Don’t cut student days in classroom

/ 22 April 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial, April 22, 2012 –

“This is going to raise hell with a lot of parents. … There’s nobody in the world that thinks adding 35 minutes will make up for missing a full day every other week.”
JOEL SMETANKA, a parent from the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district
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“The current financial model for schools is unsustainable … so, yes, the primary reason we’re considering this change is to save money … but there are benefits for students. On those 17 days, teachers will work together to improve results for students.”
RANDY CLEGG, the school district’s superintendent

Districts like Burnsville should consider budget alternatives.

You can’t fault Burnsville school leaders for considering a school calendar change to help shave $5 million off the district’s $140 million budget. Like many Minnesota school boards, they’re combing their expenses for savings.

But significantly reducing the number of days kids spend in school is not the best choice — not when most research shows that American students need more, not less, time in class.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school officials have proposed cutting 17 instructional days from next year’s school year. Students could have every other Monday off, or could possibly be sent home before Memorial Day. To make up the time, the school day would be extended by 35 minutes.

Administrators say that on the days kids would be home, teachers still would be on the job, working together to improve student learning. But the district would save about $800,000 in the costs of student transportation and pay for substitutes in cases of teacher illness and professional development time.

Numerous district parents rightly opposed the idea recently at the first of several public meetings on the district’s budget. The plan would create child-care problems for many families. And some challenge the notion that fewer days in school would be good for their kids.

Shortening the school calendar is not a new idea — smaller districts in mountain areas of other states have used four-day weeks for years. In Minnesota, a handful of districts have shorter weeks and report that their families have adjusted and students are doing well.

During the 1980s, eight smaller Minnesota districts shifted to a four-day week to save on transportation and energy costs. But all eventually moved back to a traditional schedule. A decade ago, other Minnesota districts, including Osseo and Elk River, considered the idea but didn’t follow through after parents objected.

There is little evidence that academic achievement improves in larger urban and suburban districts when kids spend fewer days in school. Most research shows a drop-off in learning — especially for average and struggling students.

An Education Commission of the States study of four-day-week schools found that the savings are minor because the largest part of the budget — salaries and benefits — remains unchanged or increases. That’s the area schools should look to for budget savings.

Public-school educators in Burnsville and elsewhere still receive generous single health care coverage and pensions compared with private-sector workers. And school boards must build in automatic pay increases for longevity and additional education through so-called steps and lanes — whether or not those teachers’ effectiveness improves.

Meantime, while fewer classroom days isn’t the best calendar adjustment for kids, the public school year does need work. Whether it is 170 or 200 days long, it is still structured around the nation’s agricultural past. Children are no longer needed to tend farms during the entire summer.

That’s why more districts should convert to year-round programs similar to those in other countries. A year-round calendar, with several shorter breaks instead of a three-month summer vacation, makes more sense for contemporary families. Working parents would have fewer child-care hours to cover. And children wouldn’t lose so much of what they’ve learned during an overly long summer break.

It’s understandable for districts to scour every corner of their budgets for savings in these tough economic times. However, now more than ever, our kids need to be globally competitive. This is no time to reduce the number of days they spend learning.