With Chicago Public Schools’ announcement today that it plans to extend the school day by 90 minutes and the school year by two weeks, the district and the Chicago Teachers Union are making competing claims about whether longer school days benefit students, with the union calling for a “better” school day rather than a longer one. 

The answer to that question depends on how the time is used. An earlier Catalyst analysis of Illinois school district data showed that districts with the most learning time generally have moderately better test scores than those with the least time, but it’s not clear that one is causing the other.

What’s most important, education research has shown, is “time on task,” the amount of time students spend doing work. Good classroom management can increase time on task, according to a 1998 report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, but usually not enough to make up for a short school day. And even if a school day is extended, teachers may need special training in how to make use of the extra time.

CPS says it is convening a Longer School Day Advisory Committee to discuss how to spend the longer days, but instruction in core subjects, enrichment in the arts and physical education, and recess breaks could all be in line for extra time. (CPS announced that union president Karen Lewis would serve on the committee, but she rejected the offer and called the committee “a publicity stunt designed to thwart real discussion  between the CEO, parents, educators and community leaders.”)

One school that extended its day with grant funding, O’Toole Elementary, found that discipline problems actually increased, resulting in a temporary spike in suspensions.

While state law now says CPS can set the school schedule without getting permission from the Chicago Teachers Union, the teachers are free to ask for more money in return. If staff pay increased proportionally to time worked, the district’s Office of Management and Budget estimated in 2009, the tab for adding an extra hour to the school day would be $280 million.

There are other options for lengthening the school day. After-school programs can also keep students off the streets, but program quality and participation are hit-and-miss. Across the country, some schools have added time to the school day and year by staggering teachers’ vacation schedules and start times.

is web editor at The Chicago Reporter.

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