By Stuart A. Singer, The Teacher Leader
Her one word response said it all.
I had just returned from a district math department chair meeting and was relating the angst of the County Math Coordinator. He had told us, “I am very troubled by the decline in the Algebra 1 SOL (state barrier exams) scores last year. What was particularly troubling was the fact that it was so uniformly across the board. Everyone’s were down”. The intensity of his concern indicated that this issue was being seriously discussed at levels well above his in the school hierarchy.
That afternoon I raised that question with my best Algebra 1 teacher. Her succinct answer was “snow”. The previous winter had been brutal with snow days and delayed openings piling up at an unprecedented rate. She then elaborated. “Here’s how I can quantify that answer. I always reserved the two weeks prior to the testing for review. That review is crucial for my students especially at that level. Last year I finished the curriculum on the day before the exams. The review period was gone due to the snow days and the scores suffered as a result.”
No one messes with Mother Nature
That awful winter has been replicated in 2013-14. All across the country snow and ice has played havoc with school calendars. In my old district ten days have been cancelled and more than a half-dozen have been truncated. The damage that such disruptions cause is far more than just a finite number of missed classes. One of the most important components of a successful classroom is momentum and nothing stops that more than weather problems. As an illustration due to snow and ice students at my former school had a five-day weekend followed by two days of classes followed by a four-day weekend caused by teacher workdays. After three more days of school another five day weekend followed because of the white stuff. The official count was five snow days (one of the days was a holiday) but the reality count of the losses would be more like three weeks.
The district’s response has been as follows. The President’s Day holiday in February and a teacher workday in April are now school days. Two additional days will be added to the end of the year in June. No other classes will be rescheduled. While on paper such a plan may sound bad, in the classroom it is much worse. Two school days in June (adding to the insanity is that they are a Monday and Tuesday) will do nothing to improve test scores in May. The earlier make-up days will suffer as well. They were originally parts of three-day weekends for students and many families will have planned to use them for travel, doctor appointments, etc. Absenteeism will be disproportionally higher for both students and staff.
And it is inevitable that next year someone will be asking the question as to why scores have gone down.
There are few good options
It would be nice to be able to list some suggestions that would make this dilemma disappear. Years ago (that should probably read “decades ago”) Spring Break and even Saturdays were utilized for making up snow days. Those options do not happen much anymore. Plus local school administrators have no real-time input into make-up day decisions. But there are steps that can be taken to recognize and help mitigate the problems.
Share strategies. Have teachers meet to brainstorm ways to cover the necessary material in reduced time. Often half of the solution is the mere recognition that there is a problem and the other half is to find creative ways to deal with them.
Eliminate disruptions. Any activity that will take students out of classrooms needs to be cancelled. Pep rallies, most field trips, senior pictures, etc. are now a luxury that cannot be sustained. Consider delaying the start of after-school activities to allow more time for extra help sessions. If the student body is given an explanation of why this is being done, they may be more likely to take advantage of it.
Be proactive. While this winter may be an anomaly, weather disruptions will occur in the future. School administrators need to share with district policy makers that the current system is hurting student academic performance. Do not wait until the scores are in to answer the questions as to why they dropped. Let the public know while the memory of all of those missed days is still fresh that end-of-course, AP and IB exams will all suffer when huge expanses of class time is lost and not recovered.
Less than great solutions are better than none.