Now Indiana Schools Can Change

April 25, 2011

Senate Bill 575, the first of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education-reform measures to get his signature, may end up being the most transformative. It’s all in the hands of Indiana schools.

The law limits collective bargaining with teacher unions to salaries and wage-related items. This will empower 310 schools — their boards, superintendents and principals — to initiate changes that previously required union approval, whether in the school calendar, the daily schedule or even the structure of the school itself.

Although individual contracts must still specify the number of days in the school term and the number of hours a teacher is expected to work, it will be up to the employer to determine these. Reform-minded schools will be easy to spot because they will be the ones doing things differently. The law also removes teacher evaluation and dismissal procedures from the collective-bargaining process.

“This is the bill that makes the most difference,” says co-author Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

In essence, SB 575 frees traditional public schools to experiment with the things Indiana charter schools do now, such as Saturday school, longer school days and a summer term — all offered at KIPP academies — or a longer school year, as at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary with its 190 instructional days. Indiana mandates a 180-day minimum, which is the norm.

Since World War II, the average U.S. student has been in class fewer than six hours daily, yet studies suggest more time on task can dramatically impact learning. Christopher Gabrieli and Warren Goldstein make that case in their 2008 book, Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents and Safer Neighborhoods.

The nation’s emphasis on standardized tests, especially in math and English, has prompted many schools to focus on those two subjects at the expense of other important areas. A longer school day “opens up the range of subjects students study and get exposure to. In (extended) day schools, students explore music and the arts, a remarkable variety of enrichment activities, as well as a range of programs in social and emotional learning,” Gabrieli and Goldstein say.

More time in class also boosts test scores.

In Massachusetts, the Expanded Learning Time Initiative added two hours to a redesigned school day in ten urban elementary and middle schools. The percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — their version of ISTEP — rose 44 percent in math, 19 percent in science and 39 percent in language arts.

The National Center on Time & Learning warns that a longer school day is not just a matter of tacking two hours on to current schedules.

The purpose of an expanded school day is to engage students more fully in their learning by adding variety and depth. Ideally, Gabrieli and Goldstein say, “teachers and principals talk constantly about how to make best use of time. They wrestle with finding the best ways to apply more time in core academic subjects, to help teachers incorporate more individualized instruction and project-based learning into their classes, and to balance added core academic time with more time for engaging enrichment in arts, music, drama, sports and other essential aspects of a well-rounded education.”

It won’t be easy to effect these changes, even outside the collective-bargaining process. Schools will have to persuade teachers and parents they’re the right thing to do, especially if teachers end up working more hours for little additional pay.

Some researchers have suggested that extending the school day is a less expensive approach than extending the school year, and at least one survey has found that parents and administrators prefer it. A 2006 study found that longer school days would be the equivalent of “35 extra days of schooling each year.” President Obama has advocated both.

The beauty of SB 575 is that it’s up to local communities to decide. The law doesn’t force anything down their throats; it takes off the handcuffs that have stood in the way of innovation.

Andra Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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