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Point of View: Bill could help lift Oklahoma student outcomes

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Joy Hofmeister
Joy Hofmeister

In Oklahoma, public education has momentum, propelled by last year’s historic $440 million investment in our teachers and classrooms. With that progress comes a responsibility try to lift student outcomes. Ample time for rich instruction and learning is critical to this discussion.

Oklahoma schools must provide 180 days or 1,080 hours of school each year. Local districts have the option to use an hours-based system to adapt to the needs of their community, provide collaborative time for teachers or make up snow days. Under this flexibility, some districts have shortened the school year to fewer than 140 days or operate on a four-day week.

Some districts originally decided to shrink their calendars into fewer, longer days in an effort to pinch pennies during an economic downturn. Many argue that the appeal of a four-day week, which in a state Department of Education 2017 analysis revealed minimal cost savings, has become routine in part because it's popular with educators and therefore helps districts retain or recruit teachers.

However, forcing the academic year into fewer, and longer, days with extended weekly gaps in instruction does not create an optimal learning environment. Any compressed schedule can inhibit the flow and pace of instruction and limit opportunities for teachers to reinforce learning or academic momentum. Moreover, abbreviating the school year exacerbates student learning gaps year-over-year, especially for our most vulnerable learners. And, in Oklahoma where 61 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals, a truncated school year only increases the developmental impact and consequences of food insecurity.

Researchers in Denmark have determined that increasing instruction time benefits student learning, particularly when coupled with highly effective instructional methods. Extending the school day, the study concluded, can be counterproductive for children, for whom self-control is a finite resource.

A compressed school calendar also exacerbates summer slide — academic learning and achievement lost between school years. The most pronounced negative impacts are on children with challenges like poverty or disability. Moreover, summer slide stalls progress and forces teachers to spend more time at the beginning of the school year reteaching lost learning.

To be nationally competitive, we must consider a better way. Under Senate Bill 441, districts would retain the flexibility to convert 180 days to 1,080 hours but must spread that over a minimum of 165 days. Under this framework, local education authorities would still be able to make adjustments to fit their community needs and even seek a waiver by demonstrating kids are progressing and cost-savings are realized.

We must offer our children every advantage toward our common goal of lifting student outcomes. The way forward builds on last year’s investment in our schools and teachers. SB 441 will help us get there.

Hofmeister is Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction.

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