Extended school days, universal daycare, and virtual schools

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Jan 3, 2013

In my last post I said that students from highly supportive families constitute the lowest, or least demanding, tier of the PreK-12 education market. (The lowest dotted red line on Clayton Christensen’s graph to the right depicts this bottom tier.) Consequently, that group is the first to become overserved by fully integrated brick-and-mortar schools and will be the first to demand un-bundled, a la carte school choices.

That might all sound like highfalutin theory, but it actually has concrete and sizeable implications, including these three:

Longer school days are not for everyone. A pilot program by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center on Time and Learning, and the Ford Foundation will add up to 300 more hours in the 2013-2014 school year for 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. Although some students will benefit from more instructional hours (assuming the hours are well spent), the program is a misfit for students in the lowest tier who are already overserved by a full day of seat time. Student-centric learning means customizing around each student’s learning needs, and that means moving past the notion that something that’s right for most tiers is right for all tiers.

Universal PreK is not for everyone. I’ve been following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to pay mothers €150 ($199) a month to facilitate their staying home with their children under age 3 instead of sending the infants to government-run crèches. My opinion is that if the government could somehow determine that only mothers who were highly nurturing received this incentive (granted a big IF), it would be a great idea. Children from neglectful homes are obviously better served in well-run crèches. But given the option of a well-run crèche or a nurturing one-on-one caregiver, the research suggests that the latter prevails. In Disrupting Class, chapter 7, the authors explain that by the age of 36 months, babies with talkative, college educated parents are likely to have heard some 35 million more words spoken to them than are children from what the researchers term “welfare families.” Researchers have found a strikingly high coefficient of correlation between “extra talk” before age 3 and performance on reading exams at age 9. Bottom line, if infants are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interact one-on-one with a talkative, educated caregiver rather than share their time in a less individualized institutional setting, the neuroscience suggests that the former is hugely preferable from a cognitive development point of view. Mothers from low-tier families should take the €150 and talk to their babies.

Virtual schools should turn students away. I understand the rationale for governments to require that publicly funded schools do not cherry-pick students. But recently many full-time virtual schools have been under fire for generating poor academic results (for example, see here and here). I think much of it is a failure to recognize market tier. Not all students are ready for the un-bundling of school that takes place when virtual schools provide content and instruction over the Internet and leave it to families to provide all other necessary support. Initially many virtual-school students were from middle class home-schooling families. But as virtual schools have expanded, more students needing remediation are turning to them. Full-time virtual schools are not legally allowed to discriminate. But they are morally obligated to be painfully explicit that most students will need significant family support and that students without it should not sign up. They can follow the lead of KIPP schools, which require parents to sign a learning pledge called the “Commitment to Excellence,” which ensures that parents will do whatever it takes to help their children learn. Parents who cannot keep that pledge should not send their children to full-time virtual schools.

In chapter 9 of Disrupting Class, the authors point out that the dominant way society assigns students to schools is geographical: All students who live in this neighborhood should attend the nearest local school. But do we really think that just because someone lives a block away from someone else they automatically have the same schooling needs? In truth, we need many different types of schools. It’s okay if one type of school does not work for all students.

Students from disadvantaged families will need fully integrated brick-and-mortar schools and full-day public crèches for years to come. But lower-tier children have different needs and the system should not overgeneralize to ignore them.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.