by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Over the last two days, I wrote about two proposals designed to address learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures. On Monday, I discussed the idea of requiring disadvantaged students to repeat their current grade. On Tuesday, I considered the idea of offering a summer session that would allow core subject teachers to cover content missed from March to June. Because of the shortcomings of both proposals, I argue that the state should customize the coming school year, what I call the “recovery school year,” to meet the needs of parents, children, and communities.
State education officials should begin planning now for the unique challenges of the 2020-21 school year. A properly designed recovery school year should start with clear and reasonable expectations of educators, students, and parents or guardians. Because their buy-in is essential, all three should have input into the process of formulating a plan to address student learning loss and other needs.
To support instruction, N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff should modify state standards to account for missed grade and course content. In other words, recovery standards should incorporate part of the previous grade or course standards to ensure that teachers have one document to guide them through the year.
In addition, N.C. DPI should allow teachers to access state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, which would enable them to administer state standardized tests at the beginning of the school year for diagnostic purposes. This would allow teachers to pinpoint the academic strengths and weaknesses of students using a common assessment at no additional cost to the district. Data from these assessments may be used by state education officials to determine the schools that need additional state-level support.
State law requires schools to provide a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction covering at least nine calendar months. School districts have the flexibility to determine the “number of instructional hours in an instructional day.” Moreover, the number of instructional hours in the instructional day “does not have to be uniform among the schools in the administrative unit.” So, school districts have the power to increase the length of the school day for one or all schools in a district.
The most common objection to extending the school day is that it interferes with athletics, extracurricular activities, and after-school jobs. But longer days can take their toll on students who do not have after school commitments. The state’s “North Carolina Pupil Transportation Service Indicators Report” indicates that some rural school districts have average morning ride times of between 45 minutes and an hour. These long rides require early pickup times.
While many districts starting picking up students at 5:30 am, a handful of districts begin morning pickup between 4:30 and 5:00 am. Extending the school day by an hour means that some students may not return home until 5:00 pm or later. A better plan would be to cap extensions of the school day to 30 minutes, which would not interfere with after-school activities or necessitate late afternoon drop-offs.
Some argue that adding instructional days to the school year is a better option. Because of the state’s school calendar law, however, modifications to start and end dates are more difficult. With some exceptions, the school year may not start earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and may not end later than the Friday closest to June 11. State law permits school boards to “revise the scheduled closing date if necessary in order to comply with the minimum requirements for instructional days or instructional time.” But state law also requires school boards to “adopt a school calendar consisting of 215 days all of which shall fall within the fiscal year [and] it may not extend past the end of the fiscal year.” So, no revised closing date may extend beyond June 30.
Legislative action would be required to change the school calendar law. The powerful tourism lobby and other industry groups oppose start and end date changes. In fact, their opposition is one of the reasons why school calendar flexibility proposals have been stymied in the General Assembly.
The ideal option is to dispense with the unnecessarily prescriptive start and end date requirements altogether and allow school districts to formulate calendars that better meet the needs of families and communities. Yet, I am not optimistic that lawmakers will modify the school calendar law. As such, districts should extend the school day by no more than 30 minutes, while providing adequate time to accommodate longer class periods or standalone review sessions for struggling students. In the end, longer school days can be counterproductive if the additional time is not used productively, so districts and schools should have a clear plan to use the extra time to engage students in meaningful, research-based activities.
State law requires all annual assessments of student achievement adopted by the State Board of Education and all final exams for courses to be administered within the last 10 instructional days of the school year for year-long courses and within the final five instructional days of the semester for semester courses. But the time set aside to prepare for these tests during the school year and administer these tests at the end of the year would be better spent covering grade and course content.
The cancellation of state testing would necessitate a waiver from the federal government. By accepting federal funds, North Carolina public schools have agreed to follow testing and reporting requirements outlined in two major federal laws. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA) requires states to administer annual assessments in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science, as well as a test of English language proficiency for English language learners.
The U.S. Department of Education granted state testing waivers for the current 2019-20 school year. Given the circumstances, that was an easy decision. Convincing federal education officials to waive testing for the 2020-21 school year would be a much harder sell, particularly if coronavirus mitigation efforts cease and the school year proceeds uninterrupted. State education leaders should make their case for a federal waiver now.
School closures designed to impede the spread of COVID-19 prompted North Carolina’s public school educators to transition to online instruction. This transition has been uneven across classrooms, schools, and districts. In an earlier piece, I argued that one way to address unsatisfactory instruction would be to give parents the ability to use public dollars to contract with skilled and enterprising online educators for the duration of coronavirus school closures.
As we approach a new school year, the state should affirm its commitment to families by eliminating enrollment restrictions on charter schools (including virtual charter schools), expanding eligibility for private school scholarships, and encouraging school districts to adopt open enrollment, zoned choice, magnet school, and online education programs.
School districts need regulatory flexibility to adapt to coronavirus school closures and other circumstances beyond their control. Families also need multiple educational options to adapt to changes in their lives that are beyond their control.