Civil War in Texas: The School Start Date

A relatively quiet civil war has taken place in Texas for more than three decades. The tug-of-war over the school start date began in 1984 and has continued to be an issue debated in the legislative sessions ever since with the tourism industry defending a post-Labor Day school start date and independent school districts seeking local control and the right to determine a start date that is best for its students.  The travel industry has continued to lobby for a uniform start date after Labor Day citing a state comptroller report estimating that an early start date contributes a loss of $790 million annually in economic benefits for the State of Texas. On the other hand, school districts, through the Texas Association of School Boards and other groups, have consistently sought local control over calendars. In 2006, Texas lawmakers approved what was deemed a compromise between the two sides amending the start to late August and specifically prohibited school districts from starting school before the fourth Monday in August.

Starting school in late August creates an imbalance between the fall and spring semesters. For example, the 2016-17 Denton ISD school calendar has 78 days in the fall and 100 days in the spring semester. Yet school boards are left little leeway in setting a school calendar; and they are typically forced to shorten the Thanksgiving and/or Christmas break, which creates hardships on families’ intent to travel or boards are left to end the fall semester in January, which creates a significant gap between instruction and assessment. Additionally, by starting school deep into August, students have fewer days of instruction prior to federal- and state-mandated standardized assessments. Postponing the state testing dates until late May to provide more instructional days is not a viable alternative as the Texas Education Agency has little flexibility in choosing dates for assessment due to more statutory deadlines. Further, state lawmakers require districts to provide remedial instruction and multiple retesting opportunities for students who do not pass state assessments; and accommodating these mandates within a school year beginning in late August is generally not possible. As a result, districts are forced to provide summer school; and schools receive zero state funding to provide summer school. This is what is commonly referred to as an unfunded mandate.

However, with the passage of H.B. 1842 during the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers amended Chapter 12 of the Texas Education Code (TEC) to create “Districts of Innovation.” In this case, “innovation” is somewhat a misnomer. A “district of local control” might have been a more appropriate label. Independent School District eligible for designation are offered the opportunity to be exempt from certain sections of the Texas Education Code that inhibit the goals of the district as outlined in the locally adopted Innovation Plan.

But the travel industry is not taking this lightly. As the legislative session draws near, associations such as the Texas Travel Industry Association (TTIA) and its political action committee are stockpiling its resources and plotting its strategy for the impending battle to be waged in Austin.

“As Texas students return to school, TTIA reminds its members of the economic benefits of continuing to maintain the 4th Monday in August School Start Date. TTIA has been fighting this issue on behalf of its member for more than 10 years; yet again, there is confirmation a number of bills will be filed this coming session to undue this hard fought win.

TTIA anticipates education groups will continue to try to convince legislators to change current law and/or seek exemptions or waivers from the law under the guise that the law takes away local control, especially in terms of setting a school year calendar. There could also be efforts to extend the school year well beyond Memorial Day, perhaps as much as two or more weeks into June, effectively negating the three additional weeks gained as a result of the current fourth Monday in August start date law. Consequently, TTIA members must be aware that there could be an effort among certain legislators to brand the school start date law as an unreasonable regulation placed upon school districts.”

Further, the TTIA opens its upcoming 31st Annual Texas Travel Summit with a session titled, Leveraging Communications to Impact Public Policy, telling attendees,

“Lawmakers and leaders at all levels make decisions on a regular basis that have the potential to impact you, your community, your organization and your industry. An effective advocacy plan can help you influence their decisions and achieve your policy goals. An effective advocacy plan requires an effective story. In this workshop, Jenifer Sarver will help you develop and hone your story, and build the communication skills necessary to identify the right audience, the right message and the right communications vehicles to deliver it. In order for this training to be practical and relevant to issues the industry is currently facing, we will specifically focus on two policy issues: maintenance of the school start date law, and the preservation of full funding for Texas Tourism.

Stay tuned. Will the last group standing be the almighty dollar or Texas students? Will Texas sacrifice its long-term future earnings for short-term economic gains? In my assessment, a better educated Texan is a better paid Texan and therefore a better traveled Texan.

Frankly, this battle is a mere skirmish in the larger war. Today, we live in a 24/7/52 world. Yet education has not kept pace. A plethora of constraints has kept a traditional model of education intact for well over 100 years. We operate our schools according to an agrarian calendar; a model that is existence far past its expiration date. When formal schooling was first established, the school calendar fit the needs of a particular community. When families became more mobile, the school calendar was standardized. The current 9-month calendar that most schools operate on was established when 85% of Americans (and students) were involved in agriculture, and when climate control did not exist in school buildings. In the United States today, only about 3% of Americans are engaged in agriculture. This approach is fundamentally out of sync with the twenty-first century. Collectively, we have done little to question their value, much less to make meaningful changes to them. We are long past the point at which we need to ask the hard questions and then act appropriately on the answers.1

In their book, Shift Ed: A Call for Transforming K-12 Education, futurist David Houle and educational strategist Jeff Cobb issue a “call to action” to everyone who is concerned about education in America. The authors make the case that reinventing our system is inevitable and insist we already have the information and capabilities to make the necessary changes. Shift Ed challenges us to ask the right questions, expand our vision, and take action now. In a chapter devoted to the questions that must be addressed, the authors pose the following questions to be asked regarding the school year:

What is the ideal school year – and is the concept of a school year even compatible with the requirements of a postindustrial, postinformation world?

Is the current definition of summer vacation still valid? What are the alternatives?

What is the ideal school day at each level of education?

What grade levels should we have and are they related to age? Is the traditional concept of grade levels even of value any longer?

How long should a class period last at each level of education, and according to what criteria?

How do we best establish a flow of time and operations in our schools that meets the needs of an increasingly diverse set of stakeholders and accommodates individual student needs as well as possible?

In conclusion, the authors ask, “What other area of society or future facing industry shuts down for 25% of the year?”

What is confounding to me is the fact that businesses often point to education claiming it isn’t doing its job while at the same time blocking its progress. It would be akin to the government legislating a mandatory shutdown of Apple, Inc. for three months in the midst of the production of its next gen iPhone. Inevitably, frustrated consumers fraught with dismay would demand answers as to why the new iPhone was unavailable at the Apple launch event, fuming stock holders would clamor for answers over diminished stock prices, and the board of directors would force the ouster of its CEO, CDO (Chief Design Officer), and the rest of the Apple executive team for not producing the phone for the anointed release date. And we’re talking about a telephone, not the future of our nation’s children!

Many Americans have a wonderful image of summer as a carefree, happy time when “kids can be kids,” and take for granted the prospect of enriching experiences such as summer camps, time with family, and trips to museums, parks, and libraries. Unfortunately, some youth face anything but idyllic summer months. When the school doors close, many children struggle to access educational opportunities, as well as basic needs such as healthy meals and adequate adult supervision. All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004). Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996). More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college (Alexander et al, 2007). Furthermore, children lose more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).

Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004). To succeed in school and life, children and young adults need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills. This is especially true during the summer months. While middle- and upper-middle class children often attend summer campus, take family vacations, and participate in various types of summer enrichment programs, many poorer children spend their time hanging out or watching television. And regardless of socioeconomic factors, the three-month summer gap can often lead to kids forgetting a significant amount of what they learned during the school year.Evidence points to the impact of summer break on students, notably students of poverty. While middle- and upper-middle class children often attend summer campus, take family vacations, and participate in various types of summer enrichment programs, many poorer children spend their time hanging out or watching television. And regardless of socioeconomic factors, the three-month summer gap can often lead to kids forgetting a significant amount of what they learned during the school year.1

Additionally, Prisoners of Time: The Education Commission of the State’s Education Reform2 notes,

“Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available.

Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform six-hour day and a 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education. By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum, we have built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators know to be false.

The first is the assumption that students arrive at school ready to learn in the same way, on the same schedule, all in rhythm with each other.

The second is the notion that academic time can be used for nonacademic purposes with no effect on learning.

Next is the pretense that because yesterday’s calendar was good enough for us, it should be good enough for our children—despite major changes in the larger society.

Fourth is the myth that schools can be transformed without giving teachers the time they need to retool themselves and reorganize their work.

Finally, we find a new fiction: it is reasonable to expect “world-class academic performance” from our students within the time-bound system that is already failing them.

These five assumptions are a recipe for a kind of slow-motion social suicide.”

As Gary Hamel wrote in his book, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation3, “Organizations don’t die from “natural causes. They die from predictable causes. When an organization dies, it is usually from suicide, from the decisions made and not made, that rendered the institution unfit for the future.” And while his book is found in the business section of local and online book retailers, it has everything to do with education.

In our agrarian and industrial past, when most Americans worked on farms or in factories, society could live with the consequences of time-bound education. Able students usually could do well and accomplish a lot. Most others did enough to get by and enjoyed some modest academic success. Dropouts learned little but could still look forward to productive unskilled and even semi-skilled work. Society can no longer live with these results. The reality of today’s world is that the global economy provides few decent jobs for the poorly educated.2

Time. As businessman and author, Jamie Vollmer, penned in his book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools4,

“All children go to school the same number of hours and the same number of days. Some children take longer to learn than others, for reasons that can have little to do with intelligence. In fact, there is no research that equates the speed at which someone learns with his or her ability or capacity to learn. Some children just need more time. For myriad reasons, human beings learn at different rates of speed. And as long as we choose to hold time constant for teaching, learning, and testing, we are sorting children not on the basis of their intelligence, but on the basis of that speed. It’s a race. Each year millions of students, grouped according to age, line up and step into the starting blocks. The opening bell rings. And they’re off!

Day in and day out for nine months, the battle of the clock continues. The students who make it to graduation day wind up distributed across a classic bell curve – some excellence, some failure, and shades of average in between. As long as we hold time constant, the selecting system will product this distribution of student achievement. Every time.”

According to Prisoners of Time2,

“Decades of school improvement efforts have floundered on a fundamental design flaw, the assumption that learning can be doled out by the clock and defined by the calendar. Research confirms common sense. Some students take three to six times longer than others to learn the same thing. Yet stu­dents are caught in a time trap – processed on an assembly line scheduled to the minute. Our usage of time virtually assures the fail­ure of many students.

Under today’s practices, high-ability students are forced to spend more time than they need on a curriculum developed for students of moderate ability. Many become bored, unmotivated, and frustrated. They become prisoners of time.

Struggling students are forced to move with the class and receive less time than they need to master the material. They are penalized with poor grades. They are pushed on to the next task before they are ready. They fall further and further behind and begin living with a powerful dynamic of school failure that is reinforced as long as they remain enrolled or until they drop out. They also become prisoners of time.”

To further complicate matters, if you consider the number of content standards in national and state documents, educational researcher Robert Marzano has determined school systems would have to change schooling from K–12 to K–22 just to cover the content mandated in these documents.5

To meet demands, the United States needs both the best use of available time and more time. We must reinvent schools around learning, not time.

Finally, our nation must first give its educators the respect given to other noble professions, doctors and lawyers, and such. We must give teachers the time they need. Concluding its findings, the research cited in Prisoners of Time2 recommend teachers be provided with the professional time and opportunities they need to do their job. Time for planning and professional development is urgently needed – not as a frill or an add-on, but as a major aspect of the agreement between teachers and districts.

“The whole question of teachers and time needs to be rethought in a serious and systematic way. The issue is not simply teachers. It is not just time. The real issue is education quality. Teachers need time to develop effective lessons. They need time to assess students in meaningful ways and discuss the results with students individually. They need time to talk to students, and listen to them, and to confer with parents and other family members. They need time to read professional journals, interact with their colleagues, and watch outstanding teachers demonstrate new strategies.

Districts can provide this time in several ways: extending the contract year to pay teachers for professional development, using the longer day for the same purpose, or providing for the widespread and systematic use of a cadre of well-prepared, full-time, substitute teachers.”

As Vollmer argued, schools cannot do it alone. “Americans invest in the things they value. When it comes to demanding world-class schools, talk is cheap.”4 Texas is ranked at the bottom of educational funding for its students (http://www.edweek.org/media/ew/qc/2016/shr/16shr.tx.h35.pdf).6 “During the recent school finance trial, expert testimony put the cost of public education at $6,404 more per student than the state already pays.”7 Educational disinterest (or business interest) combined with a myopic viewpoint of legislators are a deadly combination for Texas children. Consider the response of Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor and his “sanguine response” calling for “a big round of applause for forcing schools to do so much with so little.” A recent Texas Observer article, 7 (https://www.texasobserver.org/public-ed-funding-hearing-august/) quoted Education Resource Group President Paul Haeberlen assuring the Senate Education Committee, “The school districts are capable of generating high outcomes with low funding. If you give them less money, they are forced to deal with it.” Haeberlen assured the committee, “What schools need isn’t more money, just an attitude adjustment.” Supporting my claim in my recent TEDx Talk titled, “Education Is None of Your Business” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-3W6kDRjcg)8, Monty Exter with the Association of Texas Professional Educators told the Observer that he’s sure there are plenty of cases in the business world where it pays to put more money into high-achieving areas of a company. But, he said, “that is in no way analogous to the school system. We actually need to send dollars to the areas that are likely to have the lowest performance returns as they are currently measured on standardized testing.”7 Analogies comparing education to business fall short on so many levels. The business model of standardization is not effective, nor is it appropriate. Children are not widgets. They are human beings each uniquely crafted with a diverse set of natural talents and abilities. Do we really want standardized kids? Or do we want to celebrate diversity, cultivate creativity, inspire curiosity, promotion innovation, and cherish individual talents? These are the questions we as a society must ask.

Ask any businessperson today, “Would you rather pocket $100 today or invest it and receive it tenfold in the near future?” When it comes to our children, the answer appears clear. What has happened to us as a nation and as the great state of Texas that we care more about ourselves today than we do our children tomorrow? Perhaps the Teacher said it best. “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”9

 

1 Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education by David E. Houle (Author), Jeff Cobb (https://www.amazon.com/Shift-Ed-Action-Transforming-Education/dp/1412992966)

2 Prisoners of Time: The Education Commission of the State’s Education Reform (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489343.pdf)

3 What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation

4 Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools

5 How and Why Standards Can Improve Student Achievement: A Conversation with Robert J. Marzano (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept01/vol59/num01/How-and-Why-Standards-Can-Improve-Student-Achievement@-A-Conversation-with-Robert-J.-Marzano.aspx)

6 Called to Account: New Directions in School Accountability (http://www.edweek.org/media/ew/qc/2016/shr/16shr.tx.h35.pdf)

7 Experts to Lawmakers: Fund Schools Less to See How Creative They Get (https://www.texasobserver.org/public-ed-funding-hearing-august/)

8 Education Is None of Your Business (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-3W6kDRjcg),

9 Luke 17:1-2 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+17&version=NKJV)

 

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