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The Shrinking School Day


The Shrinking School Day

October 15, 1999
Urban PolicyNYC
EducationPre K-12

Even Rudy Crew gave his record as schools chancellor only a B plus this week, and many critics grade him much, much lower.

There are many reasons why Crew's fouryear tenure has been disappointing, but certainIy one major factor is a teachers union contract that virtually hogties the system.

Take Public School 87 on the upper West Side. When parents sent their children back after the summer vacation, they naturally assumed teachers also were raring to get back into the classroom.

But of the 15 scheduled school days in September, kids were sent home after half a day on five occasions. In a letter to parents, Principal Steven Plaut explained that teachers needed two halfdays to talk with each other "about the strengths and academic needs of each student." Educators call this "articulation."

The teachers also needed three halfdays to talk with parents about the children. "For example," Plaut wrote, “if you tell the teacher that Lucas likes cats, she might steer him to a book on cats to inspire him during reading time."

It makes sense for parents and teachers to talk with each other early in the school year. But one might think meetings could be arranged without taking away instructional time. Why, for example, couldn't teachers talk with parents after 3 p.m.? Or why couldn't they report to school a day or two early and "articulate" then? After all, they've been on vacation for 10 weeks.

The answer to such commonsense questions is that common sense doesn't govern the schools, it's the teachers' contract. PS 87's principal didn't dare ask his teachers to talk with each other after kids leave at 3 because the contract states the school day "shall be 6 hours and 20 minutes."

And he couldn't require teachers to come in a day or two early because the contract stipulates that they report to work no earlier than "the Tuesday following Labor Day."

The problem of lost school days has grown over the last decade as the United Federation of Teachers rigidly enforces its "we don't do windows" contract. Thus, when teachers are asked to participate in staff development sessions throughout the year, the children get sent home.

When teachers grade standardized tests, the children get sent home. When teachers need clerical time to fill out Board of Education forms, the children are sent home.

In the case of my children's schools, the amount of lost instructional time reaches the equivalent of eight to 12 days. Nevertheless, the Board of Ed continues to insist that it runs a full 180day school year to qualify for maximum reimbursement from the state.

What makes this even more maddening is that whenever any effort is made to keep teachers in school for more than the contractual day, the city pays a king's ransom. When Crew took control of a group of 40 failing schools, he said a major item in his reform program would be requiring the teachers to spend an extra 40 minutes in the classroom each day. For this "concession," the same teachers responsible for bringing the schools to their sorry state were rewarded with a 15%, fully pensionable raise. For veterans in the highest bracket, this means an extra $10,000 a year for three years, plus as much as $7,000 a year after retirement.

The next time an education official suggests the best way to improve academic performance is to keep students in school longer, he should be reminded of the scandal of the vanishing school day.

Crew reportedly is looking into extending the school year into the summer. I hope the Board of Ed takes a deep breath before it subtracts a single day from my kids' summer vacations. Instead, the board ought to begin taking back the many hours of instructional time it has given away because of its reluctance to stand up to the UFT.