Rhode Island Chief Seeks Longer School Day

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Rhode Island's top education official wants to extend the school day as a way to help close the achievement gap between students in low-income communities and their more affluent peers.

The proposal by Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters to raise the statewide minimum school day for students to seven hours in primary and secondary schools was slated for debate at a series of public hearings starting this week. Current state regulations call for at least a five-hour day in elementary school and 5½ hours at the secondary level.

In practice, the length of the day varies throughout the state's 36 districts. In upper-income Barrington, for example, elementary school pupils are in school for 6¼ hours each day, while in Providence—the state's biggest and poorest district—the elementary school day is 5¾ hours, the shortest in the state.

"At face value, when I look at a district that has the shortest days and the most neediest kids, then clearly it is time to intervene," said Mr. McWalters.

The plan has prompted skepticism among teachers' groups and district leaders.

Noting that the proposal doesn't come with additional state aid, some call it an unfunded mandate, and say it would conflict with local union contracts. Some local education officials also question whether Mr. McWalters has the authority to make such a change without legislation.

But the proposal has drawn praise from the superintendent of the 26,900- student Providence district, as well as from Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican.

"In order to improve overall performance, more time on task is needed," said Janet Durfee-Hidalgo, an education policy analyst in the governor's office. "And [Gov. Carcieri] has clearly indicated that this is an equity issue."

Mr. McWalters' plan would phase in the seven-hour requirement statewide over the next four years. But districts identified in Rhode Island's school accountability system as in need of state "corrective action"a status that now applies to just Providence and the 3,800-student Central Falls system— would have to meet the mandate sooner.

Doing so would give the Ocean State one of the longest minimum school days in the country. A 2002 survey by the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers showed that while about half the states required six- or 6½-hour days, only Texas had a seven- hour minimum.

Michael Rettig, an education professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and an expert on school scheduling, said Rhode Island is on the right track.

"Time matters," he said. "When you look at the research about what a school can do in terms of affecting student achievement, the number-one thing a school can do is make sure the curriculum is aligned with the standards to be assessed. And the second most important thing in the research is time, and how much is spent doing certain things, and how well that time is used."

The proposed Rhode Island regulations also include a plan for extending teachers' "professional time," for such purposes as training, faculty meetings, and group lesson planning. Teachers in districts under corrective action would be required to take part in at least 30 hours of professional activities during the year.

The proposed new rules on teacher time are aimed largely at Providence, where, by contract, participation in professional time is voluntary. Mr. McWalters said most other districts in the state already require at least 30 hours of professional activities of teachers each year.

"I'm almost embarrassed I have to do this," he said. "If it is going to take regulatory language to make happen what is a given and common practice, then as odd as it is, that's what I'll do."

The state's board of regents for elementary and secondary education expects to vote on the rule changes after the four public hearings are held on the issue between now and Feb. 9.

In the meantime, opposition to the plan is mounting.

Possible Court Challenge

Many district leaders have said the mandate would put them in an awkward position with their teachers' unions. The regulations would force them to revise their contracts. And, without extra money to pay teachers for more time, they could be forced to make concessions in other work rules.

Steve Smith, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, said that instead of lengthening the school day, the state board should consider lowering class sizes, expanding preschool, or improving school buildings.

"An extra half hour a day in a school that has physical-plant issues, such as no heat, poor air quality, or a leaky roof, isn't going to make a bit of difference," said Mr. Smith, whose group is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The debate could become a test of Mr. McWalters' authority. His call for a longer day comes under new powers granted him by legislation that allows his department to intervene in low-performing districts. Timothy C. Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said the effort could face a legal challenge.

"It may end up that superior court is going to have to determine whether the commissioner's authority supersedes the authority of the local contract," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Pages 17, 19

Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Rhode Island Chief Seeks Longer School Day
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