PI Original Monday June 13th, 2011, 1:32pm

Understanding The Numbers Behind A Longer CPS School Day

With Gov. Pat Quinn signing SB 7 into law today, the discussion has naturally turned to what a longer school day might mean for the quality of instruction in Chicago's public schools. There are a lot of numbers thrown around when it comes to the issue, with CPS often being deemed as having one of the nation's shortest school days, so Progress Illinois checked in with the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago Public Schools, and the U.S. Department of Education to find out what it all means.

Since Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor and made education -- specifically a longer school day -- one of his top priorities, teachers and education advocates have contended that teaching is more complex than how many hours there are in a school day. And while the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has largely avoided taking a position on the issue publicly, Gov. Pat Quinn has now signed a substantial school reform bill today that will, among other things, allow Chicago Public Schools to change the structure of the school day and academic year. SB 7 was supported by CTU after some controversy early last month.

Emanuel hasn’t been shy about his quest for a longer school day for the 409,279 and 21,320 teachers in the nation's third-largest public school system. With the passage of SB 7, the discussion has naturally turned to what a longer school day might mean for the quality of instruction in Chicago's public schools. There are a lot of numbers thrown around when it comes to the issue, with CPS often being deemed as having one of the nation's shortest school days, so Progress Illinois checked in with the CTU, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the U.S. Department of Education to find out what it all means.

The CPS school year is made up of 170 classroom instructional days. High schools get 421 minutes or about 7 hours in a school day, while the elementary school day is 354 minutes or 5 hours and 45 minutes long, CPS spokesman Bobby Otter said. The amount of time in the elementary school day is the number being used by Emanuel and the media in reference to the short length of the district's academic day. According to a 2008 study by the Center for American Progress, that number is indeed the shortest school day amongst the nation's large urban school districts.

Nationwide, the average number of hours in a school day (not just instructional time) is 6.64 hours, while the average number of days in the school year is 180, according to a schools and staffing survey obtained by Progress Illinois from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics. Statewide, the average school day is 6.5 hours and the average school year is 177 days long. Texas has the longest average school day of 7.17 hours, while Florida has the longest school year with 184 school days.

The longer-school-day saga first hit Chicago this year with talks about bringing recess back to CPS elementary schools -- which would also lengthen the school day, althought it would not affect instructional hours. Schools currently have the autonomy to determine when, or if, they have recess and breaks.

As for the the teacher’s union, CTU’s spokeswoman Liz Brown said there have been previous discussions about moving teachers’ 45-minute break, now taken at the end of the day, to the middle of the day, which would effectively lengthen the school day although, again, not necessarily instructional hours. While no proposal has been released on what a longer day would look like, Brown said, “It’s all in the implementation. It is tricky. There is a lot of issues -- facility, safety, price on after-school programs.”

When tossed a hypothetical, if-the-stars-aligned scenario in the teachers’ favor, Brown said, “We have a solid contract in play until June 2012. These are issues we will be negotiating over, but discussing the nature of those discussions is, wow, way premature.”

Sun-Times editorial by business-backed, school reform group Advance Illinois, which also supported SB 7, points out that a teachers' work day is a lingering effort. Between all the prep work it takes to prepare to teach (pulling together materials, workshop training, and grading just to name a few), and the troubled students who need one-on-one time outside of classroom time, the best use of “teacher time” is more complex than simply looking at the number of minutes that make up a school day.

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