Adding days to school calendar a trite gesture for complex issue

Jul 29, 2011

Well, whoopee. North Carolina General Assembly members have tackled the issue of improving the state’s public education system.
They have added five days to the student’s school year.
They didn’t add money for transportation or other related costs.
They eliminated five teacher work days to squeeze in those five class days.
And this plan to improve public education was squeezed into the state’s budget bill. Brilliant.

In case sarcasm doesn’t drip off the page as effectively as off the tongue, what I’m really calling this move is a trite, shallow gesture toward complex problem. In fact, it is probably detrimental. Here’s why.

Elimination of teacher work days. This seems an easy way to squeeze in classroom time without a lot of cost, but like a lot of easy answers, it doesn’t work so well in practice. Many will argue that teachers can join the rest of the working world in taking their work home at night rather than allocating paid in the workplace. However, good teachers already take their work home. Talk to a teacher about the paperwork required by state and federal governments documenting each child’s testing and progress. I know teachers who have left the profession largely because they spent more time in paperwork than in teaching.

Many teachers used those assigned work days for conferences. During my sons’ elementary years, teachers tried to schedule a meeting with every student’s parent or caregiver on those work days. That’s not something they can do from home. Nor can they dedicate after-school hours to that kind of sessions, thanks to tutoring, sponsoring extracurricular activities and parent schedules. “Parent involvement” has been a buzzword in education for a generation now – and this move just set that back.

No funding. The legislature apparently thought this would be a trade-off, if they eliminated work days and replaced them with student time. However, school systems must now pay for five additional days of bus driving and fuel, custodial, cafeteria and other support staff. That money will be drained from elsewhere in the school budget – possibly another teacher assistant or teacher lost? Republicans will tell you they funded additional teaching positions with this budget. They don’t tell you that each school district is called upon to make drastic cuts in its budget – but where those cuts are made will be up to each district. That means the legislature can take the credit for adding teachers while local leaders must cut some jobs. Haywood is scrambling to keep its teachers and make cuts elsewhere, but some teaching positions are gone. A few teachers have even based the timing of their retirement in part on hopes that others won’t lose their jobs.

More school days don’t equal better education. This seems to be the buzz phrase lately, the idea that we need “more classroom time.” It’s been heard from both political parties, from the White House, from local leaders – and by the end of summer, from tired and frazzled parents. But the research doesn’t back this idea up. The best educational system in the world, as ranked by science, math and reading scores, has fewer classroom hours than the U.S. average, fewer in fact that any other country in the developed world.
We would be better off looking at ways to better use our classroom time. A poorly kept secret for many Haywood County students – and students across North Carolina – is the ways academic hours are spent in the closing weeks of school. While students who didn’t score adequately on the first round are taking their end of grade tests for the second time, you can find many a classroom where students are watching movies – “Tom and Jerry” and “Harry Potter” were among the popular options this year.  This is a statewide problem, I’ve been told, as teachers try to figure out what to do with these students that will not cause those re-testing to miss critical material. A special thank-you, however, to the Haywood County teachers who work to fill that time creatively.

Improving our educational system, particularly in these extremely tough economic times, cannot be achieved by playing with numbers, or with easy, shallow answers. We need to get creative and give our local districts room to innovate. Next column, we’ll look at that top scoring educational country, Finland, and what it might teach us about improving our schools.