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180 days of instruction… finally

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By Hoppy Kercheval in Hoppy's Commentary | August 13, 2014 at 12:42AM

One of the more significant shortcomings of West Virginia’s public school system historically has been the erosion of actual days of instruction.  Rules concerning when school could start and had to end, employment contracts, snow days, holidays, spring break and deer season all conspired to cut into school time.

The supposed goal was always 180 days of instruction, but nearly every year most counties had trouble meeting the goal.  That, however, is finally changing.

A key provision of Governor Tomblin’s education reform bill passed into law in 2013 says county school calendars must consist of 180 separate days of instruction for students and no fewer than 200 work days for employees.

This is the first year for that requirement, and county school systems are adjusting accordingly.  Many are starting the school year earlier than usual.  Wayne and Braxton Counties were the first, beginning on August 4th.   Most of the rest are starting about the middle of the month.

Unlike previous years, all snow days must be made up.  The latest possible end date for the school year has been extended to June 30th so that, in the event of a bad winter, instructional days will be added on the back end of the calendar.

During a normal year, however, counties that start early can get in their 180 days, take a spring break, maybe even a week for deer season, and still be out by the end of May or early June.

There is a caveat in the law allowing counties to apply for a waiver to the 180-day provision in the event of an emergency, but those should be rare.

Many factors contribute to a quality education, including the ability and dedication of the teacher, parental involvement and the motivation of the individual student.   It’s often argued that the quality of instruction is more important than the quantity, but it’s also true that not much learning goes on when students are not in school.

State School Superintendent Chuck Heinlein, who will turn over that position to Michael Martirano next month, believes guaranteeing the amount of instruction time is important.

“The discourse and engagement with the teacher takes that learning to a meaningful and deeper level,” Heinlein told me on a recent Talkline.  “180 days of being with a professional educator is critical.”

The education reform law includes many more improvements to public education; changes in hiring practices, teacher evaluations, grading for individual schools.  The requirement for 180 days of instruction may not be the most critical aspect of reform, but it is important and long overdue.

This provision recalibrates the school year by establishing instructional time as a nonnegotiable principle.