Maryland lawmakers are considering two bills aimed at rethinking how public school systems schedule their academic calendars in hopes of improving education outcomes and catching up on learning time that was lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anne Arundel County Public School Superintendent Mark Bedell is a key supporter of one proposal, Senate Bill 321, which would eliminate a state law that requires all public schools to operate 180 days of the year over a 10-month period. Last month, Bedell called the rule “rigid and outdated” as Anne Arundel County Public Schools and other school systems in the state begin implementing the multibillion-dollar education reform initiative, Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The Blueprint is designed to reform Maryland’s schools so every student — regardless of geography, household income, race, ethnicity, gender, language spoken at home, special needs or other characteristics — will graduate ready to enter the workforce or higher education.
SB 321, sponsored by Linthicum Democratic Sen. Pamela Beidle and cross-filed in the House of Delegates by fellow Anne Arundel legislator Del. Dana Jones, allows school systems to explore innovative school models, such as trimesters or year-round schooling, that still meet the stipulation that all Maryland students must complete a minimum of 1,080 (elementary/middle school) and 1,170 (high school) instructional hours.
“[SB 321] is not a bill that forces any school system to enforce anything different than it does now, rather it allows for us to have an additional tool in our toolbox to ensure we adhere to the innovation that the Blueprint calls for,” Bedell testified at a hearing of the Senate Education, Energy and Environment Committee on Feb. 22.
Another bill, meanwhile, Senate Bill 338, sponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, has similar intentions but aims to keep the 180-day stipulation and establish a $25 million grant program that would allow school systems to apply for funding to explore an extended school-year schedule.
Ferguson told the committee that “signs of concern” about Maryland students falling behind in reading and math pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns have only been exacerbated due to two years of online learning, he said.
The first set of Maryland Report Card data since 2019 was released Thursday afternoon by the Maryland Department of Education. The data showed that Maryland schools as a whole earned fewer stars this year than before the pandemic. The results show most public schools — about 63% — managed to hold onto their stars during the pandemic, with 26% losing a star and just 11% gaining a star in 2021-22 compared to 2018-19.
About 48% of all Maryland schools earned a four- or five-star rating, with middle schools performing at lower levels than elementary and high schools. More than 75% of state schools earned three or more stars. Nearly 60% of Anne Arundel schools earned four or five stars.
“Moving forward with implementing the Blueprint, the fundamental question I return to over and over again is: Is this enough,” Ferguson said of the landmark legislation passed in 2021. “Often this has to do with money but really it has to do with programming and time.”
If SB 338 bill passes, the Maryland State Department of Education would distribute funds to participating public elementary and secondary schools to support certain expenses associated with implementing an extended school year scheduling model.
The grants would go to at least one rural school, one suburban school, and one urban school; however, Ferguson said the grant can be awarded to other schools as long as the department does not surpass the $25 million that is available. The idea is to equally divide the grant money between jurisdictions to collect as much data as possible.
“In cases where students have fallen so far behind in achievement due to two years of learning online, the only thing that will make a difference is to extend more quality time [in the classroom],” Ferguson said. “That does not mean more time sitting in seats, it’s about how we think creatively about extending and expanding opportunities in schools and classrooms for more days so we can have more quality time to help kids catch up and hopefully help them excel.”
Both SB 321 and SB 338 were heard in front of the Senate Education, Energy and Environment Committee, and both received support from AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, an organization representing all 24 school boards in the state. Neither bill has received a committee vote.
The Evening Sun
Peter Kannam, principal of Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, testified on SB 338 at the Senate hearing and said that adding extra days is the only course of action for closing achievement gaps in Title I schools like Elmer A. Henderson in East Baltimore.
“Increasing learning time for students matters,” he said. “The curriculum and standards that we are expecting our students to master require them to go very, very deep. Many of our students were behind grade level. While Baltimore City Public Schools has been a leader in many ways through the pandemic, recent data shows that our students have even more ground to make up, and a traditional calendar with 180 days of school, seven hours a day is not enough time to provide the deep level of learning our students deserve.”
Bedell has shown his support for SB 338 as well by submitting a letter to the legislature. The school system does not believe that these bills conflict with one another; rather, they complement each other, said Bob Mosier, a spokesperson for the school system.
“We hope to see Senator Ferguson’s bill pass, as well as ours, so we as a state can have the flexibility to explore models that work best for our jurisdictions,” he said.
School systems already exceed the minimum number of instructional hours mandated by the state due to the 180-day attendance requirement, Mosier said. Current data shows that in Anne Arundel County, elementary students receive 1,132.02 hours, middle school students receive 1,175.46 hours and high school students receive 1,194 hours of instructional time throughout the duration of the school year.
“Students will not lose a single minute of instruction time” if the 180-day rule is abolished, Mosier said. “The whole essence of innovation is not determining what we cannot do in a situation, it’s about figuring out how you can do it.”