Wednesday, December 10, 2014

180 Days of Instruction... Are You Sure?

I am a history teacher at Central High School and methodically pace my classes. Frankly, I have no choice. There’s a lot of material to cover in World History. My curriculum and professional duties call for teaching students everything from the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of US hegemony – all in one academic year. It’s a daunting task but one that can be accomplished if I follow the rigorous pacing guideline I’ve set for myself during Pennsylvania's legally mandated 180 school days. This year, however, I’ve found myself falling further and further behind and I had no idea why… until I looked at the School District’s academic calendar.

For the 2014-15 academic year, the School District of Philadelphia has set aside an unprecedented 16 professional development half-days for high schools. Elementary school teachers have it worse and are burdened by a whopping 19 half-days. By comparison, in the 2013-14 academic year, high schools had 8 half-days and elementary schools had 11.

The vast majority of these new half-days are meant to roll out the state-of-the-art Harrisburg-mandated teacher improvement system, also known as the “SLO” in teaching circles. Incidentally, according to a recent poll of over 1000 teachers, only 9% believe the SLO process will improve their teaching. Even less, 6%, actually believe that the SLO process respects educators' professional knowledge and skills... but I digress.

The other six half days (9 for elementary schools) are meant to be parent-teacher conference days – during the workday from 12:00 to 3:00pm. (These are in addition to the two parent-teacher evenings we host each academic year.) Needless to say, hardly any parents are able to make it to these afternoon sessions because, wonder of wonders, they actually have to work. These days of even more squandered education end up being nothing more than a building full of teachers who wait for the parents that inevitably never arrive.

In addition to this wasted instructional time, Harrisburg has also mandated that we begin issuing standardized Keystone Exams (at a cost to local taxpayers of $176 million) to all high school students on a yearly basis. Last year, we were required to test students in three subjects, resulting in two more half-days per exam administration, for an additional total of 6. Eventually, Harrisburg has indicated they would like students to be tested in a total of 10 Keystone Exams, likely resulting in 20 more half-days by decade’s end.

Finally, the School District of Philadelphia is so technologically inept that it requires teachers to enter students’ final grades over a week before school is over. They claim that they need time to print report cards, send them to schools, and allow for teachers to hand them out. Every other district in the area either posts grades online or mails out the report card, but I guess Philadelphia needs to save on postage costs in order to pay for Superintendent Hite’s recent $30,000 raise. In 2014-15, this discrepancy between the time the online grading system shuts down (June 10th) and when students are still legally required to attend school in order to reach that threshold of 180 days (June 17th) will result in another 5 days of lost instruction.

In total, when one adds up the required SLO half-days, pointless mid-afternoon parent teacher days, mandated 3 Keystone Exam administrations, and lost end of the school year days, I am losing 22 half days and 5 full days of instruction. That is 16 days of lost instruction, or over 3 weeks of classes when students are not learning.

In fact, if the state has its way and instates all 10 Keystone Exams, I will soon be losing 23 days of instruction, or nearly 5 full weeks of precious time with students. An entire month of lost education… and for what?

As the School District’s contract negotiating team continues to demand that the members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers teach a longer school year, I have a demand of my own: Stop wasting my time with useless “professional development” half-days, standardized test administration, and bureaucratic incompetence. If not, then instead of analyzing why the Soviet Union collapsed and how the 21st century was shaped, my students will be left believing that the last major event on the world stage was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.