Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Opportunity to Extend the School Year

Yesterday, I posted the first post in a series of five in response to Governor McDonnell's recently announced education agenda, entitled, "Opportunity to Learn." The first post provided an introduction and discussed McDonnell's ideas to advance literacy.

Another major piece of Governor McDonnell's agenda included "Reducing Mandates on Local School Divisions," which in this case means a repeal of the "Kings Dominion Law." In substance, this is mostly uncontroversial and seems to make sense, i.e., letting districts decide how to set their calendars. Some have made the leap to, "the Governor is pushing a longer school year," but so far, I don't see it. Many school districts don't like the law, and thus the Governor wants to repeal it.

Now, I'm in a bit of a bind here because my county, the home of Kings Dominion (otherwise known as The Promised Land among the under-10 set in my house) is opposed to repeal of the law as it would mean a big loss of revenue in particular for them. Given our bleak budget outlook, particularly for education, we need that revenue. Of course, there are (horror of horrors) other reasonable ways to raise revenues. Also, it is rather ironic that as the current local political climate is infused with cries for smaller government and fewer mandates, some seem to want an exception made for the mandate that helps them. Sigh.

Back to the topic at hand, if the idea is in the long run to reorganize the school year and extend the school year and/or school days, it needs to be done thoughtfully. While doing so would certainly benefit many kids and I bet many working families in Virginia would welcome it, the most important thing is not adding more time but rather what is done with the added time (or even with the time we already have. . . ).

If a longer school year and day means more test prep, more narrow focus on reading strategies and math drills, then Virginians should say: No, thank you. However, if we're talking about more time for meaningful and interesting project-based learning, extra-curriculars, clubs, school newspapers, unstructured play, P.E., sports teams, science, social studies, art, music, theater, practical skills (cooking, financial literacy, etc.), foreign languages, gardening, computer science, robotics, entrepreneurship, etc., then we should say resoundingly: Yes, please!

Furthermore, any longer day or school year must be matched with increased pay, staffing, and resources. Otherwise, we'll have yet another unfunded mandate. And no, throwing some cheap math workbooks at teachers does not count as increasing resources, nor will piling such activities on to the school day improve the quality of education Virginia's children receive.

If we're going to extend the school year and day in Virginia, we need to do so in a way that's smart, fair, and that will provide meaningful and rich learning experiences for students.

cross-posted at The Virginia Education Report

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