Professional Collaboration Time

Things have been pretty quiet on the School Board lately.  We have received very few emails over the past several weeks from parents and others concerned about school issues.  But the email is starting to pick up.  We’re hearing about the upcoming change in the Wednesday schedule for middle school and high school students, and the messages aren’t ones congratulating us for a great decision.

Starting with the new school year, middle and high school students will be released early on most Wednesdays so that teachers will have an hour of collaboration time each week.  Parents and others are sending us emails expressing concern about a potential loss of instructional time as well as exasperation at the inconvenience of a shorter school day on Wednesdays.

As is true of virtually all the emails we receive, the ones we’ve been sent about the change in the Wednesday schedule are civil and generally thoughtful.  Not so much the readers’ on-line comments responding to the State Journal article about the schedule change a few days ago.  (Whenever I fear I’m getting in too good a mood, I can always go to the readers’ comments on newspaper articles on school topics to bring me right down.)

Here are some things I think about the Wednesday collaboration time:

First, increasing opportunities for teacher collaboration is a good thing. For those of us who work in offices, it is easy to lose sight of how little time teachers have to meet and talk with each other about their mutual concerns.  Once that bell rings in the morning, teachers are dealing nearly every minute with kids, our loveable children, and can’t just stop down the hall for a chat with a colleague.

It is certainly possible for individual teachers to connect before or after school if they have a particular issue or concern to discuss.  But it makes sense to carve out an hour during the workweek when all teachers can get together and talk about issues, whether it’s an entire math department at a high school hashing out the alignment of the curriculum, or teachers at a middle school discussing transition issues from one grade to the next.  How can this be bad?

While the need for more effective professional development was discussed in the school district’s strategic planning process, this particular initiative is not specifically part of the strategic plan.  However, something much like it was part of Wisconsin’s Race to the Top funding application.  As part of the state’s application, school districts were requested to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with DPI that included a commitment for the districts to “provide regular common planning and collaboration time, which may include professional learning communities, to teachers and principals to support data usage and response to intervention efforts.”

Second, the addition of the collaboration time will not result in the loss of instructional time. There are to be early releases on 29 Wednesdays, which means 29 hours of instructional time need to be made up.  The elimination of three half-day in-service days takes care of nine of the hours.  The remaining 20 hours, or 1200 instructional minutes, can be made up by lengthening the class day by 7 minutes on 172 days.  So, for example, last year the school day at Sherman Middle School ran from 7:45 until 2:40.  This year it runs from 7:35 until 2:37, an increase of 7 minutes.  Since by my count the school year is about 175 days, it does seem to work out.

Third, since we are adding an hour of collaboration time for teachers most weeks of the school year and we are not reducing instructional time, the result is that we are asking our teachers to work a longer workweek.  (Of course, the majority of teachers regularly put in many more hours outside of the defined workday.)  It is heartening that our teachers agreed to this.  While there are those in the community who reflexively label every change in how the schools operate as a cave-in to the teachers’ union, you just can’t make that argument stick here.

Some additional points:  The administration explored scheduling the early release day for Monday, the same as the elementary schools, since that would simplify life a bit for families with kids in elementary school as well as in middle or high school.  Madison Metro couldn’t accommodate this option for this year.  We’ll try to work it out for next year.

High school sports practices will not start an hour early on Wednesdays, they will start at their normal times so teacher-coaches can participate in the collaboration time.  The plan is for the high schools will set up study tables or something like it so athletes have the opportunity to use that extra hour on Wednesdays to study or make a dent in their homework.  If coaches make the study time mandatory, the result should be positive.

Some suggested starting an hour later on Wednesdays rather than end an hour earlier.  My guess is that this would actually inconvenience more families, since getting the kids out the door and on their way to school is often a well-choreographed group effort.  For example, West High started at 8:12 am last year.  Not starting the school day until 9:12 on Wednesdays would throw a lot of families’ schedules out of whack, and, I think, would cause more cumulative inconvenience than early dismissal on Wednesdays.

I recognize that this change will inconvenience parents who try to arrange their work schedule so that they can be home when their kids get out of school. (Kids who have school-sponsored activities after school will have them immediately after school on Wednesday as well, so the new schedule shouldn’t be a problem for them.)  It is unfortunate that the change will make life more difficult for some of our families.  However, I expect that the drawbacks will be outweighed by the benefits of better and better-coordinated classroom teaching that should result from the opportunity for enhanced teacher collaboration.  That’s the plan, anyway.

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