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The folly of a (slightly) longer school day

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The effort by Boston school administrators to add a half-hour to the school day looks a lot like the Obama economic stimulus plan -- only possibly much less effective.  Some have said the $800 billion stimulus package was the worst of both worlds: It rankled critics of big government spending while not being big enough to put the sort of major dent in unemployment that would make it seem worth the fight. In truth, while a larger stimulus package might have packed a bigger punch, with as many as 3.3 million jobs created or saved, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus did pay real dividends.

It’s not clear that the same would be said for tacking another 30 minutes onto Boston’s school day, the issue at the heart of a protracted -- and increasingly bitter -- contract stand-off between Boston school leaders and the Boston Teachers Union.

The school department says it can’t afford a prorated increase in teacher pay based on the added time, while the union bristles at the idea of anything less than that. The temperature got dialed up last week when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the BTU’s parent national union, appeared in Boston at an event on extended school days where she went at it with Superintendent Carol Johnson.

Boston has one of the shortest school days of any large urban district -- just six hours for elementary school students and six-and-half-hours for high schools. Many school reform advocates believe a longer day is crucial to raise academic performance levels among low-income and minority students, who sit at the low end of the achievement gap. But the 30 minutes Boston is looking to add seems like a weak half-measure that will raise expectations -- along with personnel costs -- and probably deliver very little.  That’s the message Globe columnist Larry Harmon sent on Saturday, when he urged Johnson to give up the contract battle.

Reformers often point to the impressive outcomes at high-performing charter schools such as Roxbury Prep, MATCH, or the Edward Brooke school, which have longer days.  But these schools have eight to nine hour days, with Saturday sessions at some.  And that added time is used to build out a rigorously planned school day based on a culture of high expectations for all students, with instruction carried out by a teaching staff that school leaders had complete autonomy in hiring. The idea that a paltry 30 minutes, added on without any of these other reform elements, would be able to transform otherwise low-performing schools seems more like wishful thinking than sound policy.

Harmon urges Boston school leaders to instead consider a significant expansion of the district’s partnership with Citizen Schools. The Boston nonprofit already brings in staff and volunteers from various professions for three hours of extra-time tutoring and doing other projects with students at about 20 percent of the city’s middle schools. Eric Schwarz, the organization’s president, tells Harmon the effort could be boosted to half of all middle schools within three years -- at about half what it would cost if BPS teachers were paid for a longer such day at current rates.  It seems like an approach well worth considering. 

                                                                                                                                                --MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick calls out the National Guard to help cities and towns hard hit by the weekend storm and the more than 500,000 without power, WBUR reports. Because of the snowstorm, Haverhill and Lawrence postpone Halloween for one day, the Eagle-Tribune reports. In the Lowell area, trick or treating has been put off until the following weekend, the Lowell Sun reports.  Western Massachusetts is digging out from as much as 20 inches of snow.  The Globe reports than more than 3 million people in all are without power along the East Coast.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

On Saturday, Hingham voters approved $62 million to renovate the town’s middle school and repair the high school track while voters at a special town meeting in Duxbury overwhelmingly approved moving forward with a special election to decide whether to build a $128.4 million middle/high school that would require $77 million from the town and the rest from the state.

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong’s star appears to be dimming as she battles from behind to keep her seat in next week’s election.  CommonWealth took a look at Wong’s tenure last year.

In Lowell, there’s controversy over the failure of the city’s chief financial officer to recuse himself from the interview and selection process for a new city treasurer. The person hired was a close friend of the chief financial officer, the Lowell Sun reports.

In the race for an open Dorchester district city councilor seat, both contenders have records of the kind one doesn’t run on.

The Springfield Republican endorses incumbent Domenic Sarno for mayor of Springfield.

The Cape Cod Times outlines the consequences of the proposed cuts to a federal home heating aid program.

Bankers try linking a drastic drop in mortgage lending in Springfield to the city’s tough anti-foreclosure ordinance.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

New York ’s millionaires tax expires at the end of the year. Polls show residents want it extended, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t, NPR reports.

Newsweek reports that Tea Party lawmakers are grabbing billions from the government trough.

ELECTION 2012

Politico reports that two women accused Herman Cain of inappropriate behavior in the 1990s when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association. The Washington Post looks at just how bad the sexual harassment allegations are for Cain’s campaign. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor reports that the latest Iowa poll shows Mitt Romney and Cain tied for the lead. The poll has Michele Bachmann running fourth behind Ron Paul. New York magazine weighs the costs and potential benefits of Romney’s sudden desire to actually compete in Iowa.

The Beat the Press panel wonders if the media is justified in ignoring Jill Stein’s quixotic run for president after the Lexington resident’s three failed bids for statewide office that barely moved the needle on the electoral Richter scale.

The Rick Perry comeback tour is on! But maybe not for long, since he’s suddenly taken to cribbing quotes from Communist sympathizers.

OCCUPY

Keller@Large says it’s time for the Occupy Boston folks to declare victory and move out.

CHARITY

Food pantries in the South Coast region are finding it hard to fill the plates of the needy with funding shortages, dwindling supplies, and demand at an all-time high.

HEALTH CARE

The Globe has a Q&A with John McDonough, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, whose book on his work on the federal health care law has just been published. McDonough, a one-time Massachusetts state legislator and director of the advocacy group Health Care for All, talks about the federal and Massachusetts reform laws with Tim Murphy, who served as Mitt Romney’s health and human services secretary, in the latest installment of CommonWealth’s Face to Face video conversations.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A federal court of appeals has overturned an FAA clearance for the Cape Wind project, effectively putting the project on hold, the Cape Cod Times reports.

An old Easthampton landfill is becoming home to 10,000 solar panels.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The Boston Globe Spotlight Team says Massachusetts judges are acquitting drunk driving defendants at an extraordinarily high rate. Jon Keller says the judges’ actions are “nothing less than a coup attempt” by one branch of government.

A new study says a beat cop deployment strategy in high-crime areas of Boston has been paying off.

Police in Lynn step up patrols around the schools in the wake of child abduction attempts, but officials say some of the reports “are driven by hysteria,” the Item reports.

The MetroWest Daily News argues a forthcoming parole reform bill should make it tougher for violent offenders to get parole, but easier for nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom are serving mandatory minimum sentences.

The brother-in-law of US Rep. John Tierney goes on trial this week. Tierney’s wife may be called on to testify against her brother in the illegal gambling case.

The Supreme Court weighs whether inmates held in private prisons have the same rights as inmates in federal prisons.

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