Recently, the Manatee County School Board voted 4-1 to bring back early release Wednesdays, a program that had been a bust when the district used it weekly for five years between 2007-12. Given, so far it's only been approved for once a month use and under a new administration that has recognized many of the issues that had hampered it previously. Nonetheless, the district will have its work cut out for it in proving that such a disruption to the education schedule will pay dividends.
This is a policy that I have consistently opposed (click here for a 2011 column and here for one from 2012). The fundamental problem with releasing students early is ensuring that the abbreviated schedule does not end up blowing so much useful instruction time and disrupting the retention cycle to such an extent that all of the professional development you could ever accomplish in its place becomes moot.
This challenge seems seems to be exacerbated when the early-release occurs mid-week. Educators have long said that Mondays and Fridays tend to be the least productive learning days, as teachers must focus students' attentions as they return from the weekend and then hold it as they are checking out prior to embarking on the next one.
As such, mid-week is thought to be the most productive learning time. On days of early release, all classes remain on the schedule, but are shortened. Because students must still get a lunch, much of the day is hampered by logistics. While most students treasured getting cut loose early, they also consistently complained that the days were a waste. Most teachers don't give tests on early-release days, and because most of the holidays and in-service days fall on Monday and Friday, the policy tended to create a lot of weeks in which multiple disruptions occurred.
It bears mentioning that an even bigger problem with the policy was the lack of results in terms of quality professional development. Recently-hired Superintendent Rick Mills quickly acknowledged in his initial assessment of the district that there existed a woeful lack of focused training, starting with an absence of metrics that would track need areas, and ending – not surprisingly – with an absence of focused training which addressed them.
I have no doubt that dynamic will improve, if only because it's finally been observed. But whether employing an unorthodox schedule can really pay off, I'm not so sure. Ostensibly, the policy is largely intended to help get teachers ready for the new common core standards and it was suggested at the meeting where the policy was approved that doing so entirely in the summer – prior to the standards being implemented – would be cost prohibitive. That's unfortunate.
Being that the policy was loathed by many parents and teachers, and polling had been included before it was pulled, the fact that it was a late addition to the agenda in the first meeting after students broke for the summer also seemed amiss. When controversial issues are handled this way, it gives the impression they are being flown beneath the radar and many of the board members who voted in its favor have long complained of such tactics when they were on the other end of an issue.
The current administration didn't create the financial mess that they now have to work within, but unlike other cuts, this is a change that impacts the classroom, unless you believe that adding seven more truncated days to the school year can be offset by improving teacher performance during that time. I genuinely hope that can be achieved, but like a lot of other parents and tax payers, I'm again wondering why we can't somehow manage to accomplish professional development training without profoundly altering our learning schedule – as so many other districts do.