Several representatives of parent groups that oppose CPS plans for a 7.5-hour school day charged Monday that CPS has been spinning the research to support its position.

Outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, members of Chicago Parents for Quality Education said that the current school day is too short but that the city’s proposal for a 7.5-hour day is too long – particularly with the district facing a budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jonathan Goldman, a parent of two students and local school council representative at Drummond Elementary, said that a review of the research found that “the mayor and CPS… are either unaware, or are intentionally misleading the public” about the benefits of a longer day.

The group released a white paper that included quotes from one of the studies CPS cited as showing support for a longer day – an analysis of 15 previous studies on the issue – as saying that extended learning time “has yet to be fairly tested” in a controlled environment and has “at best, a small relationship” with student achievement.

If the district has extra money, Goldman said, it should be spent on more proven strategies like tutoring, early childhood education and class-size reduction (although the merits of the latter have been debated, particularly for older students.)

The press conference was the second like it in recent weeks. Before the March school board meeting, many of the same groups joined with closing and turnaround opponents and the Chicago Teachers Union under the name Coalition to Organize Democracy in Education. That group aims to lobby, litigate and protest until state law has been changed so Chicago has an elected school board.

Both coalitions are perhaps unlikely collaborations between wealthier, mostly white parents and the grassroots members of community organizations in lower-income, minority neighborhoods. These grassroots have often found themselves at odds with CPS over school closings and turnarounds in recent years.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in response to Monday’s event that “This is about more than adding time to the school day – we’re strategically investing in initiatives that will ensure that additional time is quality time, and the result is to boost student achievement,” such as the Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluations.

“We share a deep commitment and passion with parents to ensure we are taking every step to boost student achievement throughout the district,” Carroll said, touting “district-wide investments” like a more rigorous curriculum and new standards for teachers, in addition to the extended day.

To support their plan, Emanuel and CEO Jean-Claude Brizard have repeatedly noted that CPS has the shortest day and year among big-city districts—resulting in far less instructional time for students, as reported in the Winter 2010 issue of Catalyst In Depth.

Catalyst Chicago reported in August that time on-task, rather than just the amount of time in school, is most important for student learning.

Where’s the money?

CPS struck back at criticism of the 15-study analysis by referring to a National Center on Time and Learning fact sheet as well as an evaluation of the state’s extended learning time initiative by the policy group Massachusetts 2020. The evaluation shows that schools with longer days are more likely to be “high-growth” schools, where students progress faster than average. Among schools that have had longer days for 4 years, the percentage of students who meet or exceed state standards in math on the Massachusetts state test, known as one of the most difficult in the country, has doubled.

But parents point out that schools in Massachusetts that pilot the longer day receive $1,300 per student in extra money to pay for it, according Massachusetts 2020. That would cost $525 million in CPS.

The Massachusetts 2020 evaluation also notes that as of spring 2011, a number of Massachusetts schools were at risk of losing their extended-day funding because they were still not meeting performance goals after several years.

Goldman also complained that schools have not yet received word from the district about what resources will be available to implement the longer-day plans school committees turned in to the district in February.

The day should be longer, group members said, but the focus should be on quality and breadth of subject matter, rather than the length.

“We want the mayor and CPS to feel the same outrage we have that there are thousands and thousands of children who have never had a music class,” said Raise Your Hand Director Wendy Katten. “We believe that giving a child a more well-rounded day will get them to engage in school.”

In addition, the parents raised concerns that a longer day would only be used to prepare students for new tests based on the Common Core State Standards, which CPS began administering this fall.

Nellie Cotton, a parent at Fleming Elementary, said that the vast majority of her 4th-grade student’s homework is grammar, spelling, and math – with too little attention to science and social studies. “They concentrate more on what’s being tested for ISAT,” she said.

Emanuel has said he wants to keep more middle-class families in the district, but the 7.5-hour day proposal may be threatening that goal. Sheridan Elementary parent Jennifer Biggs threatened during public participation at the March board meeting that if the 7.5-hour day becomes reality, “there is a really good chance we will take our three high-performing, college-bound kids to the suburbs.”

But Peter Cunningham, who advocated for a longer day in Chicago during the Arne Duncan years and is now assistant secreatry for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, says that children in Chicago need the extra time.

“This is an opportunity not only for kids who are behind to get the help they need, but for kids who are ahead to get the well-rounded activities they need,” Cunningham says, adding that a longer day can level the playing field for students who can’t access after-school activities. “My sense is that a lot of these decisions about how to use that extra time will be made locally… and I think that’s a good outcome.”

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