One hundred and eighty. It’s the arc of a semicircle. It’s a metaphor for complete reversal.
It’s also the number of days that Maryland requires students to attend classes each academic year. Now, Anne Arundel County wants to drop the calendar mandate, calling it a relic of chalkboard days gone by that’s standing in the way of making schools better. And it wants the rest of Maryland schools to follow.
“You tell me what’s to be proud of in your state data when we don’t have 60 percent of kids passing anything in this state,” county schools Superintendent Mark Bedell told members of a state Senate committee recently. “But we continue to operate in this very rigid model.”
Bedell has taken on the unlikely role of lead proponent for ending the 180-day rule; unlikely because he only started work in Maryland seven months ago. He arrived here after a stint as superintendent of the Kansas City school district.
All 23 other public school superintendents across the state say they support the idea, and all 24 local school boards have signed on as well. The Maryland State Department of Education supports the idea, as long as it retains the final authority over all school calendars.
Teachers, who can’t bargain over the school schedule in contract negotiations, are officially neutral but fear the impact of leaving traditional guardrails behind.
“Though we appreciate the intent of this legislation, we are concerned about its potential consequences for school personnel and students,” Lauren Lamb, the lobbyist for the Maryland State Education Association, wrote in a position paper submitted to state lawmakers.
This is far from a done deal. During dueling legislative hearings last week, where the bill was scheduled at the same time in House and Senate committees, lawmakers in one committee had no questions while those in the other had plenty.
That might not bode well for what Bedell called his top legislative priority, which is sponsored by Del. Dana Jones in the House and Sen. Pamela Beidle in the Senate, both Anne Arundel Democrats. There are no co-sponsors from outside the county.
If you want to get people upset about schools, you can talk about issues like how you teach the heartbreaking history of race in America or the right way to look at sexual identity. But if you want a mundane topic that really gets parents, teachers, lawmakers, business owners and others going, suggest changing the school calendar.
For many, it’s the foundational calendar, the one that comes first in ordering our lives. Remember when former Gov. Larry Hogan decided it would be a good idea to make all school systems end summer break? That went over like a Molotov cocktail in a toilet paper factory. If you have school-age kids, you sort out their schedule first and then fit in everything else around it.
The rest of us just follow along with a rhythm driven by summer breaks, Thanksgiving breaks, spring and winter breaks, and the most unpredictable break of all, teacher professional days.
“We have moved to make the school year the baseline of our society,” said Del. Michael Griffith, a Harford County Republican. “We build our work schedules, our lives and our culture really in Maryland … around this.”
Bedell’s goal is to give school systems the power to experiment, to give students what they need rather than force them to show up on an artificial number of days. It’s tied to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which both requires innovation and that schools have students ready for college or careers by the 10th grade.
“We’re telling kids you come into school at 8:30 and you’re out at 3:17 and that’s pretty much it for your instructional day,” he told the House Ways and Means Committee when it considered the legislation. “We talk about equity and we talk about really wanting to create a barrier-free education. For all of our kids to have access to what the Blueprint is calling for, we should be able to offer these kids a flex schedule.”
In Anne Arundel, maybe the school day would run from 8:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. That would require negotiations with teachers for unique shifts, but it could accommodate the student who wants a traditional day, and the one who works a part-time job or has family responsibilities at home. It might accommodate internships that give juniors and seniors a chance to use what they’ve learned rather than spending time in meaningless electives.
In other school districts, it might mean a trimester system, four-day weeks or longer school days to make a Memorial Day to Labor Day summer break possible. It might even mean year-round school for some. One county school board qualified its support for the bill, saying it would like to add a provision for mandatory public hearings before changes are mandated.
It wouldn’t mean less instruction. Maryland also sets a minimum number of hours of instruction, 1,080 for elementary kids and 1,170 for high schools. Or it might mean more, and it would hopefully do away with the most annoying kind of school day — the half day where students watch videos in class because the district has to meet that 180-day mark and parents have to sort out the rest.
But the change would certainly give local school leaders a chance to figure out what works for their communities, and how to address concerns from teachers and others about the impact on students who need the most help.
“Some of the models permitted may result in inadequate support or resources for students and their families,” wrote Lamb, the union lobbyist. “Research on the social and academic impacts of a four-day school week is inconclusive, but significant questions about equity remain.”
Bedell told lawmakers he plans to test various options if given the freedom to make changes and develop calendars with community response, over a period of years.
“Now what you have done is, you’ve controlled for the variables that create inequities,” he said. “So when we talk about having that type of flexibility, this law gives us that flexibility to look at how to do it.”
The 180-day calendar goes back more than a century in Maryland, although the state didn’t apply it to Black students until 1937. Private schools are only required to have 170 days.
The focus on a specific number of academic days dates back to Horace Mann, an education reformer who convinced Massachusetts to adopt a 120-day minimum in 1852. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia require 180-day academic years, according to the Education Commission of the States.
School districts can already get around the 180-day minimum by applying for a waiver from the Maryland State Department of Education. It’s only used when snow days pile up, and came into play during the disruption of schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That gives some lawmakers doubts, ranging from the impact on Ocean City’s summer season to food programs and students’ attention span.
“I think we have all the provisions in place to do this,” said Del. April Fleming Miller, a Republican from Frederick County who previously served on the school board.
MSDE, which currently must approve all 24 school calendars, seemed to share some of the concerns in written testimony. It cited one school district in Colorado, where a four-day school week was adopted after voters rejected measures to increase teacher pay. Early reviews of the change found housing prices and teacher recruitment suffered.
Justin Dayhoff, an assistant state superintendent, wrote that if all 24 school districts go their own way in Maryland, there could be chaos in coordinating testing, support services or meeting state and federal rules. “MSDE recommends including safeguards to protect against or give MSDE the ability to protect against models that have been shown to negatively impact schools and students,” he wrote.
Bedell, since starting last year, is trying new things within Anne Arundel County. They range from one of his first ― admonishing the entire school community to quit talking trash at each other — to a joint English-Spanish immersion elementary school program and #BePresent, a community engagement campaign that follows a rise in disciplinary incidents.
It often takes a few years for a major change to work through the General Assembly after an election, and that could prove the case for this proposal. But in Anne Arundel, at least, the appetite for experimentation is huge.
“We can’t be afraid to fail,” school board President Joanna Bache Tobin said.