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Op-Ed: The Garden State’s Illusive 180-Day School Year

New Jersey statute mandates students attend school for 180 days each year, but everything from fire drills to teacher conferences can whittle that figure down

Marc Gaswirth
Marc Gaswirth

While instructional time is essential to student achievement, its importance in practice is often marginalized much to the detriment of students who need more of it.

While the relationship between teacher effectiveness and student learning has been subject to extensive research, little discussion has centered on the time actually dedicated to instruction.

Each year, the state Department of Education collects voluminous sums of data from the state’s nearly 600 school districts and produces annual performance reports for each school district and school. Enrollment, student test results and achievement, high school graduation rates, teacher evaluation ratings, teacher-student ratios, and socioeconomic factors are among the many data points included.

There is even information on the length of the school day and the instructional day for each public school in the state. The school day is calculated based on the start and end time for a typical student at each school and averages about six and one-half hours. The instructional day — the time the student is receiving instruction from a certificated teacher — is at least one hour shorter. The difference or the nonteaching time occurs immediately before or after the regular school day, during student transition time between subjects, and while students are at lunch or recess.

Falling below 180 full days

A critical item not in the state data bank is the total amount of instructional time this student receives during the 180-day mandated school year. It may surprise many that this student — for all sorts of reasons, including his or her own absences — will get far less learning time than the law envisions, in some cases as few as 140 full-days of instruction.

Why, and what causes, this discrepancy where students get substantially less instruction than expected? The reasons are statutory, contractual, and local in origin.

Complying with numerous state laws and regulations requires school districts to set aside considerable content-related instructional time, for example, to test students’ academic progress, conduct fire and school-safety drills, and provide mandated school employee training on topics such as student suicide prevention, child abuse and neglect, and drug and alcohol abuse. Additional training protocols frequently compel school boards to schedule several one-session days — each usually scheduled for only a minimum of four hours to satisfy the state definition of a full school day. Other legal mandates pull teachers away from their regular duties to attend meetings affecting students with disabilities or other emergent needs, or require students to leave their classrooms for sundry non-academic services.

Labor contracts frequently call for abbreviated schooldays before major holidays or vacation periods, or when teachers attend evening parent-teacher conferences or back-to-school night. They liberally grant various forms of paid leave, including sick, personal, professional, family illness and bereavement days, which are largely left out of the formula used by the state to determine the rate of teacher absenteeism, which would otherwise be far higher. Some labor agreements might require unused inclement weather days to be deducted from the teachers’ work year.

Diverting students from regular tasks

School-sponsored activities further reduce the amount of instruction offered by diverting students from their regular tasks to prepare for or attend assemblies, practice and perform in plays or musical events, or participate in graduation rehearsals and field days, to name just several. While those events are seen as an indispensible part of the traditional school experience, they nonetheless take away large portions of critical teaching time. So do delayed school openings or early school closings and, as is often the case in June, the approaching end of the school year.

Identifying the problem of lost learning time is far easier than addressing and recovering it. With a state Legislature reluctant to relax existing budget caps, and property owners even more unwilling to support higher local taxes to support increased personnel costs, little is likely to change anytime soon.

Still, education policymakers and practitioners should feel impelled to examine ways of recapturing sorely missed instructional time when schools are in session. These include reassessing and curbing excessive mandates; avoiding or removing burdensome contractual provisions while adding those that increase learning time; and reassessing the value of certain school district practices inimical to the interests of students. Along with these steps, let’s not forget to explore the expanding and creative uses of technology, in which students are guided to learn outside the regular school environment, the disjointed structure of the annual school calendar, and the current efficacy and efficiency of the school day itself. Let the discussion start soon, and in earnest.

Marc Gaswirth is a former assistant superintendent with the Marlboro Township school district. Since his retirement, he has served in various interim administrative positions, taught aspiring administrators, and consulted, especially in the area of school personnel administration.

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