Our outdated school schedules are hurting working parents

The school day isn’t working for a nation of two-earner households.

CREDIT: iStockPhoto
CREDIT: iStockPhoto

School schedules aren’t working for parents — and haven’t caught up to the reality of modern families’ lives.

The vast majority of parents — 70 percent — work full-time from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the median closing time for a school is 2:30 p.m. On top of that, schools are closed 80 percent longer than the typical worker receives in paid holidays and vacation time, which works out to 13 more days off than parents have, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress.

That presents a problem for parents who work outside the home — especially mothers, single parents, low-income parents, parents of color, and part-time workers. Many of these demographics overlap, of course. Women of color in particular tend to make less money than white men and women and thus are less likely to be able to afford after-school programs and day care. Part-time workers also have far less vacation days and sick days than full-time workers.

This means the most disadvantaged populations in the United States are bearing the brunt of our school schedules — which are filled with extra days off around the holidays, days taken off for teachers’ professional development, snow days not offered by local employers, and policies mandating parents to pick up their sick kids, no matter how minor the illness.

Why a 9-to-5 schedule isn’t working for parents

Right now, schools are designed for families where one parent works outside the home and one parent stays home to care for the children, and is available to be on call to pick up their kids from school whenever necessary.

“Unfortunately the reality of working families has evolved a lot, and we need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives,” said Catherine Brown, the vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress and one of the authors of the new report. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

“We need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives.”

The CAP report emphasizes the change in family work weeks. Between 1979 and 2006, the typical middle class family work week increased by 11 hours.

One might suggest after-school programs as the antidote to this problem, but these programs are not universally available, especially to the parents who need them most. Only 45 percent of all public elementary schools offer parents after-school care, according to CAP’s analysis of federal education data and only 31 percent of Title I schools have after-school programs.

Brown said school policies on picking children up from school also make parents’ lives very difficult. The report explains that schools often require parents to pick children up even when their illness is minor or non-contagious. Duval County Public Schools in Florida has a policy where parents are required to pick up an ill child within 60 minutes of being notified.

‘What will typically happen is your kid has a slight fever and they’ll call you and say you need to immediately pick them up and that’s just not viable,” Brown said. “If you’re working at McDonald’s or even if you’re working at CAP, it’s really hard to instantly abandon what you’re doing and go pick up your child, and this is a really clear way that schools disregard the needs of working parents.”

Brown added that these schedules often mean students go to recess or eat lunch very early in the day because they’re sharing a tight schedule with so many kids. Ideally, children’s schedules would be organized according to the natural ebb and flow of their energy levels throughout the day.

The creative solutions that could help fix this issue

There is no reason why this inconvenient school schedule needs to remain in place, the authors of the report explain. The CAP report puts forth several ideas for reforming the way that school schedules work.

  • States could raise the minimum length of a school day to eight hours, which would push schools toward a typical work schedule.
  • Districts could use the assistance of AmeriCorps members, college students, and community members to help run programs during school closings and to monitor students when parents are at work.
  • Schools could limit days off to major holidays, look to major employers when deciding whether to close schools for inclement weather, and create school health policies that better recognize parents’ busy schedules.
  • Administrators could accommodate parents’ work schedules when deciding when to schedule parent-teacher conferences and consider alternatives to in-person meetings, such as chatting through Skype.
  • Schools could look at more efficient ways to conduct teacher professional development, such as having teacher development run throughout the school day through teacher collaboration and individualized coaching, so the school wouldn’t have to close for the day.
  • Schools could identify alternatives to a tiered busing schedule, such as a dual-route system, so that students can get to school at the same time.

How a new school schedule would affect teachers

One of the most challenging questions facing advocates for a 9-to-5 school schedule is how to ensure teachers aren’t shortchanged in the process. After all, teachers come in early to prepare for classes and often stay later to assist students and grade papers — they don’t want to make their days even longer.

Staggered schedules could ensure that teachers don’t work longer hours than they already do. But if they do end up adding more hours to their workday, advocates say teachers should be fairly compensated.

“What we want to be clear about is that we’re not advocating for teachers to work longer hours without getting compensated for that time,” Brown said.

She added that kids can also do independent work an work in peer-to-peer groups that allow teachers time to do planning, give kids more time to learn, and reduce parent stress.

Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow for education policy at CAP, said there is also the possibility of teachers working a 9-to-5 schedule but doing so only four days a week. Teachers who work at Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, for example, have a school day that begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4:35 p.m. but they have Fridays off.

How to pay for a longer school day

Keeping schools open longer will cost more money. But there are federal funds available to help school districts pay for lengthening their days.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance explaining that as long as extended school days are “meeting an identified need to improve student achievement,” a federal source called Title I, Part A fund can be used toward paying for it. Other federal funding sources include Promise Neighborhoods competition, Full-Service Community Schools Program, and Community Learning Centers program.

Congress could also include a competitive grant program in the Higher Education Act to encourage graduate schools in social work to partner with neighboring school districts to develop a 9-to-5 schedule.

This new schedule could also be considered a “school theme” in the way technology or bilingualism is considered a theme for many schools. These schools could be funded through competitive grant programs targeted at low-income schools.

Some of these policy proposals are easier to implement than others, but Brown said innovation is necessary to acknowledge the needs of working parents.

“I think requiring longer school days requires an injection of resources and creative thinking about how you set up your schools,” Brown said.