BATES COUNTY, Mo. — Ever-increasing global competition in job markets and research fields has pumped up pressure on American schools to churn out smarter and better-prepared students. Some education experts advocate year-round schools. Others say we need longer school days. Some schools have even added Saturday classes.
But a growing number of school districts across the country are trying a different strategy. In fact, they’re going in a completely different direction. They’re taking Mondays off.
Students go longer Tuesday through Friday because they still must meet state minimums for classroom hours. And while they don’t attend class on Mondays, teachers do. They come in for staff development, lesson planning and technology training.
The idea is either horrible or innovative, depending on whom you ask. Critics say it adversely affects students’ education. Supporters say it makes teachers better. Students? A senior girl shrugged and said she was looking forward to sleeping in an extra day.
Officials in these four-day districts make no apologies and insist their students will hold their own against any elsewhere.
“Our ACT scores are the best they’ve been in 10 years, and our teachers love it,” said Chris Fine, superintendent of the Lathrop school district in Clinton County, which went to four days in 2010. It was the first district in Missouri to do so after the General Assembly passed legislation a year earlier.
Most of these are small, rural districts, such as Miami R-1, about an hour south of Kansas City. Its one school building, serving all grades, is surrounded by head-high corn this time of year.
The Missouri law came with the requirement that any district incurring substantial drop-offs in performance must go back to the traditional five days. It’s early, but no district has had to do that.
When states first agreed to four-day schedules, the reason was to help financially strapped small districts save money on transportation, support staff and utilities. Those savings turned out to be minimal, but that’s not why Miami switched this year.
“This is about making teachers better,” Superintendent Frank Dahman said earlier this month on opening day.
He is convinced that giving teachers those Mondays revs them up so they can do more with the new four than the old five.
“Ever since the beginning of time, we’ve placed demands on teachers and then not given them time to do it. With new requirements for development and new technology, those demands are going to increase. Giving them this day is what teachers have been screaming for for years,” Dahman said. “Better-prepared teachers means better students, and that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
No one knows for sure how many districts have gone to four-day schedules. The Education Commission of the States estimates the number at several hundred in 17 states — and going up.
It’s a big mistake, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based group that advocates more classroom time.
“The idea of narrowing the educational structure is absolutely the wrong direction,” Davis said. “We are at a critical point of education in this country. We need to be raising standards. We’re past the time of graduating from high school and getting a middle-class job. Those jobs are gone.
“Our kids are going to have to compete with the world. I can’t think that taking away a day of school is going to help.”
The debate is a touchy one for state education officials. They may not like the idea of four-day schools, but the format has been approved by states.
“We stay neutral, but it is the law,” said Roger Dorson, Missouri’s coordinator of school financial and administrative services.
It’s too early to give the system a grade, he said.
“Next year, we will know more.”