Now the district is considering moving the start of school to mid-August in order to shift finals from January to before winter break. The goal is good, but perhaps not the proposed solution.
Final exams in January are not educationally sound. The purpose of a big exam is to have students pull together the pieces they have learned thus far, but after winter break too many students are faced with re-learning rather than reviewing.
In addition, the break does not provide the intended stress relief due to the impending exams. The easy solution is to move the start date up to mid-August. Many neighboring districts have made this work, although teaching and learning is hampered by the extended hot weather.
PAUSD is unique in having such a large percentage of families associated with Stanford, where school starts in late September. We also have a large number of families who travel in August. It would be preferable to eliminate January finals without moving the start of school any earlier.
The purpose of a final exam is to help students review and connect material and to help teachers uncover gaps in students' understanding. Material connected before vacation is less likely to be forgotten over a holiday period than if this review process has not taken place. Going over the exam after the holidays would serve as another review and would further cement student learning. Finals before the holidays would thus reduce the traditional holiday drop-off and classes could learn additional material in January.
There is no law that exams have to come at the end of the semester. If PAUSD started at the same time it does now, it could have exams in December but finish first semester in January. The last few weeks could be capped by a chapter test where needed. One of Gunn's best physics teachers has done this for years and students love it.
There is even a question as to whether final exams are useful learning tools. Colleges, including Harvard University, are increasingly finding other ways to measure progress. Weekly cumulative quizzes may do more to enhance learning and create far less stress. Then if gaps emerge both the teacher and students can recognize them in time to fix the problem. If we eliminated finals altogether, we would have significant added instructional time.
Palo Alto's demographics are changing and more students have extended families in India, Asia, and Mexico (all places that are more comfortable in winter than summer) as well as across the United States and the world. In addition, we have many Stanford University families. All of this adds to the rich tapestry that makes Palo Alto an exciting place to live and work. It also means that many in our community value travel as well as formal education.
Students and teachers are better off when the district calendar enables most family travel to take place during school vacations. A three-week winter vacation without impending exams would allow students and staff to enjoy a real break from the stress of the school year and those who choose to could travel or ski without missing school.
Many of our families are associated with Stanford as students or staff members. Their calendars will never fully align, but when they are too far apart families are caught in a bind. The proposed PAUSD calendars start school fully six weeks before Stanford does; new married students with families may not be able to get into Stanford housing until close to Stanford's start date and if they are depending on a stipend to live on they may not be able to afford to arrive until late September. On top of that, Stanford's 2012 summer school ends nearly a week after PAUSD would start so students would not be able to take courses in summer school. Stanford families would certainly lack the opportunity to take a long vacation without missing school.
Most of the classrooms at Paly are air-conditioned, but few of the regular classrooms in the other schools in the district have this feature. Starting earlier means more days when learning is hampered by students and teachers being uncomfortably hot. The only reason to move our start date sooner is to allow our teachers to cover more material before the AP exams. Changing the school days currently devoted to finals into instructional days would add nearly as much time for AP preparation.
We must do what is best for all of our students and families.
I think it makes sense for the Board of Education to agree to hold finals before the winter holidays for the next two school years but keep the start date in late August. Ending the first semester in late January serves all of our students well as long as winter vacation is free from worry about looming high-stakes exams and major deadlines.
We could start now to discuss three related long-term issues:
1) Are traditional finals worth the three or four days of lost instructional time we currently allow each semester? Are there better ways to measure student learning?
2) How does our school calendar affect our community and our students' success? Are we making it possible for families to schedule the rest of their lives without having their children miss instruction days? Are we making it possible for our schools to teach without huge numbers of students being absent? Would our community be better served if we returned to the traditional start date after Labor Day?
3) Should we shift to a year-round schedule with two- to four-week breaks after each six weeks of instruction? Teachers who want to earn more money could lead intensive science, art, drama, sports or remedial "camps" during the inter-terms. This would provide a break in routine for all and child care for those who want it. It would provide time for vacations and less time for forgetting over the summer — and it fits with the reality of many of today's families where children need child care when school is not in session. Students who fall behind could get intensive help before their problems got out of hand. This would be a major change and would require careful study, but is worth considering.