Today brings us some interesting reads on the debate over Chicago's school-day length, and the pay increases CPS is offering to institute it, which culminated in a lawsuit filed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

First, from Joel Hood and Diane Rado of the Tribune:

The tongue-lashings Chicago Public Schools has endured in the last several weeks over its short school day — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a "disgrace" — have overshadowed the fact that that many suburban students aren't receiving much more instruction time than CPS.

Hood and Rado also discuss the difficulty of getting good hard numbers on school-day length in the state, something Eric Zorn ran into when he tried to compare New York and Chicago.

As Mike Klonsky points out (via Zorn), suburban public schools aren't the only ones to compare similarly or unfavorably with CPS's school-day length; the University of Chicago Lab School, which the Mayor chose for his kids, has a similarly short school day and a shorter school year. NBC Chicago's Edward McClelland made a similar point.1

Meanwhile, current Trib reporters and former CPS students Monica Eng (who would have been an elementary student in the mid-'70s) and Ron Grossman ('40s and '50s) compare notes on their school days:

For eight years, my Peterson Elementary school day started at 9 a.m. and ended at 3:15, with a 15-minute recess and a luxurious, one-hour midday-lunch break at home.


"We went to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.," Grossman said with a nostalgic smile on his face. " At noon we went home for a one-hour lunch. And we had two recesses. One in the morning and one in the afternoon."

I'm ten years younger than Eng, but went to an alternative school. My school day was virtually identical, but as I recall it was more luxurious than my public-school and traditional-private counterparts: 15-minute recess, one-hour recess/lunch, with the school day ending at 3pm. Compare that to Chicago schools today:

Chicago's elementary school day generally begins for students at 9 a.m. and ends at 2:45 p.m., with no recess and just 20 minutes for lunch. That's about half an hour shorter than the average instructional day in Illinois, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

It's a short day, but jam-packed. That link, by the way is a good short catch-up on the recent history of school day- and year-length in Chicago.

While researching comparative school-day lengths, I came across a fascinating article from the book Teaching and Learning in Japan: "Teachers and Teaching: elementary schools in Japan in the United States," by Shin-Ying Lee, Theresa Graham, and Harold W. Stevenson, which conveniently compares schools in Japan and Chicago. The article is dated—it's from 1999—but the basic numbers seem to hold up:

Attendance at elementary school is compulsory in both Japan and the United States, and the average age of students entering first grade is very similar. School lasts 5 1/2 days each week, vacations are shorter than in American schools…. First graders attend school an average of 5.6 hours a day in both Sendai and Chicago. Fifth graders in Chicago also spend an average of 5.6 hours a day in school, but the average length of the school day for fifth graders in Japan is nearly 7 hours.

So Japanese kids, at least in 1999, were getting way more class time, right? No:

Every period is followed by a recess of ten or fifteen minutes. On an average day in our study, children in Sendai spent nearly 15 percent of their school day in recesses; Chicago children spent less than 5 percent. In addition to the recesses, Japanese children spend an hour to an hour and a half for lunch, after-lunch cleaning, and recreation.

And the breakneck pace of Chicago schools wasn't limited to students:

Japanese teachers arrive at school around 8 in the morning and remain at school for 8 or 9 hours a day. Chicago teachers usually arrive by 8:30 and leave 6 1/2 hours later. Despite the fact that Japanese teachers spend more time at school, they actually teach between 25 and 29 hours a week, or somewhat more than 4 hours a day during the 5 1/2 day week. Chicago teachers, in contrast, are in front of the classroom nearly all the time they are at school.

The authors concluded that breaking up the day improved the focus and attention span of both teachers and students. (There's much, much more in the article about pedagogy that's outside the interests of this post.)

The reason I started reading up on the length of the Japanese school day was that I came across 2009 OECD figures which found that American students actually get a lot of instruction time in comparison to their first-world peers. Which made more sense when reading up on what the Japanese school day and year actually consists of. The year, yes, is much longer, but that doesn't translate into an equivalent increase in instructional time.

Another model I read up on was KIPP, the famous charter school model that emerged out of Houston and New York ten years ago, and features a 7:30am-5pm school day along with Saturday classes. The efficacy of the KIPP model is a hot topic right now, thanks to a controversial report that came out in March of this year (more here), attesting that the charter school network has more money to work with and faces a higher attrition rate than its public-school counterparts. Meaning, in other words, that part of the reason for KIPP's success—and in the demographic that the network focuses on, it does seem to be successful; more—is that the chaff drops out.

In a 2008 brief reviewing seven studies (PDF, in-depth discussion of the brief here), Dr. Jeffrey Henig of Columbia's Teachers College (and a Northwestern PhD) drew similar conclusions—that attrition effects KIPP's achievement statistics, but also that it doesn't fully explain it:

Where it has been monitored, student attrition is high and seemingly selective. Those who leave KIPP tend to have been performing less well than those who stay, and at least one study suggests that those who leave were lower-performing when they entered. Such attrition, if it were taken into consideration, would reduce the size of gains in reports that simply compare KIPP eighth graders with those in their host districts. However, the evidence does not go so far as to suggest that attrition fully accounts for the observed KIPP advantage.

Henig also concluded that the KIPP model is tough on teachers as well:

Few studies look deeply inside the KIPP process; those that do show that teacher enthusiasm is high but that demands on teachers and leaders are great, resulting in high turnover and an unrelieved pressure to find and train new people. The implications for the expansion and sustainability of the KIPP model are still not clear.

Which is not surprising: KIPP asks a lot from its teachers. Not just in a longer school day and a longer school week, but also that teachers be on call in the evenings should students need help.

A 2010 study, "Who Benefits from KIPP" (PDF) by researchers from MIT, the University of Michigan, and Harvard looked at one KIPP school, the six-year-old KIPP Academy Lynn in Lynn, Massachusetts. And students there get a lot more instructional time:

Schools in the KIPP network, including KIPP Academy Lynn, have an unusually long school year. School starts in August, and runs on many Saturday mornings. The school day starts at 7:30 am and ends at 5:00 pm. This works out to about 1,900 hours of instruction a year at KIPP Lynn, as compared to about 1,250 in Lynn's traditional public schools.

The teachers there are younger (88 percent under 40, compared to 29 percent in the local public schools) and less likely to have licenses (26 percent and 98 percent, comparatively). Nonetheless, they have higher salaries despite their lack of experience and accreditation: $69,353, on average, to $60,523.

So: KIPP teachers in Lynn teach 33 percent more and make 13 percent more (though it's something of an apples-and-oranges comparison, given the KIPP teachers' age and experience).

That's about the same premium KIPP teacher received in Baltimore in the same year, 2008, when that city and its teachers union went to battle over—you guessed it—teacher hours, contracts, and compensation:

KIPP Ujima Village Academy, based on a model that has forged a successful track record among poor students in more than a dozen states, has been violating a contract requiring teachers to be paid more if they work extra hours, school and union leaders acknowledge.


KIPP has been paying its teachers 18 percent above the salary scale, but could not afford to increase all teachers' salaries by 33 percent, according to Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore. So it decided to stagger staff starting times and cut back on the hours students are in school when they return to classes next month.

It's similar to what's going on here in Chicago: the teachers union wants additional hours to be compensated by comparably additional pay. It's the same principle: we're okay with some teachers teaching more, but not with them making less. But the teacher bonuses on offer in Chicago for an additional 90 minutes are small: $1,250, or, as Hood and Rado calculate, about two percent of salary, while the day would extend by a bit more than a quarter. Hence the lawsuit.

Additional good resources:

* Eric Zorn's Webliography of school-length info

* Michael Barrett's 1990 Atlantic article "The Case for Longer School Years," which shows how long the debate has been going on

* Jonathan Cohn's post about a McKinsey study (drawn from the OECD data referenced above) concluding that American teachers are underpaid on a percent-of-per-capita-GDP basis

1 Just to state the obvious: I'm certain I got less instructional time than any CPS student with decent attendance, and probably less than almost all my peers got before they went to college. But my mother was not just a college English teacher, but one who specialized in teaching freshmen and ESL students. As a result, I was brought up to value education; exposed to both the basics and the higher functions of the English language, not to mention research methods; and I had access to books, college libraries, and, very early in its adoption, the Internet. McClelland writes:

But do we need to repeat the real value of a private school education? It’s not about the quality of the instruction, or the length of the school day. It’s about ensuring your children go to school with other members of their social class….


Perhaps Emanuel thinks public school kids need more instructional time to even the playing field with their more privileged peers in private.

I think the former goes too far, and that the latter is true. Even charter schools like KIPP, which don't have a financial barrier to entry, have the advantage of demanding more from students and parents, which introduces a selectivity noted in the research on the program. The playing field isn't strictly about social and economic class, even if it does correlate. Despite the fact that KIPP doesn't teach students of a high economic class, it's still, in its own way, selective. Truly universal public education will always have a more uneven playing field to level, including the unfortunate need to make up for the shortcomings of other forms of public policy.