The issue of mandating 180 days of instructional time has been a topic of concern for many decades. By Code, the West Virginia school calendar is scheduled for 180 days for students and 200 days for educators and service personnel. This automatically means nine weeks of summer down time for our students. In a comprehensive analysis published by the RAND Corp., McCombs and colleagues (2011), it is noted that the performance of elementary students falls by about a month during the summer, and the decline is far worse for lower-income students. The analysis also states that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative, and that over time this may contribute significantly to the achievement gap.
Well-intentioned governors, legislators, business groups, and education groups have attempted to craft a way to assure that every student is in class at least 180 days each school year. Universally, they have failed. The legitimate need for staff development time, the desire to participate in meaningful extracurricular activities, the inevitable loss of attention near the end of a school year, and most ominously, the weather all have conspired to prevent the ultimate goal of sufficient time for quality instruction leading to mastery for every student. So what is the answer?
While the Board recognizes that a minimum amount of instructional time is critical for students and of legitimate concern to the public, we do not believe that a goal of providing180 days of instruction or some other measure of the minimum will be achieved within the confines of the current school calendar structure. In addition, the definition of instructional time must be broadened to include the capabilities of technology, 24/7 learning, and learning outside the school walls beyond the time constraints of the current school day.
The Board believes a new approach not only is required, but also that the time has come for a change in how the school calendar and learning time are organized. Our economy and society ceased to be based on an agricultural model many decades ago. Why should our school calendar be based on an agrarian model? With hundreds of millions of dollars of new school buildings constructed over the past few years, why should they sit empty and idle for months in a year? With the new capabilities of technology, why should we not reconsider the opportunities for a different type of engagement by students? And why shouldn't our students be offered meaningful and authentic real world experiences outside the school? In fact, research does not support the premise that quality instruction is enhanced merely by seat time, but instead points to the engagement of students across a wide range of learning opportunities that should be offered whenever and wherever available.
The Board promotes consideration of a balanced calendar and a broader view of learning time. The WVDE formed a working group of districts interested in year-round school to study the effect and implications of adopting a balanced calendar. This working group contributed to a "Game Changer Position Paper" presented to the WVBOE in September 2012, on which we rely in part for many facts and representations throughout this section.
The balanced calendar is organized into instructional periods and vacation weeks that are more evenly balanced across 12 months rather than the traditional school calendar. The most common configuration is the 45/15 model in which students attend school for 45 days (nine weeks) and then have an intersession break for 15 days (three weeks). This schedule is repeated four times in the year. There are also other successful models to consider as counties contemplate plans that best fit their families, staff and local employers.
This design reorganizes the traditional school year (180 days of instruction) to provide more continuous learning by breaking up the long summer vacation into shorter, more frequent breaks throughout the year. It does not eliminate summer vacation, but reduces it and redistributes it as break or intersession time during the year. Time during intercessions can be used for remediation and enrichment activities, such as college and career experiences, field- and community-based projects, etc. If this adds to the number of teacher workdays, new or repurposed funding will be needed.
Implementing the balanced calendar will serve to eliminate prolonged lapses in instructional time and will minimize the summer learning loss that occurs during a typical three-month summer vacation. Summer learning loss is a major concern to educators and parents. While this concern applies to all children, it is especially troubling in children from low-income families. Studies show that about one-half of the achievement gaps between children from low- and high-income families at the beginning of high school are attributed to summer learning loss. Academic disparities between low-income and high-income children increase as children grow older and the achievement gap widens. Year-round education can narrow the gap.
It is also important to note that when schools are closed for the summer, a significant number of our children go without regular, nutritious meals and do not have access to other important support systems provided at school. This affects approximately 53 percent of our students who live in or near poverty and depend on school resources for assistance, according to WVDE Office of School Nutrition's most recent file of eligibility data taken from October 2011.
The balanced calendar also provides a forum for enhanced teacher planning and instruction. The shorter instructional periods may result in a reduction of teacher fatigue and burnout, higher teacher morale and a reduction in teacher absences. Continuity of instruction leads to a better quality of instruction and a year-round schedule will positively affect the way teachers plan for instruction.
Currently, four West Virginia schools have implemented year-round school calendars. These schools include Piedmont Elementary and Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary schools in Kanawha County, and Cameron Elementary and Cameron High School in Marshall County. Officials in Cabell County also are considering year-round schooling.
The Board supports the flexibility of local districts and schools in the implementation of the balanced calendar. We recognize that there may be obstacles to address, including inadequate air conditioning, athletic schedules, statewide assessment testing windows and availability of data to schools. These possible obstacles are not insolvable and can be addressed with adequate notice and long-term planning that allow staff and families to adjust. Also, coordination will be needed with institutions of higher education (IHE) to assist teachers in obtaining continuing education and advanced degree course work.
The WVBOE will work with the Legislature to address state Code currently impeding the full implementation of a balanced calendar and will collaborate with teacher and service personnel organizations, as well as parents and community members, to address concerns. Moving to a balanced calendar is a major change in the way education is delivered in West Virginia, but research supports moving in this direction. Tradition alone should not be a barrier to doing the right thing for our students.
West Virginia's school accreditation system is a cornerstone of school improvement and a requirement of the updated Master Plan for education approved by the court in the Recht case. Accreditation is the process by which schools are adjudicated and classified for quality. Accreditation processes are managed by the West Virginia Office of Education Performance Audits (OEPA), an agency under the direct supervision of the WVBOE, and an agency established as a result of the updated Master Plan.
The WVBOE believes that an accreditation system should foster school improvement and the achievement of West Virginia's educational goals for its children. To meet this challenge, the current system needs improvement. Over time, numerous school improvement policies and processes, including the required strategic planning process, have become cumbersome to schools. When viewed together, they present a set of requirements that do too little to foster school collaboration, innovation, local responsibility and accountability. Recognizing the need to improve the current accreditation system, and to meet the federal mandates for gaining a needed waiver under No Child Left Behind, the Board has begun the process of reshaping our system. With input from local boards of education, superintendents, principals and teachers, the Board seeks to redesign our system to establish clear and rigorous standards for performance, but also to enhance the latitude of schools to reach those standards.
The revision process has been initiated to address several inadequacies of the current accreditation system, many developing in the wake of No Child Left Behind. As it operates now, the accreditation processes focus the bulk of resources and efforts on the lowest performing schools, providing few improvement supports and incentives for the remaining 90 percent of West Virginia's public schools. Furthermore, the various standards and measures by which schools currently are evaluated do not necessarily align with those school qualities essential for educating our children effectively and efficiently for the global, digital, economically competitive environment in which they will live.
Another disconnect of our current accreditation system is that our state currently supports several school recognition programs based on differing standards/processes, for example, the National Blue Ribbon Schools, sponsored by the United States Department of Education (USDOE), West Virginia Exemplary Schools, sponsored by the OEPA, and West Virginia Schools of Excellence, sponsored by the WVBOE. The revised accreditation process should support only one state recognition program driven by a single set of standards, thus eliminating confusion among schools and the public.
The WVBOE realizes upgrading systems of accreditation is a major undertaking which affects both policy and Code. In light of the role and responsibilities vested in the WVBOE, we request that the West Virginia Legislature eliminate Code barriers to allow the Board to lead this effort through policy. Ultimately, any new system should combine efforts of the county school systems, the WVDE, the eight Regional Education Service Agencies, and the OEPA to support positive school growth in each of West Virginia's 723 schools. This will require thoughtful input and review by the educational community and stakeholders.