It's about time
Continued Weakness in Michigan’s School Year
By The Center for Michigan | Published: January 5, 2011
By Chris Andrews
In Michigan, the traditional 180-day, K-12 school calendar has quietly become an urban and rural legend, the victim of budget woes and state laws that emphasize minutes rather than days. If anything, the state has moved slightly backwards.
That’s the main conclusion of an updated Center for Michigan analysis of Michigan Department of Education Data. Our latest “School Daze” report below confirms our earlier findings in 2009 : Michigan school districts are using the school calendar as a budget cutting tool and continuing to offer far fewer school days than in decades past.
Changes in state law, spurred by the first School Daze report we issued in March 2009, require schools this year to begin to reverse the erosion of the school calendar.
For this updated School Daze report, we used 2008-2009 school data, the most recent available. The data, including both traditional public schools and charter schools, showed:
1) Only six of 755 school districts and charters actually held 180 days of instruction in 2008-09.
2) 140 school districts and charters scheduled 170 or fewer days, which is two weeks less instruction than state law required until 2003-04. A total of 283 districts actually held 170 or fewer days of instruction due to snow days and other cancellations.
3) Fifty-six school districts and charters lopped off at least a week of scheduled school days between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years. Altogether, 277 cut at least a half a day from the calendar of the year before.
4) The majority of Michigan school districts and charters held more days of school in 2008-09, but that was only because fewer days were canceled. More districts (277) reduced their school calendars of scheduled days than expanded them (211).
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ANGST CONTINUES FROM EDUCATION LEADERS
John Austin, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, says the Center for Michigan’s latest findings underscore the need for comprehensive reforms that include returning the school year to 180 days or more.
“What we have seen are too many districts using the move to an hourly clock versus a school-day clock to basically reduce the whole learning time during the school year. That is unfortunate, it’s wrong, it’s not helpful to students,” Austin said. “You can micromanage the minutes of the day, but it means that kids aren’t in school as long during the year and aren’t spending as much time totally on mind, on task.”
There is no dispute that better educational outcomes are crucial to rebuilding Michigan’s economy. Employers in knowledge-based industries that pay good wages demand a highly educated and skilled work force and will locate in states that meet their needs. Michigan lags behind other states in the percent of adults with college degrees, partly because thousands of students arrive unprepared and need remediation classes.
President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan are both advocates of a longer school year. Obama suggested that states use some of the federal stimulus day to accomplish that goal. “We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of the day,” Obama said in 2009. “That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy.”
REFORM REQUIRES MANY DISTRICTS TO ADD MORE DAYS SOON
After the Center for Michigan’s 2009 report exposed the rapidly shrinking school year in districts across the state, policymakers reacted strongly. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan called the practice of adding a few minutes to the school day in order to shorten the school calendar outrageous.
The Legislature held hearings that summer and took a step toward making sure students spend more days in school. Beginning this year, school districts must schedule at least 165 days of instruction, with that ratcheted up to 170 days in 2012-13. And districts that scheduled at least 165 days in 2009-10 are prohibited from shrinking their calendar.
Some school districts did increase their school calendar in 2008-09. The Stephenson Area Public Schools abandoned their experiment with a four-day week and scheduled 166 days, up from 150. Even with the extra 16 days, it’s among the fewest days in the state.
Cass City Public Schools boosted the number of days in school from 166 to 179. The district had shortened the school year in mid-year in 2007-08 because of a budget crisis. Once the finances were stabilized, the district returned to a normal calendar.
“I would never be in favor of reducing days and adding to the length of the day,” Superintendent Jeff Hartel said. “If anything, I’d like to see more days added to the school year.”
EROSION CONTINUES IN SOME PLACES
Other districts chopped the instructional calendar.
In 2007-2008, the Carrollton School District in Saginaw County scheduled 185 days of school, the most of any traditional public school district in Michigan. The following fall, students got a 170-day calendar, a full two weeks less than the 180 days that were the standard for decades.
The reduction, made possible by the state’s shift from school-day requirements to school-hour minimums, came in the give-and-take of contract negotiations. Most of it is accomplished by eliminating half-days, says Superintendent Craig Douglas, along with ending the school year earlier. Douglas says he believes students are still getting a quality education, but he’s upfront in saying he’d like to see students spending more days, not fewer, in the classroom.
“If you made me ruler, we’d go year-round. … I have had the chance to go to China and India both. I know they are beating us in time on task,” Douglas said. “I think it’s going to be harder for us to get back to that threshold (of 180 days). I don’t know what to expect in negotiations, but I can tell you that generally speaking, adding those days back is a tougher climb.”
Lawmakers opened the door to a shrinking calendar in the 2003-04 school year, when they changed time-in-school requirements from 180 days to 1,098 hours. The argument for the change was that some school districts – especially rural ones in northern Michigan — could reduce non-academic costs such as transportation and utilities.
MANY DISTRICTS DON’T MAKE UP SNOW DAYS
And students are spending less time in class for another reason. For years, school officials were only allowed to cancel school twice without makeup days. Lawmakers extended that to 30 hours (now “six days or equivalent hours”), and they can seek approval of an additional six days or equivalent hours for extenuating circumstances that occur after April 1. In 2008-2009, a total of 175 school districts canceled at least five days of classes, or the hourly equivalent.
GAP WITH REST OF WORLD IS GROWING
Now, many education leaders say the reduction in school days has gone too far and undermines Michigan’s efforts to educate its students in highly competitive national and global economies. That includes Superintendent Flanagan, who also served as an adviser to Governor Rick Snyder’s transition team.
“Mike believes very strongly that the number of days that students attend school is important,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis. “Mike talks regularly about our kids’ need to compete globally for jobs later on, and students in many other countries are going well over 200 days a year.”
The gap between the number of days most Michigan students spend in school and those in other states and countries has widened since Michigan began counting hours, rather than days. Some international competitors, such as South Korea and Japan, offer 220 days or more. Western European countries have longer calendars as well.
In the United States, most states set requirements by days rather than hours, although some states have moved to an hourly standard, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit, nonpartisan interstate compact that helps policymakers and others develop policies to improve student learning. Twenty-nine states require 180 days, and two mandate even more days.
Kathy Christie, the commission’s chief of staff, says that it is difficult to compare requirements between states. For example, some states count professional-development days as school days, while others do not. Some schools might have six-hour days, others five-and-a-half. Some count minutes spent at lunch or between classes in their school hours.
And, she said, there isn’t research to show that more days in school will lead to better education outcomes. “What matters most, is the quality of the time,” she said.
There’s also no research showing that school districts can slice 10, 15 or 20 days from the calendar without educational consequence. And there are studies that suggest that longer summer vacations — a common byproduct of fewer school days — result in greater learning loss, especially among disadvantaged students who are less likely to have summer enrichment opportunities.
The decision to allow school districts to reduce the number of school days by lengthening them was primarily an economic decision, and, ultimately, any efforts to restore the 180-day school year in Michigan will have to take that into consideration. While lawmakers have made K-12 a higher budget priority than other areas, including higher education, schools have dealt with state funding cuts, and many with declining enrollment, which translates into fewer state dollars.
State Sen. Phil Pavlov, a St. Clair Township Republican who was vice chair of the House Education Committee and was elected to the Senate in November, says studies can support arguments for or against requiring a longer school calendar.
“A lot of northern districts that took advantage of it (shortening the calendar by lengthening the day) will be hard-pressed to give it up,” said Pavlov. “The local school board is in a good position to make that determination. If you can stretch that dollar and put those resources into the classroom instead of the fuel tank of the school bus, kids win.”
State Sen. Wayne Kuipers, a Holland Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, says he supports a longer school year but says those issues will be left to the incoming chair, who has not been named. Kuipers was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.
“If you look at some of the countries that we compete with, they have a full eight-hour day, and they have more days,” he said. “If we are going to get serious about keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of education, it is going to require some pretty significant changes.”
But given the state’s financial constraints, he said, lawmakers will need to think creatively about a solution. Otherwise, he said, the state potentially runs into an obstacle in the Headlee amendment, which requires the state to pay for services that it mandates.
“If you are going to do it, you’d have to say next year we are going to increase the foundation grant by X number of dollars for those school districts that add 20 days,” he said.
The State Board of Education is calling for a comprehensive approach to stabilizing and restructuring the school finance system. Austin said he hopes Snyder and the new legislature will make that a priority.
“We haven’t had a big budget solution that says in return for stabilizing or increasing investment in our education system, we expect you to go back to the 180 (or more) days,” Austin said. “That I think is what it will take to really move the needle.”