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Calendar argument is about convenience

Posted: March 25, 2012 - 12:00am

In that fantasy of a perfect world that won’t ever exist, surely there would be far less angst over minor details. Especially bureaucratic details.

Instead, we have a school board on Tuesday that likely will be at odds because of a span of seven days in two school calendars.

Set aside the fact that the school board probably shouldn’t be involved in approving the specifics of a school-year calendar anyway. Trustees are supposed to set policy, not get involved in such nuts-and-bolts minutia.

But they do, because they can. That isn’t guided by a hard-core principle or philosophical underpinning; it’s just a reality of what people do when put in charge. The more they control, the more they want to control.

Which brings us to Tuesday, when the board likely is to continue the 3-2 split they had two weeks ago over when to start the 2013-14 school year.

Obviously the start date matters quite a bit to Mike Sleeper and Kristi Baker, who voted two weeks ago against starting school Aug. 7, 2013. They prefer to open later, and argued with other trustees about it – so much so that teachers’ aides facing job cuts said it sure seemed that board members cared more about the calendars than about school system employees. Ouch.

The reason it matters is that some vocal people oppose starting school in early August. Yet many of those people demanding a long summer also want a fall break, and a full week off for Thanksgiving, and two weeks off at Christmas.

The school year is set at 180 days. Officials try to keep the two semesters close to the same length, and they prefer to end the first semester before the Christmas holiday.Those realities logically suggest an early August start.

Opponents give plenty of reasons for wishing it could be done differently, but it basically comes down to one reason: Convenience. An earlier start, with summer still in full blast, cuts into possible family vacation time. For all the ginned-up excuses about heat and summer jobs and whatever else, none of the opposition is about educational value.

For school bureaucrats who design the calendars, including the extra mid-semester holidays are a way to grant some of that convenience. From that point, the start date is just a matter of counting backward.

Yet for all this we argue about a few days? Why?

Just because we can?

A recent study found that students perform better with a four-day school week. Yet some systems are switching to a shorter week not for better performance, but to save money; the biggest opponents aren’t parents who dispute the educational value, but those who are forced, inconveniently, to find additional child care.

Superintendent Charles Nagle finds the study results intriguing, but predictably says there’s no way he’d get out in front of suggesting such a switch, even in light of the public school system’s continued money crunch.

Yet if given the choice of having to find someone to look after their kid one day a week, versus having them start a traditional school year in early August, those parents likely would prefer ringing the five-days-a-week bells a few days sooner.

Not because it’s better educationally, but simply because we can.

(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-963-6165. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)

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Comments (9)

Riverman1

Teachers and Parents

Just an observation, but it seems like teachers want to start and end the summer vacation early while parents want later starts. One problem I do see is many organized activities for kids, such as baseball All-stars, run into the early school starts. But it's possible those will adjust with time.

colcores

Utilities

Early August is normally the hottest time of the year. How much would the county save on utilities if the school year started later by not having to run the ac full blast? All taxpayers, not just teachers and those with students, should be interested in the start date because they are paying the bills. I see no reason for a fall break nor for a week off at Thanksgiving.

Barry Paschal

Unproven

A political candidate a couple of years ago made the claim that a later start would save on utilities; Politifact studied the claim and found it "inconclusive." Either way, it's still another argument about the calendar that has nothing to do with educational value.

colcores

Politifact

It also states on Politifact "Some Texas officials conducted research of its schools and concluded it is less expensive to operate on a traditional calendar. A 2004 report called "Saving Summer" by the comptroller of public accounts found electricity, gas and water bills were twice as high in August than in May. Traditional school year proponents point to Tulsa, Okla., where officials found they saved nearly $500,000 by delaying the start of the school year until after Labor Day, according to 2002 newspaper accounts." That being said, what does all the breaks have to do with educational value?

Barry Paschal

That's the point

The breaks are because of parental demand, not educational value.

Little Lamb

Compromise

We could accommodate both sides if the school administrators would be a little more flexible (a trait not often seen in educators). Look at one of Barry's paragraphs from above:

The school year is set at 180 days. Officials try to keep the two semesters close to the same length, and they prefer to end the first semester before the Christmas holiday.Those realities logically suggest an early August start.

The simplest solution is to abandon the first condition (i.e., the one about the two semesters being the same length). There is no logical reason that they be the same. I suggest you start the school year on the Tuesday after labor day. Do your semester final exams the week before Christmas holidays begin.

Oh, and about the "educational value" thing — I call the bluff of the educrats regarding the Christmas vacation thing. The teachers whine that if they extend the first semester past Christmas vacation, the little cherubs forget everything they've learned over the vacation and do poorly on the tests. But there's no data to support that — it's just a mental suggestion of the teachers.

Barry Paschal

Actually...

...while it's been quite a while since the school system allowed the first semester to end after Christmas, the experience with testing is precisely what prompted them to change it in the first place. Teachers had long complained that rather than start on new material after Christmas, they had to work entirely on review before exams because the students had spent two (or more) weeks without cracking a book. (I'm not sure it's even possible to make a serious argument that it's a good idea, especially when it matches the system used by colleges.)

To now go back and change that on the basis that there is "no data to support it" is tantamount to suggesting a grown man touch the burner on a hot stove because there's no data to suggest that the burns he received as a toddler actually came from a stove.

This is the sort of suggestion that can come only from a lack of institutional memory, though conversely it is a badly outdated institutional memory that demands our current calendar structure: Because we need children available to work in the fields, we give them the summer off. In my opinion, we should abandon that archaic schedule and create a year-round school calendar like some systems have done: Six weeks on, two weeks off, with remediation offered during the two-week periods.

Of course, I also wish we'd adopt the German system of testing students for admission to high school, and tracking them into technical fields if they are more suited.

Little Lamb

3 Reasons

The riddle was, “What are the best three reasons for being a teacher?”

Answer: “June, July, August”

Riverman1

Well, I Remember...

When the semester used to end after Christmas, I wouldn't study much during the first semester and would cram it all in for exams during the Christmas break. Learning to do that was beneficial throughout my academic career. The material was fresher in my mind when I took the exam. Worked for me.

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