I have previously argued that reforming education by just adding time onto the school day amounts to good talking points for the newspapers, but bad planning, and won’t necessarily improve education teaching or learning. Perhaps that argument fell on deaf ears because it seems as if the Longer School Day is more or less a “given” for next year in Chicago. Now, the discussion has turned to, “Ok, so what do we do with the extra time?”
But to say it is a “discussion” would imply everyone is talking together, except that’s not what’s happening. Teachers are talking about what next year will look like. Students are talking about it, as are parents. So is the media. All stakeholders have their opinions, ideas and recommendations, but if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it’s hard to point in the direction in which we actually want to go.
In November, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Board of Education agreed not to push each other on the longer school day for a while. The Union retracted its lawsuit, and those thirteen schools that voted for the longer day at the beginning of this school year will not have to revert to their former schedule. So, what of the rest of the schools and the future decisions to be made? Perhaps the Pioneer schools, as the Board has dubbed them, can offer great insight for the district-wide plan for next year as to what worked -and didn’t work- in their schools during the 2011-2012 school year.
But we are neither waiting nor relying on the teachers at the Pioneer schools to come up with ideas. Teachers are involved in planning across the city, but to what capacity and what end?
In October, National Louis University partnered with the VIVA Project to ask CPS teachers, “what do you think a longer school day should look like?” They did this by inviting teachers through the CPS workplace email system to participate in online discussions regarding the topic for twenty days. In November, eleven of those 600 participating teachers* were selected to write a summative report on the overall concepts and themes brought up in the discussion boards.
Major themes and action items included: eliminating time wasted at the beginning and end of the school year by staffing all classrooms by day 1, and having finals grades due the last week of school (currently grades are due at the beginning of June, and students remain in school-with nothing to do- for another ten days); recommending that all schools go to Track E (year-round) scheduling, but only as long as all schools have air-conditioning; and considering block and parallel schedules which could include even having clubs and activities at the start of the day.
This past week the eleven teachers who wrote the report presented it to the CEO of Chicago Public Schools Jean-Claude Brizard, and in a separate meeting to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. From what a participant told me, both leaders responded generally positively to the report.
While this has been going on, Principals across Chicago Public Schools were told/asked to form Longer School Day Committees in each of their schools to have teachers in each school “plan for how time in an extended school day will be spent,” and were given estimated minutes in each day between 75 and 90 depending on the grade level.
Many of the in-school committees will spend hours deliberating and carefully laying out how a longer schedule could be best implemented in their schools, (principals have to provide the committee reports to their network facilitators in early January, so many committees are meeting this weekend) but teachers have to consider more than a few unknown factors that will affect the implementation of the each plan; factors that they have little if any direct control over.
Because extra time in school must consider both what the students will be doing, and where they will be doing it, both capital and operating budget expenses affect the final plans for implementation. Will principals be allotted the extra money to support the recommendations their committees make?
Beyond that, will contract negotiations in the summer break down over disagreements on how the time will be spent? Will one school plan be weighed against another plan as being more or less cost-prohibitive? Will teachers who have invested time and energy developing great plans for their schools fight for recommendations only to be told all schools will implement plans garnered from the VIVAteachers report?
Too many unknowns. It would be better if the Board and the CTU would agree to a process for 1) developing and supporting longer school day committees in each school, 2) providing each committee with research from VIVA and the Pioneer schools , and 3) allotting financial resources to support each committees’ recommendations.
But it would be best if we started having honest discussions about how much time and money is being wasted in non-instructional capacities, and what good education looks like. Only when that happens can we begin to assess how a longer school day has the potential to be a better school day, and that’s the direction in which we need to head.
*Only current CPS teachers and education professors were allowed to take part in the VIVA dialogues.