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.
Affluent Glen Ellyn's two elementary districts both offer five hours, 15 minutes of instruction daily, only seven minutes more than CPS reports.
"We clearly see that we are lagging behind in time,'' said Superintendent John Perdue of Community Consolidated School District 89. On average, the students in his district spend about 26 minutes a day on science, a figure Perdue called "insufficient" to produce the scientists and engineers who can compete in the global economy.
In Elmhurst's Community Unit School District 205, elementary school students receive about five hours, 20 minutes of instruction time a day in grades one through five.
"Sometimes I feel so rushed,'' said Laurie McDonough, a third-grade teacher at the district's Channing Elementary School. "I would love to have another half-hour."
For all the talk about the importance of more time in the classroom, the length of the school day varies tremendously from district to district in Illinois. State school officials can't say how much it varies, though, because so many districts incorrectly report the length of their day. Officials acknowledged to the Tribune that they are aware of errors in the data for dozens of schools, though they continue to publish it.
With state data unreliable, the Tribune used class schedules from a handful of Chicago-area districts to highlight some of the discrepancies. So while seventh-graders in northwest suburban Elgin School District U-46 are getting less than five hours, 30 minutes of instruction on average, their counterparts in southwest suburban Plainfield District 202 are receiving about seven hours, according to state records.
That's a big difference, but one that doesn't necessarily translate into student performance, experts say. Indeed, at a time when urban and suburban districts across the U.S. are lengthening their school days in an effort to improve tests scores and student learning, no studies conclusively link more instruction time with higher achievement.
Timothy Knowles, who directs the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago and serves on the city's advisory committee to lengthen the school day, notes that some of Chicago's elite private schools offer less class time to students than they'd get at CPS. The Chicago Latin School, Francis W. Parker School and Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School provide about as much instructional time each day as CPS but have shorter school years, Knowles said.
The difference, Knowles said, is that the vast majority of students at these top-tier schools have parental and community support that ensures they're prepared for school the moment they step on campus.
Ultimately, it's not about how long the day is but how the time is used, said Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based advocacy group for longer school days.
"There is mounting evidence about the impact when the time is used well; that is the key, of course," Davis said. "If you look across the country at schools and districts that have experimented with more time, there have been some mixed results. That's why it has to be more time, thoughtfully used with quality teaching.
"It can't just be that you're going to add a little time here and there and expect significant outcomes."
In Chicago, the average school day is just five hours, eight minutes, the shortest such day in Illinois and one of the shortest in the nation. The amount of instruction time by subject is not uniform across the district, so some schools spend longer on math and science than others. But comparing the district's own guidelines for elementary school instruction show that as early as the second grade, students are falling behind many of their suburban peers in time spent on core subjects such as English and math.
In the third grade, for example, CPS' guidelines call for about 720 minutes a week of instruction in language arts, including reading, writing and spelling. Math occupies about 240 minutes for the week. A survey of suburban districts show that in some cases, student are receiving 10 to 20 minutes more instruction in these subjects each day, adding up to hours more a month.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made extending the school day a key piece to improving student performance in a district that has long lagged behind similarly large districts in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and elsewhere.
Emanuel and new CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard have promised to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes across the district in 2012-13, which, if successful, would rank CPS near the top of the list of longest school days in the state.
Brizard said he feels so strongly that the added time would improve students' chances of learning that CPS is offering elementary schools up to $150,000 and teachers about a 2 percent salary bonus if they implement the longer day this school year. As of Monday, five schools had taken up the offer.
"Additional time in the classroom is a tool teachers can use to boost student achievement, but longer days are not the be-all, end-all," said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
Complicating the issue further is that for all the emphasis on how much time students spend in class, there is virtually no oversight of the data collection at the state level. State law requires schools to report their instructional time to the State Board of Education to ensure they exceed the minimum level of five hours of instructional time per day, which cannot include lunch, recess or time between classes.
But the state board has limited time and staff to monitor the numbers, said agency spokeswoman Mary Fergus. This year, the agency has found two dozen districts that incorrectly inflated the length of their school days by either not reporting their shortest days, as required, or by not subtracting noninstruction times like recess and lunch. An additional dozen or so warrant closer inspection, said officials, who add that this represents a small fraction of the more than 800 districts statewide.
These errors make it impossible to know precisely how much time students spend in class or to make widespread comparisons between districts. Fergus said the state board is aware of the accounting problems and is trying to correct them.
For example, the state figures for Elmhurst's District 205 show that students are receiving six hours, 25 minutes of classroom time. But records supplied to the Tribune indicate students in grades one through five are getting only about five hours, 20 minutes daily.
At District 300 in northwest suburban Carpentersville, state records show students receive 345 minutes of instruction a week, but records obtained by the Tribune show some elementary schools receiving only 320.
At District 39 in Wilmette, state figures erred the other way, showing school days of five hours, 20 minutes when it's actually five hours, 30 minutes, said district spokeswoman Holly Goldin.
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 reported seven hours of instruction daily to the state board, but a spokesman said the figure is actually six hours.
Fergus said at least 19 school districts in Illinois reported the same figures for both the length of school days and the length of instructional time, which, in theory, means their students don't eat lunch or visit the restroom.
Even the length of the school day in Chicago is being disputed. The Chicago Teachers Union says students are learning for five hours, 20 minutes a day, 12 minutes longer than what the district says. The district's own guidelines, however, map out only five-hour days for grades one to eight.
However you measure it, Carroll said, CPS needs to make up ground.
"It's really not fair to compare the challenges at CPS to those in private schools or suburban schools," Carroll said. "Ultimately, this is about whether we're preparing kids for graduation and whether they're ready for college. A longer school day is a step toward that."
Tribune reporters Lolly Bowean and Monica Eng contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun