I have been recuperating from knee replacement surgery over the past few weeks, and I have had lots of “free” time to think during physical therapy and my daily 4-6 hour home rehab program. During one stationary bike ride, I read an article about the failure of Governor McDonnell’s demonstration program that offered $3 million to Virginia school districts willing to evaluate and partially compensate teachers based on student test scores. No Northern Virginia districts signed up for the program, but as I thought about the issue and the context, I felt a rising sense of outrage. Let me explain.
It’s the last week in June and school is out, which is a fine thing for the majority of students and their families in Virginia’s 38th District. But, for a large and growing minority of students in the 38th and the rest of Fairfax County, the upcoming span of ten weeks without school will result in a loss of achievement gained over this school year. According to the National Center on Time and Learning, research over the past century (!) consistently shows that regardless of socioeconomic status (SES), students learn basic skills at the same rate during the school year. However, during the summer, “low-SES students fall behind their higher-SES peers who have greater exposure to academic and enrichment opportunities.” Summer learning loss is thought to be the key factor in explaining the persistence and even widening of the minority achievement gap during a child’s primary education. (http://www.timeandlearning.org). In Fairfax, the large fraction of non-native English speakers (ESOL) compounds the impact of summer learning loss across the system.
I have been a vocal advocate for year-round schooling options for Fairfax County public schools (FCPS) since I was first elected to the School Board in 1999. I sponsored and/or supported programs to offer so-called “alternative calendar” options in many County elementary schools. FCPS launched a number of successful demonstrations with the support of the then Superintendent Dan Domenech. These programs employed several different calendars, but all eliminated the lengthy vacation gaps in the traditional schedule. Unfortunately, today the alternative calendar is perceived by some in the current FCPS administration to be administratively difficult and more costly than the traditional schedule. The current administration is wrong, but with budget pressures as the excuse, alternative calendars have been eliminated despite the objections of local school communities.
The real school calendar problem, though, rests with Richmond. The Commonwealth of Virginia government, in its wisdom, has made it is illegal for schools to begin their academic year before Labor Day! The statute does provide limited exceptions to school districts that request them, which enabled FCPS to implement alternative calendar programs on a limited basis
This past session I sponsored legislation to grant the State Board of Education full control over the schedule for the academic year. I was not alone in taking this step. Nine other legislators introduced similar legislation and two were Republicans. However, these efforts were to no avail.
Virginia’s archaic school calendar constraint is not a new issue! The Washington Post has editorialized for this change many times, most recently, last year.
Now for the outrage….The Governor’s failed incentive compensation program can be seen as one of hundreds of small battles across the country to enforce individual teacher accountability for student performance. The essence of No Child Left Behind is to make schools accountable for the minority achievement gap. Virginia’s Department of Education failed in its half-hearted effort to qualify for federal assistance under the Federal DOE Race to the Top program. There are many complex issues and considerations that drive each of these circumstances, but at least one fact is clear:
The Governor and the Legislature are accountable for much of the minority achievement gap that persists across the Commonwealth. They are aided and abetted by School Boards and Administrators that fail to create and implement effective year-round educational calendar alternatives for children who would benefit most. Since at least part of the Governor’s $3 million incentive fund seems to be unused, perhaps we should offer incentives to politicians and administrators if they are able to implement this reform for the 2012-13 school year.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at DelKKory@house.virginia.gov.