While the debate over the length of the school day in the Chicago Public Schools continues to escalate, data produced by suburban high schools indicate that parents' resources and the way classroom time is used are equal, or larger, contributors to student success.
Studies show the minimum 336 instructional minutes CPS high school students are required to have per day is less than most of their suburban peers.
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Do suburban schools perform better? Most do, but experts say besides the number of instructional minutes, other factors, like poverty, play a big role as well.
In fact, the number of instructional minutes at lower-ranked suburban schools is often the same or within a few minutes of higher-ranked suburban schools. And suburban school administrators say success is based less on the amount of time in school and more on how time is spent.
The argument for a longer day is advocated by people like Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning. Davis believes that time in school is an important factor for success, but that each school wouldn't necessarily use the additional time the same way.
So what's really making the difference in student performance? And how much does school day length matter?
Makeup of a school
Students at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and West Leyden High School in Northlake both have 355 minutes of instructional time a day.
But at Stevenson, 86.6 percent of students meet or exceed Illinois standards on all tests, whereas only 37.5 percent of West Leyden's students do.
Davis said the financial resources parents have to help their children learn outside school, such as the ability to pay for tutoring services like Kaplan or Sylvan, need to be taken into consideration.
Numbers reflect her reasoning: 52.8 percent of students at West Leyden are considered low-income, compared to Stevenson's 4.2 percent.
"Families that have resources, they are investing in educational opportunities for their children outside of traditional school," Davis said. "Our challenge in this country is that our poorest kids do not have educational opportunities outside of school, and that's why they are school-dependent."
That dependence is seen at East Aurora High School, where 75.5 percent of students are low-income and only 21.7 percent meet or exceed standards on all tests.
Still, East Aurora doesn't fall far behind in instructional minutes from top-ranked Stevenson, which has only four more minutes a day. East Aurora District 131 spokesman Clayton Muhammad said there are no plans to add more class time.
"There's certainly been conversations around the issue, but nothing specifically has been established as far as the official school day, contractually," he said.
Muhammad said East Aurora students, who are in class 351 minutes a day, partly rely on programs sponsored by nonprofit organizations at the school after hours to have a "natural extension of the academic day."
Erika Patall, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied how activities students participate in outside of school influence their academic achievement.
She said research shows that a longer day may not be as important for students who have opportunities outside of class for stimulating activities, such as visiting museums.
"That's part of the reason why extended school time seems to be particularly important for kids who are at-risk (for failure) because they're less likely to have parents that are able to provide those kind of experiences for them, and so more school time is actually compensating for that to some extent," she said.
Patall agrees that more time could help but said educators must monitor what kind of instruction students are getting in the longer day.
"It's important to consider how that time is going to be used," she said. "There's opportunity for that time to become even detrimental, if the time's not being used for engaging instruction."
At schools with a high percentage of low-income students, Davis said, parents and educators most likely would want to use extra instructional time for the basics -- English, language arts and math.
High-performing schools, however, could use the time to expand science, art, music, physical education and foreign languages. A broader curriculum that would include opportunities for apprenticeship and internship in both settings could be beneficial, too, she said.
"Each community should be in the position to determine how that extra time is used," Davis said. "There's a whole variety of things that schools could be doing to accelerate student achievement and exposure."
Need for change?
State law requires that every elementary and high school student receive at least 300 instructional minutes per day, excluding recess, lunch and passing periods, said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
If Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wins his fight for all Chicago Public Schools to have an additional 90 instructional minutes per day, city high school students will have 426 minutes a day in class.
Deborah Larson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128, said Libertyville High School's 355 instructional minutes per day is "probably as long as (the school day) should be.
"It works well, I think, for kids, and it still gives them some time to be involved in some things after school," she said.
Jim Conrey, public information coordinator at Stevenson, said the current school day, which has been in place for more than two decades, is "tried and true."
"I don't sense any momentum in either direction," he said.
Mikkel Storaasli, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Leyden High School District 212, said while no discussions have occurred recently about a longer school day, at West Leyden High School "we've lengthened it for certain students who we think need it."
The extension is a 25-minute advisory period at the end of each day for freshmen to learn how to adjust to issues in high school, such as cyberbullying and more homework, and for students who are failing any core classes at the end of the quarter.
Storaasli said the extra time for freshmen "has been extremely successful" and that while the program for the students who need extra academic help needs to be refined, it has been beneficial to students who just need that quiet time.
"It's useful for them," he said. "They can get their work done."
Lance Fuhrer, assistant principal at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, said there needs to be a focus on a strong curriculum and quality teachers alongside sufficient school day length.
"Classroom time can be a variable in student achievement, but more importantly, we try to look at the quality of time," he said.
Factors to consider
Storaasli said if a school wants to lengthen the school day there are a lot of factors to consider.
"It's kind of a balancing act," he said. Starting the school day later takes into consideration "the biology of teenagers" and how many of them don't function well in the morning. But in the afternoon, most students have jobs, extracurricular activities or family obligations, along with homework, he said.
While these factors are important, Jennifer Davis said it's helpful to look at what successful schools are doing. There are private schools in New England that operate until 5 p.m. every day and schools in Houston that require students to be in school at least seven hours a day, with some up to 8½ hours, she said.
"Chicago's need to add time is urgently important," she said. "I could make the argument that it's also important for suburban communities to explore whether their kids are measuring up. Particularly in this competitive, international environment, there are many suburban communities where their education systems are not sufficient."
"You're going to be hearing more and more about this time issue over the coming years," she said. "There's going to be more of a concern that our current agricultural school schedule isn't sufficient."