|(Modified from image from Flickr, by dustpuppy)
Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, has accused the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) of engaging in a publicity stunt by flying a plane over City Hall in mockery of the city’s plan to lengthen the teachers’ workday. According to the Boston Herald, the plane carried a banner proclaiming that City Hall would now be open until 6:00 pm (a half-hour longer than it currently is). The union also produced fliers and newspaper ads stating that City Hall’s 720 employees “have agreed to work an extended day without any additional compensation.”
Calling the union’s action a stunt exposes the hypocrisy of Ed Deform efforts. BTU wants to ensure that its members aren’t forced to work longer hours without compensation. This is a reasonable and conservative desire. The longer school day fad (already well under way in Chicago and other cities) could be called a stunt. Supporters argue that it is a necessary “reform” for improving student performance, yet there is little evidence to show that it will improve test scores or other, more meaningful measures of student learning. Furthermore, like all the other reforms du jour, it completely ignores the primary cause of low student achievement: poverty.
There are of course putative benefits to a longer school day. Providing more class time might help some students catch up when they are behind in academic skills like reading and math. Longer class periods can also allow teachers to teach at a more relaxed pace, address student questions more thoroughly, take advantage of “teachable moments,” or go deeper into content. More time in class also means less time to get into trouble at home or on the streets. But an extra 30-60 minutes a day is unlikely to put much of a dent in the achievement gap. It will do nothing, for example, to provide food, housing and healthcare to students who are lacking these things. It cannot reverse the damage caused by malnutrition, iron-deficiency anemia, lead poisoning, exposure to second smoke, and other environmental insults that cause cognitive impairment and learning disabilities for so many lower income children. It will not provide enriching extracurricular activities during summer, like travel abroad, camp, or art classes. It will not reduce absenteeism due to untreated illnesses or provide reading to children when they are infants and toddlers.
Furthermore, it is pedagogically unsound to impose longer work hours on teachers. Longer hours mean that teachers will be more tired, increasing burn out and attrition, while also decreasing the energy they have for helping students in class. They will have less time and energy for grading papers and exams, thus encouraging the use of Scantrons and multiple choice assessments, while decreasing their assignment of essays and lab reports. Teachers will have less time and energy to design, set up and manage complex student-centered activities, labs, and projects.
It is also unreasonable and unfair to impose increased work hours on teachers without their consent or reasonable compensation. It is, in effect, a public sector version of the factory speed up, squeezing more work out of teachers, without a raise, except here there is no tangible increase in profits on the horizon. The mayor has offered a 5% increase over four years—1.25% per year—which is not likely to cover the increased cost of living in that time and which provides nothing for the extra hours of work. The BTU is asking for a 10% increase over the next three years, with no increase in work hours, which would cover the increased cost of living over that time period, plus help recover some of the losses in earning power teachers suffered over the prior three years.