Public Schools Need a Radical Rethink, Or They Are Toast 🍞

For the last three years, schools have been operating in “crisis mode.” We are now about to live with the results of what happens after an institution and its employees are put under extreme, sustained stress.

Public Schools Need a Radical Rethink, Or They Are Toast 🍞
Photo by Mwesigwa Joel / Unsplash

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I urgently believe in the mission of public schools. There are few institutions that have more impact on family life in America. They influence neighborhood choice and property values, they have the ability to promote or hinder racial and economic integration along with civic values. They are one of the only guaranteed universal safety nets in the US, and they act as a touchpoint for all sorts of needs, like access to food and intervention services.

I consider ‘22-23 to be the first post-pandemic school year. For the last three years, schools have been operating in “crisis mode.” We are now about to live with the results of what happens after an institution and its employees are put under extreme, sustained stress.

I believe we need to fund public schools more and pay teachers better. Yes, 1000%. But we also need to fund schools and pay teachers differently, not just funneling small scale bonuses and stopgap measures into systems that aren’t working. I want to offer a caveat that I’m not an education policy expert, but I look at these issues from the perspective of larger social trends. Because school in the US is so local and heterogeneous, I’m going to use lots of concrete examples from my own life in Durham, NC.

For the last three years, schools have been operating in “crisis mode.” We are now about to live with the results of what happens after an institution and its employees are put under extreme, sustained stress.

Basically, I think the worst outcome of the pandemic would be if most families with any amount of privilege leave the system for good. Some current predictions for student enrollment between now and 2030 show dramatic declines. Families are leaving for private, charter and homeschooling in record numbers, alienated from the hardships and traumas of virtual school, concerns about school safety and political battles over COVID responses. Teachers aren’t just moving around to different states or districts, they are leaving the profession entirely. Even if your individual school or class seems kinda “normal” this year, the birds-eye view is that there’s a 5-alarm fire. This is not a time to tinker around the edges: I believe that public schools are going to need to significantly change to work better for families and teachers if the institution is going to survive and thrive.

Here are my ideas. Yes, some of them require additional funding but none are particularly lavish, IMO.

  1. Change the way the school day is structured

Many of us are all too familiar with the reality that public school is structured around the idea that there is a full-time available parent at home who is not working traditional work hours. This, of course, bears little relationship to the workforce and economic realities of 2022. Let’s tear it down and start over.

Schools should START from the premise that they need to provide at least 8 hours of custodial care per day, five days a week and with that as the bedrock principle, then districts should strategize the best way to fill the time. Here are some no brainers: Have an hour each, rather than 30 minutes, for both lunch and recess. (my kid currently can’t even finish his lunch in the allotted time because there’s not enough time to eat when you factor in moving to and from the classroom) Work in more elective enrichments for younger kids like chess clubs, dance classes, gardening and art, and more vocational and life skills training (in addition to enrichments) like budgeting, cooking, internships and home repairs for older kids into a block during the school day. Allow more time and resources for ESL, tutoring and remediation. (and yes, I have ideas for how to staff and fund this, which I’ll get to in section 3.)

2. Change the way the year is structured

Our stubborn attachment to the three-month summer break is a global outlier, and is the result of a lot of factors, including demand from families to leave the unairconditioned cities of the 19th century. If the pandemic changed the way we see remote work forever, after nearly a year of no in-person school in many places around the country, can it also change how we see a sensible school schedule? (Here in North Carolina, the tourist industry has effectively lobbied to prohibit schools from starting before the last week of August in order to maximize the summer travel season...Is it so unreasonable to want people with any interest in our kids’ education to be the ones actually making statewide school policy?? )

Year-round school (which has many varying models but basically works something like 9 weeks on, 3 weeks off, with a little longer break in summer)  benefits low-income students and kids with learning loss the most but also has big societal benefits that help everyone. When year round is paired with a tracking system, (meaning a school can have say, 1000 enrolled but only 750 in session at any given time) it actually saves schools a lot of money on building costs, traditional summer schools, staff and bus drivers. It can also reduce teacher attrition and burnout. This would be an immediate release valve on all kinds of pressures public schools are facing, and if entire districts adopt it rather than just a one-off school here and there, childcare and track out camps will adjust offers for intercession activities. It will still allow for cool summer experiences like overnight camps and allow more family travel at less peak times and not struggle to fill 12 weeks of activities in a row. I begin working on camp sign-ups each November, and my family spent over $3000 this summer on not particularly fancy day camps (with aftercare fees) for just one kid. Year-round school would spread some of this cost out and reduce a ton of these logistics.

Research shows the biggest challenge of adopting year round school is cultural – it’s just getting people on board to make the change. Wake County, next door to me, in NC has been doing year round successfully for decades. Perhaps if a few big public school districts work closely with stakeholders to make the change, it could be a tipping point in changing social norms about it.

3. Change the way we hire, retain and reward educators

My county of Durham, NC is facing a 20% teacher resignation rate and massive aftercare crisis. The 360 teacher vacancies will, according to the Learning Policy Institute cost the district over $7.5 million this year. After attending a town hall on the county’s aftercare shortage, it’s abundantly clear that public schools are not at all set up to compete in 2022’s labor market. Durham officials are citing people leaving the profession entirely as the main source of attrition. Part of the problem is that there aren’t quick fixes to get people into teaching from the private sector, which is why we need to reimagine the pipelines, starting around yesterday. While pay increases would always help, public schools should leverage some of their institutional might to attract and retain people with other benefits and programs.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Student loan forgiveness programs for teachers and staff.
  2. Robust retention raises (rather than bonuses) that increase yearly.
  3. Paid sabbaticals for a select group of outstanding teachers and administrators eligible at the 10 year mark. (I think this program would more than pay for itself by boosting loyalty, morale and retention.)
  4. Free aftercare and childcare subsidies for the kids of teachers and staff.
  5. College scholarships or state school discounts for the children of teachers and staff.

The next 4 ideas would help staff my suggestions for changing the school day.

  1. Create a prestigious and selective one year leadership program for outstanding recent high school graduates interested in education. Include good pay, a housing stipend and scholarship money attached to work as support staff and lead other enrichment programs. If they come back to the same district after they graduate with their teaching degree, they start at a higher pay rate.
  2. Bulk up Americorps volunteer participants in schools for aftercare and enrichments.
  3. Recruit grandparents and retired people to lead enrichment activities and life skills courses.
  4. Create programs for parent caregivers who’ve been outside the paid workforce who want to return to employment part-time to work in schools as assistants, aftercare staff,  part-time administrators and enrichment leaders.

As you are reading this, there’s less than a week until school starts here in Durham, and it’s unclear if my second grader will have a permanent teacher. If he doesn’t, that means only one of the last 4 years of public school will he have had qualified in-person instruction. These problems feel so personal to parents and are going to require outside-the-box, systemic solutions. Sadly, it's not going to work to treat parents like a captive market with nowhere else to go, and there’s a lot at stake in getting this right.

For this week’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking you for your biggest pain points about public school and your ideas for making it better. Members get weekly discussions that are full of thoughtful dialog... the way you wish the rest of the internet was! We’d love to have you join us. It starts at $7/mo.

Additional Resources:

Listen: Pretty sure there is very high crossover between readers of this newsletter and people who’ve listened to Nice White Parents, but if you haven’t checked it out, now is a great time.

An older but definitive podcast series on public school and race in America is “The Problem We All Live With,” from This American Life and Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Check out the new book that just came out this week,  The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, and Where We Go Now by education reporter Anya Kamenetz.

Learn: Here are some education/policy writers/thinkers I like a lot who you can follow on Twitter: Elliot Hapsel, Alexander Russo, Dana Goldstein (no relation) and Dan Wuori.

"Nothing has transformed my experience more since having a child than being a part of this community."

- Double Shift Member Lana D.

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Join us Sept 27th at 12PM EST for a spicy conversation about maternal gatekeeping with fellow Double Shifter and author of Equal Partners, Kate Mangino. If you liked our conversation with Kate, Debunking Myths About Why Your Relationship is Unequal, you'll LOVE this hangout in conversation with her.

This topic was suggested by Double Shifter Mary, and we'll dive into one of the most fraught elements of the equal partnership conversation, maternal gatekeeping, which is the idea that mothers keep their partners away from certain household and childcare responsibilities in order to maintain control over them, which can hinder equality in the home. We'll definitely examine why the impulse to gatekeep is so powerful (hint: it's not a personal failing) and talk about solutions. This will be a judgment-free zone to learn, reflect ask questions and share stories, facilitated by a gender expert in our community. Regardless of if you are a reformed gatekeeper, diehard one, or just curious to learn more, join us for this great discussion. Members will get a hangout invite with the zoom link.


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