Making up for lost time

February 21, 2003

MARYLAND EDUCATORS should have paid attention to the almanacs, which predicted a wicked winter. Even before last weekend's mess, Baltimore City's school year had been extended to June 24, Prince George's to June 23. For thousands of Maryland children and their parents, Independence Day might take on new meaning.

All 24 districts have used up the "snow days" built into their schedules after a mild and largely snowless winter of 2002. Having failed to plan for the worst, some of the districts no doubt will be requesting waivers from the state Board of Education, which is likely to grant them only for instructional time lost during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s declared state of emergency. Days lost beyond that will have to be made up - and there's plenty of winter left.

The strategy for making up snow days should be to do what's educationally best. It seems more cruel, for example, to cut into the six-day spring vacation than to tack days on to the end of the school year. But extending in June is more harmful. Any teacher knows the few days before summer vacation are wasted, especially in hot, humid weather. Making up snow days in April allows more time to prepare for the new Maryland high school exams and Advanced Placement tests in May and June. And for every family that has to cancel a trip to Disney World in April, there's one that has a vacation planned in June.

One reason U.S. students lag behind European and Asian peers in math and science is that they spend less time in school - 20 to 40 fewer days than kids in nations like Japan that lead the world in international comparisons. On top of that, U.S. schools don't take advantage of opportunities to better use the time allotted for instruction.

A couple of years ago, Maryland districts got the option of scheduling by hours instead of days. Elementary and middle schools must give 1,080 hours of instruction (six hours a day for 180 days). Washington County wisely plans to add minutes to each day as a cushion against the weather emergency. As of the latest storm, the county had the earliest summer dismissal date in the state, June 5, while other districts were simply extending the school year.

Educators also could reduce the number of full days scheduled for teachers' "professional development." A well-planned two-hour seminar at the end of a school day can be as effective as an all-day session in a distant junior high school auditorium - while students get still another day off.

It's an art, this business of using time wisely and making up for time lost. Maryland districts have yet to perfect it.

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