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Innovation Deferred is Innovation Denied

July 31, 2009 By Laura Huiras, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Some Minnesota schools developed an innovative way to assess student achievement that has yet to be done. Thirteen southwestern Minnesota schools requested an early start date from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) last spring. All were denied by July, with MDE offering little explanation. All despite efforts from school districts, the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA), and other school groups that supported a start date before Labor Day this year.

State law prohibits schools from beginning classes before Labor Day. The rule was implemented in 1985 as a response to tourism industry lobbying efforts.  There are, however, a few loopholes that may permit a school district to begin prior to Labor Day. School districts that are undergoing construction projects over $400,000 are able to bypass the law. This loophole has allowed districts such as Hopkins and St. Louis Park to begin earlier classes. What about the schools who are not undertaking such projects?

This is where the Flexible Learning Year proposal for 2009-10 school year came into play. There were two primary pieces to the proposal submitted by 13 southwestern MN schools. First, the focus did not revolve around the sole idea of beginning before Labor Day, but rather adding ten "high impact learning/instructional" days prior to students taking high stakes assessments.

According the Redwood Area Schools Superintendent Rick Ellingworth, these high impact days refer to the belief that students are more easily engaged in the learning environment at the beginning of the schools year than after the testing in late May. "We wanted to capture that time when the interest is high and have quality academic learning days rather than in late May and early June," he stated.

Another important focus and underlying principle of the request surrounds the collaboration effort by these 13 schools. They all agreed to a common calendar and held community forums to discuss their efforts. They all would have started the same day and established professional development days for staff and faculty as a consortium thereby pooling each other's resources and bring in high quality speakers.  This is quite a feat for 13 schools, especially considering their geographic location around rural, southern MN.

"There is quite a span of distance, but we worked together and arranged this common schedule. There was a lot of excitement to see if this would have been a difference in student achievement and bring in higher quality professional development," said Ellingworth.

He also said many area colleges begin on August 24th or 25th and their starting date would have correlated with those dates. High school students enrolled in post-secondary education would've begun at the same time with this calendar and coordinating online classes as well as vocational-technical programs could have been improved.

Resort, airline, and hospitality industries are affected by early school start dates, as it cuts back on spending and thus revenue from families on vacation. Early start dates also affect attendance at the Minnesota State Fair. The tourism industry and State Fair representatives have battled with measures in the past to begin school before Labor Day. Other opponents also question the educational impact an early start has on the student with addition to the tourism industry.

However, that is one of the primary objectives of the flexible learning year- to see if student achievement is affected.

"The idea was to be the research. Then we could gather the data and submit it to the state and have the experts review. Do the additional ten days make a difference? If they did, then it could be a point of discussion for the Department or Legislature," said Ellingworth.

MSBA supported a measure in the 2009 legislative session for school to begin before Labor Day.  Furthermore, the Superintendents of Southwestern Minnesota also held community forums and had school board support before committing to this proposal. They felt the majority of the community supported the idea. While vacations may have to be cut short in August with an earlier start, summer break would have remained the same length of time with school dismissing in May. Additionally, many students are already back at school in mid-August for extracurricular activities such as fine arts and sports.

Then why was this innovative proposal rejected by the MDE if it was backed by 13 different school boards, superintendents, and communities?

MDE sent letters to superintendents informing them of the rejection of the Flexible Learning Year. They encouraged the districts the continue collaboration and that the MDE was willing to work with them to submit a successful proposal.

Requests for the reasons the application was denied yielded no further information to MN2020 or the superintendents. The superintendents are planning on meeting with MDE in early August to find out what elements should be modified. The proposal is evaluated on its ability to improve the quality of instruction, increase cost effectiveness, make better use of community resources or enroll more students in special education. The plan met the first three of those four reasons. Only one of the four factors is required for MDE approval.

Upon hearing that the proposal was rejected, Charlie Kyte, Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA), responded on his online blog. "The reasoning, it seemed to me, had more to do with not ruffling political feathers than about making an improvement in the delivery of education," he said.

Furthermore he stated that "one MDE official indicated that they still wanted to work with these districts to encourage innovation.  But I think the reality is that the spirit of innovation with approvals needed from the state level died with this decision.  So much for our Governor complaining that schools won't innovate and them covering for political flak rather than encouraging the districts to keep pushing the envelope."

The late holiday will force the schools to push their calendar until mid-June of 2010. If students hit the books prior to Labor Day, it does not cost the state more funding. The calendar days are simply added on at the beginning to maximize student learning and high quality instructional days.

Even though the news that the flexible learning year was denied, school districts are still willing to work with the MDE to submit another proposal if more information is provided. Ellingworth, who has been in the MN education system for over 30 years, summarized his thoughts on the process. "The governor of this state and commissioner of this state has encouraged innovation. We had some schools down here that took them up on it and it was disappointing that it didn't get approved, but hopefully we can work together and see if it makes a difference in student achievement. We have this premonition that more instruction time can make a difference. We want to find that out.  If anyone could prove that student achievement is increased, who wouldn't want to do it?"

List of Schools that requested the Flexible Learning Year for 2009-2010

Cedar Mountain
Hills-Beaver Creek
Mountain Lake
Redwood Falls
Westbrook-Walnut Grove


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