeeze in more days of instruction before the critical tests, sometimes striking August entirely from vacation calendars and devoting the month, traditionally left open for childhood leisure, to class time.

But a widespread backlash, led by disgruntled parents organized into loosely affiliated Save Our Summers groups across the country, is underway.

Legislators in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Pennsylvania are weighing bills this year that would peg school start dates to Labor Day. North Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin passed similar measures in recent years.

The issue is one of the most controversial aspects in the debate over the exams used to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, leading to widening opposition and adding to the litany of complaints about the side effects of what critics call "high-stakes" testing.

Public schools here, for example, began classes at the beginning of August; essentially wiping out a month many had counted on for a spell of unhurried pleasure. Sherry Sturner, a mother of two in Miami-Dade County, had been looking forward to a family reunion up north and time at the swimming pool. But the new schedule did not accommodate them.

Now I won't waste my time teeing off on Mama Sherry, who seems to forget that there are two other entire months for her to spend at family reunions and lounging by poolside with the kids. Instead, I'll deal with the real issue -- the unreasonable expectations of parents and legislators on issues of school calendars and testing dates.

You see, the length of the school year has grown increasingly longer over the years. When I was a kid, the length of the school year was 170 days. Now it is 180 days here in Texas -- but parents and legislators still want us to fit everything into the same neat little "Labor Day to Memorial Day" package that existed when we were kids. The school year has lengthened as we have tried to increase standards in education, to reclaim the high rankings the US once had in academic performance.

And, of course, there is the issue of testing. If the state is going to tell us that we test in February (as we do here in Texas), then we want to get in the maximum number of days before testing, especially since promotion and placement decisions for students may be riding on test results which take weeks to be scored and returned by the state and its contractors.

But mostly it is a question of the number of available days for instruction, as well as certain cultural/traditional calendar issues, that give rise to early starts. This is especially true when districts wish to place semester exams before the Christmas holiday.

Let's look at this example of a school calendar, from what we will call "Generic Independent School District". It is typical of districts here in Texas.


This district already has a problem -- next year it needs to start in the week of August 21, given legislation passed in the last session of the Texas Legislature. I suppose that would not be too difficult to do. Eliminate the Staff Development Day on October 10, sending the kids to school on Veterans Day. Cut three days at Thanksgiving, giving kids only Thanksgiving and the day after -- I hope Grandma is only over the river and through the woods and not in another state or country. Push semester exams back a day, keeping the kids in school through December 16 -- teachers will just have to stay late to get their grades in before break, or perhaps finish on that January 2 Staff Development day. I guess that wasn't that hard.

But what about this idea that we should not start school until after Labor Day and be out by Memorial Day? How will we get the additional 10 instructional days? This is where it gets trickier -- for that involves taking 10 more days out of First Semester and finding days to replace them. That is impossible, as we have left only two non-instructional days after Labor Day and before Winter Break (which, for purposes of this discussion, cannot be touched -- imagine the parental uproar).

This new change already means that we are going to have to move some of First Semester into January. Kids will have one week of review followed by semester exams. To facilitate this, we need to eliminate the January 2 staff development day. That is one day out of the way, so we need nine more.

We have eleven possible days available. They are January 16 (MLK Day), February 13 (Presidents Day), March 6-10 (five days of Spring Break), April 14 (Good Friday), April 28 (Staff Development), May 25 & 26 (Thurdsay and Friday prior to Memorial Day).

Our first casualty has to be Spring Break. After all, it eliminates more than half of the deficit. Similarly, the two days in May are obvious choices, because they are just slack days before the Memorial Day deadline. We still need two days, so we must get rid of the Staff Development day in April (don't worry -- teachers will just do all of the eliminated days in August before the school year starts).

And so, we need just one more school day. Take your pick -- MLK Day, President's Day, or Good Friday (a likely high absentee day). Which do you get rid of? Do you offend blacks, Christians, or patriotic Americans? Personally, I'd get rid of MLK Day on the basis of its closeness to Christmas break, since it makes no sense to have a day off two weeks after a two-week break. But I doubt that any school board would have the testicular fortitude to stand by such a reasonable decision in the face of complaints from outraged black citizens. Similarly, I don't think that most Texas school boards would be willing to fight the battle over Good Friday -- especially given the financial hit that the district could take over the low attendance that day. So, we will eliminate Presidents Day.

What does that leave us? School starts on September 6, and students will attend every weekday until November 24. They will be back in session fro November 28-December 16, and then break for two weeks. School resumes on January 2, and the semester ends on January 13. Following MLK Day, school runs continuously until April 14, and from April 17 through May 26. Parents will, of course, complain that the lack of days off leaves their children tired and overworked, but what can be done? After all, they wanted that full three months off in the summer -- Memorial Day to Labor Day, just like when they were young. We cannot add days to the calendar.

So parents, legislators, tourism industry representatives and other interested individuals -- you have a choice. We must have kids in school at least 180 days (personally, I advocate more). The question is where to put those days. You can have a full three months of school vacation in the summer -- but if you get that, you will sacrifice those other days off you have come to expect during the year. If you take a count, the calendar I proposed had exactly fourteen weekdays off from Labor Day to Memorial Day -- and ten of them were during the Christmas season. Of the remaining four, two are customary vacation days at Thanksgiving, one is an ethnically sensitive national holiday and the other is part of a major religious celebration. That is not my choice -- it is yours. And it doesn't change my work schedule at all -- I will still have to report for Orientation and Staff Development during August, though perhaps a few days later.

But this calendar does something that those advocates do not realize -- it eliminates eight days of instruction before the TAKS test (February 21-23) and shifts them after TAKS. Does this help the students, or does it harm them? Does the elimination of a week-and-a-half of instructional time before the test make them more or less likely to pass? Given that students will be denied a diploma, retained a grade, or required to attend summer school or take remedial classes based upon their performance, I think it harms them. And like it or not, these tests -- and the consequences of low student performance -- are not going away any time soon.

You folks decide -- just tell me when and where I'll find a classroom full of kids with my name on their schedules and I will give them my all. I just hope you will give up the unrealistic dream of fitting a 180-day school year into a package designed for a 170-day (or shorter) school year.

UPDATE -- 1/24/06: Looks like the issue is rearing its head in Washington DC, where the School Board is debating an August 14 start date.

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