Perhaps instruction time is not the problem with the Chicago Public Schools

Perhaps instruction time is not the problem with the Chicago Public Schools

So, maybe I was wrong. 

Over the last few weeks I have berated the Chicago Public Schools on its short school day.  CPS students get the least amount of instruction time of Illinois students.  I have called for the Chicago Teachers Union to embrace the need for more instruction time.  And  I have questioned whether Chicago teachers (specifically CTU President Karen Lewis) cared about their students. 

Today’s Chicago Tribune noted CPS’ instruction time is in line with two other suburban school districts—one of those being the school district I was raised in.  

Chicago Public Schools instructs its students five hours and eight minutes daily.  The front page of today’s Chicago Tribune noted that Glen Ellyn’s School District 89 provides five hours and 15 minutes of instruction time; whereas Elmhurst’s District 205 (my school district) provides five hours and 20 minutes of instruction time.    

Egg on face. 

Not only on my face, Rahm Emanuel has lashed out at the school district in lagging instruction time; so has the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who called the short school day a “disgrace.”

Although the length of instruction time is similar, I would be willing to bet that on average, a kid who grows up in the Elmhurst public school district is “better educated” at 18 years old than her counterpart in CPS.  I put “better educated” in quotes because I’m not certain how it should be measured, but if we were to stack up ACT/SAT test scores, I think the Elmhurst kids would rate better. 

Anecdotally, I remember my first year in college—specifically my first semester—and remember being prepared for every concept thrown at me.  I had seen everything before in high school.  A friend from across the hall in my dorm was a former CPS student and he would admit he was woefully unprepared for college coursework. 

Now granted, that is two people in college twenty years ago.  But having toured my high school last weekend, I am confident that students in Elmhurst have every advantage in terms of college preparation.  But if they are only getting roughly 10 minutes more a day in instruction than CPS students, what gives? 

I think arguing money is easy.  Generally, districts from wealthy areas have more money to spend per student, which leads to more teachers and more tools to teach each student with.  But even if CPS had more resources, it would not necessarily translate into more student success.    

Perhaps much of the disparity between CPS and some suburban districts (we should be careful not to lump all suburban districts together) also comes from parental involvement.  In general, where there is more parental involvement, children have access to a better education.  Today’s article in the Chicago Tribune alluded to increased parental support:

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.

 I think it is safe to say that within a school, if you take two students, one with parents who support their child’s education will do better than the family that does not.

 So what should CPS do?  Here’s what I said in my August 4, 2011, post discussing the need for both more parental responsibility and Chicago Teacher’s Union accountability, in educating Chicago students, found in its entirety here: 

CPS students need increased instruction. But our students also need increased parental participation. Ultimately, my son’s education is my responsibility. It is my responsibility to know when the first day of school is and make certain my son’s butt is in his seat on that day and every day until June. It is my responsibility to make certain that the television is turned off when it’s time to do homework. It is my responsibility to find my child a school at which he can learn.

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And I understand that many people– especially in today’s job and real estate market– can’t just up and bolt to the suburbs. But sitting on your hands and blaming CPS for your child’s lack of education isn’t the answer. Because after twelve years of complaining about the lack of education but otherwise sitting on your hands, your child leaves high school far behind the great majority of students in the United States.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Chicago Teachers Union to have a little bit more pride in their product. It is disconcerting for Karen Lewis to be fighting against the opening of more Chicago charter schools rather than fighting for the education of the students that her members teach. People would not be clamoring to get children into charter schools if Ms. Lewis’ teachers were doing a better job.

That said, parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. You can’t send children off to school for less than six hours a day and then suspend the educational process for the other eighteen hours at home. A respect for education and teachers is necessary out of the home. That every August the mayor has to go out and tour neighborhoods and remind parents through the media to send children to school is evidence that Chicago parents should have more respect for their children’s education.

Although there is no easy answer, one thing is clear: parents need to be accountable for their children.   Accountability means parental involvement.  We are fortunate that there is a dialogue in Chicago about how to best educate our children.  In fact, tonight, CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will be at the UIC Forum at 725 W. Roosevelt at 6:00pm discussing how to better educate our children. Get involved with your child’s education.  Be part of the dialogue tonight and moving forward-- and continue the dialogue at school with your child's teacher and at home with your child.


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  • Mr. Thomas it is a pleasure to see you look at this situation and be objective. The only issue with charters it the fact of them being able to choose their students, while carefully not selecting students that are considered "problems". The traditional school must embrace all students. Despite the advantage of charter schools being able to select the best of the best, their overall performance is still comparable to that of traditional schools.

  • In reply to teach4chicago:

    Thank you for the comment. And thank you for reading. I'm trying to figure out why our students (and parents) have to fight to get our children into the few good schools in Chicago. Why can't more Chicago schools compete? Hopefully, we can come up with some workable ideas and get the attention of Mayor Emanuel. It does appear that this mayor will at least listen to the public.

  • The Mayor will not have been successful fixing the schools until he and other parents with the means to afford alternatives are comfortable sending their kids to their nearest neighborhood school. In the city, it seems that unless you can get your kids into an elite magnet school, you have to pay for private or parochial school. I do not think that is the case in most suburbs.
    Let's ask the hard questions;
    1. Should we let students go to school outside of their own neighborhood?
    2. Should we put resources into elite magnet schools or phase them out and push those resources to neighborhood schools.
    3. Should we add a year to elementary school and a year to high school to allow time for students to be able to learn the increasingly complex skills needed to be prepared for life?
    4. Should we work closely with industry to devise a quality vocational program or focus more on college prep.
    5. Should we identify and remove discipline problems from schools (and segregate into specialized schools) so that teachers can focus more on teaching rather than policing?
    6. Should we give paperback textbooks to students that they can write in and retain after the school year rather than try to reuse hardcover books?
    7. Should we go to a system where students citywide watch the same class via video and classroom teachers focus on assisting individual students?
    8. Should we institute tracking so that all students are at close to the same level in a class. Set performance based standards rather than age or time to allow advancement. Allow for students to spend extra years if needed to attain a high school level of achievement rather than let them drop out or receive a debased diploma for hanging in for 12 years?
    9. Should we require school uniforms across all grades and all schools?

    We should not accept that city schools should be inferior to suburban schools on average. That does not serve the interests of the entire metro area and is one of the most critical problems we need to address in the Chicago area.

  • In reply to JohnM3:

    John, Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I hope you don't mind (somewhat too late now) but I used your comment in a recent post.

  • No problem. Read the post. I don't claim to know the answers but I do know we need to thoughtfully address these issues if we want to keep this city up.

  • My Mother In Law, a veteran college English professor had to be a substitute teacher at in inner-city Chicago school in order to graduate as an High School English teacher. Apparently, to teach high school you needs a Master's degree. She was kept by the teacher she was teaching under from forming lesson plans or reading from books. The teacher told her instead for example to show one movie over the span of three days. When she realized that students in high school were not even capable of simple grammar, she developed a simple grammar lesson to teach the students. She was told again not to by the teacher after discovering this tragedy. She had to have the teacher's approval in order to get her credits for her teaching degree so she had to abide by the teacher's wishes to "not teach" when she taught her students. The teachers were basically just baby sitters and were not teaching the children, and it was code that they were in the "not teaching, teacher's club." They reasoned that these students didn't even want to learn, and were basically just watching them to keep them off the streets. That assumption in my opinion was completely unfair, as the cultural epidemic of withholding their human right to an education from an early age was the reason they were not able to learn in my opinion. I asked my mother-in-law if she was going to do anything about it and she said that she would submit an article about it. I believe that teachers of poor communities keep the children oppressed by not teaching them. The students then have no tools to go out in the world and even apply for a job or college. The teachers in those schools are getting a paycheck for nothing essentially, and systematically oppressing those youths in the poor school districts. Without an education, they cannot get a job. If they cannot get a job, they have to turn to illegal means to support themselves. There needs to be a task force to save the children in those communities who go and monitor those teachers. What they are doing is a criminal offense, and they are ruining the futures of our youth, and are in it together. There seems to be a mindset that they just lay low and not teach together while getting yearly pay increases. No one wants to blow the whistle on anyone else politically, in hope they someday land a higher paying administrative position by staying favorable to those who also promote "not teaching" teaching. Please go and investigate their curriculums, and monitor whether they are implementing the curriculums on a daily basis. If they are not, they should be fired and disciplined legally. I am reporting this anonymously as my mother in law told me in confidence. But I really feel this is an injustice that needs to be addressed.

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