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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Time to Learn: Revisiting the School Calendar Debate

The nine-month school calendar that emerged over a century and a half ago has proven resistant to change. It remains the predominant organizational structure within which learning takes place today, despite significant social, economic, and cultural changes over the past century that could have resulted in alternate ways to structure time for learning. Still, most school districts continue to organize learning around a 180-day, 6-hour school calendar, with summers as a period of limited or no district-sponsored learning activities.

One explanation for the present school year is that it follows the 19th-century agrarian calendar, freeing up youth to work on farms during the summer months. Other explanations include the notion that children should not be exposed to the discomfort of early 20th-century, factory-like, non-air-conditioned school buildings in the summer.

Missing from these explanations for a nine-month calendar, however, are discussions that focus directly on student learning and achievement, which should be at the forefront of conversations focused on schooling. The propensity to naysay an alternate or modified school calendar routinely includes an array of non-achievement-based concerns. Issues such as family vacations, costs, use of facilities, extracurricular activities, teacher and administrator stress, and even the summer-recreation industry too often enjoy parallel positions of importance.

Students in the U.S. spend fewer days in school than their counterparts in many industrialized countries. In Japan, for example, students attend school 243 days a year, and academic learning does end not once the school day is over. The school day is extended, as many students attend Juku, which are privately run afterschool services that primarily focus on academic subjects, although some provide tutoring in the arts and sports.

Public schools involved in extended learning time efforts provide a U.S. version of a Juku – albeit one that is public and available to all students. They recognize that the amount and quality of time does influence learning, and their efforts result in improved learning and achievement for a number of children. Even though extended learning programs may primarily focus on low-performing, high-poverty schools, given the international achievement gap, all schools should keep a close eye on the success of these schools.

Extension to the school day is important, but extension to the school year is important as well. Research suggests that not only do achievement gaps develop when children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are away from school, but the rate of these gaps accelerates during the summer months. Comparable achievement occurs during the school year for children from both backgrounds. During periods away from school, however, skills for children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds continue to grow, while no such advances occur for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Evidence suggests that modified calendars have a positive impact on achievement for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus should remain a viable option for schools seeking to improve achievement for students living in low socioeconomic environments.

 Clearly, a structure for learning is needed that restores our stature as a well-educated nation and contributes to our ability to be a major player on the global economic playing field. Just as important, we need to provide enough time for learning so that young people have an education that allows them to grow into competent and confident adults able to choose how to live their lives. Holding on to a rigid traditional school calendar seems imprudent when viewed in light of such goals. Historically, supplemental schooling experiences to the nine-month calendar have existed. The time is ripe to flip the arrangement, so that the traditional calendar becomes supplemental to more effective arrangements of time for learning.

Tagline - Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. He may be contacted at

The Impact of Educational Entrepreneurship on Traditional Public Education

What if there were total free markets in education in the United States, and traditional public education systems as we know them today did not exist? Education would be a product for sale, just like any other product on the U.S. market. The idea may be mindboggling, but many education entrepreneurs would likely see an opportunity that fits with their vision of how education systems ought to work. With such an opportunity unavailable, they must be content to effect change in education by working within the current system.

Education entrepreneurs are driven by the belief that public education organizations are agricultural- and industrialization-era bureaucratic entities, far too enmeshed in familiar operational customs and habits to lead the innovation and transformation needed for schools today. They see themselves as change agents who are able to visualize possibilities. They want to serve as catalysts for change that will deliver current public educational systems from a status quo that results in unacceptable educational outcomes for too many children. Social entrepreneurs have focused on transforming education for the underserved, to include children from low socioeconomic backgrounds and children of color – groups that have not been well served by the traditional public education system. It is important to note that education entrepreneurs do not see themselves as merely improving education – for them; improvement would be a byproduct of the larger goal of transforming the system of public education in the U.S.

The question then becomes: how do visionaries propose to influence a system that has seen no significant large-scale change for decades? The efforts of education entrepreneurs are evident in ventures such as charter schools, Teach for America teacher preparation efforts, and the preparation of principals through the New Leaders for New Schools project. On the surface, based on these projects, it may appear that traditional school systems and education entrepreneurs are engaged in the same kind of work.

In fact, education entrepreneurs and traditional educators view the world of education from two radically different perspectives. Aspects of the public education system are severely resistant to change. Our schools’ dependency on other organizations for resources and other types of support has caused them to be a reflection of these organizations, rather than units able to maintain discernible levels of independence. Existing resources do not restrict thinking among education entrepreneurs, nor are they beholden to any particular organization for support. This status ostensibly frees them to consider unlimited possibilities for K-12 education.

Another interesting difference between education entrepreneurs and traditional educators is the manner in which accountability is perceived. Education entrepreneurs likely view accountability from a customer-provider perspective, while educators, given the fact that they exist in bureaucratic structures, likely view accountability from a superior-subordinate perspective. Education entrepreneurs may speak of having an impact on the lives of children as a result of individual actions, and that the actions of a critical mass of entrepreneurial organizations will result in systemic change. Educators may speak of accountability in terms of meeting expected outcomes handed down from another organization.
Education entrepreneurs propose that educators are too entrenched in the day-to-day business of school operations to be forward thinking about possibilities for K-12 education, and most education researchers appear disinterested in investigating practical solutions to problems within the system. In fact the education entrepreneurial opinion of traditional education seems to fall somewhere between frustration and disdain. There is a sense of urgency among education entrepreneurs for radical transformation that results in improved performance outcomes, particularly when it comes to children who have not been served well by public education systems. The lack of ongoing and prompt action by public education systems leads some entrepreneurs to conclude that public education systems either do not feel the same urgency, or, if they do, that the very nature of the system renders them incapable of putting effective changes in action.

Perhaps the larger question is whether or not two systems (i.e., public education systems and education entrepreneurship) with different approaches to accomplishing an end, a fair amount of mistrust (and perhaps a lack of mutual respect), and different visions of how organizations ought to work, can come together to work toward the improvement of the educational system. Partnerships that have been formed by public school systems and education entrepreneurs are evidence of a brand of customized education that appears to be acceptable to both. As long as public schools systems believe they won’t be totally enveloped by education entrepreneurs, a workable and innovative model for public education may evolve.

Tagline - Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. He may be contacted at

School Reform on a Budget

A major mistake made by reform groups is to table educational reform efforts because the expenditure does not fit into the school budget. If children are America’s most precious commodity and the focal point of the nation’s educational system, then the lack of funding is no excuse to forgo reform efforts. Many school reform efforts are cost-effective and can be implemented by resourceful educators. When there is a lack of money, reform is contingent upon the faith and commitment level of the faculty and staff.  Money should not be wasted on model programs and unsubstantiated trends. Reform groups will have to work diligently and efficiently to implement the chosen reform efforts properly and effectively.

When school reform is needed and schools have limited resources, spending money on curriculum can be intimidating. The curriculum chosen will need to be a good fit for both teachers and students. Math and reading should be the first concern, because they are the building blocks for other subject areas, as well the most frequent measure of future success. Success in these two areas bode well for success in other subjects at all grade levels.

Teachers’ professional development is a key factor for successful school reform as well. When analyzing reform budgets, it is important to set aside money to hire teachers with the ability to create and teach in-service professional development programs. The ability to train the staff and educators internally will save the school money, and will give the teacher/expert a feeling of usefulness. For instance, a teacher with 30 years of experience and a demonstrated ability to obtain amazing results from her specific teaching strategies might create a professional development seminar to share her expertise. This saves the school an enormous amount of money, and saves the administrator the trouble and cost of hiring a consultant. Another low-cost/no-cost option is to hire professors from neighboring colleges and universities to provide professional development services to your district as a form of community service or to fulfill requirements to obtain or maintain tenure.

In the end, schools operating with limited funds to support reform efforts will need to be both resourceful and creative in order to effect positive change. Forward thinking leaders, committed and imaginative teachers, and a supportive community can contribute to change that improves the educational experiences of our children.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Ruminations on Teacher Pay and High Stakes Testing

There is a tendency for American teachers to be treated like factory workers. They receive little recognition, a meager salary, and their training after hire consists of professional development that rarely fosters much growth. Since a mediocre teacher earns the same salary as a high-quality teacher, there is little monetary incentive to strive to become an excellent educator. In addition, No Child Left Behind holds teachers entirely responsible for their students’ performance on state achievement tests, regardless of the many variables that influence students’ performance on these tests. For example, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prepare a sixth grade student reading at a second grade level to perform well on a state achievement test. It is no wonder that standardized testing has caused schools and teachers to panic.

Generally, students’ performances on tests are considered to be directly attributable to the instruction they receive from their regular teachers. Many teachers lose their jobs every year because of poor standardized test scores. Our current educational assessment system refuses to take into account all extraneous variables that lead to educational gaps among our students. For instance, some teachers may end up having mostly high achieving, well-behaved students in their classrooms, while other teachers may consistently have classrooms with low achieving students, students with special needs, and students who exhibit behavior problems. In the case of the latter, it seems unfair to hold teachers accountable for the shortcomings of their students’ abilities. Even the best teachers are not miracle workers.

The sad reality of education is that some children do not have the ability to achieve standards within the time periods set by of NCLB. Teachers should be held accountable for students’ test performance; but the focus of that accountability should be a teacher’s ability to improve student’s test scores based on the student’s level of achievement when he/she enters the teacher’s classroom. For example, a student who is well below the expected level of proficiency at the beginning of the school year may not reach the expected proficiency level at the end of the school year, but they may show significant improvement. This is a better measure of a teacher’s effectiveness and their ability to impact student learning.  
In addition to concerns about job security, low compensation, and student performance on high stakes test, teachers must also worry about subpar principals who are overcompensated for the successes of teachers. Although administrators deserve to be fairly compensated for their work, their pay does not seem equitable compared to that of teachers. If administrators are to be compensated fairly for the job performed, then teachers, too, should be fairly compensated.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Making a Commitment to Educational Change

Substantial educational change will never occur until we as a country decide that enough is enough and make a commitment to change, no matter what it takes. When America realizes all children deserve a stellar education regardless of who their parents are, their socioeconomic status or where they happen to live, we will be able to reform our education system. Americans have to stop treating minority students in underperforming urban environments like collateral damage. The disheartening reality is that America has billions of dollars to fight a two-front war, but cannot or will not properly educate its children. If a hostile country attacked the U. S., it would take less than 24 hours for American troops to be mobilized into battle. However, we seem unable to mobilize a sea of educated teachers and administrators to wage war against academic mediocrity, which is a bigger threat to our national security than Iran or North Korea.

Over the last century, many reform movements have come and gone, but in the end, it seems, there have been no substantial changes. Some might even believe the American educational system is now worse off than ever. From Bush’s NCLB to Obama’s Race to the Top, presidents have shown an inability to tackle the real issues of education reform. Reform is primarily used as campaign rhetoric, and when it comes time to take real action, the politicians simply unveil a grandiose plan with all the bells and whistles amounting to a dog and pony show.

America’s schools were originally intended to ensure that all citizens were literate. The founding purpose for American schools has long been obsolete, and Americans must have the courage to realize that in order for us to remain a world power, we must institute change. The risks have never been greater: the future of our country and its children is at stake.

Education reform is possible, but it depends on what the nation is willing to do to achieve its educational goals. Will America develop and pass effective educational legislation aimed at creating viable solutions to the problem at hand? Or will America continue to develop legislation, such as No Child Left Behind, that operates under the fallacy that 100% of our students will be proficient in their core subjects by 2014? The bar for education should be set higher, but there has to be exceptions and differentiated goals in order to effectively accommodate all the differences among teachers, students, administrators, and school cultures.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Community Engagement as an Impetus for School Reform

Teachers and school administrators have to realize that in order for reform to pay dividends, it must be fully embraced by the local district and community. One of the biggest impediments to school reform is the failure to create an environment that nurtures and sustains school improvement. Districts must show fidelity to school reform as if it were a symbiotic relationship. Effecting change in the behavior of teachers and administrators, while necessary, is inadequate. All stakeholders have to be fully committed to making school reform a community effort. Not all community members have to agree with proposed or recently implemented reforms, but they have to be reasonable and adult enough to agree that something needs to change to improve education in the community. In the case of districts where students are struggling, most detractors change their minds once they realize that conflict will not be beneficial to student learning. Ultimately, no one in the community wants to see American children fail.

Schools will change only if the vision of school reform and improvement is alluring enough to entice the buy in of the majority of teachers and other staff.  They have to recognize that success is possible. Schools needing effective change must have leaders who can motivate and inspire the teachers to implement instructional school reforms with confidence and diligence. The result will be a cadre of educators diligently working to reach their potential, and in turn fostering the academic achievement of their students. Educators should not have to be bribed into working harder in order to facilitate reforms that benefit students; rather, if educators are enticed by a provocative reform plan and a strong and knowledgeable reform leader, they should become passionate enough to successfully implement the reform

Whenever educational reform is attempted, the community should be educated concerning the problems facing the school district and the solutions proposed by school leaders to ameliorate them. When a community is kept in the loop and made an integral part of the reform process, community members begin to take ownership. A cadre of committed community members can provide important input into the needs and desires of the community. All communities have needs for enhancements, and whenever possible, schools should help students improve the community in which they live. Most civic-minded citizens know they have the right to participate in the educational process, and they will do everything legally and politically to exercise their rights. Without a school-community partnership, it will be difficult or impossible for genuine school reform to take place. In some respects, community members are the investors and stockholders of schools. After all, the community’s tax dollars pay the teachers, administrators, and staff’s salary.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at

Barriers to Implementing School Reform

Desire and knowledge of how to effect change should be the cornerstones of school reform. Administrators who possess both qualities are more likely to succeed when implementing change. They also possess the ability to focus on aspects of education they can change, and disregard insignificant issues. At the same time, they should also be keenly aware of barriers that impede progress toward change in the teaching and learning environment. The lack of sustainability in educational change, influences outside of the school environment, and personnel who are resistant to change are among the obstacles that interfere with continued implementation of school reform.

Positive change can be achieved in any school district. Building capacity to sustain educational change however is difficult. Effective assessment is a catalyst for continued improvement. The ability of schools to maintain changes brought about through reform rely on ongoing analysis of data collected from agreed-upon evaluations. When administrators analyze data and formulate decisions as to whether or not school reform was successful and ongoing, they must take into account all evidence that can be analyzed. Not all evidence can be collected from standardized tests however. Data pertinent to reform efforts can also be collected from classroom observations, authentic evaluations/learning, and student surveys. In this sense, the role of teachers in data collection efforts can never be minimized. Teachers need effective professional development focused on innovative modes of assessments used as essential components of reform efforts.

As administrators analyze obstacles to school reform, they should consider influences outside of school. Situations in children’s homes and communities sometimes create distractions in the classroom. When teachers have to address non-school issues, they lose valuable teaching time, which in turn negatively impacts the learning process. Although schools work with children for a considerable portion of the day, children return to their families and communities when the school day ends. Children today face a multitude of issues once they leave the school building. Even children from middle-class and upper-middle-class homes may not always have ideal family situations. In order for any child to learn, their basic needs must be met. It is difficult for students to concentrate on schoolwork when they are dealing with the effects of physical or verbal abuse, tension in the home, homelessness, or poor nutrition. While outside factors such as these are not directly captured by assessments, the existence of these problematic issues should be considered when analyzing standardized test data.

Communication with and the support of faculty and staff are essential before any school district embarks upon the long process of school reform. Disagreement is fine, and can be constructive, but in order to continuously improve, the majority of a district’s faculty and staff have to support reform. The process of consensus building is difficult, and district leaders have to work hard to build the level of consensus necessary to move forward with reform. Many employees will naturally feel stressed about upcoming changes, and will need to trust and respect the administrators leading the reform efforts. 

Change is difficult. Administrators should anticipate that there will staff who are resistant to change. While a dissenting minority staff cannot be allowed to impede the improvement processes, administrators cannot simply deal with discontent by ignoring it and/or by asserting their authority. They must make a conscientious effort to clearly articulate their vision of successful school reform. Malcontents should be given the opportunity to express their fears and frustrations to the administration. At the same time, administrators should use caution to ensure that all complaints are stated in a professional manner so as not to discourage others. There may be times when a teacher feels upset over a diminutive detail that can easily be cleared up. When taking criticism from concerned educators, administrators must recognize genuine concerns and fear, and consider all suggestions.

School reform is as much about ensuring that a forward thinking and motivated teaching force is in place, as it is about making procedural changes that foster continuous improvement. Administrators who put data driven and innovative practices in place, attend to outside of school influences on school change, and engage in the work to include teachers in the process of change increase the possibility that a boost in the academic performance of American youth will occur.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at