Are we shortchanging our students by not insisting upon a minimum number of teaching days in our school year? In Atlantic Canada, why have school officials become so relaxed about declaring so-called ‘storm days’ and cancelling school at the first sign of inclement weather? Should we be more vigilant about preserving and protecting the teaching time our children receive in our schools?
My newest research report, School’s Out, Again: Why “throw away” schools days hurt students, (AIMS, April 13, 2010) takes a look at the chronic problem of lost schools days in Atlantic Canada and draws stark comparisons with provinces outside the region. It also provides some preliminary evidence of the collateral damage inflicted upon students as well as the public education system. (See http://www.aims.ca/library/SchoolsOut.pdf to read the full report)
Last year was the worst ever in Atlantic Canada for interrupted education. By April 2009, Nova Scotia’s regional school boards had cancelled classes for 11 to 14 out of 185 teaching days, and even the Halifax Regional Board had lost about 8 school days. School boards in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland also lost record numbers of school days. Many high school classes across Nova Scotia also reportedly fell short of the minimum requirement of 110 hours of instruction. That lost teaching time was never recovered, and simply written-off by school officials.
A front page story in the Halifax Chronicle Herald raised the issue of recouping the teaching time lost. The public debate eventually prompted the Nova Scotia Department of Education to commission retired superintendent Dr. James Gunn to produce a report on “School Storm Days” intended strictly as a Discussion Paper for the local boards.
With the mild winter of 2009-2010 behind us, little has been said or decided about those ‘lost school days.’ Schools in Nova Scotia continued to close at the slightest sign of snow and on March 3rd Parker Donham, The Contrarian, caused a minor furor by labelling Maritimers as “fraidy cats” and speculating that the teachers’ union exerted some influence over such decisions.
What can and should be done to address this important educational policy issue? Here are my key recommendations aimed at limiting “throw-away” school days and restoring a focus on student learning and achievement:
- Reaffirm the Department of Education’s primary responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the provincial school schedule, including the provision of a minimum number of teaching days and that schools actually be open for all of them;
- To facilitate recommendation one, amend the Education Act and regulations so as to reaffirm the authority of the Minister of Education to reclaim school days lost because of access problems or other adverse facilities conditions, including storm closings, leaking roofs, or furnace problems;
- Amend the Collective Agreement with the teacher’s union to guarantee a minimum number of teaching days and stipulate that when the schools remain open teachers (as well as support staff) are expected to report for duty;
- Mandate the Department of Transportation (DOTIR in NS) to develop (in collaboration with the provincial Pupil Transportation Advisory Committee) a coordinated province-wide strategy for snow clearance and highway plowing assigning higher priority to heavy daily student transportation zones, particularly along secondary roadways and working more closely with municipalities to improve services on dirt roads;
- Mandate every School Board/District to produce a contingency plan to reclaim days that are lost, including using holiday periods and giving absolute priority to restoring lost teaching time;
- Initiate an independent Provincial Review of the Impact of Lost Class Time on student engagement, classroom learning, and student performance, particularly on provincial, national and international assessments:
- Assess the impact of reducing the numbers of school storm days on student learning and performance once every five years, commencing in 2014-15.