Friday, February 26, 2010

Starting school after Labor Day?

There are a lot of changes coming to education in Indiana - actually to almost every state in the country - but I live and teach here, my daughter goes to school here, so it's Indiana I'm concerned about.

On Tuesday this week, the state senate passed HB 1367 with some amendments of their own. It is my understanding that the biggest portion of HB 1367 is dedicated to giving school corporations more discretion as to how to spend their money, i.e. money can be moved from fund to fund. I see this as a good thing. If a corporation has enough money to build a new gym but not enough to keep its lights on or pay its teachers, it ought to be able to transfer money from the building fund to the operating costs fund. Makes sense, right?

One of the amendments the senate added to HB 1367 mandates that children cannot be passed on to fourth grade if they can't read at a third grade level. This seems to me like a no-brainer, but evidently there is evidence this is happening. Personally, I think we need to work on remediation much sooner. It's not as though a child hits third grade and suddenly can't read. However, I do know that I've had way too many children in middle school (and yes, high school) who don't read as well as they should, so the problem is out there. If your child is lagging behind, if you're worried about your child's progress but you don't believe your child's teacher is worried about it, speak up. Ask questions. Be an advocate for your child. I think we need these things - remediation and more parent involvement - more than we need a law like this, but that's just me.

Another amendment the senate tacked on to HB 1367 is to begin the school year AFTER Labor Day. The state (I'm quite sure) is still going to require 180 days in the school year, so the year will extend well into June if it doesn't start until September. I have one major issue with this, but in talking to my students about it in depth yesterday, they brought up many more.

My issue has to do with ISTEP. Currently, the ISTEP is given in two sections. The first section is being given next week - the first week of March - when we still have three months of school left. The second section is given the end of April or first of May, when most schools still have at least a month left. As (hopefully) any parent or teacher knows, these tests are incredibly important for all involved. A student's success on the test influences his assignment to future classes and grade levels. ISTEP scores are going to very soon begin influencing teacher evaluations and job retention. Students' cumulative scores influence the corporation's evaluation by the state and affect how much or how little state intervention the corporation receives.

When these tests are given at a point in the school year when there are still months of instruction left, it is unavoidable that there will be some standards left unaddressed. There simply isn't enough time before the tests to get to everything - to teach it well and ensure student understanding. English - my area - is probably the easiest to try and cover all of the core standards before testing because so many of them are used throughout the year. However, we're on the trimester system, so the students I have now, I have only had for a week. They have only had one-half of eighth grade English so far. So have I taught all of eighth grade standards to my satisfaction to those students yet? I certainly haven't. Give me another three months and it will be a different conversation. Even if I had had them all year, I would still be concerned about a few of the standards. There just isn't enough time.

Now, think about science (which is tested in fourth and sixth grade), social studies (which is tested in fifth and seventh grade), and math (which is tested in all grades 3-8). Math and science build throughout the year, right? What do you suppose those kids have yet to be exposed to when they still have months to go in the year? Regarding social studies, students are taught Indiana history in fourth grade. How far will they have gotten by March?

The ISTEP tests what students should know at the end of each year, but they are given before we reach the actual end of the year. Now, we push the end of the school year into June, so, if we don't move the testing dates, what do you suppose will happen to the ISTEP scores? That's my main concern. It took a Herculean effort to move that test from the fall to spring a year ago. How long do you think it will take to move it again?

The students' concerns were no less valid, even if they weren't quite as academically centered. The athletes are concerned about playing seasons. Will fall sports seasons be shortened? Will they be playing football in the snow, or in 30-degree temperatures? Many young athletes today play in summer leagues whose seasons kick into high gear in May and June. Those who plaly in these leagues are concerned about the effect this new school year will have on their ability to participate in those leagues.

Another concern was for 4-H members. Most 4-H fairs take place in July, which means members are incredibly busy during June completing projects for the fair. If school lasts into the second or third week of June, they fear they won't have the necessary time to complete their proejcts.

This proposed change to the school year is far-reaching in its ramifications. As usual, I'm worried that the people considering the change are people who are clueless when it comes to actually working in education or are people who are influenced by strong lobbyists.

The whole point of this post is to let you know that it isn't a done deal. The bill passed the senate by a vote of 31-19, so it has strong support in the senate. However, it was sent back to the house for reconsideration because of the amendments the senate added. If you have an opinion about the bill, get a hold of your local legislators. Tell them how you feel.

I'm going to.

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