School Schedules ARE a Vestige of the 50s… But Extending the School Day is NOT the Answer
For my entire career as a school administrator, which ranged from 1975 through 2011, I was vexed by the “traditional” schedules that public schools used that assumed mothers stayed at home and dads went to work. My vexation was based on my own personal experiences early in my career when my wife and I both worked. As a result, we had to chose who would miss work when we got a call from school that our daughter was ill, when there was a parent conference at her school, or when there was a staff development day that I needed to attend on a day when she had a meeting SHE had to attend. If I wasn’t a public school employee our lives would have been even more complicated since I got most of the Federal Holidays off, some of which she needed to work.
In “Our Outdated School Schedules Are hurting Working Parents”, a Think Progress post that deals with this issue, Casey Quinlan describes the way schools operate for the convenience of their employees instead of the realities of today’s world where most parents work. Ms. Quinlan also offers several suggestions for how schools might deal with this, using a report from the Center for American Progress as the basis for her recommendations. Unfortunately, all of the recommendations are premised on extending the school day for children and the work day for teachers, both flawed ideas.
The last thing students need in this day and age is more seat time. Children would benefit from lightly supervised play– outdoors if possible and with as much “free range” opportunity as possible. In the 50s when I grew up in a “Leave It To Beaver” world, I “reported in” to my mother and proceeded to play in the neighborhood where I was (presumably) under the watchful eye of neighbors and/or other children’s parents. I was free to explore vacant lots, nearby fields and woods, or to get together with friends to play pick up games of baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hide-and-seek— the games varied depending on who was available, what season it was, and how much time we had. That kind of loose supervision gave us the opportunity to develop our own plans, referee own own games, and have the freedom to choose activities without intervention or intermediation of adults. That kind of play environment could be roughly replicated in after school activities, particularly in suburban and rural schools where there are fields and woods nearby. Instead of school personnel supervising these activities, a local non-profit like a YMCA or a grassroots organization could oversee the activities. The funding for these activities could come from donors, from fees charged to parents, or— ideally– by taxpayers who want to promote healthy after school activities.
Teachers, like children, need less oversight and more opportunities to work at their own pace. Instead of assigning more non-instructional duties to teachers by requiring them to work more hours, it would be far better to afford them time to work on lesson plans, assess the student work completed during the day, and meet with parents at the parent’s convenience to discuss strategies for improving each child’s performance. If we expect teachers to personalize instruction to a greater degree, this is the kind of time we need to provide for them.
As a Superintendent I was able to introduce some changes to the way our schools operated in the district I led in MD in the 1990s, changes that I found to be in place in districts I led subsequent to that time. We opened our elementary schools to non-profits who wanted to operate after school programs and made it clear that we would make our fields available to town teams when we were not using them and our gyms available for as low a cost as possible. After a few years 80% of our schools housed non-profit after school programs and most middle and high school fields were in use for AYSO soccer and little league softball and baseball. We also encouraged our elementary schools to schedule parent conferences in the evenings, releasing teachers in the afternoon but asking them to return in the evenings to confer with parents. The teachers did so willingly because they wanted to meet with as many parents as possible and found that mid-day meetings were impossible for most parents.
The best solution to changing the scheduling for schools is opening them to parents and children for as many hours as possible while freeing both children and teachers to use their time as they wish. More classroom time, more structured work for students and adults will not develop the kinds of minds we need in the future.