Sep 26, 2011

Wanted: 250 Hours Of Learning Time [Or, I Am Not An Educator, And That's Why Rhee Gave Me This Platform]

Mike Butz
Children in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system - the country's third largest - have one of the shortest school days and years in the country. Four hundred thousand students stand to be directly affected by political battles currently being waged over bringing CPS in line with other large American districts.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is firmly opposed to Mayor Emanuel's Longer School Day Pioneer Program, which offers teachers a $1,250 bonus (equivalent to 2% of the average CPS teacher salary) and $150,000 to the school for any school voting to lengthen the school day this year. That's an additional 250 more hours per student this year alone.

The change will happen for all schools next year with or without union support as a result of bipartisan statewide legislation passed earlier this year, which the union initially supported. So why is the union so opposed to allowing teachers to choose a longer day this year? Why are they denying Chicago kids a comparable education? Here, I offer my perspective as a CPS parent on two of CTU's main objections.

The Mayor is trying to destroy collective bargaining and bust the union by urging teachers to seek waivers from the union contract. There is no evidence to support this. This program was designed to be implemented in the most American of ways – by a democratic, majority-wins vote of all union members at a school, held under the conditions of all other union votes. Waivers are a long-standing part of the contract between CTU and CPS and are routinely granted by the union for all manner of changes, including altering the length of the school day at individual schools. Ironically, the CTU is now seeking to disenfranchise their members by seeking a judicial remedy to throw out the votes of the thirteen schools that have so far voted to seek a waiver, accept the incentive funds and teach kids for more time each day.

The union is intercepting teachers on their way to and from school and providing information that is, in my estimation, misleading and presented in a manner to incite fear. What does this teach our kids? That democracy is only appropriate when you vote the "right" way, or that adult needs are more important than theirs?

There is no plan for how to spend the additional time. Karen Lewis, President of the CTU, was invited to the table to discuss the particulars of a longer day when the legislation passed. She declined to participate, calling it a "publicity stunt." Now that the Pioneer Program has gained public interest and momentum among parents who want their children to be on par with other kids, the union is lamenting the lack of a "plan" and calling out the Mayor for not having one.

These thirteen schools actually came up with their own plans, and each included extra time for all subjects, not only reading and math, but also for lunch and teacher prep. Additionally, the Mayor's office has asked the non-profit National Center on Time and Learning to work individually with schools to plan the day. Ms. Lewis had her chance to contribute and she chose to play politics instead.

Why do I think what the CTU is doing is so wrong? I think using scare-tactics is wrong. I think union leadership is looking out for the adults – which, of course, is their paramount obligation as a union, but at the expense of children? Mostly I think it's wrong because it's unfair to my child – and his hundreds of thousands of peers in our fine city – to be so shortchanged.

I know my child will be okay – my wife and I are fully involved in his education and life. But what about the other, presumably, thousands of children whose home lives are not like my son's – those kids we are always concerned about? What effect would 250 extra hours in school this year have had on their lives? Would the hours have improved their grades (an effect that could snowball in future years)? Would they have prevented more time spent hanging out, doing nothing or getting in trouble? Would 250 more hours have finally allowed for mastery of something a student had been struggling with? Would a student have found an interest in science, art or a foreign language with more time for each subject every day? Some studies say extra time is beneficial – others indicate it isn't. We know it can't hurt. But, at least for this year, we will never know in Chicago. Too much tension surrounding what should be a no-brainer: kids in the Windy City should have the same quantity of time in school as other American children.

Make no mistake, I think we have excellent teachers in Chicago – I want our kids learning from them for more, rather than less time. Teachers know we need it. Parents want it. Administrators want it. The Chicago Teachers Union leadership? Apparently, not so much.

There are more facets to this debate, from both points of view, and they are worth exploring and debating. The concern over compensation is a real one that must be addressed. Neither "side" is without some blame for how this has been handled. The kids, however, are not part of the discussion; they're just affected by it. We are the adults. We need to do right by them. Period.

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