[For an update on the Chicago situation, see Chicago Teachers Win Relief in Longer Day Battle, but War Not Over.]
Teachers and labor activists nationally are watching high drama unfold in Chicago, where teachers have challenged “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel with a stunning 90 percent vote to authorize a strike.
The pivotal issue behind the showdown is the mayor’s demand for a longer school day and school year, with a raise (2 percent) that doesn’t match the increased teaching time (20 percent).
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Chicago teachers already work an average of 58 hours per week during the school year, according to a recent University of Illinois report, “Beyond the Classroom: An Analysis of a Chicago Public School Teacher’s Actual Workday.”
On first glance, the mayor looks like another employer trying to squeeze more from workers—and he surely is that. But his push is also part of a bigger agenda. The longer school day and year is one of President Obama’s top priorities for education.
EDUCATION FOR PROFIT
Obama’s policy is, in turn, designed by a corporate sector that wants to convert America’s $600 billion education budget into a for-profit operation. With the longer day also linked to a national corporate strategy toward school privatization, the insistence of the Chicago Teachers Union on a fair contract becomes a bellwether for teachers nationally.
The longer day has become all the rage among self-described school reformers. They claim in particular that more hours spent in school will help close the “racial achievement gap,” the gap between white students’ test scores and graduation rates and those of Black and Latino students.
Obama promotes more hours with a funding incentive: low-achieving schools can qualify for federal grants. More than 1,000 schools across all 50 states used the federal money for longer-school-day projects in 2011.
The longer day and year are also pushed by corporate donors. Bill Gates’s foundation funds a 20-school pilot program in Houston, where the day is extended by an hour and the school year by a week. A national organization called Citizens Schools runs after-school programs for mostly low-income middle school students, backed by investors such as Bank of America.
A new advocacy project, the Time to Succeed Coalition, calls for “more and better learning time” for children in poor communities, driven by a $50 million Ford Foundation grant.
Three big-city school districts are currently pressing longer hours in teacher contract talks: Chicago, proposing 40 more minutes per day and seven more days per year; Boston, 45 minutes per day; and Denver, an extra hour per day in middle schools. All three cities are low-balling teacher compensation.
The districts’ stingy stance gains traction because it builds on years of right-wing talking points that charge public schools—and all public services—are fraught with waste and inefficiency. Hostile politicians and pundits claim school spending has doubled in the last half-century without improving educational attainment, failing to mention that much money has flowed to special-education services. These services, in turn, are actively avoided by the charter schools they favor.
DO LONGER HOURS HELP?
Most research on longer school days says that simply expanding classroom time, while teaching by the usual routines, makes no real difference in student achievement. A review by Erika Patall and others of 15 research papers found that extending the school day or school year has “at worst, no effect on achievement and, at best, a small relationship with achievement.”
If, however, the extra time is filled with engaging and fun activities, then these can improve student outcomes. “The teachers union isn’t against doing more stuff with kids,” says CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Let’s run a cool after-school program. Let’s have theater and dance and sports.”
The union emphasized the value of art, music, and play in children’s learning in its report, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.”
But fun, innovative programs require resources, and very few longer-day programs are well-resourced. CTU points out that Emanuel is proposing no new resources for schools, and that the district projects a $600-$700 million deficit for the coming school year.
In fact, the district has been stripping schools of resources and programs for years, especially in the predominantly Black and Latino south and west sides of the city. Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard claimed last fall that a longer school day could help address the racial achievement gap, and that the union was standing in the way.
Many parents disagree. Chicago Parents for Quality Education, a coalition of parent and community groups, says the gap can best be closed by giving schools more resources and distributing them equally.
“We want some consistency across the board in all of our schools—arts, class size, PE,” says Wendy Katten, parent of a third-grader. “They don’t have paint for art class in their schools. How is a longer day going to fix that?”
The group opposes lengthening the day without new programs or additional funding. In its report, “The Best Education or Just the Longest?”, the group argues that simply “providing more time to repeat activities that are failing will not benefit our children.”
Karen McDonald is a software teacher and the union rep at a southside high school with a 98 percent Black student population; it’s being phased out for alleged low performance. McDonald showed off the rich student artwork adorning the walls while she bemoaned the layoff of an inspiring art teacher.
“She was extremely motivating for the students,” says McDonald. The school also lost a social worker; the librarian was reassigned to classroom teaching; a peace circle and peer jury program (an innovative approach to school discipline) faded away under a new principal; the list goes on.
At the same time, the district generously funds the neighboring high school run by a politically-connected private contractor. Many schools on the whiter, more affluent north side enjoy more resources as well.
“A longer school day without providing equity means absolutely nothing to our kids,” said Marilyn Foster, who teaches information technology to high schoolers.
WHAT’S THE AGENDA?
The corporate school reformers who preach loudest for longer school time are also pushing policies—school defunding, more standardized tests, privatization—that harm all students and especially low-income students of color.
If the real aim is turning education into a vast new market for profit, then why more time at the desk? A few ideas:
To convert public education into a private, for-profit market, corporations need to weaken or eliminate teachers unions and to sharply reduce labor costs. The longer day facilitates both.
Demanding that teachers work extra hours for free sells well to the public, which is told that teachers are overpaid and underworked. “Greedy” teachers are pitted against parents working long hours.
The proposals can also pit teachers against parents, since many parents working long, irregular hours may resent the supposedly short hours enjoyed by teachers—unaware of the extra time that teachers invest in their jobs.
The wage concessions implicit in longer-day contracts help smooth the way for broader concessions and make the union less valuable to members, who will question why they’re paying dues.
Expanding school time helps mega-publishers sell more test preparation and other pre-packaged curricula. In today’s test-driven school environment, every added classroom hour provides more sales opportunity.
And finally, more time in school will grind teachers down, leaving them too exhausted for fighting privatization or building alliances with parents.
The Chicago Teachers Union is ready to challenge this agenda. Not only did the union put on an impressive strike authorization vote, it’s led educational conferences, intense planning at school sites, and big rallies, including one on May 23 in which 6,000 teachers wearing their red union T-shirts showed their force to the city.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time training delegates about what’s at stake in this fight,” said CTU VP Sharkey. “The rank-and-file leadership of this union should not be underestimated.”