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Chicago pushes longer school days as key to achievement: 'We had to do something'

REUTERS/John Gress

Thousands of Chicago Public School teachers rally before marching to the Board of Education's headquarters in protest in Chicago on May 23. Teachers say they are upset with contract talks, especially the offered 2 percent raise to work a longer school day this fall.

Many children in Chicago Public Schools will go from having the shortest school days in the nation to some of the longest this fall, a move that some experts say is needed to help push the struggling system ahead in student achievement.

Other school districts are reporting improvement in achievement after extending the school day, and if President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan had their way, all of America's kids would be in school longer with shorter summer vacations.

But one researcher said the perception among policy makers and the public that U.S. students spend less time in school than their peers in other countries is not backed by fact.

“To paint a broad brush is misleading," said Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Education in Alexandria, Va. The center is an initiative with the National School Boards Association. "The vast majority of American students are required to go school for as many hours a year as students in most all other countries.”


Still, in Chicago, public school students have the shortest school day — 5 hours and 45 minutes — among the nation's 50 largest districts, according the National Council on Teacher Quality. The national average is 6.7 hours in school. Under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emnauel's plan, elementary schools will move to seven hours and most city high schools will extend their day to 7½ hours, although one day during the week would be shorter by 75 minutes. 

Chicago teachers vote for strike in battle over pay, longer school days

“More districts are now looking to break free of the standard school schedule because there are too many students who are not reaching higher academic standards,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston-based nonprofit group dedicated to expand learning time to improve student performance.

School districts across the country are using federal or state funding to extend the school day and/or school calendar, said Staci Maiers, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, which supports teachers and school employees. The NEA has 3 million members.

But Hull said time spent learning in school and time spent studying are two different things.

Students in China, Korea, Japan and India are not required to spend more time in school than most U.S. students, Hull said. According to the U.S. Department of Education, American schools average 180 days on instruction each year. Most nations require between 175 and 180 days of school and/or between 900 and 1,000 hours of instructional time per year, depending on the grade level, he said.

“It should not be taken that time is not important because it is very much so," Hull said. "In the case of Chicago Public Schools, it can be an extremely valuable tool for students who need the extra time."

'We had to do something'
Emanuel and leaders of the Chicago Public Schools hope more time in the classroom will mean better grades and more high school graduates from the nation's third-largest school system.

"Among 10 of the largest cities in the U.S., our students have 22 percent less instructional time than their peers, and 83 percent of our third-graders are not reading at their grade level," Marielle Sainvilus, spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, told msnbc.com. "We had to do something to ensure that our students had the time in class needed to succeed."

Sainvilus said some elementary schools and charter schools in Chicago have added extra time to their school day, but getting all on board has proven to be a challenge.

A longer school day is a contentious issue for Chicago parents, students and the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents 25,000 members. 

"I think if it is done appropriately, it could be a great thing,” said Nell Cotton, a mother of two children enrolled in Chicago schools. "We're facing a $700 million deficit in the district and our students don't even have a playground to play in -- how are they going to find the money to extend the day?"

If her 12-year-old daughter Cecilia Cotton had her way, she would nix the plan and head home at 2:15 p.m.

“More school? It’s hard enough already,” said the sixth-grade student. “Getting to school earlier or later is not going to helpful for me or my family. I am not looking forward to it."

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The longer school day is part of contract negotiations between the schools and the Chicago Teachers Union. The teachers voted to authorize a strike as early as mid-August, union officials say. Union leaders said the vote provides leverage in the negotiations.

Chicago teachers are upset at Emanuel, whose School Board rescinded a 4 percent pay increase for teachers last year, and who asked teachers at several schools to waive the union contract to work more hours once the school day is extended in the fall, according to NBCChicago.com. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, however, blocked any negotiation attempts with schools, according to NBCChicago.com.

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'Keep moving ahead'
While the Chicago schools and the union wrestle, administrators elsewhere are moving ahead on expanded classroom time.

All 25 district schools in the Louisiana Recovery District are operating on an expanded school day, with a standard of 8.5 hours, and most of the 55 charter schools in New Orleans feature a longer day and/or year, according to Davis, of the National Center on Time and Learning.

Willie E. Thompson Middle School and Arthur Hill High School, both in Saginaw, Mich., are just two of the schools that have used federal School Improvement Grants to hire additional staff for its extended learning, according to NEA’s Maiers.

In New Jersey, about 25 school districts could have longer days and school year under a bill being considered by the state’s Assembly Education Committee on Thursday, according to the Newark-based Star-Ledger.

In Phoenix, Balsz School District Superintendent Jeffrey Smith said not only do the district's 2,800 students have a seven-hour school day, but students have more school days than the average U.S. public schools student. Students at Balsz's five schools have classes for 200 days, compared to the traditional 180 days, Smith said. The Balsz district adopted a longer school day and calendar three years ago, Smith said.

“Two of our five schools were failing, and since we extended our year we have seen an incredible growth in our students," Smith said. He said he's seen improvements in grades in math and reading across the district.  

"I highly encourage Chicago to keep moving ahead and to keep doing what they plan to do to increase their school hours," Smith said. "We went through these kinds of discussions and everyone has to remember to make decisions benefiting the student. ... Students need longer days and a longer school year to be competitive in our world today. There is no way around it."

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