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From Chicago, a cautionary tale

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Two years ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the longer school day that SRC Chair Bill Green wants. And although Chicago officials say their “Full School Day” has helped boost graduation rates and test scores, critics point to a growing list of unintended and potentially damaging consequences.

On the campaign trail, Emanuel blamed Chicago’s short days for “stagnant academic growth.” An independent survey of public school parents showed that most supported a longer day (as well as higher pay for teachers). After a seven-day teachers’ strike in 2012, Emanuel won an extra 75 minutes for elementary schools (for a total of 7 hours) and 30 extra minutes for high schools (for a total of 7.5 hours). Teachers won small raises and a promise to hire more staff.

Officials remain bullish on their new policy, but an investigation by the Hechinger Report – funded by the Ford Foundation – found that the longer hours (along with a pension-driven budget crisis) have created new problems:

  • Lost collaboration time. Teachers no longer must arrive 30 minutes before students do, so they struggle to find time to meet with colleagues. “There is no common meeting time, none,” said one principal.
    Overworked students. Some teachers say the longer school day is less engaging for students. “It’s double-period English and double-period math,” said one English teacher. “How are they going to be interested in school?”
    Lost extracurriculars. To parents’ dismay, the longer day has led some students to opt out of traditional afterschool activities. “I stopped [sports] last year as soon as the whole extended day started,” said one high schooler.
    Uncertain value. One principal filled out the new schedule by adding five minutes to every period. A teacher responded: “I haven’t been able to get further ahead in the curriculum. There’s no way anyone can tell me kids are learning more.”
    Overworked staff. After hiring hundreds of new teachers in the extended day’s first year, Chicago laid off almost 1,500 (along with almost 2,000 support staff) in the second year, due to the budget crunch. That’s left some teachers feeling more stressed than ever – and, according to Hechinger Report, less likely to take on extracurricular activities like coaching or drama even when extra pay is available.

Chicago officials remain committed to the Full Day policy, and some teachers say they’ll do whatever it takes. But Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer of New York City’s schools, told a recent Ford Foundation conference that to be successful, extended time should be backed by a broad set of reforms and supports. “If you have bad instruction happening in the first six hours,” he said, “you’re not going to get great instruction in the next few hours.”

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