"It's Tough to Snow Jane or John Q." By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. April 1994.


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch

Research shows time on task is directly tied to student achievement. One study indicates more than thirty percent of the difference in reading scores is directly attributable to the way students spend their time. National leaders and the general public are alarmed at the numbers of pupils experiencing difficulty on scholastic and proficiency examinations. U.S. students are being outperformed in mathematics and science by their counterparts in other industrialized nations while attending 40 fewer school days per year on average.

It's no surprise, then, that parents, business people and major newspapers hoisted red flags when (teacher union supported) legislators suggested forgiving days which schools missed for inclement weather this past winter. One state legislator even compared school with sleep: "You can't make it up," he said.

It was a blustery cold evening, but the roads were perfectly dry. My telephone rang and on the other end was the husband of a teacher in a district where I was superintendent. "I'm very frustrated that you can't make up your mind to close schools on the night before when the weatherman is saying we will have snow tomorrow," he explained. After asking a few questions, I realized this man's problem was that he didn't want his teacher-spouse inconvenienced by sleeping on hair rollers when she might not have school the next day. I'm not kidding! And neither was he!

There's no doubt the winter of 1994 was particularly difficult in the eastern and midwestern United States. We don't know anyone who wants to do anything that would endanger students. If weather conditions are really severe, then students should stay home from school. It's that simple. But the closing of schools brings many questions.

  • Why do teachers have the day off, and what's wrong with teachers making up those days? Other gainfully employed individuals may go to work late, but few take an entire day off for inclement weather.
  • Why can't decisions to close be made based upon actual inclement weather rather than predictions? Some schools closed this winter based on meteorological forecasts of storms which never occurred.
  • If a business closes for a few days, it loses a significant amount of revenue. When schools are closed, school "revenue" - - or student learning - - is lost. Isn't that significant?
  • Should teachers be paid for days not worked and services not rendered?
  • In many areas parochial and private schools either stayed open or announced quickly they would be making up days. Are they more market driven? Do they better understand the serious desires of their customers?
  • Are there cases when delays would be more prudent than cancellations?
  • Obviously, many students and teachers say they want a holiday. Should this be taken seriously?
  • Are some public schools confusing students (the product) and teachers (the human resource) with the customer (parents/taxpayers)?

There's no doubt we need more instructional time, not less. Forgiving missed school days sends the message to students and parents that school is only important when convenient. It's hard for the public to understand why schools are closed and teachers are home on days when merchants are open. Couldn't teachers be preparing lesson plans or participating in in-service education on such days? Although "snow days" are principally a phenomenon of the east, midwest and northwest portion of the country, other weather conditions cause closings in other states.

In any case, the overriding message which should be coming from our public schools is that "EDUCATION IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS STUDENTS WILL DO WITH THEIR LIVES". We need to seize every opportunity to carry that message. Precipitous closings ruin credibility with businesses and taxpayers. One of the factors which hurts school fundraising most is the public perception that schools are a part-time business.

Let us take a minute to view the situation from the business perspective. Take your total local school budget and divide it by the number of student days. If the unit of analysis is student education, then this is the only way to figure daily operating costs. For our Columbus, Ohio, Public Schools, operating costs amount to nearly $2 million a day. It comes down to this: Who is being cheated? It is the students who miss school.

It's counterproductive to grant more "calamity days" when the nation is trying to raise educational standards. Every day school is cancelled and not made up is taking 1/180th of the school year and throwing it away. Educational objectives, not school politics, should drive the school calendar. If students are not in school, it is highly unlikely they are involved in structured learning.

If school days are not vitally important, then what are the taxpayers supporting? Jane and John Q. Public aren't buying the argument that missed instructional days are unimportant.

Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.