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Snow Days Don't Sap Student Learning, Study Finds

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While the snowstorms and icy sidewalks of this past winter are fast disappearing from memory as hot weather moves in, a question remains: Did all those snow days hurt student learning?

Perhaps not. A working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that snow days are generally harmless.

The study, by Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, looks at how school closures due to extremely snowy weather affected standardized test scores of Massachusetts students from 2003 to 2010. The good news: Snow days had little impact on student achievement.

However, Goodman did find that student absences prompted by moderately snowy days had a negative impact on test scores, particularly in math.

The findings imply that teachers are better able to manage coordinated absences, when the whole class has missed school, often by simply pushing back planned lessons. Material that won't be tested on a standardized exam can be postponed or skipped over.

In contrast, Goodman writes, when only one or a few students miss class, "the teacher may take time out of the classroom schedule to catch the absent student up on missed material, in which case his classmates lose instructional time from the teacher. Or the teacher may not set aside such time, in which case the student himself has lost instructional time and may disrupt his classmates' future lessons because he has fallen behind."

The paper points to an often overlooked source of more time for learning: time lost to absenteeism. Goodman notes that the average American student is absent nearly 11 days out of every school year, and high schools students miss three weeks of school a year on average.

"The results highlight the fact that increasing instructional time does not necessarily require lengthening the school day or year as some gains may be made by increasing the fraction of already scheduled time that students are in school," Goodman writes.

For a closer look at how some schools this winter sought to turn snow days into e-learning days, check out this recent Education Week story.

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