Missouri's School Calendar: What's Best for Kids?
Missouri’s School Calendar Bill
This week marks the start of a new school year for many across the state. When Governor Parson signed an education omnibus bill in July, Missouri’s school calendar moved into the spotlight. Among many changes, this new bill will prohibit school districts and charter schools from starting the school year more than 14 days before the first Monday of September, starting in the 2020-21 school year. Supporters of the bill say that this will give families an extra week of travel and increase the state’s revenue through tourism, while critics are concerned it takes away local autonomy. In addition, beginning with the current school year, schools are required to be in session for 1,044 hours rather than the previous mandate of 174 days and 1,044 hours.
Missouri’s Calendar in Context
Compared to other states, Missouri’s 174-day calendar is one of the shortest in the country. Only Minnesota, Idaho, Ohio, Oregon, and South Dakota have shorter school years.* Colorado and Kentucky both are in session for fewer days (160 and 170 respectively), but both require a greater number of minimum instructional hours than Missouri. Texas has the longest school year, requiring schools to be in session for at least 1,260 hours. The average number of days across states that have a minimum is 178, while the average minimum hours required is 1,035.
In prior years, Missouri schools with five day school weeks were required to be in session for 174 days and 1,044 hours. Starting this fall, there is no longer a required minimum number of days. Instead, schools need only be in session for 1,044 hours. When we compare the length of Missouri’s school year to others around the country and consider what research says regarding extended learning time, this new calendar presents several issues that could negatively impact instructional time.
Districts previously had the flexibility to start earlier if the board gave public notice. But, the new bill takes away that option and even goes so far as to say that districts found to be in violation of this new requirement will have one quarter of their state funding withheld. When we asked several superintendents in the state to share their thoughts on the bill, many pointed to this as a substantial overreach into a local issue.
Prior Research on Instructional Time
While concerns about state overreach are valid, losing time devoted to academics is undoubtedly a bigger concern with the new school calendar. Removing school days from the beginning of the school year decreases the number of days and the amount of time schools have to provide instruction and resources devoted to academics. Research from Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina has found that lengthening the school day and the school year have both had positive impacts on student learning. The study in Florida* found that lengthening school days from 6.5 to 7.5 hours while keeping the same number of days in school yielded more positive academic achievement for elementary students. In Wisconsin*, districts that had added more days in school had better academic outcomes compared to when schools were required to adjust their calendars to start after Labor Day. A separate study in North Carolina* found that extending the school year by 10 days was better for students, but that improving student attendance had a greater positive impact.
Missouri’s Road Ahead
We asked several superintendents how the new school calendar would affect their districts. Multiple leaders expressed concerns as to how this new calendar will impact student achievement and how to best ensure they are providing students with the necessary time for instruction. Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman told us there is a very real possibility that first semester final exams may get pushed back after the winter break. Sharonica Hardin of University City expressed a similar concern with what she described as figuring out how to best maximize instructional time prior to state testing and winter break. By moving finals after winter break, students would be tested following two weeks out of the classroom. One of the other concerns revolves around summer school, as extending the year a week later into the summer would force districts to contend with the July 4th break.
Many of Missouri’s districts and charter schools have yet to make their final decision on how to comply with the new calendar law. One solution is to add a week at the end of the year, which would effectively eliminate the benefit to the tourism industry. This solution of adding a week at the end of the year does not help, as schools will likely choose to focus more on the measures for which they are held accountable prior to the testing window. This option becomes more feasible if the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) chooses to move the state’s testing window back a week. If enough districts choose this route, it seems likely DESE would be responsive to ensure students are given the best opportunity to succeed.
One concern is that districts will not adjust their calendars to keep the same number of instruction days as they have currently. As Springfield Public Schools Superintendent John Jungmann pointed out, “[D]istricts may be tempted to reduce the number of days they serve students in order to ensure that school continues to end prior to Memorial Day.” For districts choosing to shorten their calendar, meeting the 1,044 hour requirement may require extending the school day throughout the year. However, how much will students gain in learning by adding just a few minutes to the end of the school day? Missouri schools choosing a shorter calendar with longer days would need to implement a substantial time increase to ensure students are getting any academic benefit.
Additionally, longer summer breaks could exacerbate summer learning loss. Since school districts and charter schools cannot require summer school, there would likely be more catching up schools have to do in the first few weeks of an already shortened school year. Not only that, but having fewer school days places a premium on student attendance. The North Carolina study shows that both lengthening the school day and improving student attendance lead to better student outcomes. If Missouri’s districts are having to pack more instructional time into each day of a shorter year, students who miss school will lose even more academically.
Districts and charter schools have a tough road ahead with their calendar decisions. The route they choose must consider the timing of state testing windows, decreasing potential summer learning loss, and providing enough instructional time to ensure students are getting the full academic experience, while simultaneously complying with the new law. Ultimately, it is vital that each district and charter school does what is best for their students.
* Massachusetts only requires 990 hours of instructional time, but must be in session for at least 180 days.
* Figlio, D., Holden, K. L., & Ozek, U. (2018). Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida's additional hour of literacy instruction. Economics of Education Review, 67, 171-183.
*Sims, D. P. (2008). Strategic responses to school accountability measures: It's all in the timing. Economics of Education Review, 27(1), 58-68.
* Aucejo, E. M., & Romano, T. F. (2016). Assessing the effect of school days and absences on test score performance. Economics of Education Review, 55, 70-87.