Teaching Profession Opinion

Reasons Against Chicago’s Longer School Day

By Deborah Meier — September 22, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

It’s a conspiracy to wear us down! Every day a new, dumb idea becomes a brilliant reform, and the next day it’s implemented. So we keep trying to put out fires, when we also need to spend time thinking about how we got here and where we should be going. I’m stumped at how we do this with virtually no financial resources to fight against ideas that have incredible wealth behind them.

Yes, as the wise ancient Greeks said (and here I don’t quote): There’s no point in giving powerless people a vote and pretending it’s democracy. That’s why they didn’t do it. That’s why our brilliant founding fathers didn’t do it either—the vote was reserved for white, land-owning males. All others, in the founders’ view, had neither the leisure nor the freedom to govern themselves wisely!

We won that battle on behalf of property-less citizens, people of color, and women. But we didn’t confront the underlying contradiction. If you can hire a full-time lobbyist and I can occasionally sign a petition, are we exercising equal power? If my employer likes my politics and yours hates them, might we feel differently about how public we made our views? If you have assistants to research the legislation—or even write it—and I have only the bill’s title and a paragraph summary of a 1,000-page piece of legislation? If the organizations that might represent the collective voice of others who share some of my self-interests are hobbled by law from doing their job on my behalf while yours are increasingly freed from restraints?

Enough. Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has mandated adding 90 minutes to the school day for kids and teachers in Chicago—by offering bribes to schools that break their union contracts and join him immediately, and he says that by next year, it will be by fiat.

Emanuel is, I suspect, looking for a fight, showing his toughness, and falling back on rhetoric. Here are eight reasons his plan is more than dumb. I’m looking for a round 10—so please suggest more.

1. I think it comes out to working for far less than the minimum wage (something like $4.50 per hour) if you accept the bribe immediately. The offer goes down the longer you wait! Could I have my facts wrong? It seems so egregiously outrageous.

2. It presumes that teachers do not have work to do after school—i.e., reading papers, preparing lessons, scoring worksheets, gong over homework! Reading and commenting on 30-150 papers a week (five minutes per paper?), reviewing 30-150 homework assignments, preparing tomorrow’s lessons, making a phone call or two. In short, another hour or two or three per day. And more with the added-in class time. It’s a job for unmarried celibates—of either gender.

3. It reduces time available for teacher collaboration, which ought to be increased (and lies behind most good ideas for what “works”) even in raising test scores. It also reduces the time available for teacher-family conferences, which should be happening regularly. Or for kids hanging out “after school” for extra one-on-one help. In Japan the kids spend far less time in school than in the United States, while their teachers spend about the same as we do. (I’ll check, Diane, on other “competitors.”)

4. It undermines future trust between potential allies. (The mayor and the unions for example.) Trust is a key to serious reforms. Unless Rahm Emanuel’s intent is to wipe the unions off the face of the earth. That seems to be the one consistency behind most of the new-style “reforms.”

5. It’s not based on any research. None. Not even cheap, simple-minded aligning by rank order the length of school days and scores. Note how “evidence-based” is a very selective term. Ah, yes—children come first, with or without evidence that it helps them. (It’s a dangerous slogan: Should families not look for jobs that will force them to leave their current school district? For the children’s sake?) Does the mere fact that it doesn’t help teachers seem to make it attractive?

6. It plans on using precious time without prior thought! There is no time allotted for schools to think about how to use the extra hours or whether it might require different staffing, lengthening some periods, putting back into the school day some “luxuries” like music. In fact it’s not designed to hire new teachers. Suppose we have no music or art or drama or phys ed teacher whose day we can lengthen? Policymakers have no time for such annoying “details"—once again read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

7. It’s not even a job-saving or job-creating plan—just squeezing more out of less. In fact, it will result in lay-offs for the people who now staff after-school programs (YMCAs, etc.) And next will come summer for an equivalently small bribe. (For some, that will mean the end of summer jobs that helped make up the family’s income.)

8. Don’t some kids (maybe teachers, too) already have after-school obligations: sports, jobs, study, providing childcare for working mothers? Aren’t some desperate families dependent on their teens?

I’ve left room for two more. And for getting some more info for those on the scene: The mayor of Chicago and his do-good backers (whose private school days and years are shorter than most public schools) try to bribe teachers and schools to start instantly. but what is the financial offer for the future of a longer school day? 8:30-3 (the way “it used to be”, I think) is 6.5 hours, times five comes to 32.5 hours, plus occasional after-school required meetings. Rare is the teacher who doesn’t come earlier and stay later (some locales require it), forgetting taking work home, etc.

Oops. I thought of a ninth! It is surely unlikely to attract more people into teaching and surely not more willing to stay in the classroom. Watch at the end of the school day, as soon as the bell rings, the kids jump up and flee the building. Later, one at a time, teachers come dragging out, with big bags of student work, exhausted. Wise reform would reverse this.


P.S. Based on recent travels, North Carolina reminds me of upstate New York. And the university educators I met in both places were as frustrated as I am.

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