Students pressed for time to learn — and so are teachers

Print More

During the week in which we finished this issue of Catalyst In Depth, Mayor Richard M. Daley went on record promising more chapters in Renaissance 2010. Meanwhile, teachers, principals, parents and students awaited the announcement of this year’s list of schools slated for closure or turnaround.

Whatever the criticism of Renaissance 2010 and the turnaround strategy, one element of learning that many of the city’s new schools have gotten right is time—more time, to be precise, with longer school days and longer years. Research has shown that extra time is especially beneficial in boosting achievement for low-income children. Yet a Consortium on Chicago School Research report found that CPS students are engaged in learning for only about half of the officially scheduled time in school. The research is from 1998, but Timothy Knowles, head of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, says little has changed since then.

In the 21st Century, a school calendar that is a relic of the 19th Century just won’t cut it. Nationally, the average school year is 180 days, and the school day is about 6 ½ hours. Here in Chicago, the year is 10 days shorter (a finding that prompted Deputy Editor Sarah Karp to note, “Now I know why my kids are out of school all the time, including every Friday in November”) and the day is 45 minutes shorter. No wonder Chicago’s scores on national tests remain subpar, even compared to other big-city, high-poverty districts.

Time isn’t the only factor, of course. But it is an essential factor. Schools don’t operate on the theory of relativity, with time slowing down as speed increases. Trying to cram the same amount of learning—or more, for students who are behind—into 45 fewer minutes each day makes no sense.

To their credit, the mayor and the district recognize that all children, not just the small percentage in new and turnaround schools, should have more school time. The district tried unsuccessfully to extend the day during the last contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, but didn’t offer extra pay. (The union says it supports a longer day, with appropriate compensation.)

Encouraging signs are on the horizon, though. Extended learning time for struggling schools is expected to be part of the state’s pitch for Race to the Top funds. And top CPS officials are considering strategies to add more time to the day, perhaps through a variety of budget and staffing models that schools could adopt.

After-school programs, which add time for learning and enrichment activities, should also be part of the mix. The Out-of-School Time Project, an initiative that aims to create a citywide system of after-school programs, is collecting data on the city’s hodge-podge of programs and laying the groundwork for training and support to improve quality. One interesting idea that has emerged from the Project is to have any new funding follow the child—in effect, giving families vouchers they could use at the activity of their choice, be it a class offered by a dance company, sports offered by the Chicago Park District or tutoring offered by a school.  Teachers and parents first would talk about what activity might be most beneficial for the child.

Students aren’t the only ones shortchanged on time. Teachers need time too, to come up with challenging lessons, talk with colleagues about teaching practice, observe each other in the classroom or even just “break bread together” to establish a sense of camaraderie that benefits the school, as one principal puts it. Smart principals find strategies to build collaborative and planning time into the day, even if that means taking over a class themselves so that every teacher at the same grade level can meet regularly for an hour.

Just as other countries offer more learning time for students, they also offer more planning and training time for teachers. American teachers typically have three to five hours of planning time per week built into the school day, compared to 15 to 20 hours in most European and Asian countries, according to a National Staff Development Council report from Stanford University researchers. Chicago, again, is at the low end of the scale; elementary teachers are entitled to three preparation periods per week under the union contract (which adds up to about three hours).

Teachers can, and often do, stay after school or work on weekends to plan lessons, grade papers and attend training. But any longer day should incorporate enough time for the type of regular, intensive professional development and planning time that the Staff Development Council recommends to help teachers improve and students learn. Demanding a longer day from teachers would cost more, but could also make teaching more valued and respected as a profession.