RYH in Sun Times 10/14: City Needs Real Debate on How to use Longer School Day

For months we’ve heard Mayor Rahm Emanuel compare our public schools with those in Houston, expressing outrage that kids in Chicago have spent three to four fewer years in school by the time they graduate.

It’s true that our Chicago school day is short, 45 minutes shorter than the national average of about six and a half hours. More important than the minutes, though, our schools have lacked recess, adequate arts, enough physical education, social studies and more for many years as budgets have been slashed.

Sadly, only about 30 percent of kids have had recess for the past 30 years, and most are offered PE only once a week.

Most schools offer only a half-time art or music position. Some schools can add more with discretionary money, but that also has been slashed.

Beyond that, how many of our schools use innovative teaching techniques, such as inquiry and project-based learning, that improve critical thinking skills and creativity?

How many schools put a needed focus on civics and good citizenship? Why aren’t more kids exposed to preschool so they are ready for kindergarten? How many schools are skilled in integrating the arts across the curriculum? How many CPS schools don’t have a music program? Why do we have year-round schools with no air conditioning? Why are our kids taking more and more standardized tests and practicing more rote memorization instead of in-depth learning of subjects? How are we going to do a better job of educating our kids with special needs? Why are so many kids traveling one to two hours a day to get to a school that their families deem decent? How do we get more social workers and mentors into our schools? Why is it acceptable to have 33 kids in a second-grade classroom? Can we differentiate learning with class sizes this large?

Extending the school day should be viewed as an opportunity and not a panacea, but we want some answers on how these other things are going to be solved.

Mayor Emanuel said he doesn’t want to have a “high-class” debate about this, but he does want to extend the Chicago school day to seven and a half hours, a half-hour longer than Houston. Is there anything more important for the kids of Chicago than a high-class debate on how to improve their learning? We need to maximize our existing minutes in more of our schools, not just add a block of time and hope for better test scores.

We can do a lot with more time, but we do need an intense debate with teachers, administrators, the community and parents, and not the top-down approach common in this city.

Let’s face it, we may end up No. 1 in the nation in terms of time in school, but as long as we are 49th in the country in state education funding and not implementing higher educational standards, how much will we actually change?