Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Boston’s longer school day isn’t long enough

It was a happy holiday announcement: After years of inaction on the issue, Boston students will finally get a longer school day as a result of a new agreement between the Walsh administration and the Boston Teachers Union.

As someone who favors expanded learning time, I wish I could be more enthusiastic. Measured against the past paralysis on the matter, this counts as progress, certainly.

But though it’s a step in the right direction, an extra 40 minutes of school time isn’t likely to be transformative, particularly in a city that currently has one of the nation’s shortest urban-district days. When the program is fully phased in, some 60 Boston elementary, middle, and K-8 schools will add the equivalent of about one class period per day. Well-designed Expanded Learning Time programs, however, generally try to add at least two such increments, one for academics, one for enrichment.

Advertisement

That was the model for the much-celebrated longer-day program at the Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Charlestown when I visited a few years ago. One extra period was devoted to giving kids more help in their weak subjects. The other was generally used for activities like theater, dance, art, band, karate, swimming, and soccer.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

That’s also one of the basic notions of the state-led turnaround efforts in Lawrence.

In Boston, the talk is of using the extra 40 minutes to add both academic time and enrichment. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like enough time to do both well.

A few comparisons are helpful.

This agreement will add 120 hours each year, for about a month of extra school time. Boston charter students, whose schools usually feature both a longer day and a longer year, typically get at least twice that amount of extra school time over the course of the school year. (And at no extra cost, though the view here is that charters should also get more pay for their longer-day efforts.)

Advertisement

Now consider the situation in Lawrence. Because the school district was put into receivership, management had more power at the bargaining table. That said, the state’s efforts there now win good reviews from nearly everyone, including the American Federation of Teachers, the national parent of both the Lawrence Teachers’ Union and the Boston Teachers Union.

Lawrence elementary and middle schools have added between 200 and 300 extra hours; teachers who work the extra 300 hours earn a $4,000 stipend for that time.

The BPS, by contrast, will pay $4,465 per teacher for 120 hours. The BPS emphasizes that the amount it will pay is about 20 percent lower than the BTU’s contractual rate. But measured against Lawrence, the BPS will be paying about 11 percent more but getting only 40 percent as much time. Viewed from that perspective, the new arrangement looks like a much better deal for the BTU than for taxpayers.

And now, in fairness, a word from strong supporters of the new pact.

BPS Assistant Superintendent Ross Wilson emphasizes that the extra time shouldn’t be seen just as a new school period. Rather, he says, the schools are being encouraged to redesign their entire day.

Advertisement

But can a school really do both better academics and more enrichment with an additional 40 minutes a day?

As someone who favors expanded learning time, I wish I could be more enthusiastic.

Well, if a school is marginal, Wilson says, the BPS won’t sign off on a plan that focuses more on enrichment than academics. Further, “there is nothing that precludes schools from continuing to do enrichment after the academic day ends.” What’s important, he said, is that this agreement sets a new baseline for Boston schools.

Which is Mayor Marty Walsh’s message as well.

“I am very happy we were able to sit down and come up with this agreement,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I am going to stop here or that we are going to stop here as a school district.”

In other words, this is a start.

I wish I thought it was a strong enough start to make a real dent in the achievement gap. I don’t — though this is one area where I’d like nothing more than to be proved wrong.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.