Christie Calls for Longer School Day, Calendar in State of the State

John Mooney | January 15, 2014 | Education
Details scarce on the ground, leaving educators, legislators to guess at what’s next

Credit: Amanda Brown
Camden schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, left, and Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.
For a governor mired in scandal and seeking to change the political conversation, the proposal to extend the school day and calendar was an interesting choice for Gov. Chris Christie.

Interesting not in the least because such a call has been part of the education dialogue for years, if not decades, with little consensus on how to accomplish it.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Christie announced that he would provide a plan for a longer school day and school year as part of the education agenda that up to now has been the hallmark of his administration.

In the midst of the scandal over his staff’s involvement in the politically motivated closures of commuter lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the education initiative made headlines in state and national media, taking the focus off “Bridgegate” at least momentarily. It was also the one
piece of the State of the State promoted by his administration beforehand.

But the governor yesterday offered virtually no details about the plan, leaving education advocates, legislators, and others on both sides of the debate offering general support while raising questions and masking surprise that this was suddenly issue No. 1.

Even the prime sponsor of a 2010 bill that would have furnished grants to a handful of district to extend their calendars said he was surprised when he said the governor called him to talk about it.

“Hopefully, this will have some momentum to this,” said Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden), after finding himself in the limelight.

“The question is always the money,” Wilson said after the speech. “But I was really honored to be able to spend five minutes talking with him. I had no idea.”

On paper, it is a popular, even logical, proposal put forth to attract support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The standard 180-day calendar and six-hour day are relics of generations past, something cited as a problem as far back as the 1983 “Nation at Risk“ report.

More recently, President Barack Obama has pressed for extended calendars as part of federal policy, and a number of states and cities have sought to at least encourage longer time in the classroom. Five states are now in a pilot to test out longer calendars in a sampling of districts.

Pushing Ahead With Reforms

Yesterday, Christie seized on that support, celebrating the progress in New Jersey’s public schools in general but emphasizing the need for continued and intensive reforms, especially in urban districts like Newark and Camden.

The state-appointed superintendents of the Newark and Camden, Cami Anderson and Paymon Rouhanifard, respectively, were among his guests of honor in the speech, taking front row seats and being praised by the governor.

“Let’s face it, if my children are living under the same school calendar that I lived under, by definition, that school calendar is antiquated,” Christie said. “It’s antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in.

“Life in 2014 is much different than life 100 years ago, and it demands something more for our students,” he said. “It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.”

But details were not forthcoming, and the governor only said that a plan would be proposed by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

In the resultant vacuum, others raised questions as to what exactly he intended.

Would it be a statewide mandate, or one for the most troubled districts? Would it come with the state money needed to pay staff or have some other source of funding? And what about existing teacher contracts that already set the school day and calendar?

Wilson’s bill would cover just 25 pilot districts and rely on $150 million in individual and corporate tax credits to fund it over three years, according to legislative staff estimates.

Representatives from some of the larger education groups said it is hard to argue against more time in the classroom, but there are questions of funding, facilities, and a host of other issues.

“It has been out there in our dialogue and really needs to be fleshed out,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group.

“Will it be required, will it be a local option, how will you determine the need?” she said. “What about the cost on all levels, not just teachers but air conditioning and facilities? It’s a major thing, and requires quite a lot of conversation.”

But there is not universal agreement as to whether more time in itself can boost achievement in urban districts, or anywhere else.

In something of a coincidence, former Washington, D.C., chancellor and national reform advocate Michelle Rhee yesterday released a report on state reform efforts that gave New Jersey a grade of D overall.

When asked specifically about Christie’s proposal, Rhee was lukewarm about extended time being a central ingredient.

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“It can be a positive thing, but most important is that we have the teaching force who can fill in those hours,” said Rhee, who heads up the national lobbying group StudentsFirst.org, which released the report. “There is a real link between the time in the classroom and the quality of teachers in that classroom.”

Rhee attended Christie’s State of the State address in 2011 as his guest to help push the early pieces of his agenda.

Three years later, she said yesterday, she had hoped the state would have made more progress in that time, saying the gains in tenure reform and teacher evaluation, among other steps, were valuable but there a lot of work remained.

“New Jersey has been making slower progress than we would have hoped,” she said. “While the governor has expressed a real interest, they haven’t moved as much as I think he would have liked.”

Still, extending the school day and year is not anathema to either districts or the teachers who work there, with the state’s school boards association saying this fall that 30 percent of new contracts included some added days or minutes, up from just 15 percent two years earlier.

The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said it would support discussion on the idea as well, while also stressing that it would need to come with the resources to pay for the extra time and would need to be locally negotiated. It indicated that the state’s school funding formula is already underfunded in paying for the programs – and hours — in place now.

“I welcome the opportunity to sit down with Gov. Christie and the Department of Education to discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing an extended school day and school year,” said NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer.

Exhibit Newark

Exhibit A for the initiative — and its challenges — could be Newark itself, where close to half of all of it schools have some extended time components, including nearly a dozen low-performing schools that have been targeted for the most intensive reforms.

Anderson, on the heels of her front-row appearance, said yesterday that she’s convinced extended time can succeed in further engaging students and lifting achievement. But it is also a complicated process of not just adding time to the day, she said, but integrating that time into instruction and teacher development.

She said of the 15 schools with the most extensive extra time, students see about an hour more of instruction per day and teachers gain an extra two weeks of professional development in the summer.

“It needs to be a high quality program, and truly extending what is happening during the day,” Anderson said in an interview. “Where you see results is where it is really as purposeful as what happens in the traditional day. It cannot just be an add-on.”

And it doesn’t come cheap. Under separate agreements reached between Anderson and the Newark Teachers Union, teachers working in those schools each receive between $3,000 and $7,500 in additional stipends for the extra time.

And the benefits of more time are hardly a given; overall test scores in Newark very lowest-performing schools are still languishing, or even dropping, since extended time was instituted.

Anderson maintained that it is only the first year of such initiatives, and other indicators such as attendance and individual student growth are more promising.

“It is just the beginning,” she said. “I’d be the first to say, and I have from Day 1, that it takes three years. But I’m very encouraged about the early indicators and what families are saying about it.”

Guessing Games

Following the speech, legislators and advocates yesterday were left guessing as to what comes next with the proposal.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee, held a hearing on Wilson’s bill in 2012 before the legislation ultimately stalled.

She said she looked forward to further discussion, while also acknowledging that it’s not a new idea, with her name on the Senate version of Wilson’s bill as well.

“Clearly, this is a great new start of the conversation that we need to have, one that includes all stakeholders,” she said afterward.

Ruiz said she was not apprised of the governor’s details, either, but said she hoped it would be a statewide initiative. “It should go beyond the urban cores,” she said. “It should be a conversation for every child in the state.”

The chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), said he would encourage the discussion as well, but downplayed its significance compared to other priorities.

“Kids are tired at 3 o’clock,” he said. “Anybody can tell you how they are coming home at the end of the day, especially in doing an extracurricular activity.”

“To say extending the school day by a couple of hours is the answer?” he said. “It’s something we can discuss, but it’s no magic bullet.”

And several raised the question of why Christie would make the proposal the day after he had vetoed a bill that would’ve explored extending all-day kindergarten statewide. Currently, about a quarter of districts do not have full-day kindergarten.

In his veto, Christie said that full-day programs should be encouraged but also left to the discretion of local districts.

“We know that early education and full-day kindergarten make a difference,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), prime sponsor of the kindergarten bill. “We need to start there and look at that, make that a priority over just having a longer day.”