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Minnesota School Year Requirements in 2014

February 25, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

For quite a while now, one of the most visited articles at Minnesota 2020 has been a 2009 piece by John Fitzgerald about Minnesota’s school year requirements. In the years since he wrote the article, Minnesota’s requirements have changed, so an update seemed in order.

Back in 2009, Minnesota statutes did not require a set number of days (though they did require districts to maintain at least the number of days they’d had in the 1996-97 school year). In 2011, Minnesota added requirements for minimum hours of instruction, with different requirements for kindergarten, grades one through six, and grades seven through twelve.

The law changed again in 2013 to require at least 165 days in the school year. That’s still lower than most states’ requirements in 2009, but it is a firm minimum. The minimum hour requirements were also updated to include a new, higher figure for all-day kindergarten.

At present, then, the current instructional hour requirements are:

  • At least 850 hours for all-day kindergarten (for students without disabilities), and half that for half-day kindergarten
  • At least 935 hours for grades one through six
  • At least 1,020 hours for grades seven through twelve (not including summer school)

The weather this year has also raised some questions about snow days. Fortunately, a December, 2013, memo from the Minnesota Department of Education answers many of the most common questions. The short version: The decision to make up snow days is up to individual school districts, and there’s “no direct financial penalty for having too few days or too few instructional hours.” If you’re curious about whether your district will be scheduling additional time or days, then, the district office is probably the place to check.

How districts make up time is also up to them. The state department of education mentions holding school on Saturdays, extending the length of the school day, extending the length of the school year, and converting weekdays that previously had no school scheduled to include instructional time.

Were I to make recommendations based on student learning, I would suggest adding whole days rather than tacking some additional time on to the day. Too often, stretching each period by a few minutes doesn’t translate into major changes in what’s done, and the additional time won’t do much good making up for lost learning. Lengthening school days -- while it might seem easier from a scheduling perspective -- needs to come with more intentional preparation if it’s going to actually help student learning.

Nor should we assume that more time is always better. The key is ensuring that time is spent well. True, there are countries with longer school years that outperform the U.S. on international standardized tests. There are also countries with longer school years that underperform the U.S. (Malaysia, Brazil, etc.) and countries with shorter school years that outperform the U.S. (such as Finland). Additionally, it doesn’t appear that Minnesota’s historically more casual school year length requirement has damaged it too much in comparison to most other states that demand longer school years.

The real questions are about how the time is spent and what happens when children aren’t in school. It’s generally demonstrated that the gaps in test scores (and, presumably, more meaningful areas of learning) grow faster during the long breaks when students aren’t in school. Lengthening the school year for everyone is certainly one way to address that, but we could also get more creative.

For example, dramatically boosting the availability of summer enrichment programming for students from under-resourced backgrounds would be one option. In addition to helping alleviate some of the child care burden that summer can impose, it also gives us the freedom to be more targeted in what supports students are getting. Rather than feel constrained by the same lockstep school day, summer enrichment could help students explore both the areas where they need the most support and those where they are the most interested.

It’s good to consider the length of the school year, and questioning its length in Minnesota comes from a place of concern about students. It is worth giving serious thought and support to other alternatives, though.

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