WebExtra: Longer school day a key issue in contract talks

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Mayor Daley publicly repeated calls for a longer school day and year during a speech at the Executives’ Club of Chicago on Tuesday, signaling a key point of pressure on the Chicago Teachers Union as it negotiates a new contract this summer.

Currently, Chicago has one of the shortest school days and years when stacked against the nation’s 50 largest districts. If no action is taken, Chicago could fall farther behind, even as a national movement to boost classroom time for low-income children has already padded school calendars in schools in Massachusetts, Florida and New Mexico.

Lawmakers and heavyweight philanthropists are adding to the push. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced legislation to train teachers to design curriculum for longer days, and Bill Gates and Eli Broad have pledged $60 million to put education reforms—including more classroom time—at the forefront of the 2008 presidential race.

Marilyn Stewart, the newly re-elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union, has noted a willingness to extend the school day and year, as long as teachers are duly compensated.

“If you want to have a longer day, then … you have to pay people to work longer,” she said in an interview on NBC 5’s “City Desk.”

Stewart has not indicated exactly how much additional pay the union would demand, as union and district leaders seek to keep contract talks private.

But while she campaigned just weeks ago in the race against one-time president Deborah Lynch, Stewart took a hard-line stance, criticizing Lynch for agreeing to extend the school day by 15 minutes in exchange for 7 fewer days in the school year.

That’s nearly an even swap in working hours, yet teachers sought to rescind it as early as a year ago, when the union first delivered its contract demands to the School Board.

‘More learning time … costs a lot of money’

Even with an extra 15 minutes, Chicago’s elementary school day adds up to only five hours and 45 minutes, one of the shortest in the country, according to data compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Yet teachers here earn more per day than most teachers working in the nation’s 50 biggest school districts—largely a product of the shorter school year, which at 174 days is at the state’s minimum and is tied for the fifth-shortest among the 50 districts.

First-year teachers with bachelor’s degrees make $220 a day in Chicago, according to the National Council. Highest paid are teachers in Long Beach, Calif., who earn $262 a day. Teachers in a small district just outside Salt Lake City, Utah, earn the least, just $148 a day. (See chart here.)

Veteran teachers here—those who have maxed out on salary increases based on years of experience—also rank high compared to their peers elsewhere. With a bachelor’s degree, veterans make $355 a day (fifth highest); with a master’s degree, $371 a day (ninth highest). New York’s veteran teachers top the list, earning $434 a day with a bachelor’s and $463 a day with a master’s.

Salary data was not adjusted for cost of living or length of working day, making comparisons problematic. (On an hourly basis, however, veterans in New York still earn more, $64 compared to $51 in Chicago.)

John Ostenburg, who edits the CTU newspaper, argues that it’s difficult to compare teacher pay among districts, given such complexities. He notes another complicating factor in Chicago: The school day is structured in such a way that many teachers do not get a lunch break.

But the relatively high daily wages gives district officials some leverage during contract talks.

“People naturally don’t like to give up things,” says Peter Cunningham, a strategic consultant to CPS. “What we think we need to do is give kids a lot more learning time, and that costs a lot of money.”

New York City—where the school day is six hours and 50 minutes and the school year is 184.5 days—offers a viable goal, Cunningham says. All told, the extra time amounts to about 40 extra days in school for children in New York, he says.

Under the existing contract, adds Cunningham, it would cost the district $11 million to add one day to the school year and about $300 million to add an hour to each school day.

In Springfield, CPS lobbyists used these cost estimates to help underscore the need for education funding reform, which remains stalled as legislators moved into overtime on a state budget.

What other districts did

Meanwhile, deals to extend school days and school years are fast cropping up across the country.

In Miami, a group of low-performing, high-poverty schools tacked an hour onto the school day for four days during the week, and added five days onto the year. California’s West Fresno district extended the school day only for 4th- through 8th-graders. In Massachusetts, the state has rolled out grants to 10 schools that are piloting longer days.

In each case, the extra learning time proved costly. Unions agreed to a variety of compensation plans. West Fresno teachers, for example, get $30 an hour to teach during the extended day, while teachers in Miami get a 20-percent pay hike for working longer days in “school improvement zones.”

Teachers have also been able to opt out of longer schedules in some instances, a key provision that makes extended day programs attractive, says Jennifer Davis, president of the nonprofit Massachusetts 2020, which advocates a longer school day and year.

“For some teachers who have family responsibilities or [graduate school], there needs to be some kind of option for them to either transfer to another school … or to be able to not participate,” says Davis.

Extending the day creates a host of issues for a district, adds Davis, from juggling transportation schedules to reshaping professional development programs. Districts need to plan carefully to make the best use of the extra time, given the added costs.

Such costs have greatly tempered national interest in longer days, according to Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge management for the Education Commission of the States. To ease the burden, several districts have opted to expand summer school only; paying teachers less for work often made easier by smaller class sizes.

 

“[Teachers are] used to not making any additional money during that time, so it’s like working a part-time job,” she adds.

Charters led the way

The movement toward longer days was largely born out of the growth of charter schools, many of which have longer days than traditional schools. Notable is the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of charter schools. KIPP Ascend charter in Chicago keeps students in school daily nearly 3-1/2 hours longer than regular CPS schools, plus another four hours every other Saturday.

The University of Chicago Charter High School also extends its day beyond that of traditional high schools, starting classes earlier, at 8:15 a.m., and ending them later, at 3:20 p.m.

Pushing the national effort is the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which is advocating federal funding for longer school day “demonstration” programs and extra Title I money for districts that offer extended day options.

“Time is just one strategy and it alone will not get you higher achievement,” says Cindy Brown, director of education policy. “You have to combine it with higher quality teaching, strong curriculum.”

The extra time in school should be used for hands-on science labs and beefed up arts programs, particularly in low-income areas where children do not have access to the same academic enrichment that wealthier students do, Brown suggests.

“It takes a lot of work to make an expanded day effective,” Brown contends.

If contract talks fail to produce a deal for a longer school day, individual schools may have another option. Weighted student funding, or per-pupil budgeting as it’s called here, is slowly gaining traction in the district. With this system, dollars follow students to their respective schools, with extra money added for low-income and special needs students.

Such a system has pumped an extra $1,000 per student into four low-performing school districts in New Mexico, for after-school and extended-year programs for struggling students.

In Chicago, a few more schools will try out per-pupil budgeting beginning this fall, which will allow schools financial flexibility to extend the school day on their own; for instance, by paying teachers a stipend to work after-school programs, just as some schools now do with their existing discretionary money.

Intern Rebecca Harris contributed to this story.