How Would Educators Change School Structure?
By Brenda Álvarez
If you had the power to create a structure to maximize time in school what would it look like? Would you scrap the traditional nine-month calendar for a more balanced one? Would you lengthen the school day and the school year? Or, would you group students by ability, not by age? These were some of the ideas that circulated among hundreds of educators through the “VIVA (Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action) NEA Time in School Idea Exchange.”
NEA and VIVA engaged hundreds of educators from across the country to answer one question: “If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students at this moment of rapid change, what would the school day, week, and year look like?” Ideas and comments were exchanged and then collected, analyzed, and organized by seven NEA members, four of which recently presented their findings and recommendations to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
“For me, the idea to get teacher voices from multiple perspectives and experiences to influence education policy is transformational,” says Van Roekel. “The length of year may be part of the answer, but what do we do from the first to the last day of a student’s experience? The ideas and decisions have to be generated by the expertise and thoughts of teachers in the classroom.”
And that’s what the exchange on time represents: empowering educators to lead the discussion on changes to the educational system and coming up with solutions that best meet the needs of students.
The recommendations from the exchange are based on supporting instructional strategies that grow student engagement and increase the effective use of school time; solutions to improve the structure of the school day and year; and realistic approaches to implement these changes.
Seven actionable ideas were presented to NEA, and include, for example, the school calendar, which is based on an outdated agrarian schedule. The report suggests changing the traditional school calendar of 180 days—which features a 12-week summer break, trailed by about 70 school days, with the first break at Thanksgiving—with a more balanced calendar that reduces the long summer break and spreads those days throughout the year. This would result in more frequent breaks, fewer long periods of in-session days, and shorter vacations. This calendar is based on 180 days, too, but with the time distributed evenly.
A balanced approach to the school calendar has been shown in other countries to lessen the learning loss that occurs over the long summer break. For educators, extending the school day would provide more time to teach core subject areas and allow students to master content.
Educators also recommend grouping students by ability instead of age. As one participant of the NEA VIVA exchange expressed, “If I could redesign the school structure I would change this one-size fits all approach. To say all students at a certain age or grade level should be in the same place is ludicrous. Classrooms should be more developmental…When students are grouped by developmental levels teachers can better plan to meet their needs.”
Another suggestion points to medical research that shows the sleep patterns of high school students and how it naturally shifts toward later sleep and wake-up times. Educators participating in the exchange agree and support restructuring the school day so that activities and learning time take place when it’s developmentally appropriate for elementary, middle, and high school students. This provides students with a school day that meets the needs of their growth and biological development, and increases their ability to concentrate and retain information. It also lends to a reduction in tardiness, inattentiveness and truancy during first period.
The NEA members who digested the information represent the suggestions and comments of nearly 350 educators who spent hundreds of hours exchanging ideas about how to make better use of school time. This type of interaction is part of NEA’s initiative to prepare the next generation of teacher leaders and create concrete solutions for our nation’s public school students.
Take Josh Agpalza, one of the members who briefed Van Roekel. He explained that the idea exchange empowered him to insert his voice, share his expertise, learn from his colleagues, rethink and improve upon his ideas, and return to his school with options to improve his school community. In the world of education policy, many decisions are often made by people who have never stepped foot in a classroom and who look for a silver-bullet solution. But as most educators know, there’s always more than one answer to a problem.
“We should give multiple options to districts so that they have the autonomy to make the best decision for [their students],” says Agpalza, a Cambridge World History and AVID teacher at Federal Way High School in Washington State.
Prior to his involvement with the exchange, Agpalza thought about becoming an administrator so he could use his classroom knowledge to influence education policy. However, four years ago he was given 17 students who he says were “no ordinary students.”
“Many of their parents were in jail or lived in city parks. Today, 16 of the 17 have been accepted to a four-year institution, with $10,000 worth in scholarship money—this is what empowers me,” referring to his strong desire to remain a classroom teacher. “And then this pops up, which has allowed me to make change through the VIVA NEA process.”
Presenting with Agpalza were Anissa Emery, a teacher and counselor at Oscoda High School in northeast Michigan; Andrea Legett, a dance teacher in Colorado; and Joseph A. Medeiros, a retired educators from Massachusetts with 24 years of experience.