At the legislature's October Interim Committee Meetings Jorea Marple, West Virginia's State Superintendent of Schools, suggested to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability that we are past time for significant changes in our state's K-12 school calendar.
As I am a member of that commission I heard her presentation. I agree with her.
For years I have argued that we need at least an additional month of K-12 schooling. Our current school calendar purports to call for 180 days of classroom instruction, but we don't even get that many. There are two reasons.
Some days that are not really "instructional days" are called that. The students are at school those days, but they do not spend the entirety of the day learning.
Also, many counties do not get in all the instructional days they are allotted because of snow. Sometimes this is unavoidable. There are at least a half dozen counties in West Virginia whose average elevation is so high that the weather there is like Central New England (Southern and Central Vermont, Southern and Central New Hampshire and Southern Maine). Our state law requires those counties to end their school years on the same day as the warmer counties. I think that's stupid.
Some years even warmer counties that plan well have unusual amounts of snow and cannot finish within the state-mandated last day. But other warmer counties do not plan well and seem to almost always have fewer than the required number of instruction days.
Most states have longer school years than West Virginia. More critically (since we now compete with the entire world, not just other states) most developed countries have longer school years than even most states in the USA.
There is, however, another proposed reform that is, to me, a better idea than adding days to the calendar. If we had year-round schools I believe we would not need any more days in the classroom than we have now.
Why? Because the traditional schedule's three-month "vacation" is not only "a vacation from" the classroom. It also becomes "the vacation of" a considerable amount of the knowledge students have gained in the nine consecutive months they've been in the classroom. Students forget a lot over the summer. So the early days of school in the fall are often devoted to refreshing students memories. Year-round schools have proven in the places they've been tried to cut down considerably on this "loss of learning" each year (on the traditional schedule).
Again, year-round schools do not keep students in the classroom for any more days than schools on traditional schedules. Rather than having a single 12-week break in the summer, there are four three-week breaks scattered throughout the year.
One elementary school in Kanawha County (Charleston) has used a year-round calendar for several years now. Standardized test scores in that school, when matched up with test scores in schools with traditional schedules that have similar demographics, show much less is forgotten by the students between grades. Students moving on from that elementary to middle school are more learned than their counterparts moving on from elementaries with traditional schedules (again, even those with similar demographics).
Certainly there will be scheduling adjustments to be made if a school transitions from the traditional calendar to a year-round one. Parents would have to plan vacations differently. Teachers, who often use the summer to get their required continuing education or advanced degrees, would have to do so differently than now. And those few schools in our state that still lack air conditioning would have to have it installed.
But I think these problems are eminently solvable. The State School Building Authority could put a premium on getting all schools air conditioned. Schools of education could be required to offer courses needed by K-12 teachers for certification and/or advancement on schedules compatible with year-round schools. And letting parents know a year or two in advance about a school changing its schedule to year-round should give them enough time to adjust.
I don't think the state should mandate year-round schools for all school districts. I think that should be a decision for the school district. School districts could (as the Kananwha County school district did a few years ago) identify one or more schools as "pilots" to do year-round schooling for a few years.
But we've got to do something. The performance of American schools is steadily falling behind that of the rest of the developed world. The traditional school year came about because of the need for students to work on their parents' farms in the summer. Very few K-12 students do farm work in the summer these days.
On another K-12 matter, many constituents have suggested West Virginia be more open to "alternative" means of certifying teachers. Our country is going to be losing many teachers to retirement in the next few years and there aren't enough students in college teacher-education programs to fill all the vacancies we're going to have.
There are lots of folks in myriad lines of work who would be good teachers. But right now West Virginia makes anyone who wants to be a teacher go to college to get what I think is an inordinate number of education courses. For this reason "Teach for America," a nationwide enterprise dedicated to putting teachers into low-income school districts (we do have a few of those in our state) refuses to be involved in West Virginia.
- Delegate John Doyle is a regular columnist for The Shepherdstown Chronicle. His opinions are his own and not that of the paper's. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.