The amount of time a Hawaii public high school student spent learning in the classroom during the last academic year varied by nearly two months, or 240 hours.

Students at the Big Island’s Kau High School were in the classroom for 1,019 hours over the course of the year, while those at Maui High were present for just 774 hours.

A law that aimed to equalize instructional time across Hawaii’s regular public schools was implemented a few years ago and is gradually being phased in, but now lawmakers are revisiting questions about how much time the state should require public school students to spend in the classroom.

The law was also created to prevent a new round of Furlough Fridays, which were the Board of Education’s last-ditch effort to salvage the state’s public education budget by eliminating 34 days of classroom time from the school calendar over the course of 2009 and 2010. That decision prompted the formation of organizations such as the grassroots Save Our Schools Hawaii, which staged rallies and a week-long sit-in at then-Gov. Linda Lingle’s office urging her to end the temporary layoffs.

This year, the big question is whether Hawaii should turn back the clock on House Bill 2486, a law that was passed in 2010 in response to the furloughs. HB2486 set across-the-board minimum instructional time for all schools. (Charter and multi-track schools are excluded from the requirements.)

A bill that’s making its way through the Legislature would eliminate certain key conditions of HB 2486, which was better known as Act 167.

Those conditions include setting a minimum number of instructional hours that is gradually increasing, but many school administrators argue that putting those minimums into place will be daunting because of the financial and logistical burdens on schools.

As things stand those minimums exclude time devoted to extracurricular academics such as senior projects and science fairs, as well as the time teachers devote to their profession outside of the classroom doing tasks like lecture preparation and grading.

“The approach should be one of differentiation,” said Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda, who introduced the Senate version of this year’s bill. “Let’s not do this, carte blanche, across all schools.”

“It’s not just about keeping John and Janey in a chair longer — it’s about asking ourselves a very fundamental question: Are they learning?”

But some opponents of House Bill 1675 worry the measure could make the state more vulnerable to future Furlough Fridays and, perhaps more likely, that it risks restoring great variations in instructional time that could lead to less equal education.

Classroom-Time Disparities

Prior to the minimums established by Act 167, schools were plagued by huge disparities in instructional time, said Cheri Nakamura, director of the HEE Coalition, a group of community education advocacy groups that came together in response to Furlough Fridays.

Until 2010, schools set their own schedules and course times. That all changed when Act 167 was passed.

Starting last August, elementary schools had to increase the length of their school year to include at least 915 hours total, or an average of about five hours every school day. The minimum is slated to increase to 990 hours during the upcoming school year for secondary schools and, starting in the 2016-17 year, 1,080 hours. That would mean six hours a day in the classroom.

The mandate has caused anxiety at some schools and outrage at many others, with administrators and teachers — along with the Hawaii State Teachers Association — saying the 1,080-hour requirement is essentially impossible to implement.

Since its passage, Act 167 has prompted various legislative attempts to tweak the state’s definition of “instructional time” and tone down the law’s requirements, including a law passed in 2011 that delayed implementation of Act 167’s original timetable. This is yet another attempt, Tokuda said, to provide “some much-needed flexibility” for schools.

For comparison purposes, a 2013 report by the Hawaii Department of Education found that the state falls in a middle range nationally when it comes to instructional-time requirements, although nearly all states set the minimum number of days to 180 like Hawaii.

HB 1675 would allow schools to have more classroom time, if they want to, while letting other schools have shorter classes and more learning outside of the classroom.

Hana High and Elementary School, for instance, runs on a four-day academic calendar.

The legislation “is part of a strategic plan to move the needle,” Tokuda said. “It should really come down to where students learn best, and are we giving access to those teachable moments?”

Yet others point out that the mandate, however onerous, was established for a reason: to prevent Furlough Fridays from ever happening again. Abandoning Act 167, they say, would be taking a step backwards.

Meaningful Learning

This year’s bill, HB 1675, would repeal the 1,080-hour requirement for future years while keeping in place the 990-hour increase that’s scheduled for implementation in the 2014-15 school year. It also tasks the Board of Education with defining “student instructional hours” in consultation with unions such as the HSTA.

Tokuda says schools have struggled to comply with Act 167 and that, while the actual figures are unknown, some calculations estimate that it could cost the state as much as $7 million extra to run schools each additional day.

She pointed to schools like Mililani High School, which has wrestled with but managed to implement the 990-hour requirement. Meanwhile, schools like McKinley High just haven’t found a way to make it work because of resistance from teachers.

“Knowing what we know now, having gone through this over the last four years, this bill really seeks to make the tenets of Act 167 as meaningful as possible for both the students and the schools,” she said.

The state DOE, along with a number of teachers, has submitted testimony in support of the effort, citing the difficulty schools have had in complying with Act 167.

Teachers point to the diverse learning needs of students, saying instructional time is a static and ineffective way to promote learning.

But Nakamura of the HEE Coalition says changing the instructional-time expectations yet again will simply unravel the work that’s been done to improve school quality since the last Furlough Fridays.

“We’re saying we should try to stay with the law,” she said, emphasizing that Hawaii’s standards need to be on par with those in other states. Nakamura stressed that her support for HB 1675 doesn’t mean that she thinks instructional time serves as a proxy for educational quality — alternatively, it sends the message that the state should set high baseline standards for schools.

“Everyone has an opinion about what is best for our kids and how (schools) can deliver the best education,” she said. I agree that “there are certainly myriad things that go into educating our kids … but this law is supposed to be more simple than that.”

Meanwhile, the HSTA has taken issue with the measure not because it likes Act 167 but because it zealously opposes any legislation that could violate its contract by increasing the burden on teachers. Wil Okabe, union president, said teachers should be compensated if they work outside their contract and that this year’s bill doesn’t guarantee that will happen.

He added that students test scores actually went up during Furlough Fridays, demonstrating that parent engagement — and not necessarily classroom time — is more integral to achievement.

“It wasn’t about not having the time,” he said, noting that the union’s current four-year contract compensates teachers only for working seven-hour days, supposedly including planning time. “It’s about reinforcing (the learning) at home.”

HSTA wants Act 167 repealed.

Nakamura agrees with the union on the contract issue and says the Legislature should delay implementation of the 1,080-hour requirement until the next four-year teachers’ contract is negotiated. That one wouldn’t go into effect until 2017.

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