Increasing numbers of school districts across Washington are replacing full school days with partial days, with some districts scheduling one partial day every week on which students show up for class a couple of hours late -– or leave early.
Educators say the shorter school days allow teachers to complete required non-class work at a time when there is no money to pay teachers to do the work outside of school hours.
But education analyst Jami Lund said the uptick in partial days is driven by something else -– collective bargaining and districts willing to give up class time when there is no money for teacher raises.
“I don’t intend to discredit the importance of teachers working together and having professional development, but to put it into the student calendar and to carve it out of student time is the injustice that is alarming to me,” said Lund, who studies education policy for the conservative Freedom Foundation in Olympia.
Lund points to 2011 strike by Tacoma teachers over a nearly 2 percent pay cut. A document from the negotiations to resolve the strike shows that teachers countered the pay cuts with a demand to “Convert 4 full student days to 4 half days,” a step the document noted “...results in teachers working fewer hours in classroom for the same pay.”
“Instead of bargaining for raises, they are actually interested in the convenience and the lightness of the workload, so there is a gain for the employees if they can make their lives easier,” said Lund.
“It is not an attempt by teachers to work less,” said Mary Lindquist, who spent 35 years at the head of a classroom and is now president of the Washington Education Association.
“I don’t think anyone likes the increased loss of instructional time for kids, but it’s the only option we have when the state continues to underfund our schools,” said Lindquist, whose organization is the largest union representing teachers in the state.
Lindquist said districts and teachers are doing their best to manage deep budget cuts imposed by the state legislature. “Over the last couple of years they cut $2.6 billion,” she said.
Teachers need professional development time to learn new evaluation systems, develop new curriculum, discuss educational strategies and engage in other forms of collaboration, Lindquist said.
“It’s a matter of finding the time to do other critical work that supports student learning,” said Lindquist.
While the state requires teachers to participate in professional development activities, lawmakers cut the money once sent to districts to pay for it. Teachers no longer receive three days of state-funded time outside of the regular school year to meet the professional requirements.
The result, educators say, is that districts are forced to find room for professional training in their existing school calendars.
A partial day allows students to receive instructional time and counts toward the state-required 180-day school year. It also gives teachers time for professional development, either before students arrive or after early release.
But Lund said he questioned if all teachers are using that time as intended.
He pointed to a 2011 document from the Bellevue Education Association in which the Bellevue teacher’s union “rejects the proposal to allow the district or school leadership to direct the time on all Wednesdays” -- Bellevue’s weekly early release day.
“Who gets to tell the employee what to do during that time?” asked Lund.
Bellevue Education Association President Michele Miller told KING 5 that the language was included early in the contract negotiations and that teachers did not want the district directing all the professional time on early release Wednesdays.
Bellevue was one of the first school districts to institute a weekly early release day back in 2000, and it’s hard to argue with the district’s success. Earlier this month it was named to Newsweek’s coveted list of best high schools in America.
Other districts have following suit. Everett Schools has 38 early release days this year; Lake Washington School District has 42 shorter days; North Kitsap has 38 partial school days, plus a five-day state-approved “waiver” from the 180 day requirement. South Kitsap Schools have 49 partial school days each year.
South Kitsap Superintendent Beverly Cheney pointed out that there is much variation in the length of partial school days among districts.
She said the majority of her district’s 49 partial days are “late start Wednesdays” in which class is delayed by 45 minutes. She said those Wednesdays result in 25.5 hours of professional development and collaboration for teachers each school year.
Cheney said the early release days “provide time that results in enhancing instruction and increasing student achievement in South Kitsap.”
In Fife, Rachel Teodoro -- a classroom volunteer and parent of three students -- said the dozen half-days on the district's calendar can’t help but impact student learning.
“It’s very difficult for our kids to get anything done in that time,” said Teodoro. “I know how hard teachers work. I’m in the classroom on a regular basis.”
But she said she can’t help but wonder if there’s not a better way.
“What is it they are doing on these days? It’s almost as if they shoo-shoo the kids out because they’ve got more important things to do as adults,” Teodoro said.