The Truth About Snow Days: Students Suffer When Cancellations Mount

Parents, teachers, and journalists across our snowier climes seemed delighted by a Harvard study last month that said school days canceled for winter storms do not undermine student achievement.

Snow Days Are OK, Says Harvard Study” read a headline at The Atlantic‘s website likewise asked how much snow days harm student achievement. “Not much,” came the answer. The BBC and Washington Post reported the same.

Not so fast, says Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the misunderstood study, “Flaking Out: Snowfall, Disruptions of Instructional Time, and Student Achievement.” Goodman tells me his study was based on data mined for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for its public schools, which typically call off school two or three times per year for snow.

Many places in this memorably miserable winter have gone way beyond that threshold. One school in southern Ohio has canceled 16 days, the Associated Press reported. Unlike two or three days spent on the couch or the closest toboggan run, Goodman says, longer chunks of time spent away from the teacher’s rule will hurt student achievement, especially when it comes to scoring on mandated standard tests. “I have to believe it will make a difference,” Goodman says.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Dave Marcotte, in a 2010 online article for Education Next, found that each additional inch of snow reduced the percentage of third-, fifth-, and eighth-grade students on math assessments by from one-half to seven-tenths of a percentage point.

New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia are adding three days to the end of the year to make up for lost classwork, Washington is adding one, and Boston’s school calendar will be extended by almost a week. But Goodman is not a fan of  tacking on days to make up the lost time. Academic schedules become increasingly calorie-free the longer a school year goes into spring and early summer., he says. “These are not real days.” As a former high school math teacher, he should know.

Goodman does suggest one move school districts can make to ensure a more productive year: reschedule standardized testing for later dates. That way, teachers can use the extra time to cover material that may have received little or no attention while flakes were falling.

To cancel or not to cancel can be a Hamletian dilemma. Goodman found, for example, that keeping schools open when the weather is bad could prove more detrimental than calling it off. Witness last week’s nor’easter that pounded New York: Mayor Bill de Blasio kept public schools open, incurring the wrath of parents, teachers, and NBC Today Show weatherman Al Roker:

De Blasio defended his decision, reminding constituents that the city has canceled school only 11 times since 1978. But with a mere 45 percent of students in attendance amid last week’s snowstorm, teachers will be struggling to get the 55 percent who weren’t there caught up. As Goodman’s study concluded, schools do not deal well with circumstances in which “only some students are absent.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.