Photo by The Familylee on Flickr.

Extending the school day consistently improves student performance, as several DC charter schools have proven. Both the Washington Teachers’ Union and DC Council agree that DCPS should likewise increase teachers’ time on task, but no one is showing needed leadership to make it happen.

DC has the most permissive charter school system in the country. A major purpose of this, often touted by education reformers, is to try out different educational innovations, learn what works, and then adopt the best ideas at non-charter public schools.

Unfortunately, neither DCPS nor the DC Council are taking the lead to study longer school days.  In fact, DCPS and the Council don’t even agree on whether legislation is required to extend the school day or not.  DCPS says the DC Council must act, while the Council’s attorney says DCPS could act if it wanted.  And the two bodies haven’t talked to each other to resolve this question.

The confusion continued this month when Councilmember Alexander unexpectedly submitted legislation extending the school day.  Alexander refiled a 2-page bill that Councilmember Cheh had submitted last year, even though she has not discussed extended school days with DCPS, with the teachers’ union or with Councilmember Cheh.

The innovation that is perhaps most common in successful charter schools, according to a new research study, is an extended school day. On a comprehensive ranking of public charter schools by educational outcomes released by the DC Charter School Board, all of the top performing charter middle schools have school days longer than the 6.5 hour DCPS school day.

Charter schoolOverall %WardGrade levelSchool day length
DC Prep-Edgewood Campus92.3%54-88-9 hours
KIPP DC: KEY Academy86.4%74-87 hrs, 30 min 9 hrs
KIPP DC: WILL Academy85.5%25-87 hrs, 30 min 9 hrs
KIPP DC: AIM Academy85.2%85-87 hrs, 30 min 9 hrs
Achievement Prep81.5%84-88 hrs, 30 min
Source: Individual charter schools

These schools consistently point to their extended school day as critical to their higher student outcomes.  Achievement Prep explains the importance of extended school days:

Our school day is 2 hours longer than the traditional DC public school, while our school year is 15 days longer. This extended instructional time provides an opportunity for intensive focus around literacy and mathematics and additional opportunities for providing students with academic support.

DC Prep, the highest ranking charter middle school, lists “More time on task” first in the list of initiatives that distinguish their school.  According to their web site, “DC Prep students spend approximately 25% more time in school than other DC public school students.”

The DCPS school day is not only shorter than those of most successful charter middle schools.  It is also shorter than those of every neighboring suburban school system, which consistently deliver higher test scores than DC public schools.

County school districtSchool day length
Fairfax6 hrs, 50 min
Montgomery6 hrs, 45 min
Arlington6 hrs, 43 min
Prince George’s6 hrs, 40 min
DC6 hrs, 30 min
Source: Office of Councilmember Mary Cheh

DC parents are right to expect that, given this evidence, someone would study this phenomenon and apply lessons learned to DCPS.  Sadly, that appears to not be happening.

DCPS spokesperson Fred Lewis agrees that an “extended school day and extended school year can make a huge difference for children, especially those who are underperforming.”  Nonetheless, he doesn’t see DCPS moving forward with this idea soon for the following reasons:

Before we move forward aggressively we’re going to have to examine the implications, the financial implications associated with an extended school day, school year, and figure out with our union partners how we’d have to modify the contract in order to make that work….

In considering an extension of the school day and school year, several factors come into play, such as the overall cost of the proposal (utilities, salaries etc.) and scheduling (transportation for special education students and athletics, for example), as well as student safety (leaving later from school). Legislation would be required as would negotiation with the teachers union.

While the considerations raised by DCPS certainly need to be examined, the reality is that DCPS has not seriously begun examining any of them.  Washington Teachers Union president Nathan Saunders says he has not been contacted by DCPS to discuss extended school days.  Neither has DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who proposed legislation a year ago extending the school day by 30 minutes to 7 hours.

The logistical and financial implications of extending the school day could be significantly curtailed with a pilot at a few schools.  Last month, that’s what Chicago announced it is doing with an extended school day pilot at 13 schools.  When asked if Chancellor Kaya Henderson is considering extending the school day on a trial basis with a couple schools just like Chicago, DCPS Spokesperson Lewis had no comment.

Furthermore, Lewis’ claim that “legislation would be required” is contested by the DC Council.  David Zvenyach, General Counsel to the DC Council, says that the DC Code establishes the minimum school day, but not the maximum school day.  When informed of this, Lewis defended the DCPS position that the State Board of Education “establishes through regulation the length of school day” with reference to §38-202 of the DC Code.  Zvenyach contends that this section of the Code says no such thing.

What is most troubling about this confusion is that DCPS and the DC Council are not talking to resolve this issue, even though the DC Council has twice proposed legislation to extend the school day.  Last year, Councilmember Cheh proposed legislation in order to start a conversation on extending the school day.

That conversation still seems to have not taken place.  Earlier this month, Councilmember Alexander resubmitted Cheh’s legislation, changing only the duration of the extension from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.  Saunders says Alexander has not discussed her legislation with him, and Cheh spokesperson Kiara Pesante says Alexander has not discussed it with Cheh.

WTU President Saunders says he recognizes the evidence and agrees that DCPS should learn from successful charter schools.  However, he contends that the fundamental lesson learned is not that the school day should be longer, but that there should be more instructional time or, using the same terminology as DC Prep, “more time on task.”

Saunders points to sources of waste in a teachers’ day that take teachers off of their primary task of instruction, and claims that DCPS can significantly increase time on task for significantly less money by eliminating these distractions.  Chief amongst these, according to Saunders, are time spent doing data entry and time spent on disciplinary matters with students that administrators return to their classrooms over teachers’ objections.

These seem like legitimate points for discussion, but that discussion isn’t happening.  As a result, Saunders called Alexander’s legislation “the worst piece of legislation submitted by the Council all year.”  He contends that Alexander only offered her legislation “because she is running for reelection.”

It’s time for someone to show leadership in increasing the time on task of DCPS teachers.  It’s difficult to see why, for example, the new standalone middle school promised to Ward 5 parents can’t incorporate the lessons learned from charter schools’ extended school days.  Sadly, little action is likely any time soon as long as DC officials continue to stall.

Update: KIPP DC has informed me that their school day is actually 9 hours, not 7.5 as originally reported.  This has been corrected.