Thursday, March 04, 2010

Dealing with Waivers

By Marc Korman.

On February 23rd the State Board of Education announced a process to allow school systems to receive a waiver from the requirement that they be open for 180 days. Here’s how I think the State Board of Education should determine what counties to grant waivers to.

State law sets the minimum length of the school year at 180 days or 1,080 hours (MD ANN CODE EDUC § 7-103 if you are interested in looking it up). Based on data collected last decade, only six states require a longer school year than Maryland: DC, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, and Ohio. Of course, we have a shorter school than many other countries.

When there are unforeseen circumstances, such as three massive snow storms, it gets a lot more difficult for the schools to meet the requirement. During my Montgomery County Public Schools days, there were multiple years that days were tacked on to the end of the school year or the school day was lengthened to meet the legal requirement despite the snow. Montgomery County is actually better positioned than many others because it builds four excess days into the calendar in case of snow or other emergencies.

Given the weather pounding the state has endured, the state school board is allowing school systems to apply for a waiver from the requirement. State law says a local school board can submit an application describing “a demonstrated effort…to comply” with the requirement. The State Board is authorized to adjust the length of the school year, allow the school year to go beyond 10 months, adjust the length of the school day, or keep schools open on holidays. The impression the State Board has left is that they will allow a shortened school year.

Although waivers have not been approved yet, it appears that the State Board is showing an uncharacteristic amount of flexibility. It would have been nice if the State Board had acted this way when Montgomery County, no slouch in supporting public schools, sought a maintenance of effort waiver. But perhaps the Board learned that strictly applying rules with no consideration of extenuating circumstances or context does not make a lot of sense.

At the risk of angering school children everywhere, I believe when accepting waivers from the school day requirement, the School Board should ask for something in return. Both the Gazette and Washington Post reported on entrepreneurial teachers and students who used online discussion boards and email to continue teaching and learning during the blizzards. Although the assignments were optional, most students participated in the programs covered by the press.

When accepting waiver applications, the State Board should ask local school systems to report on the use of online education programs during the past few months, how good the participation was, and what steps are being taken to encourage those programs going forward.

There will be lots of kinks to work out. For example, although many students have online access at home, not everyone does. In addition, during the snow storm thousands of County residents lost power and could not participate in online activities even if they had an Internet connection. That may mean it will be impossible to require online work during school cancellations. However, schools should still be encouraging this type of innovative activity particularly when schools are closed for more than a day. Both teachers and students need that time.

The Board of Education can show some welcome flexibility and allow schools to shave days or hours off their requirement. But in exchange, they should be learning how school’s minimized the storm’s impact on education and how they will work to do so in future circumstances. New Internet based tools make those efforts much easier.