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Time for a ‘high-class debate’?

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Mayor Emanuel may now regret ever proposing a longer day as a silver bullet for Chicago schools. The issue’s gotten away from him, and he’s scurrying to catch up.

On Tuesday Emanuel was forced to make two concessions: a small one, reducing his proposed seven-and-a-half-hour day by thirty minutes, and a large one, opening the door to discussions of what that day will actually look like.

Last August, Emanuel said, “I cannot wait for a high-class debate and discussion about, ‘Is it more math? Is it more history?'”

But on Tuesday he said, “I would hope now that we’d stop debating about the time and start having a real discussion” about “how do you use” that time.

Chicago Parents for Quality Education, including parent and community groups who’ve been pressing for “a real discussion,” will be at the mayor’s office Friday, April 13 at 4 p.m. to present him with a petition calling for a richer curriculum, better social supports, early education, smaller class sizes, facilities upgrades, and a reduction of test prep and over-testing.

Emanuel “brought this on himself, and he’s painted himself into a corner,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education [2]. “He’s trying to capture the high ground, and now he has to put his money where his mouth is.”

“He thought any kind of longer day would be better and parents don’t care what happens during the school day,” said Wendy Katten of the Raise Your Hand Coalition [3]. “But parents do care.”

School planning impasse

She said schools have been meeting to plan for next year’s extended day, but CPS has repeatedly missed its own deadlines for providing them with budgets. Schools “were told to make wish lists, but nobody is being told what can be funded,” she said. “Everybody’s confused and frustrated.”

A quality day will require lots of new teachers for a district that has laid off thousands in recent years. Most elementary schools now have one half-time position for either art or music; parents expect a longer school day to offer both art and music, on a more than token basis. Most Chicago schools now give kids gym one day a week, despite a state mandate that requires daily physical education.

Many schools don’t even have the staff to monitor recess, Katten said. “If schools can’t get all their positions filled, how are they going to make a seven-hour day work?”

A white paper from CPQE [4] highlights statements from CPS administrators on the need for additional class time to prepare students for new common core standardized tests. That would be a way to extend the day on the cheap. But it’s not what parents want.

Even cheaper would be computer-assisted test prep, which some parents fear is on the horizon. (In 2010 CPS piloted a longer-day program in 15 schools using online learning and non-certified teachers.) “That way you can put 60 kids in a classroom,” Woestehoff points out.

No answers

Emanuel “refused to say how he plans to pay for the longer day,” the Sun-Times reported.

“We haven’t gotten any answers [on funding] from the district,” said Katten. “They don’t want to reform TIF. There’s no new revenue. They’re claiming a huge deficit. It’s kind of absurd.”

“It’s their job to figure it out – and it’s not their job to tell parents what their children aren’t going to get,” said Woestehoff. “And if it takes going to all the wealthy businesses and saying you need to pay your fair share, they need to be leading the charge on that.”

Emanuel seems to have thought the longer day was a winning slogan and a nifty way of squeezing the teachers union. New legislation allows CPS to unilaterally set the length of the school day, and how it would be done was clearly given little or no thought.

CPQE’s report exposed the “misinformation” in Emanuel’s rhetoric and cited studies that show that longer days improve learning only when educational quality is improved. It looked at the experience of Houston, often cited by the mayor.

There an extended day piloted in 20 schools involved hiring 250 full-time math tutors. When the program was expanded to more schools last year, Houston kept the tutors but dropped the extra minutes.

What happens in the classroom – and how it’s paid for – it’s time to talk about it.