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Scot Lehigh

We need it, but who’ll pay for a longer school day?

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / May 14, 2010

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LAST YEAR, rigorous research by Harvard and MIT demonstrated that Boston’s best charter schools have an impressive educational impact.

This week, we found out one likely reason why: Charter school students spend more time in school. A lot more time.

Anecdotally, educational observers have long known that. But we now have solid data.

A charter school student’s day averages 8.2 hours, compared with 6.1 hours at Boston’s traditional public schools, according to a new study done by the American Institutes for Research for the Boston Foundation, which also funded the Harvard-MIT work. That means charter students benefit from the equivalent of at least 62 additional school days each year.

The new report notes that a longer school day allows time for many of the things teachers and parents value. For faculty, there’s time for more teacher collaboration and participation in school leadership. For kids, there’s time for art, enrichment, and remedial help.

Given those findings, the study helps frame one of the next big questions in education reform: In tough budgetary times, how do you get a longer school day for kids who need it?

Here’s the reality that defenders of the traditional system have to face. Most charter schools already provide an extended day for the same per pupil public dollars we spend for a shorter day in the traditional schools.

A longer day has also worked well in some traditional schools, such as the spectacular Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. But to get such a day in those schools, the public has to pay extra. Under the extended learning time program Massachusetts 2020 has pioneered, the state is spending some $15 million for a longer day in 22 schools.

Now, traditional schools have a fair point when they cite the extra expense they incur educating high-needs special education children and students with very limited English proficiency.

And yet it’s also true that the 6 1/2-hour day contractually required of Boston’s well-paid traditional school teachers is shorter than that in comparable districts, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization. Further, “at 182 days, Boston’s teachers have one of the shortest work years’’ among the 100 districts across the country the council tracks.

In broad terms, what we have here is a collision of world views. From the perspective of many union teachers in traditional schools, faculty members need to be paid for most if not all of the additional time they work. But from the perspective of a taxpayer or educational consumer, charters are delivering longer days without getting extra dollars for doing so.

The fascinating question is what happens as we move forward.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, hopes that Boston’s traditional school teachers will recognize the need to extend the day, perhaps in exchange for a stipend, but without demanding strict dollars-for-hours compensation.

“The teachers need to show some pragmatic accommodation and embrace the practices that have led to superior results,’’ he said. “As charters continue to pile up those results, it is going to be hard to resist these reforms.’’

Certainly the ground is shifting toward the charter model. For example, under the state’s new education reform law, Boston will see as many as 5,000 new Commonwealth charter school slots and 2,000 more Horace Mann charter seats.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner, thinks the traditional model will adopt and adapt.

“We need to be willing to redesign our school programs to meet the needs of students, and that does mean more time,’’ Chester said. “The traditional public schools have to be willing to open their eyes to the practices that are making a difference.’’

I wish I were optimistic about that prospect. But at least when it comes to the Boston Teachers Union, I’m not. Given the BTU’s recent history — and the just-stalled negotiations over underperforming schools — I expect that the union will dig in, insisting on an unaffordable amount of extra pay in exchange for the longer days that could transform the Boston system.

But I’d like nothing better than to be proved wrong.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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