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Published May 26, 2013, 06:27 PM

Some Minn. schools consider lowering class hours

FARMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — Some Minnesota school district officials are experimenting with shorter class schedules, on the theory that what matters in education is quality of instruction, not hours.

By: Associated Press, Associated Press

FARMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — Some Minnesota school district officials are experimenting with shorter class schedules, on the theory that what matters in education is quality of instruction, not hours.

Superintendents at Farmington Area Public Schools and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan have given up two to five days of classroom instruction. Instead, teachers use that time to meet one-on-one with students at the beginning of the year and collect information about their skills.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the way to improve learning is to keep kids in school longer. However, data don't necessarily back that up, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported (http://bit.ly/10zfgSq ).

Some states mandate more teaching hours than Minnesota does but with poorer education results, according to data gathered by the Education Commission of the States and the National Center on Time & Learning. In Finland, which tops international tests comparing student achievement, students spend hundreds fewer hours in the classroom than Minnesota students do.

"Does the length of the school year tie to performance? It's hard to say," said Kathy Christie, spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States. "There really is no silver bullet. States that are performing well are doing many things in the right way."

Superintendent Jane Berenz, who leads the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, said she's convinced the one-on-one time will pay significant dividends.

"I'm a firm believer in investing in teachers and their training," Berenz said. "We hold this time very dear to us."

Leaders in the Farmington and Rosemount districts say they hope their strategies will help them identify and assist struggling students sooner, avoiding costlier interventions down the road.

Some parents in those districts say they support those efforts, while others still require some convincing.

Traci Cywinski, who has two daughters who attend Farmington's North Trail Elementary School, said the personal time with teachers helped her kids transition into the academic year.

"It tells them the teacher has time for them," Cywinski said. "When school starts, they can really hit the ground running."

Kara McGowan, who has a son at Oak Ridge Elementary School in the Rosemount district, supports the approach but is still skeptical about the need to give up five days of instruction.

"If you're taking five days away from my kid, I want a report," McGowan said. "I want to know what you found."

The Legislature just passed an education spending bill that provides $240 million in new funding for K-12 schools. But using the money to extend the school day or year might not make sense. For example, in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, the state's fourth-largest district, the addition of a single school day would cost $1 million.

"The reality is, time costs money," said Charlene Briner, a spokeswoman for state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "More hours of instruction is important for students. When you have limited resources, it's important how you strategically structure that time."

Briner said state officials are giving districts flexibility to make sure they can use funding wisely.

Some groups say they prefer the idea of giving students more classroom time, but they acknowledge it's difficult to find a balance between sufficient instruction and cost.

Tom Dooher is the president of Education Minnesota, which represents more than 70,000 educators. He said the main thing his members want is more freedom from state and federal mandates so districts would have the flexibility to do what works for them.

"We spend so much time on test prep and high-stakes testing, we lose instruction," Dooher said. "There are so many restrictions, it limits the ability of educators to fashion lessons to students' needs."

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