Saturday, September 26, 2020
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Compromise reached on longer school day in Chicago

The news from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Teachers Union is a little hopeful at this point. Both sides seem to be working toward resolving differences, and Emanuel is committed to school starting on time this year (Sept. 4 for most schools, and Aug. 13 for one third of them). There are still issues to resolve, but talks, which are under a national spotlight, are continuing.

A year ago, the CTU rejected a plan for a longer school day, the Chicago Tribune reported, and the issue came up again, this time resolved with compromise: Emanuel agreed to hire back about 500 teachers in exchange for adding about 30 minutes more in high school and 75 minutes more in elementary school.

He wanted to add about a half hour more in each case, but compromise seems to have been necessary.

“Are there people who are going to say the mayor gave up too much? Of course there are,” Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, told the Tribune. A study is in progress at the institute that examines data from 39 charter schools that used a longer school day during the 2011-12 school year. “But the mayor genuinely doesn’t want a strike, so he’s got to negotiate.”

That gives CPS students not the shortest day in the country, but the issue is going to come up again, because the amount of material teachers need to cover has increased dramatically since the 180-day school year and 6.5-hour school day was instituted decades ago.

Oddly enough, CTU’s own argument may work against them. Last year, in rejecting the longer school day, CTU president Karen Lewis said:

Nobody seems to know what it’s like to work in a school building. And that there’s been no plan. It’s just ‘we want a longer day, we want a longer day.’ We are not going to extend what we’re doing now because we have teachers who literally have absolutely no time to go to the bathroom. That is the way the schedule is now.

If they haven’t got time to go to the bathroom, I find it difficult to imagine how much time they have to teach. One possible solution would be to give them more time. One way to accomplish that is by lengthening the school day.

The question is, What’s the right thing to do here? In a report released earlier this year, David Farbman, Ph.D., of the National Center on Time and Learning, wrote this (PDF):

While expectations for the levels of preparation schools must offer the next generation of American workers and citizens have risen dramatically, education and policy leaders have not updated policies and practices to meet these changing demands.

In other words, the 6.5-hour school day and 180-day school year both came into existence a long time ago, when there wasn’t nearly as much material to cover. As a result, most people in education leadership positions today realize that student learning is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” That is, the vast majority of today’s students know a very little bit about a wide range of topics, but schools just don’t have time to dig into any one of them.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have to increase the amount of time spent on teaching and learning, or we’re going to see this problem get worse. Teachers don’t have enough time to teach what they need to teach even today, so since the amount of material people need to know for college and jobs is only going to increase, failing to adjust the amount of learning time is a mistake, especially for urban kids.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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