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Longer school year will hurt students: YTA

The Yukon Teachers' Association has blasted the government's plans to implement a longer, standard calendar across Yukon schools. The move was done without consultation and the evidence does not support it.

The Yukon Teachers’ Association has blasted the government’s plans to implement a longer, standard calendar across Yukon schools.

The move was done without consultation and the evidence does not support it, said YTA president Katherine Mackwood.

“I believe it’s a political move to say, ‘Look at what we’ve done.’”

A 2009 auditor general’s report said that the department does not have a plan to address the gap in student achievement in the Yukon.

“This is a knee-jerk reaction to the auditor general’s report because it was scathing, not about the quality of teachers ... It was all about the ability of the Department of Education to do their job.”

Mackwood has lost faith in the public schools branch of the department to make decisions based on sound evidence, she said.

“I have given up. I don’t believe that they have the best interest of our students at heart.”

The addition of 15 hours for teaching and 15 hours for teacher training was discussed with the association during the most recent round of negotiations, and it supports those changes, said Mackwood.

She cited a recent research study, which found that increasing the amount of time kids spend in school does improve achievement, and has an even greater impact for disadvantaged students.

But the school calendar options offered by Education to school councils back in December do not simply increase the number of teaching hours. They also reduce the number of minutes in each school day to effectively lengthen the school year.

Under the current Education Act, schools can vary the number of minutes of instruction per day between 300 and 330. This allows schools to choose to have fewer longer days in the school year, or more shorter days.

When the Robert Service School in Dawson City revamped its calendar over 20 years ago, it added 10 minutes to each school day so they could end the school year before June, when the days are long and absenteeism had been a problem.

Research does not support the government’s contention that more shorter days are better than fewer longer days, said Mackwood. This is despite assertions to the contrary in a confidential document prepared by the government for the YTA.

One review of the literature found “that extending that school year had positive effects especially for vulnerable students,” according to that document.

But the cited research itself paints a different picture.

“There was little good evidence that explicitly tested whether lengthening the school year or the school day leads to academic benefits for students,” according to the report.

The study did suggest that more time in the classroom might be beneficial, but did not suggest that more days is preferable to longer days.

From her own experience as a teacher, longer school days means more time for instruction, said Mackwood.

Chunks of time are taken up at the beginning and end of each day to get students settled and get them ready to go home, so shorter days mean that less of each day is devoted to the curriculum, she said.

“We covet the time that we can instruct our students, be before our students teaching math, teaching language, teaching science.”

A longer, standardized calendar will not improve student outcomes, said Mackwood.

“What it will be successful in doing is increasing absenteeism, because in our communities they have reasons for the calendars that they choose.”

Schools in the communities have, in the past, been able to vary their calendars to adjust to times when the students have other places to be, like during hunting season or the tourist season.

The long northern summer days are another reason to spend more time in the classroom during winter months, she said.

“We have to make hay when the sun doesn’t shine, because of where we live,” said Mackwood.

“Once the sun starts to rise, those kids need to be outside. They have been inside all winter long.”

Education Minister Scott Kent said that a longer school year will bring the Yukon closer to being in line with provinces to the south.

“When it comes to the Yukon, we currently have a very short year and it ranges from 173 to 181 days. When you look at our neighbouring jurisdictions, British Columbia is between 192 and 194, Alberta is actually up to 200 days per year.”

Standardizing the calendar across the territory will lay the foundation for many programs which will allow rural students to access the same opportunities as those in Whitehorse, he said.

“The issue for me is that we need to do better on our student achievement and graduation rates, and working hard to close that gap that exists between the communities and Whitehorse.”

The minister will continue to assess the feedback from student councils across the territory as it comes in, he said. The deadline for feedback on the calendar is Jan. 31.

Mackwood believes that Kent is a reasonable person, she said, and that he will reconsider his position once he hears what the communities and the teachers’ association have to say.

She has requested a meeting with the minister but has not yet met with him, she said.

Kent had been out of town on vacation and returned to the office this week.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at