Zócalo: An education budget with no class

Written by
Photo by Chris Campbell

As summer vacation wanes, I begin printing out blank calendar pages, August through June—one set for my sophomore English honors classes, another set for my print and broadcast journalism classes. I fill in the squares with cryptic reminder notes: “grading policy,” “writing a thesis,” “reading log,” “public speaking,” etc. But I no longer need to write up detailed daily lesson plans. With 23 years of experience, I know in my head what I’m going to teach, how I’m going to teach it, and how long each piece of each lesson is going to take.

So when I look at the new school calendar and see two fewer days of teaching because of budget cuts, I can tell exactly how much students will be short-changed. It’s not just two days. It’s also lessons not taught, stories not read, journals not written.

The shorter school year has become a bad habit, particularly in California, where I teach in the Glendale Unified School District. Once a day here and a week there get lopped off the school calendar, it gets easier and less headline-worthy to remove even more days and more weeks. That’s what authorities now do when a financial crisis arises, and it seems like there there’s a financial crisis every year.

In America, until the latest cuts, we taught kids for 180 days a year, or 49 percent of the calendar year. That already put us behind. In other countries, young people attend school for 200, even 220, days a year. That’s as much as two months’ worth of additional instruction. Recent studies of New York City schools showed that a longer school year improved student achievement. One district in Arizona that lengthened its school year saw an increase in students passing tests—from 51 to 65 percent.

But now, having already started behind, American schools are losing more ground. When 80 percent of a district’s expenditures go to paying for teachers and staff and administrative personnel, the quickest way to cut a school district’s budget is to decrease the numbers of days these people work. With state budgets shrinking, more and more districts are whittling away at the traditional 180-day schedule.The Los Angeles Unified School District, second-largest in the country after New York City, has already cut out one week. It’s proposing to eliminate three more. The school year will be shorter across the state if Propositions 30 and 38, two ballot initiatives to raise taxes temporarily, lose in November.

Such a loss of instructional time would translate, in my teaching, to at least one great American novel not studied, one less student newspaper issue published, or a handful of weekly student TV newscasts not produced. Students would still graduate, but with even less knowledge and experience.

Such cuts may be necessary for a balanced budget, but they make no sense if the priority is student learning. And they fly in the face of the rhetoric of politicians—and the reality—that teaching is the be-all and end-all in education. It doesn’t matter how talented the teacher is if the teacher isn’t there. A great teacher can’t teach math formulas or lead science labs when school is not in session. Put simply, when you eliminate face-to-face time between teacher and pupil, you eliminate learning.

One less day of school is one more day for kids to stay at home, to sleep in, play video games, text each other. It is another day for parents to scramble for childcare or to lose a day from work. A non-school day translates to a non-productive day for all.

For those worried about student achievement as represented by test scores, there is a peculiar conundrum. Researchers have found in multiple studies that increasing instructional time improves learning and scores. But the increase in standardized testing cuts into the already diminished instructional time: I’ve lost days to the tests and to practicing for the tests.

I’ve never been one to think that money is the answer to public education’s ills. When the money was flowing in the 1990s, I saw wasteful spending on silly programs—such as a weekend retreat for a whole grade level of students to make them “feel connected” to their school. But now, the pendulum has swung toward crippling austerity. Principals take on the duties of school staff members whose positions have been eliminated. The money for core education programs is at risk. The money to pay teachers is drying up. There is no fat left to cut.

If children have less knowledge, their weaknesses will reverberate through society. The people who fix our cars, do our taxes, and take our blood will not be as skilled. We can’t ship our cars to China for a tune-up.

So what can we do to protect the school year and preserve more time for teaching and learning? Increasing the sales tax temporarily, as Proposition 30 would do, is a good stopgap measure, but it will not solve schools’ money problems in the long-term. A smarter solution would be a moratorium on state testing that would save hundreds of millions of dollars—and preserve precious time for teaching. Shelve the weeks used to prepare and proctor the tests until a later time when the state’s economy is healthier.

Schools also need to seek alternative avenues of funding. As distasteful as it may be to some, schools should court corporate sponsors, who could provide badly needed revenues in return for naming rights to athletic fields and auditoriums. There’s nothing wrong with calling a computer room “The Apple Lab” if it provides money for teachers and equipment. I would rather see students spend extra days in a Sony Photo Lab at school than on a PlayStation at home.

Besides, we don’t have much choice. I used to teach a unit on opera that culminated in attending a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, an experience past students remember as one of the highlights of my classes. That now seems like an unimaginable extravagance, and I’m worried just about covering the basics. When I contemplate the possibility that the ballot initiatives will fail and the folders of lessons stored in my five filing cabinets will gather dust, I shudder.

One important story I teach is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” It’s about a stowaway on a future spacecraft, which must maintain an exact weight to fly. The quandary for the captain is that he must dispose of the stowaway if he wants to survive. I use the story as a springboard for a discussion with my students on difficult moral decisions.

I can’t stand to imagine my students not getting a chance to analyze the life lessons this story provides. Californians, and their school districts, face similarly difficult choices. But they should not be jettisoning instructional days, no matter how great the fiscal threat. The school year is already too short. And lost school days are the worst sort of cuts. They are the days that you can never get back.

Brian Crosby, a National Board Certified Teacher, is in his 24th year of teaching high school English and journalism in the Los Angeles area. He is the author of Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America’s Future and The $100,000 Teacher: A Teacher’s Solution to America’s Declining Public School System, and writes a weekly blog, “The Crosby Chronicles,” for the Los Angeles Times community newspapers and his own website, brian-crosby.com.  Read more at Zócalo.