Just as education experts are encouraging more classroom time to improve student grades and test scores, many California districts are moving in the opposite direction by shortening their school year amid a sustained and draining budget crisis.
Of the state’s 30 largest school districts, 16 are reducing the number of days in the academic year, according to a survey by California Watch. The changes are expected to affect about 1.4 million students in these districts alone.
Educators believe a shrinking school year, in combination with other budget cutbacks, could depress hard-won academic gains in recent years. To many, it is a dramatic illustration of how the state’s budget crisis has begun to erode not just the fringes, but also the core of public education in California.
“This is a major setback,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. “We’re reducing opportunities for our students, which puts California students at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states.”
A little more than a decade ago, California increased the number of instructional days to 180, catching up with most other states. Two years ago, as the state’s economy deteriorated, the state gave districts permission to reduce the calendar to 175 days, but few exercised the option.
No longer. Facing crushing budget deficits, districts throughout the state will cut up to five days from the school calendar by granting teachers and other staff unpaid furlough days. Many also will eliminate dayswhen students are not in the classroom that teachers traditionally have used for class preparation, staff training or parent conferences.
In Southern California, districts with a shorter year include Los Angeles Unified, by far the state’s largest with nearly 700,000 students, as well as San Diego, Long Beach, Montebello, Fontana, Capistrano, Anaheim, Corona-Norco, Riverside, Poway and Saddleback Valley.
In the Central Valley, districts like Modesto, as well as several smaller ones in Stanislaus County, also intend to trim their school year, as do Northern California districts such as San Jose, Fremont, San Francisco and Elk Grove near Sacramento.
Slipping further behind
The nation’s school year, with its lengthy summer vacation, already is viewed as an anachronism dating back to when children were needed to work on family farms.
California’s shorter school year will put the state even further behind numerous countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, each with 200 instructional days, South Korea with 220, and Switzerland with 228. Growing numbers of California students will find themselves in the company of those in Kentucky, Maine and Missouri, whose school years are 175 days.
California, which educates one in eight public school children in the United States, is one of the few states in which districts in significant numbers are shrinking their school year, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. Utah recently reduced its school year to 175 days, while Hawaii went down to 163 days last year. Hawaii plans to rebound to 180 days in 2011.
“California is the basket case of the country,” Jennings said. “Fiscally, it is in worse shape than any other state. This is not the first time that California is cutting back on education, but usually districts first cut back on maintenance, professional development, equipment, and try to protect the classroom.”
The move is accompanied by cutbacks in almost every other aspect of public education, including rolling back or eliminating the state’s program intended to keep class sizes in the early grades to just 20 students. Last fall, a survey by California Watch found that the majority of the state’s 30 largest districts were increasing class size in the K-3 grades, in some cases to as many as 30 students.
What makes the shorter year attractive to many districts is that it yields large savings. The state’s 30 largest districts are expected to save more than $200 million combined. In Los Angeles, for example, a shorter year will save $145 million. San Diego will save $20.9 million, and Long Beach, $12 million. Even smaller districts like Fremont – the state’s 27th largest – will cut $5.8 million by reducing the school year by three days.
In cutting the school year, however, California may be sacrificing a major source of revenue even while it attempts to trim its budget. The shorter school year could hurt the state when it comes to competing for education funds administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
To compete for the $3.5 billion school-improvement grant program offered by the Department of Education, districts must agree to implement four turnaround strategies for their lowest-performing schools. Two of them would require expanding the school day, week or year as schools increase instructional time for core academic subjects.
Hardship for families
In his first major speech on education after occupying the White House, in March 2009, President Barack Obama vigorously made the case for more instructional time.
“I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas,” he said. “Not with (my daughters) Malia and Sasha, not in my family and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”
In June, parents in Los Angeles got their first sense of what a shorter school year means. Facing a $640 million deficit, the district abruptly ended school a week earlier than planned, on June 18 instead of June 25.
“We are all concerned about losing another week of instruction,” said Ashley Postlewaite, whose son William, 6, and daughter Ann, 7, attend Ivanhoe Elementary School in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
She said the early school closure imposed a hardship on many families that were forced to make arrangements for an extra week of child care. “Everyone is shuffling kids around and pulling together to make it work,” Postlewaite said.
But given the alternatives, Postlewaite said, a shorter year was the “best solution out of bunch of hard solutions.” It meant the district did not have to lay off as many teachers and allowed the district to keep class sizes at current levels.
Linda Shaffer, whose daughter Julianne, 7, and son Nate, 6, attend Sherman Elementary School in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, worried about the cumulative effect of continual cutting of programs year after year. During the coming year, San Francisco will cut four days from the instructional calendar.
“Combined with other cuts like increasing class sizes, laying off teachers and closing libraries, it all adds up,” she said. “It’s no wonder that California ranks near the bottom on test scores.”
Teachers make sacrifices
Some districts have been able to maintain a 180-day school year, but only by making cuts in other areas.
For example, the Sweetwater Union High School District south of San Diego has, among other measures, imposed 7.5 percent across-the-board budget cuts in all schools and programs and is encouraging commercial advertising in schools as a fundraising tool.
“We are out of the woods for the coming school year, but not for subsequent ones, unfortunately,” said Graciela Sevilla, a district spokeswoman.
Other districts like Fresno and San Juan Unified near Sacramento have been fortunate to have budget reserves they could dip into – but may have to take measures that are more drastic when the reserves reach the minimum levels set by the state.
During tough bargaining sessions over the past several months, teachers unions have had a powerful incentive to agree to shorter school years. They faced the unpleasant choice of accepting unpaid furlough days – and a modest salary reduction – versus the prospect of more widespread layoffs.
“It is horrible to put the classroom teacher in that situation,” said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, which represents some 325,000 teachers and other school personnel. “Districts have been forced into these positions, basically because they have no other recourse.”
Of the 1,611 members of the San Jose Teachers’ Association, four out of five voted to cut five days from the school year. Each day translates into a half-percent salary reduction, or an average of about $2,000 for each teacher.
“My teachers don’t like taking a pay cut, but they understand the necessity,” said Janice Allen, president of the San Jose Teachers’ Association and a veteran second-grade teacher. “Everyone is trying to do their share.”
Some educators who will oversee a shorter school year believe that it’s more important for teachers to use that time effectively. “It’s not just about time; it is about the quality of time,” said Steven Ladd, superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, which will go to a 175-day school year in the fall. “What difference does it make if you are in the classroom for 190 days and have less-than-quality delivery of instruction?”
But Jennifer Davis, president of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, said some of the most successful schools in recent years, like Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have demonstrated convincingly that more time in the classroom brings better results. “The highest-performing public schools in America … all show that added time is a significant contributor to the success of their students,” she said.
Making that point strongly is a recent study of student performance at New York City charter schools by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby and two co-researchers. “When considered either by itself or simultaneously with other characteristics, a long school year isstrongly positively associated with a school having a greater effect on (educational) achievement,” the researchers concluded.
Other research comes from states that close schools during snowstorms. Researchers in Minnesota found a direct correlation between test scores and the number of days that schools were closed for snow. Scores fell a third to half a percentage point for each snow day. In Maryland, schools with the largest number of snow days were more likely to fail to make “annual yearly progress” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
This research does not spell out precisely how fewer days in the classroom affect student performance. But it suggests that with less time at their disposal, teachers are likely to have a more difficult time meeting state and federal curriculum requirements. In particular, students who are struggling academically could suffer from getting less individual attention.
“One simple principle is that time on task makes a difference, whether you are learning to play the piano, drive a car or learning in school,” the Center on Education Policy’s Jennings said.
The importance of time in the classroom is certainly not a new idea. A generation ago, the landmark 1983 “A Nation At Risk” report, which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools and helped launch the modern era of school reform, urged that the school year be increased to between 200 and 220 days.
California – and the nation – has never come close to that lofty goal. Instead, schools chief O’Connell worries that if the state’s budget crisis persists, an ever-shrinking school year and larger classes could become the norm. The law allowing a 175-day school year is set to expire in 2013, after which the Legislature must debate the issue again.
O’Connell fears a 170-day school year and 40 students per class with no floor in sight may soon replace the 175-day school year and K-3 class sizes of 30 students.
“This is not hyperbole,” he said. “Absent additional funding, this may only be the beginning.”