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posted: 12/8/2011 5:00 AM

Study all variables to determine length of school day

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing to add 90 minutes of classroom time per day in Chicago Public Schools to boost student performance. CPS lags behind most big-city school districts -- both in performance and time in class.

So, does it follow that if you apply the simple equation across the board to suburban schools, you'll get the same desired result?

It's not that simple.

There are just too many variables -- the suburbs' vast range of socio-economic conditions and English proficiency chief among them, along with evidence that time spent in class doesn't necessarily translate to higher test scores.

Staff writer Jessica Cilella on Tuesday examined what role the length of a school day plays in the academic success of suburban schools.

One case study: Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and West Leyden High School in Northlake both provide 355 minutes of instructional time a day. But 86.6 percent of Stevenson kids meet or exceed state standards on all tests while only 37.5 percent of West Leyden kids do.

Clearly, poverty is a large factor. More than half of West Leyden kids are considered low-income, while just 4 percent of Stevenson kids are.

Same goes for East Aurora District 131, where 75.5 percent of students are low-income and only 21.7 percent meet or exceed standards on all tests. Kids in District 131 attend class just 4 minutes less each day than do Stevenson students.

Experts say kids from wealthier homes have greater access to professional tutoring -- but they also have parents with the wherewithal to provide them with intellectually stimulating pursuits outside of school, like visits to museums.

Erika Patall, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, said a longer school day is important for at-risk kids without that kind of out-of-school family support. But, she admonishes, "It's important to consider how that time is going to be used. There's opportunity for that time to become even detrimental, if the time's not being used for engaging instruction."

Poorer suburban districts would be wise to monitor what's been done in Massachusetts in waves in recent years, where lengthening the school days has netted higher scores. But this should be considered only on a district-by-district basis. It might be best to address the needs of students, as Leyden has done for individual students who need it, such as freshman learning to deal with the pressures of high school.

A longer school day could, in fact, limit some learning opportunities.

High school, in particular, is a lot more than math, science, language arts and social studies. It's where kids learn socialization skills through clubs, sports, band and other extracurricular activities. School leaders do well to add that variable to the equation when determining the length of time spent in instruction.