Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Debating the Calendar

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have avoided comment on the issue of the school start date in Iowa since I have previously written on this topic. However with the recent media attention that includes the request for a change in Administrative Rules from Gary Slater (Iowa State Fair), and Governor Branstad's support for a later school start date, I thought it prudent to offer additional insight. Mr. Slater argues in his petition that because the majority of school districts in Iowa are granted the waiver, the statutory date has become effectively meaningless. I would argue instead that because the majority of schools in Iowa are granted a waiver-the law is flawed and thus should be repealed. You can read a copy of the petition here

Contrary to what some may believe, the school start law is being followed by school districts in Iowa. The law, enacted in 1983 allows for a school district to apply for, and be granted a waiver if the statutory date causes 'significant negative educational impact' to the school district. Mr. Slater's argument is that the term 'significant negative educational impact' has never been defined. He requests that definition in his petition. The trouble I have is that the definition he has proposed is, in my opinion too narrow. It would only permit a waiver in the event that the average number of snow days over a five year period exceed 7 days. 

The Des Moines Register has been replete with opinion pieces over the last couple of weeks regarding this issue. The online forums following the main story have offered a multitude of perspectives, some in favor of a rules change while others have been against. Personally, I believe that the issue should be decided by each local school district. This is the broken record part that I alluded to in my opening statement: each year the Hudson Community School District holds a public hearing to discuss the calendar and the school start date. Not once has anyone objected to when we start school. I do not believe that the Tourism Industry should have the authority to dictate a schools start date and further believe that arguments about kids or families being unable to attend the fair are without merit. Arguments about the youth workforce being unable to work the last couple weeks of summer seem at least on their face to run counter to the first point about not being able to attend the fair. 

But the attempt by non-educators to define what constitutes a 'significant negative educational impact' is where I felt it was really necessary to comment. Do you really think the Tourism Industry is qualified to answer that question for 348 school districts in Iowa? Heck, do you think they are qualified to make that decision for even 1 school district in Iowa?

What does 'significant negative educational impact' look like in Hudson? First it means a big change in professional development for teachers. The argument has been made that the calendar can be designed to either front load or end load teacher professional development. By having all teacher inservice days at the beginning or end of the school year it would enable students to obtain their required 180 of days (or hours as is now the option) in a manner that permits them to start late and end early. True, except for one tiny little problem: The Iowa Professional Development Model. According to research, job embedded training that includes theory, demonstration, practice, and coaching is critical to quality professional development that becomes implemented with fidelity into the practice of teaching. To cram an entire professional development plan into a two or three day workshop at the beginning or end of the school year and expect it to become an integral part of practice without any follow-up or feedback is absurd. Furthermore in Hudson we have invested heavily in PLCs (Professional Learning Communities). Our faculty is engaged in robust training that occurs in the early part of the summer. If we start late, then undoubtedly we will end late-putting the PLC training regimen in jeopardy. So when the argument is made that there is no correlation between the start of the school year and student achievement I would take issue with that. The whole point of professional development is to increase student achievement.

Second, we must consider our partnerships with both Hawkeye Community College and the University of Norther Iowa. Our calendars are aligned not just as a convenience for the purpose of vacations! There is a real practicality to this arrangement! Students at Hudson High School (and in high schools all across the state) are able to concurrently enroll in courses at local institutions of higher education enabling them to earn dual credit, which gives many of these youngsters an advantage when they leave high school for post-secondary education. Altering the start of the school year puts those opportunities in danger. The creation of a master instructional schedule is a challenging evolution in and of itself, but to add a change like this to the equation creates a logistical nightmare that will undoubtedly lead to high schools curbing their offering of these courses.

I guess the question now becomes, what is 'significant negative educational impact' and who has the authority to decide. 

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