Rahm Emanuel’s Plan to Keep Kids in School Longer

It could work in Philly, but only if kids have a say in the additional curriculum

Thomas Friedman, everyone’s favorite thinking person’s writer, recently spent a day with Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, for his column in the New York Times. Emanuel, the notoriously tough former Obama chief of staff, is employing a “cut and invest” philosophy to whip his city into lean and mean recessionary shape. Emanuel has been relentless in slicing fat, but he keeps an eye on the future by building muscle as he cuts.

For instance, Friedman reports, Emanuel got more cops on the street by eliminating 600 police from desk jobs and found money to spruce up his city’s subway stations by cutting 200 positions out of his transportation department.

But Emanuel’s “pride and joy” is a new mandate that he’s pushed through for next year with the help of his school chief. He plans to extend the school day for Chicago’s 400,000 students by 90 minutes and the school year by about a week. Not surprisingly the teachers union in Chicago wants to have some say about how this would work and how they’d be compensated.

Also not surprisingly there’s no mention of how the real “stakeholders,” as they like to say in education circles, feel about this—Chicago’s school kids. How are more hours going to affect them? Anyone bother to take their temperature about how best to extend the school day and school year?

I’m betting not.

Education in cities has become the new civil rights battle cry, and that’s a good thing. It’s too bad it took dropout rates that hover around 50 percent for “stakeholders” to finally realize that the future of cities is tied directly to how we educate our kids, but at least we got here.

Now comes the hard part.

Emanuel is onto something about extending school hours, and he’s not alone in thinking it a wise move. Countries that have zoomed ahead of us keep their kids in school longer and they have the scholarship results to show for it, so why shouldn’t we?

Some schools in Philadelphia have already extended the school day, and some have added days to the school year.

But adding hours is the easy part.

I haven’t been in education nearly long enough to be an expert, but I do get to listen to a lot of kids. I hear about their favorite players and their favorite snacks and their favorite superheroes, comic books and video games. I also hear what time they get up in the morning, what they have for breakfast, what they think about their teachers and the schools they go to, and maybe most importantly of all what they think about what they’re learning.

You don’t have to ask a lot. You just have to be around enough to be trusted.

What kids have to say about their education may not always seem sophisticated on the surface, but it’s invariably far more insightful than what politicians and administrators have to say about education. Then again, it should be. They’re the ones living it.

Kids put in really long days already. And because many schools don’t have gyms, and out-of-school sports programs can cost money, they are often tired and wired or both by the end of the school day. The last thing they need is a longer day sitting in a desk listening to more of the same. What they need is inventive learning. Learning that’s fun. So, yes, go ahead, extend the school day. But before you do make sure to ask the only stakeholders that really matter exactly how that’s going to work.

Tim Whitaker is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.