Sunday, March 25, 2012

180 days--NOT!

In the news this week was a report that West Virginia schools may actually complete this instructional year without losing any snow days, resulting in compliance with the 180 day requirement for the first time in ages. Unfortunately, the reporters did not dig deep enough on this issue, because the 180 school year in West Virginia is a fallacy. This announcement immediately took me back twelve years when I was seeking re-election to a third term on the Wood County Board of Education (while also serving as President of the West Virginia School Boards Association).

It was the school calendar issue that cost me that election in 2000, so I am familiar with this issue. The truth of the matter is that West Virginia students will not be getting 180 days of instruction, regardless of the lack of snow days this year (or any year). The most that a student in a county school system can get is 175 days. This is because the Legislature decreed that Faculty Senate days should be counted as instructional days, even though students do not attend (teachers have powerful union voices in the Legislature, but there are far fewer speaking on behalf of the education of students). It was a way to provide a benefit to the unions without needing to find revenue in the budget to pay for it. This is not to say that Faculty Senates are a waste of time, but they should not have been provided by taking days away from our children.

The 180 day school calendar used to be the norm, but with growing concerns about our international competitiveness (most other industrialized countries have much longer terms, if not year-round schooling), many states and/or local school districts have been adopting additional days, such as a 185 or 190 day calendar. Yet West Virginia has not adopted a longer calendar, and refuses to acknowledge that our students don’t even get the 180 days that are mandated.

Between snow days (which are not required to be made up here, as is the case in some—maybe most—other states) and the Faculty Senate days, there is no way that West Virginia students get more than 175 days. To make matters worse, West Virginia allows schools to use “bank time.” Rather than holding ten half-day Faculty Senates over the course of the school year (which parents hated, because the mid-day dismissals were so disruptive to normal afterschool arrangements), school systems can use a full day off for a faculty senate day if they add a few extra minutes to the minimum length of their school day. Over the course of the entire school year, one extra minute equates to about three hours (about half a school day, which is necessary to balance out the half-day Faculty Senate meeting).

Yet how much real learning takes place with those minutes at the end of a school day? Wouldn’t a real school day produce more learning? I’d be in favor of a genuine 180 day calendar along with a few extra minutes each day!

In Wood County when I was running for re-election to a third 4-year term, I pointed out the fact that the prior year our students had only completed 167 instructional days (and other counties had even less!). There had been three snow days and then the ten full-day (thanks to bank time) faculty senate days that kept Wood County from 180 days. This meant that our students had 13 fewer days than the national standard (even though the national standard is trending upward from 180 days).

Is it any wonder why West Virginia students start off with decent test scores in national testing, but their results decline in compared with others the further they progress towards graduation? If students are going to school 13 days less than the rest of the country (assuming the 180 norm), and since there are 13 years in a K-12 school system, then 13 days over 13 years equals 169 lost days—which is more than what our students had received in the previous year (167 days). Thus, our students were a FULL YEAR behind their peers by the time they graduated, thanks to our shortened school calendar. No wonder West Virginia test scores lag behind!

As the president of the West Virginia School Boards Association, we decided in 1999 to make this a major lobbying push during the 2000 Legislative Session. This topic was not on the radar of the two major teaching unions, but suddenly we were making progress in getting lawmakers to understand the problem. School calendar reform “got traction” that year, and although a bill did not get approved, it became a recognized issue (and continued to be debated over the years since). The teacher unions in their report at the end of the 2000 session made a big deal about how their biggest success that year was stopping this legislation, which they had not seen coming prior to the session. As a result, they went all out to defeat me—and succeeded.

I’ve forgotten a lot about being on the school board, but this issue still upsets me. I was working hard on behalf of improving education for our children, and it cost me my political career. It hurt for a long time. However, the bright side is that it provided me a way off the sinking ship of public education. More importantly, it opened the door for me to teach at the college-level. I am very grateful to have had that opportunity to teach American Government and Constitutional Law at WVU-Parkersburg. Teaching was much more fulfilling than serving on the school board!

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