University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Winter Vacation?

In The View from the OEP on February 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Snow-Day--640-x-480--29659959_2670_ver1.0_320_240Depending on your position, this year, Arkansas has either been a winter wonderland – or a cold, dreary place. Up here in the northern part of the state, school districts have already missed over twelve days of school due to the weather, prompting us to ask – how do snow days impact student performance?

Across the nation (and world), there is an ever-growing debate regarding the length of the school day, the length of the school year, and the calendar of the school year.

  • Some research indicates that longer schools days lead to higher student outcomes; while other research points to no apparent gain in student achievement related to more school days.
  • Others attribute more instructional days to increased student achievement; and these proponents often point out that high performing nations have longer school years.
  • Other research shows that an expanded school calendar, with a shorter summer break, decreases any potential summer loss that may occur, particularly in low-income students.

Now, to answer our question… how do snow days impact student performance? The existing research provides conflicting answers.

In a 2012 study titled “Flaking Out: Snowfall, Disruptions of Instructional Time, and Student Achievement,” Harvard economist Joshua Goodman reveals that weather-related school closures do not impact student performance and are less harmful than student absences. Goodman theorizes that a “central challenge of teaching is coordination of students,” and so when the whole classes misses an instructional day, that lost time can be regained through a make-up day; however, when students are absent, teachers have to spend time recovering the learning loss for select students, thus compromising an instructional time for all students. Therefore, Goodman concludes:

“Schools need to consider the downside when deciding NOT to declare a snow day during a storm — the fact that many kids will miss school regardless either because of transportation issues or parental discretion. And because those absences typically aren’t made up in the school calendar, those kids can fall behind.”

However, a 2010 study reveals different results. Dave Marcotte and Benjamin Hansen examined the performance of schools in Maryland and Colorado over time. Marcotte and Hansen conclude that student performance is harmed by school closures: in years with more snow days, students performed less well on state tests. In fact, in an earlier report, Marcotte and Hansen equated student learning loss to inches of snow: “each additional inch of snow in a winter reduced the percentage of 3rd-, 5th-, and 8th-grade students who passed math assessments by between one-half and seven-tenths of a percentage point, or just under 0.0025 standard deviations.”

In Arkansas, schools are required to hold 178 instructional days.  Some schools in Arkansas choose to have a longer school year (particularly many of the charter schools around the state). Other schools in Arkansas have adopted a year-round schedule.  Regardless, if days are missed due to weather and the total number of instructional days drops below 178, school districts are required to make up missed days so that the students received at least the minimum number of days (unless otherwise approved).

Not surprisingly, in many cases, these days are tacked on at the end of the school year, after Benchmark and End-of-Year exams. We recognize the importance of learning throughout the entire school year, but we also realize that school leaders would like the results of this learning to show up on state exam scores!  While this can be an important issue, it is one that policymakers and state educational leaders can influence — the dates of these exams are policy choices that have been made and could, conceivably, be changed.  More importantly, however, students in high school have already scheduled to take ACT and SAT exams; similarly, students in AP classes also face very rigorous assessments that are given on fixed dates in the year (beyond the control of our state).  These external assessments have real consequences for the future academic lives of Arkansas students.  Thus, these missed days in the winter can certainly lead to problems later on in the Spring…

school bus

Perhaps relevant to this conversation is the (little-known) fact that Arkansas law allows for a school district to adopt a four-day school week, with longer instructional days.  Right now, however, no school district in the state follows this schedule.  However, given the current snowy and sleety situation across the Natural State, perhaps this law provides a solution.  If the state would allow mid-year adjustments to the 4-day schedule, perhaps districts could make up missing days by shifting to a 4-day week by adding minutes Monday through Thursday, and then holding school on Fridays to make up for days missed due to snow ???

Regardless of what responses our school leaders choose, hopefully they can be as interesting as this Kentucky principal was when announcing a snow day to the student body!!


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