Dispelling Snow Day myths

Folks, this marks my 100th post as Frostededucation, and I guess in many ways, there is a sour bit of irony in that this anniversary will be marked by yet another post disagreeing with Paul W. Bennett.

This past week, a story emerged around snow days in Nova Scotia, released by the Canadian Press. In the story, Paul W. Bennett claimed that the number of days school has been cancelled this winter amount to, in his words, a crisis. He stated “This is without a doubt the most serious crisis of lost school days that this province has ever faced.” He complained that Nova Scotia is overcautious about closing schools, and compared us to Winnipeg which he claimed, in some years, had not lost a single snow day. He then went on to cite research which showed that such closures have a negative effect student achievement. To quote the article:

“We have evidence from Massachusetts that it affects math scores significantly,” said Bennett, citing a report from Harvard public policy professor Joshua Goodman. He said Goodman’s research was based on up to five lost days, and the professor was shocked to hear from Bennett that Nova Scotia schools regularly meet or exceed that number.

Oh, where to begin.

Let’s start with the comparison between Winnipeg and Nova Scotia. Taken on face value, one could certainly draw a conclusion that fewer snow days in Winnipeg, of all places, might point to Nova Scotia’s penchant for being overly cautious when it comes to the weather. Certainly , when one pictures “The ‘Peg” in February, there is a tendency towards picturing particularly puffy parkas and lots of snow. Why then, would such a place have fewer snow days than the East Coast?

Simple really. It doesn’t snow much in Winnipeg.

I know what you are thinking. However, a quick google search shows that big snowstorms, by Winnipeg standards, dump a whopping 10 cm the city, and that happens about twice a year. Storms dropping 25cm or more are very rare.  Of Canada’s 10 major cities, only Vancouver gets less snow on average.

Now, this lack of the wintry white stuff may have you packing your bags, but a word to the wise before pointing the nose of the family station wagon westward. It is not the snow that is of concern. It is the cold one has to watch. The frigid winter temperatures allow most of the snow that does fall to stick around all winter, instead of turning into our familiar icy, slushy mess. This contributes to our East Coast perception of the city “getting” a lot of snow rather than “keeping” a lot of snow. And it is this cold, more often than the snow, that does indeed cause classes to be cancelled on a fairly regular basis. Although there may indeed be milder winters, snow days, or at least “cold days” are not uncommon.

So much for Winnipeg.

Next, let’s address the idea of the major impact on student achievement that seems to be of concern.

The evidence that Bennett cites out of Massachusetts was, indeed, written by Joshua Goodman. However, that is about as far as the accuracy of that claim goes. Goodman’s research actually shows that closing schools because of inclement weather has no significant detrimental impact on student achievement. The research also states, in fact, that keeping schools open during storms may actually do more harm than good.

If schools are open and only a percentage of students attend, teachers would be expected to teach those students. Those who remain home, either by choice or by some other factor (ie a bus choosing to not go down their road) fall behind. The next day, teachers would be responsible to “catch up” those who missed, and the learning of the students who attended during the storm would be negatively impacted. No  matter how you look at it, someone loses out.

Now, one might argue that a study out of Harvard (which, arguably, only considered 5 days of closures) may not necessarily show how impactful snow days are on students here in Nova Scotia. However, one only has to look at the results of Provincial testing to come to a fairly consistent conclusion. According to data collected in the Province’s assessment tests, there is no correlation between snow days and achievement. In fact, in some instances, a bad winter actually resulted in higher tests scores. The winter of 2015 was certainly one for the record books, and also caused much undo alarm, but several boards saw an increase in their scores the following year.

Certainly doesn’t seem like there is much cause for panic.

The notion that kids are not impacted educationally by storm days is certainly counterintuitive, but it is pretty hard to argue with the data. And believe me, as someone who is fairly strongly on record as opposing large-scale, standardized assessments, I have tried. But at the end of the day, I could find no research anywhere that suggested closing schools due to inclement weather had any predictable effect, positive or negative, on student achievement.

There is logic in this, of course. If an entire school day is lost, teachers simply have to adjust their planning to get caught up. This may mean a bit more homework, or perhaps an adjustment to a lesson plan. If half the class misses a day, however, that is indeed another story altogether.

Here in Nova Scotia, the issue of snow days and school closures has been looked at three ways from Sunday. In 2009 a discussion paper was commissioned by the government to look at this very issue.  (It seems that the winter of 2008-2009 was another doozy). The paper made a number of recommendations, mostly on how school closures should be handled, and contained some very interesting numbers. Across the data, covering the years 1998 -2008, individual boards lost anywhere from as few as 1 day per winter to as many as 14. On average, boards lost a total of 6 days per year. This almost exactly matches the 5 days that the report points out were added to our school year in 1971 to allow for such closures.

For what it is worth, that ranks Nova Scotia among the top when it comes to available instructional days at 195.

So, considering the lack of evidence to support the idea that these closures are detrimental to student learning, and the fact that our school calendar already has a built in buffer for such instances, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about.

In what is probably the most bizarre twist in this whole affair, I reached out to Professor Goodman to discuss this matter. I had used his research a number of times and assumed, since Bennett had mentioned speaking to him about his research, Goodman had discovered something new since his 2014 report.

Goodman stood firmly on what his research had found and claimed no recollection of ever having spoken to Mr. Bennett. So much for his being “shocked to hear”.

The Canadian Press is a nationally recognized news source in this country. One that, presumably, should be embarking on some modicum of fact checking before releasing a story, particularly about something as important as education. If they had been as careless with an article pertaining to say, healthcare, one would assume the backlash would have been swift and significant.

When it comes to education, however, it would appear that anyone can say anything and it will be treated as fact. And once printed by an institution like the Canadian Press, it becomes so.

Unless it isn’t.

The Canadian Press should be made of sterner stuff.

Originally published in edited form in localxpress.ca.



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Filed under Educational commentary, snow days

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