Mine is a two-school-district family — I’m a teacher in the West Ada School District, and I have two children in the Boise School District. So while my role in BSD is that of a parent, my professional experience as a teacher makes me eye with concern Boise School District’s proposal to move up the start date of the school year and conclude the first semester before Winter Break.
The district portrays this as an attempt to improve student achievement, particularly on final exams. However, educational research suggests that this calendar would not have that effect. The widely respected educational researcher John Hattie has spent years compiling the results of what does and does not improve student learning. Hattie’s research gives “School calendars/timetables” an extremely low effect, barely above influences that actually have a negative effect.
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In contrast, an influence that Hattie ranks relatively highly is spreading learning out over time (“Spaced vs Massed Practice” in his chart). Any content or skills worth assessing — whether it be through final exams, class projects, standardized testing, etc. — should be worth retaining, if not for a lifetime, then at least until the next level of instruction builds upon that knowledge. Is the Boise School District arguing that students cannot be expected to retain for the two weeks of Winter Break the learning they spent a semester on? Spreading out instruction over longer periods of time leads to higher retention of the learning. Cramming is not a valid strategy for long-term learning gains.
Also, moving final exams to December seems like too much to ask of an already over-burdened time. Holiday concerts, service work (at home, church and school), and of course all of the holiday events, celebrations and preparations throughout the month would interfere with students’ time and resources to end the semester strong. You know when’s a great time for finals? The post-holiday calm of January.
Some families have noted on social media their frustration with the amount of homework students have over Winter Break. January 2018 seems like an ideal time for the district to survey teachers, parents and students about whether too much is expected during this family time, and if there is a problem, identify all the possible ways to mitigate it.
Of course, not all homework completed over break has been assigned over break. As a teacher, I usually assign students no more than I would assign over a weekend (e.g., “Read the next two chapters in the novel we are studying”). Yet on the first day back from break, my turn-in basket overflows — with late work. Some students desperately need Winter Break to get caught up before the semester ends.
Finally, Boise School District should acknowledge that it has not yet presented any research-based educational objectives to be achieved by changing the school calendar. If it chooses to move ahead with this initiative, despite what the educational research shows, it needs to acknowledge that this is purely a lifestyle choice, not a “focus on student achievement.”
Elyse Thorpe has taught in the West Ada School District for 17 years and has two children in the Boise School District.