Guest Opinion: Finals before winter break — is there a better way? | October 29, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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Spectrum - October 29, 2010

Guest Opinion: Finals before winter break — is there a better way?

by Diane Reklis

I have been involved in Palo Alto schools since we moved to Palo Alto 30 years ago. I was privileged to serve on the school board in the late 1980s when we realized that closing schools is not always the best solution for declining enrollment. Sometimes the obvious solution is not the best one for the long-term health of the district.

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.

Diane Reklis served on the Palo Alto Board of Education for eight years. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by paly parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 30, 2010 at 10:38 am

This article is full of great suggestions and questions

Finals before break, but end the semester in January
No finals at all because they are a questionable learning tool anyway
will this new schedule reduce or increase stress?

Nice to seem some creative ideas to solve this problem

Posted by Stephanie, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I thought that the Guest Opinion was very useful in laying out all the issues regarding the public schools' calendars. I, for one,am opposed to starting the school year in August, and especially appalled that the PAUSD is considering moving up the start date to an even earlier one. Kids need time to recharge themselves, and families need unstructured time as well. When my older daughter was in elementary school, we still had a start date after Labor Day, and that was fabulous. Now, kids have to go to school in the sweltering days of August (that is to say, in most parts of the country). I don't know why teachers won't agree to a lengthening of the all-too-short school day, which would give the added instructional time without the additional calendar days. I like the proposal to have finals before Christmas but the semester end in January.

Posted by Teach, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 30, 2010 at 11:55 pm

"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?"

No to both, but I think we have to be pragmatic. The newest graduates of teacher's programs have learned these lessons, but how are you going to change the present PAUSD culture? Will the district ban finals? Seems unlikely because teachers (and probably many parents would oppose this). And how can the district mandate more creative approaches that help students connect?

Posted by parent, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 31, 2010 at 12:28 am

Parents would NOT oppose banning finals, guranteed

Posted by Teach, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 31, 2010 at 4:57 am

"Parents would NOT oppose banning finals, guranteed"

True for some. Others would complain bitterly.

Posted by results matter, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 31, 2010 at 6:25 am

Finals before break, but semester ends after? Begs the what,then, happens in classes after break? babysitting?

The natural result..all projects due after break..back to square one.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2010 at 9:18 am

We could call the finals before break mid terms and have a final chapter test at the end of the semester.

We could do away with finals and have several progress tests.

We could end the semester in February and end school late June.

We could have longer school days.

We could remember that STAR test days, CAHSEE test days, and AP test days in the second semester are not instructinal days and not count them when determining the length of semesters.

We could shift to 3 trimesters for year long classes and 2 semesters for 1/2 year classes. It would follow that some classes would have 3 finals (or exams) during the year and some would have 1 and grades would show the average or mean results. It would mean that there would not be as many exams at any one stage in the year which should reduce stress at "finals" time.

We could start being innovative and look at other options rather than starting the school year earlier in the year.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2010 at 9:37 pm


starting the school year earlier to achieve what?

reduce stress by short-circuiting summer?

if the reason to do this is to reduce stress, the suggestions in this article are better

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Parent, read my last sentence again. I do not like the idea of starting earlier in August.

Posted by PalyParent, a resident of University South
on Nov 1, 2010 at 9:50 am

well written, well thought out commentary. I'd add that the point that the propose shift in winter break (to late Dec into early Jan) causes all sorts of family stress and calendar mismatch as well.

I would urge the board to go back to a traditional calendar in terms of start and stop dates and breaks. This calendar does not need to "place" finals in order to be approved. And then spend some time looking at the various options for when finals could be held, consider the pros and cons of all--do it separate from setting the calendar, and take the time to figure out the best option. Doing it this way, could solve a lot of the issues at hand--seniors, perhaps, might have finals in January, a better match with their needs, other classes could figure out how best their needs are met. Maybe one size on finals doesn't fit all.

Posted by brightidea, a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Nov 1, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Why not start school AFTER Labor Day, and have first semester finals in Feb.? Plenty of time to study after the December break and thereby give students and staff a work free break. There is also a break in Feb. tied to President's Day so that could be combined with a Semester break, giving kids a break between semesters. School could end in late June instead of early June, so both semesters would be of equal length. This allows families the month of August for their vacations, and kids aren't in sweltering classrooms in August. The camps in the area would most likely adjust their calendars to match the school calendars so the childcare won't be an issue. Many universities don't start until very late August or in Sept. so the college students that staff the camps would most likely be available. Seems like the easiest, most sensible idea yet -- why hasn't this been considered? Seems like a WIN-WIN!!!

Posted by parent 007, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Brightidea...We vote for your suggestion...I would add that consideration be given to eliminate finals and have the students use the week as a "field classroom." An internship, a temporary job, a community service project. All levels can partcipate.

Make every student do something in the community...get them out of the classroom for that week. I am should the district could get approval to count the days as instructional time. Let's use PA as a pilot for real creative ideas that make a difference! Starting after Labor Day in September.

PS...If you look at the HS performance scores across CA and other could conclude a negative correllation between those district schools that do start early in August vs. those that are later/after labor Day. Could a full summer break make kids more production at school. What a thought!!!

Posted by south PA mother, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm

I do appreciate Ms. Reklis' fresh, creative, and thoughtful perspective on this issue. I hope someone at PAUSD is listening.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 1, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Do away with FINALS. They really don't mean much nor measure much. They are a concept from the last century. Time to bury them.

Posted by Paly Alum, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm

How could we possibly eliminate final exams? High school is supposed to prepare them for college. No finals, then they get hit with final exams in college? Students need the experience of final exams for their future. No finals is a left-wing pipe dream.

Posted by bill kelly, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

What happened to Labor Day being the start of school? how about we give our kids a summer and have the school administration figure out how to solve it. Soon or kids will be pressured to start in earl august to give them a better testing advantage. We have to hold the line somewhere, how about no classes before labor day?

Posted by Mom of a Paly student, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm

A year-round schedule is definitely NOT smart idea!
Everything else in this article is sound reasonable.

Posted by A parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:20 am

Harvard, by the way, after much discussion, recently moved their finals to before the holiday break.

Many teachers and more experienced people than I have made good points about why finals before holidays are beneficial, so I won't rehash. My question is why the uneven semester lengths is such an insurmountable problem. Many, many districts have finals before the holidays, start at Labor Day or just before, and end just after mid December. It's overwhelmingly a positive thing to have finals before the holidays. Let's figure out the mystery of how other districts have accomplished this change without making extreme changes to the calendar. This doesn't have to be so difficult.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:34 am

Paly Alum,

"According to Harvard Magazine, final exams are "going the way of the dodo."

finals will be extinct

Posted by Paly parent, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 9:22 am

Harvard's fall term finals are in December, but classes start AFTER Labor Day, and there is an "optional" 3-week-long winter session in January (Web Link).

Has the option of starting school AFTER Labor Day been adequately considered? It would provide 3 weeks of school in January before a week with final exams (plus 2 holiday days for studying just before exams), and would restore the whole month of August for vacation. Others more familiar with the senior year testing and college application calendar have pointed out some countervailing difficulties that December finals would involve.

The concept of shifting the academic calendar to reduce stress over the Christmas break is laudable but I think misses the point. The larger problem is too much stress and too much work during the entire academic year, not just during vacation. I would think there is more to gain from taking on that problem (as difficult as it is), not just trying to provide a better break from it over Christmas.

Posted by teacher/parent, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 11:40 am

1) finals are mostly a high-school issue, should they drive the schedule for the entire K-12 curriculum?

2) The proposed calendar should also align the spring break for Stanford and PAUSD. Why make them a week apart?

3) I love the idea of the intersessions. What a wonderful opportunity to engage in interest-based education -- supporting the best kind of learning.

4) and while we're at it, can we also address the school hours? Teens need to start later!

Posted by Tom, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I agree with the comments on abolishing (or strongly discouraging) final exams. The reason they are becoming extinct is that do not really serve the educational mission: they serve only to provide an easy, relatively-justifiable method of assigning grades. High school, aside from teaching kids how to work, is supposed to prepare them for college, which is supposed to prepare them for the workplace. When was the last time you took a final exam on the job? Colleges are figuring out that final exams do nothing to prepare their students; that's why collaboration around projects is so emphasized. There is absolutely no reason the same thing can't happen at the high school level -- then you really would be preparing kids for college.

Posted by Old Teacher, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2010 at 6:19 pm

It has been a long time since I had to have a course approved by the UC system, but I recall that a criteria for a "college prep"--read meets A-G requirements for college eligibility--requires a comprehensive final. Now, I know plenty of teacher who don't give finals and I am not sure that they know that their course may not be "meeting" UC standards. I think we better have someone find out what the UC say about getting rid of finals before we eliminate them in Palo Alto.

Posted by Paly Alum, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 3, 2010 at 10:15 pm

@Parent: After colleges drop their final exams, we can follow suit. Meanwhile, students need the experience of final exams to prepare for college.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2010 at 9:36 am

Old teacher and Paly Alum,

the point is that there are better ways to organize calendars, our lives, than around final exams

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:30 am

Paly parent,

"I would urge the board to go back to a traditional calendar in terms of start and stop dates and breaks. This calendar does not need to "place" finals in order to be approved. And then spend some time looking at the various options for when finals could be held, consider the pros and cons of all--do it separate from setting the calendar, and take the time to figure out the best option. Doing it this way, could solve a lot of the issues at hand--seniors, perhaps, might have finals in January, a better match with their needs, other classes could figure out how best their needs are met. Maybe one size on finals doesn't fit all."

I hope your suggestion gets heard

Posted by Gunn Alum, a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I have been speaking with a lot of people on this subject. First, most parents I'm coming into contact with didn't even know what the proposed calendar was. Second, high school students that I've spoken with (with varying ranges of academic loads) have all said they don't study over break and don't know anyone that studies over break. They do all agree that coming back from break early January and then having just two weeks before finals, why don't we try something really radical and start school AFTER LABOR DAY (the way it was done for years, even when I went through the district) and have finals not occur until the END of January and the first two days of February. Then our high school students will have 4 more weeks of instruction/review and then finish with their finals. Second semester can start February 6th. Yes, we will have to go a little longer in June but everyone I've mentioned this to is fine with that if that means having the entire month of August back and giving those high school kids a few more weeks after break before finals. I would like to see that option put out there.

Posted by PA mom, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Contact the school board with your ideas by Nov. 9th:

Melissa Caswell
Barbara Klausner
Barb Mitchell
Dana Tom
Camille Townsend

Posted by Parent and Educator, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:48 pm

There is no question that those advocating for an earlier start date are very well-meaning, but their solution seems wrong-headed and uninspired. In my mind, making this particular calendar change sends exactly the wrong message. It tells our kids that finals and grades and AP classes are SO DARN IMPORTANT, we're willing to disrupt the entire community, throw younger kids under the bus, and create new unintended consequences for many families just so stressed out high school students can do well on exams. Reklis and others have proposed some creative, outside-the-box approaches -- the very kind of thinking that Silicon Valley types tout to the world. But I fear that our School Board members and Superintendent are not really outside-the-box kind of thinkers and will simply fall in lockstep with the next new thing. Indeed, the handwriting seems already on the wall.

Sure, Palo Alto parents cannot reform the college admission process or turn back our overdrive culture. But if the adults in this community could show themselves to be something more than total conformists to the latest fad, we might just send our kids the right message.

Posted by no skin in this game any more, just wisdom, a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 6, 2010 at 10:44 am

We don't care about the start date..we care about a full-stop, real rest for the kids over winter break. No projects, no tests coming up, no homework, no "make up" work, no extra credit..absolutely nothing hanging over their head from school.

The wrangling over start date is a separate issue.

Why do I keep writing though I have no kids left who will be affected? Because I have seen the devastation of a full-court,non-stop, highly competitive press for almost 10 months on a lot of our kids.

And it "ain't pretty".

Posted by no skin in this game any more, just wisdom, a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 6:08 am

Friend in Saratoga sent this to me..I guess Saratoga is about to switch to pre-break full stop also, so they can have a "real rest" over winter break.

Web Link.

I asked her how contentious the issue was, and she said "not at all"..maybe she is just not clued in, or maybe she is right.

sigh. I guess it really is "the palo alto way".glad I am done.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:21 am

no skin in the game,

what about those that have skin in the game, and not in high school

summer counts, and most people (most) like that to include August.

Posted by As for Harvard, a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:56 am

On why pre-break finals at Harvard is different than what PAUSD is proposing for our students

1. Only ~20% of Harvard's classes offer finals.

2. College students have much more uninterrupted time to study for their exams with 19 no-class days to prepare for and take finals (dead weeks) compared to PAUSD's 4.

3. College students spend 50% less time in class than high school students do.

Posted by Kirsten Luehrs, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 10:24 am

I only have a second to post, so this is quick. (So probably overly easy to destroy may concern!) I wanted to mention my very strong concern for working women. I know that many people do not agree, but I really want to plead with you all to consider how the school calendar impacts families who depend on the pattern of time to allow for work. For many families, they are settled or powerful in their jobs and have flexibility. But many are not and the household finances depend on out-of-the-house work. From another, much more severe vantage, when we make it so hard for women to work [by having so many irregular non-instruction days] - why do we even educate girls...???

The days off proposed in the current calendar being considered that are after new years, are impossibly difficult to handle for families with regular jobs - two weeks of vacation and not a hire-able random day sitter in sight - Of course, not impossible if you have flexibility and are set up and comfortable - but that is not the type of family that babies are typically born into, particularly with the new teapublican agenda.

I am very concerned about the erosion of respect for women who work. I think there should be much more accountability to that obligation. The childcare scramble, even with the way it is now, causes a lot of direct stress in families.

Thank you for bringing up the year round school idea. I don't know much about it but would like to learn more and possibly help with this effort. Please contact me if I can be of any help.

Btw, with the current scenario, I vote for after labor day start, finals at the very end of january, and a release in mid june.


Posted by Working Mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2010 at 1:50 pm

As a FT working mom, who has never stopped working, having finals before winter break is NOT a problem. I am confused by Kristen and other moms who think it is a big problem?

Care before xmas isn't easier for me to find than care after xmas. Plus, if I want to take my little time off, I would rather take it the first week of June, when the price for trips is MUCH lower than in August.

I am confident the daycare camps offered during the summer will adjust (but I doubt the ultra expensive overnight camps will not).

I just wish we could put it to vote at the high schools, and keep the parents and their vacation agendas out of it.

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