The debate over the Oklahoma City Public School System’s continuous calendar shows what wimps teachers have become. We just need to bring back the old-fashioned teachers who supplemented their teaching and bar-tending jobs by mowing lawns all summer.
Seriously, the continuous calendar – a program by which students attend school most of the year to combat learning loss during the summer – was once a promising science-based opportunity. Now, it’s just a rare perk for keeping teachers from fleeing the OKCPS. Both sides agree that it is a burden on principals, however, and it likely costs the district half a million dollars or more per year.
When the OKCPS board voted Monday to retain the calendar, the only dissenting vote was District 1 member Charles Henry, who made the best argument for changing the current continuous calendar to some sort of hybrid calendar. Henry also sparked an argument that, I fear, exemplifies the board’s lack of institutional memory.
Summer learning loss accounts for learning gaps later
Gloria Torres was a principal when the calendar was planned, and she correctly recalled its purpose was to combat learning loss during summer, which is worse for high-poverty students.
As District 2 member Rebecca Budd further explained, the original calendar was changed in response to cognitive science on why relatively affluent students, who go on summer vacations and engage in other stimulating activities during the break, continue to progress during the summer, but high-poverty kids often don’t. In 2011, the Rand Corporation estimated that, by ninth grade, about two-thirds of the reading-achievement gap is due to summer-learning loss in the first five years of schooling. The new, continuous calendar schedule sought equity by providing the type of opportunities for poor kids that their affluent peers enjoy.
In my experience, the OKCPS and state administrators who planned the continuous calendar recognized that tutoring is necessary. Some of that “differentiated instruction” could be called “remediation.” They also understood the social science explaining why remediation should not drive intersession activities. Researchers, educators and nonprofit volunteers respected best practices for summer learning programs, such as providing enrichment, nurturing a love of reading for comprehension (as opposed to decoding so they can pass reading tests), and forming community and family partnerships that facilitate field trips.
Rework testing, or rework the schedule?
When I entered the classroom in the 1990s, low-stakes testing didn’t undermine the quality of instruction, and it wasted virtually no class time. After No Child Left Behind, new high-stakes testing mandates cost us a month or two. Now, up to a third of the year is squandered on teach-to-the-test educational malpractice. As board member Henry said, the last weeks of the year are “dead time.”
Henry would like to rework the schedule so that less time is wasted and more days can be devoted to instruction of testable material. I would like to discuss education research with him, including the old and new evidence that high-stakes testing undermines reading comprehension, the quality of teaching and students’ well-being.
Rather than scheduling, focus on methods to achieve equity
Learning doesn’t stop when the spring test-prep and testing season starts, but beneficial learning is crippled. Students learn incredible amounts of bad habits during the final months of a school year. They learn that there is one “right” answer on a bubble-in scan sheet. The kids see that they are collateral damage in a fight between fearful educators and political forces they don’t understand. They see their teachers’ absenteeism increase. Above all, many students learn all sorts of unintended lessons as they cut classes, walk the halls and participate in the anarchy common during the last month of school.
We need to get back to meaningful teaching and learning. Remediation will almost certainly be useless in terms of the new college-readiness state tests, but that’s an opportunity, not a problem. There is no longer anything but our fears that require the OKCPS to distort schooling in order to jack up test scores.
It’s a shame that the board argued over the calendar rather than discussing teaching methods that achieve equity by respecting the minds and honoring the dignity of our poorest children of color.