How do we determine if a student is successful in school? Traditionally, we put them into a variety of classes that have been determined as necessary to learn and test them to see if they can demonstrate knowledge. The Virginia Board of Education has set the requirements for success and then makes modifications according to changing expectations of our society. We are living in a time of significant change as we shift from focus on academic testing only to the requirements of “Profile of a Graduate.” However, some components of the system remain significantly unchanged. One of these is the requirement for instructional time. Somewhere in the history of K12 education in the United States it was determined that students need to attend school 180 days a year to have adequate exposure to instruction for mastery.
Obviously, there are issues that will come up to cause a school, or an individual student, to miss time that was scheduled into the annual calendar. The Department of Education takes care of this issue by setting a minimum number of days that must be met. They have even broken this down to a minimum number of hours. Schools that fail to meet this requirement can be sanctioned, and students who miss more time than is required can be required to retake the class.
Several years ago Mecklenburg County Public Schools shifted from a daily schedule of six classes a day throughout the school year to a “4 X 4 block” schedule. With the block schedule students would have four classes during the fall schedule, and another four during the spring. Students have more time each period with this option to engage in hands-on projects. However, they are rushed to work through a year’s work in each semester. With the 4 X 4 they also have the benefit of engaging 8 classes each year rather than six. This creates a scenario which pushes the required time in class to be very carefully monitored. Students absent two or three days of class on the block schedule due to sickness will have missed up to a week of critical information in the traditional schedule. That’s difficult to make up.
Another component of the 4 X 4 Block schedule is that each semester must be of equal time, 90 days. Fall semester must end at the Christmas break so that there is not two weeks of instruction lost before end of course examinations. This requires that the school year begin before Labor day.
This school year has been very different and challenging because of the weather. Mecklenburg County Schools have missed six days in the first nine weeks of school due to Hurricane’s Florence and Michael. The Department of Education requires that all of these days of instructional time be made up. Typically, we have only missed significant time for weather due to snow or ice in the winter, sometimes in December, but mostly in January through March. The week of spring break after Easter provides a cushion of make-up time for 2ndsemester. We don’t have a fall break built into the calendar so these six days of absence have created a very unusual problem for us with state regulations. Our only real solution was to add time, 20 minutes per day or five minutes per high school class time, onto the school day.
The reader will have noted that all of this issue of problems with meeting instructional time has been focused on the secondary schools. Elementary schools have to meet instructional time requirements but spreading the time over the whole year creates much less of a interval crunch. There is no crystal ball that we can use to predict what the weather will be this winter, or for years into the future. Certainly we have seen that the pattern over the past several years has brought us increased precipitation, the primary ingredient for school closing. We are prudent to plan cautiously to make sure that we are prepared to meet all instructional guidelines.
The bottom line is that learning takes time. One can argue, appropriately, that students are unique. Each one has specific academic strengths and weakness, and will take different amount of time to master specific content. With modern educational technologies we are creating opportunity for much more personalized learning options. One day we may come to a place where it is only necessary that a student demonstrate mastery to receive credit, no time requirement imposed. Until then we still count “seat time” as a factor and must live with guidelines.