Like many other parts of the country, the Northeast has experienced a particularly harsh winter, which, in many districts has resulted in repeated delays as well as a number of lost school days. Many districts have plans that call for adding missed school days to the end of the school year.
Principals and teachers know all too well that delayed openings and other disruptions to the normal school day make it difficult to keep everyone focused on academics. Today, for example, high winds forced the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools to remove students and teachers from trailers and other temporary classrooms. That means that cafeterias, libraries and auditoriums will be filled with students. It also means that instruction is disrupted in the second or third largest district in the state. It turns out that the number of students receiving instruction in temporary structures in Fairfax County is equal in size to or greater than all but a few districts in the entire state.
While the school year is technically the same number of school days, more of those days now fall after high-stakes state assessments. What impact will that have on academic performance? This year students are losing days and weeks of preparation, not only for state assessments, but also for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, which are administered in the first week of May.
Attendance is one key factor in raising student achievement. In “Every Minute Counts,” The Teacher Leader provided a poignant illustration of lost time resulting in lower test scores.
“Several years ago I was attending a district-wide department chair meeting and the number one topic was the drop in standardized math scores throughout the district. For the first time in years instead of rising, the scores were uniformly lower at nearly every school. Our assignment was to find the cause. When I returned to school I asked my best Algebra 1 teacher for her explanation. Without hesitation she responded with one word—“snow”. The previous year we had unusually bad weather and we missed two weeks of school. While she had time to cover the material for the test, her normal two-week review period was lost. With the loss of just ten school days an entire system saw a drop in student scores.”
Under plans currently being implemented, many teachers and principals will be fired because of dropping academic performance due to lost “snow days.” While this is certainly not the intent of the “reform,” the reality is that holding teachers and principals accountable for student achievement is not as simple as some would want us to believe.
For example, in some states, there is absolutely no accountability for students and total accountability for teachers and principals. For students, the state assessments are nothing more than an inconvenience. They are not barriers to graduation. The opposite is true for the educators, their jobs and careers depend on the results. That means that the schools are dependent on the good will of the students. If a student wants to draw pictures on the answer sheet, there is no consequence and the professionals are punished.
Likewise, many states and districts are lax in enforcing attendance laws. The research on dropouts conducted by Bob Balfanz and Nettie Letgers at Johns Hopkins points to student attendance as a prime early indicator of future dropout behavior. They point out that students with a 10% or greater absence rate are more likely to experience academic problems and are much more likely to drop out. Some schools have an overall attendance rate below 90%. That means that the average student would miss 18 days of school per school year. Add to that the two lost weeks of school due to weather, and you have six or more weeks of lost instructional time.
Principals and teachers are frustrated at the dual standard. Hold schools accountable, but do nothing to help them by enforcing existing attendance laws by holding students accountable for test results.
Being a teacher or principal in the Northeast this year could be a recipe for disaster. Get the pink slips ready!