I would like to add support to the proposal by Lisa Daniel (School Board should focus on time in school, not start times, Jan. 31). However, the loss of instruction time decried by Ms. Daniel is far worse than that lost by snow days and two hour delays. There has been a steady decrease in class time actually allotted to the presentation of new material in core subjects since at least 2006.
Although the length of the school day has not changed much in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), and the courses being offered have many of the same names, the content being presented to students in the core courses of language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science has been steadily decreasing. This trend of less has occurred across the board during the past ten years. Here in northern Virginia where I taught for 25 years, most high school students are now receiving over 10 percent less classroom instruction on new material than just 10 years ago. If our goal is to make American students more competitive with other nations, this approach would certainly appear to be, at best, counterintuitive.
The decisions to decrease the amount of instruction were made by school administrators as a response to the annually increasing demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which was signed into law in early 2002. The overall goal of this 670-page document had merit, namely, “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic standards and state academic assessments.”
Over the subsequent decade, hundreds of millions of federal dollars were poured into the program. Each state was mandated to develop its own standards and assessment instruments in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science. In addition, each public school was required to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) not only for the entire student body, but also for each subgroup, defined as “economically disadvantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency” such that “not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001-2 school year, all students in each group will meet or exceed the state’s minimum levels of academic achievement in all subjects.” Put simply, the Federal Government was now mandating that 100 percent of the students in the country pass state tests in various subject areas or the school system and the individual school would be labeled “failing,” with severe consequences.
The initial years of NCLB posed no significant compliance problems for most school districts, including FCPS, because the requirements were so low that essentially every school was making AYP. As subsequent years passed and the AYP requirements ratcheted upward toward 100 percent, many school systems reached a point where a high percentage (often over 90 percent) of the students were passing the required tests, but an intractably difficult group of students remained who consistently failed. Often the causes for failure were language-related, or attendance driven, but NCLB provides no relief for either situation.
In response, school systems, including FCPS, began to search for strategies to assist the small subset of students who consistently failed the standardized tests. Individualized tutoring was one typical approach, but many school districts felt that a more generalized approach was warranted. FCPS high schools, for example, were directed to carve a period of time out of the school day to be used for remediation; students who did not require this assistance would be allowed to do homework, complete makeup work, or, in some schools, socialize or surf the internet during the remediation periods. In short, high school students in Fairfax County who come to school on a regular basis and do their assignments are being penalized in order to provide time for assistance to those who rarely come to school and who do essentially no work.
Unfortunately, this education shortfall is being exacerbated by recent requirements to include new areas of instruction in the same length school day. In Fairfax County, for example, instruction time for academic subjects (language arts, math, social studies and science) is being reduced on several days throughout the school year to allow the insertion of training on trendy topics such as bullying, sexual orientation, cheating, and drug use - and the list is growing. Although a good case might be made for educating our children on each of these new areas, all require that time be “stolen” from traditional subjects in order to allow for such areas of instruction. Legislation now being considered by the General Assembly will mandate more time be allotted to physical education. Time to complete these new requirements must be taken from something else in the school day, unless the school day is lengthened.
Most parents are totally unaware of this increasing diminution of instruction in core subjects taking place in our county schools. The typical 7-hour school day is the classic zero-sum situation. What is added in a new area or in remediation must be stolen from some other area of instruction. Sadly that depleted area is frequently in the core subjects.
What can be done? First there must be an awareness of what has taken place. Then school systems must be forced by parents and taxpayers to make some hard choices: either cut out remediation during the school day along with these new “socially-driven” areas of instruction, or, more preferably, increase the length of the school day to allow additional time for this larger menu of instruction. I have proposed a plan to increase the length of the high school day, with no increase in costs, to the Fairfax County School Board and was met with deafening silence.
To continue to cheat our current students out of the amount of instruction time which their parents received, and which this generation desperately needs to compete internationally, is, put simply, theft. And, almost certainly, there will be consequences.
Ed Linz, Springfield