Friday, September 16, 2011

Longer, Faster in Chicago

Since I became a Chicago Public Schools parent two years ago, I have been rolling my eyes at our district's notoriously short school day and short school year. School dismissed at 2:45? 3 weeks straight of 3-day weeks in November? No school for Pulaski Day? Come on, I would think, as I scrambled to find useful ways to engage my daughter's out-of-school time, is this district for real? CPS students spend fewer hours in the classroom and fewer days in school than most other large urban school districts, and when Jean-Claude Brizard was appointed CEO, he was charged with changing that.

In the past few weeks, his attempts to do so have been making headlines. After cancelling the 2% raise originally offered CPS teachers, Brizard offered individual schools who were willing to waive their contract and add an extra 90 minutes to schooldays $150,000 for the year, or $75,000 if they make the change in January. So far, 7 schools have elected to do so (on a majority vote by teachers). In the 2012-13 school year, Brizard has announced, all schools will have a longer day.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find myself horrified by this possibility. Here's why.

1. I am not in favor of a longer schoolday if that is rolled up with union-busting, as this plan appears to be. Far worse than not spending enough time in school would be spending more time in school with an underqualified teacher. From the teachers I know in Wisconsin (where they've had 7 months now to think about the implications of executive authority undermining years of collective bargaining) and in Chicago, I am hearing increasing frustration and despair about the long-term viability of teaching as a career. This is anecdotal evidence, but there is harder evidence as well that strong teachers unions correlate with better educational systems. As teaching is turned into a more, faster, harder, profession, it becomes less appealing as a career to intelligent young people with options, and reducing the power of professionals to shape their field cannot, in the long run, strengthen the profession. I fear that these reforms will, over the long run, be one more factor in deprofessionalizing teaching, leaving our classrooms run by less qualified, less inspired teachers.

According to Arne Duncan, giving teachers the option of waiving their contract is "empowering teachers, since teachers are taking the vote," but his words reveal a shallow understanding of empowerment. Real empowerment involves collective action and the opportunity to shape one's options, not simply a momentary chance to vote.

2. As the CTU has pointed out, quantity does not equal quality. Last year, the advocacy group Raise Your Hand publicized an option few parents had known about: if schools choose, they can extend the day 45 minutes by moving lunch and recess back to the middle of the day. Yes, lunch and recess had been moved to the end of the schoolday, leaving kids with 10 minutes to eat and 10 to run around (if they were in the lucky minority even offered this much!), meaning that students and teachers spent 45 minutes less in school each day. Giving children recess IS an effective use of time, given what we know about childhood obesity, the importance of children's free play, and changes such as the decline of free outdoor play in neighborhoods, which means that recess may be the only chance children have to play with their friends on an average day. This is not, however, what Brizard appears to envision, as he calls for more instructional time.

Other good uses of time might include more art, more music, more social studies . . . but again, only with good, really good, teachers. If more art requires deprofessionalizing the teaching force, I do not want it.

3. Finally, why this blanket policy? There are neighborhood schools in Chicago whose children desperately need access to music, art, safe play spaces, social studies and science -- all of which school could provide. Poorer parents, by and large, cannot afford excellent after-school activities, and if school can provide those, so much the better. (Again, though, teachers ought to be paid, and paid respectably, for providing this!) Middle class parents, on the other hand, have a wide array of options, many of them probably better than what the school would offer. Top-notch dance classes. Gymnastics. Art studios. So why spend limited resources providing more school for them, when they are likely better off without it? I say this last with regret, since surely it would be better if our schools offered art and music classes as good as those one can obtain elsewhere, but although this is sometimes the case, it is not always so. The inequities in what is available to children outside school calls for spending resources to provide schools in poor neighborhoods with excellent additions to their school day, not for spreading things around equally and ending up with mediocrity everywhere.

I oppose this policy rather sadly. As a professor of education, as a parent, and as a citizen, I really wish I could believe that children were so well served by our schools that more of it would be better for them. At present, I doubt it. Until school days are better, I do not want them longer.


Jessy Randall said...

I don't have a solution, of course, but increasing school days without increasing pay for teachers seems wrong at a pretty basic level. On the other hand, a teacher's workday is probably going to be a lot more pleasant if students have had more than ten minutes for lunch!

Julie said...

I agree Amy but for me it's not only about access to better learning opportunities but also about ensuring time for children to pursue their own passions.

CB said...

This kind of represents the big problem in discussions about education. You think longer days could be better without union busting. It was most likely the union that pushed for shorter days.