The tight squeeze of public school instructional days could become more constrained after the North Carolina General Assembly mandated that an additional five days be placed on the yearly school calendar.
Although legislators hope the move will increase seat time and learning opportunities for students, there is growing skepticism that adding five days was an efficient way to improve performance. Moreover, the General Assembly did not fund additional days in the state budget, forcing districts either to cut teacher work days or ask the state for waivers.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said government officials are operating under a myth that schools in North Carolina can’t compete internationally because students don’t have enough instructional time.
“We generally have the most hours in school per day, more than 1,023 hours, required of our students,” he said. “That’s one of the highest in the world.”
In reality, Stoops said it’s not the hours in the classroom but the quality of instruction that counts. He said instructional time shouldn’t be caught in a one-size-fits-all vise. Some schools, especially those serving economically disadvantaged student populations, might profit from more hours in the classroom, while others would do better with less, he said.
“Some students need less class time and more practical experience,” he said. “Let the students do something that is relevant, whether in the trades, a vocation, or computer programs. Let them pursue their own interests by giving them some flexibility. It’s more important for school systems to use time more effectively rather than trying to hit a mark.”
Joe Fields, co-founder and managing director of First In Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that links schools and students to resources from their communities, agreed.
He said students in North Carolina and the United States keep pace with the rest of the world when it comes to classroom time. What they really need is to have extra resources available to enhance their learning experience.
Fields said his program was founded to help teachers find supplemental resources for their classrooms, and to help students become enthusiastic learners by locating mentors, tutors, and volunteer opportunities both to broaden their educational experience and to enhance their knowledge base.
“It’s all about passion,” he said. “If a student can find his or her passion and relate it to the subject of study, it can instill a sense of investment in the learning process.”
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, admits the plan is not a perfect one, but he is standing by it.
“There’s a lot we’ve got to do to get the mileage out of the five days,” he said. “It’s not the end-all-be-all of education reform, but it’s a start. We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to do and try. It’s our first step, a short step to reform the school calendar.”
Tillman says North Carolina is lagging behind most of the other states and is currently ranked No. 45 out of 50 in education.
“We’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ve got plenty of reason to do it,” he said. “We’re sitting here with a huge job on our hands, but we’re going to reform education. We’ve simply got to do it. The playing field is not even.”
Even so, many school districts are finding it difficult to add in the extra days, as they are already struggling in a vise grip over an existing state law that does not allow schools to begin classes prior to Aug. 25 and they must end the school year no later than June 10.
As a result, Stoops said 69 of 115 school districts throughout the state already have asked for an exemption. He said most are strapped to come up with a plan of action to implement the legislators’ decision to require more class time.
In many cases it would mean taking away teacher in-service and planned work days.
“It wasn’t clear where these days are going to land on the school calendar,” he said. “I guess it is up to each individual school how to allocate these days.”
Stoops said another concern is that most school districts have received no extra funding for the additional days. In some cases, an additional $1 million per day is needed to keep school in session.
“Not only would they have to incur the cost of teachers and administrators, they would also have to pay for extra transportation and food service,” Stoops said. “That alone is a fairly significant cost.”
Tillman said the General Assembly will deal with funding in the upcoming session.
“The plan is good,” he said. “It’s just getting the mechanics to work with the money.”
Besides the instructional and cost issues, Stoops said the State Board of Education is turning the mandate for extra instructional days into a political issue.
He said that although legislators gave school districts a way to opt out of the additional days, the board is not granting permission to do so.
“I’m not happy with the SBE,” Stoops said. “They are delaying the vote to grant the waivers, and that really does all of the schools that applied a disservice. Politics is definitely a part of that, allowing them to keep the issue alive next year. It’s pure politics, and it’s bad for both the schools and the children.”
Tillman’s eventual goal is to require 200 days of instruction in order to give North Carolina students a fighting chance to compete with the world.
“I don’t think there will be a wholesale repeal of the calendar law,” he said. “But, we need to soften it.”
Tillman also wants to mandate that End-of-Grade tests be delayed until after June 1 of each school year.
“The tests need to be given near the very end of school,” he said. “It’s tough to have solid instruction going on after they are through. We’ve got to keep the kids engaged in learning.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.