Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Administrators Screwed Up, So the Kids Pay the Price? Yeah, That Makes Sense...

A week ago, I was celebrating the beginning of summer (at least from an academic point of view); this week, I'm feeling really bad for some kids whose summer won't get to start for a long, long time.

This may be the most unbelievable story in education so far this year: Kids at two California elementary schools are losing a huge chunk of their summer break because some administrators messed up the calendar:
A bureaucratic boondoggle in the western San Bernardino County, California school district will cost the students their summer breaks -- the schools inadvertently introduced a school-time shortfall amounting to two school days' worth of instruction time over the entire school year. Due to a quirk of regulation, they have to keep the schools in session for an extra thirty four days or lose $7 million in funding.
Yeah, I'd call that a "quirk" all right. So what exactly happened here? Read on:
Students at each school exceeded the state's requirement of at least 54,000 minutes of annual classroom time, but the problem arose in the district's minimum days. Schools typically have one shortened day per week, allowing teachers to use the remaining time for planning and parent conferences. Under state law, these days must be at least 180 minutes, and the daily average classroom time over 10 consecutive days must be 240 minutes.

An internal audit in early May discovered that 34 minimum days had been 175 minutes at Dickson and 170 at Rolling Ridge, said district spokeswoman Julie Gobin. That adds up to a shortage of 170 and 340 minutes, respectively, which could be made up in one or two school days.
So far, it sounds reasonable enough; just tack those two days onto the end of the year, and it's doubtful that anyone is any worse for wear. (We had an extra day tacked onto the end of the year in the district where I teach to make up for a bad weather day.)

But sadly, their state law isn't nearly that logical:
But under state law, these too-short days do not count at all, meaning that all 34 must be made up to avoid a state penalty of more than $7 million.
Now hang on a minute. This tells me two things right away: 1) The California legislature is very bad at math if they think that 2 = 34, and 2) Nobody in that "august" group has ever taught before. (And this time, "august" has the double meaning of being the date when these kids' summer will finally begin.)

You can tell that teachers didn't write that law. Imagine grading a semester's worth of tests that way. Teaching 175 out of a possible 180 minutes would be the equivalent of making a 97 on a test. What the legislature is saying is pretty much this: "OK, you missed three points on that test, so the entire test doesn't count now, and you're going to have to make the whole thing up." Imagine how long a teacher like that would last in the profession.

And I know--the legislators aren't teachers, but they should try to think like teachers when making laws that affect the schools. A state department of education spokesperson notes in the linked article that the law is as punitive as it is so that districts won't be tempted to cheat the system, but an unintended consequence like this one shows a hole in this law big enough to drive a Mack truck through; hopefully, the legislators will do the right thing and plug that hole in their next session. (UPDATE: In reading an L.A. Times article on the subject, I see that the legislature is indeed trying to work out a relief measure for the district, but it's not clear whether that means a change in the law itself or just the necessary funds to keep the buildings open and pay staff through the extra period.

Read the whole thing; the comments generally tilt in favor of the poor students who are paying for the adults' mistake, though some year-round school advocates are more forgiving to the whole idea. But it's one thing to have year-round school on the schedule, and quite another to have this thrust upon the kids (and their families) at the last minute. (And according to an L.A. Times article on the subject, blame for the missing minutes was placed on an "associate superintendent for the district, who is retiring this year." Way to own up, guys.

And one commenter posts a great quote from a pundit with his head in the right place:
“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”
-Thomas Sowell
Well said. And all the more reason that nobody should be allowed to be a bureaucrat for more than a short portion of one's career, and they should be the first ones let go in a financial crisis.

I'll close with the words of another anonymous poster at the linked article: "Have recess the whole day. That'll show 'em."

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