Charles Chieppo is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School.E-mail: Charlie_Chieppo@hks.harvard.edu
Chicago school officials have proposed lengthening the city's short school day by 90 minutes for elementary-school children, and the plan is encountering resistance from the city's teachers—not over its merits but over how much they would be paid to work longer hours. As Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis notes, teachers are "being asked to work 29 percent longer for only a 2 percent pay increase."
Lewis may have a point. But how much teachers would be paid for their longer work day is not the most important issue. The big question is whether longer school days necessarily translate into better schools. What if longer school days result in what the Boston Globe called "more-of-the-same mediocrity during the extended day"?
The results of an exhaustive, 203-page study of the first four years of the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative found "no statistically significant effects of ELT after one, two, or three years of implementation on [state] student achievement test outcomes." In May, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts' commissioner of elementary and secondary education, threatened to pull state funding from two Boston schools that received grants to implement extended days.
It's not that Chicago schools couldn't stand to have a longer day. With just over five hours of instruction time, the city has what city schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard claims to be "the shortest school day in the nation." Each year, Brizard notes, "Chicago's students get 10,000 minutes less in the classroom compared to the national average."
But when it comes to improving student performance, there can be little doubt that teacher quality, not extended learning time, is what matters most. In his first major education address, President Obama said, "From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents; it's the person standing at the front of the classroom."
More than any factor, it's the quality of people entering the education profession that determines the quality of the teaching they eventually will deliver. Yet according to 2008 College Board data, students intending to pursue undergraduate education degrees have lower SAT scores than those in all but one field generally associated with four-year degrees. Graduate Record Examination results for those seeking to enter education programs are also well below average. Among those seeking admission to grad schools, the lowest scores come from undergraduate education majors.
During tough times, it's especially important to focus taxpayer dollars on the most important issues. If improving student achievement is the goal, teacher quality—not extended learning time—should be school districts' top priority.