The folly of a (slightly) longer school day

The effort by Boston school administrators to add a half-hour to the school day looks a lot like the Obama economic stimulus plan — only possibly much less effective.  Some have said the $800 billion stimulus package was the worst of both worlds: It rankled critics of big government spending while not being big enough to put the sort of major dent in unemployment that would make it seem worth the fight. In truth, while a larger stimulus package might have packed a bigger punch, with as many as 3.3 million jobs created or saved, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus did pay real dividends.

It’s not clear that the same would be said for tacking another 30 minutes onto Boston’s school day, the issue at the heart of a protracted — and increasingly bitter — contract stand-off between Boston school leaders and the Boston Teachers Union.

The school department says it can’t afford a prorated increase in teacher pay based on the added time, while the union bristles at the idea of anything less than that. The temperature got dialed up last week when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the BTU’s parent national union, appeared in Boston at an event on extended school days where she went at it with Superintendent Carol Johnson.

Boston has one of the shortest school days of any large urban district — just six hours for elementary school students and six-and-half-hours for high schools. Many school reform advocates believe a longer day is crucial to raise academic performance levels among low-income and minority students, who sit at the low end of the achievement gap. But the 30 minutes Boston is looking to add seems like a weak half-measure that will raise expectations — along with personnel costs — and probably deliver very little.  That’s the message Globe columnist Larry Harmon sent on Saturday, when he urged Johnson to give up the contract battle.

Reformers often point to the impressive outcomes at high-performing charter schools such as Roxbury Prep, MATCH, or the Edward Brooke school, which have longer days.  But these schools have eight to nine hour days, with Saturday sessions at some.  And that added time is used to build out a rigorously planned school day based on a culture of high expectations for all students, with instruction carried out by a teaching staff that school leaders had complete autonomy in hiring. The idea that a paltry 30 minutes, added on without any of these other reform elements, would be able to transform otherwise low-performing schools seems more like wishful thinking than sound policy.

Harmon urges Boston school leaders to instead consider a significant expansion of the district’s partnership with Citizen Schools. The Boston nonprofit already brings in staff and volunteers from various professions for three hours of extra-time tutoring and doing other projects with students at about 20 percent of the city’s middle schools. Eric Schwarz, the organization’s president, tells Harmon the effort could be boosted to half of all middle schools within three years — at about half what it would cost if BPS teachers were paid for a longer such day at current rates.  It seems like an approach well worth considering. 

                                                                                                                                                –MICHAEL JONAS


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