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Longer school year not the answer

By Joe Rector

The state of Tennessee has come up with another brilliant idea for improving schools and the education they provide. How? Why, the legislators have decreed that all students must be in school for 180 full days. Oh, the wisdom of our representatives is overwhelming sometimes.

In Knox County, that means the half hour extra added to each day won’t count toward the required days, although these accumulated 30 minute extensions put the schools over the 180 day requirement. So, the superintendent and the board are “figuring out” what to do to meet the requirement by the 2014-2015 school year. As a former 30-year employee of the system, I’ve got some suggestions for reaching the 180 day plateau. I’ve also got some other bones to pick.

The first thing to do to meet the state requirement is scuttle most in-service, now called “professional growth” days. They’re nothing more than wasted time. During my tenure with Knox County Schools, I can think of only a couple of valuable in-service days. At the beginning of the year, most of them were spent in meetings as principals laid out the game plans or figured out some way to hold teachers hostage for the required time.

System-wide in-service days were less than important. In most instances, they were used to justify someone’s job. Too many years I spent re-writing course descriptions, even though they’d just been established a couple of years earlier. Two of the supervisors under which I worked had clues about what was important to teachers. The other two cared only about looking good for the bosses. The best meeting I ever attended devoted part of the time to Sam Venable, who spoke to English teachers about his high school teacher and her inspiration in his life. The only days of in-service should be a couple before students come so that teachers can prepare their rooms and lesson plans and a day at the end so the staff can turn in grades and shut down their classrooms for the summer.

Another thing the system can do to meet expectations is to re-work the calendar. If each semester must be 90 days, it should be easy to calculate when to begin and when to end. If school starts after Labor Day in 2013, students and staff could get out on December 20. They would return January 6 and be out of school for Thanksgiving and the following Friday during that part of the year. Students would be back in classes after Christmas break until June 7 and would be out of school on Good Friday.

At the same time, the school schedule should be re-worked to get rid of the extra 30 minutes that the state refuses to recognize as meeting the extra time spent in the classroom. Oh, I don’t want to hear any squalling about our schools needing to “exceed” the minimum. At the same time, the five built in snow days should be removed from the schedule. If one is used, the year can be extended at the end.

The best way to improve our schools comes not from adding days but from teaching our kids. That means systems need to put a stop to endless testing. The papers are filled with stories about test strategies, scores, and rankings. In the end, what a child scores on one test is more important than what he learns in the classroom. Teachers need to be able to teach without fear that low scores will threaten their jobs. How many in the community would place their fates in the hands of individuals ranging in age from 6-18?

Our legislators are making decisions on the educations of our children. A look at the committees in the state senate and house indicates that three members have no college degrees and only three have any experience in the field of education. How can they make such important decisions without having any experience with schools other than the time they attended or their children attend them?

I loved the time I spent teaching high school English. At the same time, I’m thankful that I retired after getting in my 30 years because schools don’t do what they once did. It’s a safe be that I wouldn’t survive in today’s environment. I just hope wiser folks begin making decisions on education.

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