Unintended Consequences

Oftentimes, despite our good intentions, our efforts create a domino effect that actually creates more problems. Right now, as parents worry about their children’s safety if they do go back to school and/or try to find ways to provide for their children’s education when schools aren’t opening, we are seeing a trend to Schools Pods and MicroSchools. This is all well and good for the child, but is it really?

If we use Peter Senge’s approach to modeling system dynamics, we can see that this trend has the potential for unintended consequences. While I’m not skilled at whiteboard animation, the video depicts this model:

The first reinforcing loop in this model might be triggered by parent perceptions about the quality of learning for their student. Those concerns might be for safety, learning, or other reasons. Parents with concerns may choose alternative learning options for their children like MicroSchools. There are two issues here, though. The first is that for MicroSchools, parents are paying out of pocket, which means that only those that can afford this option can exercise it. The second issue is seen in the loop. Schools are usually funded based on the number of students attending, so they will lose money when students go elsewhere. This means that they will have to make budget cuts, impacting staffing levels and resources, which in turn will likely lower results. Naturally, this causes parents to become more dissatisfied and reinforces the loop, meaning that over time the school will perform worse and worse.

If this continues, there will also be implications for society, which are depicted in the second loop. When schools continually perform poorly, the percentage of students leaving school prepared for neither college or career increases. Not having the knowledge, ability, and skills to contribute to society, they often find either low paying jobs or none at all, meaning that they are not able to be financially independent. This will increase the number of adults needing support through various welfare programs which will require a shift in funds state and federal budgets. Funds available for education, then, will be reduced and school budgets further challenged, which will again impact resources and staffing and ultimately school performance. And the cycle continues.

The wonderful thing about visualizing system dynamics this way is that we can also see opportunities to positively impact the system. In this case, one of the best intervention points seems to be addressing the issues that are causing the parents concern. It seems clear that schools haven’t adequately addressed the safety issues for students during this pandemic time. Many are honest that they can’t provide for social distancing in classrooms and schools, for instance. But, what they aren’t saying, is we can’t do social distancing if we keep doing school the way we’ve always done it.

Let’s do some math. If students typically attend school 180 days a year and get 6 hours of instruction a day, they could get the same total hours (1080) attending school for 240 days and get 4 ½ hours of instruction a day. That takes out weekends and allows for 4 weeks of vacation time. While there are strong arguments for students not needing 4 ½ hours or direct instruction every day, we can use that number as the worst case scenario. Schools could bring in half the students for half a day, significantly reducing the number of students in each classroom, then bring in the other half for the other half a day. While some parents would hope to have their child in a safe school environment, others would prefer to have them home during the non-instructional hours, so it is conceivable that schools (and churches, youth centers, libraries, etc) could retrofit their large spaces to accommodate children needing to be in a care situation. This time could be used for additional tutoring support, online learning activities, or other programs. Additionally, this would better accommodate middle and high school athletic and extracurricular programs, which often pull students out of class time in the traditional schedule. While each school or district would have to consider their unique population, the point is that schools haven’t looked at all their options to meet the expectations of parents. It is also possible that by staffing this model creatively, staffing costs could be reduced - positively impacting the greatest expenditure in any school budget.

While not the only possible solution, this solution addresses safety, more individualized instruction, improved ability to manage behavior, and school budget concerns. It is likely that others thinking outside the box will propose even better solutions

The important point today is that we need solutions. Not addressing these trends will likely widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. If that trend is allowed to continue, we will find ourselves with two different systems. The quality of public education will likely decline leaving students ill-prepared for life which will erode societal conditions. Let’s not be short-sighted. The time to act is now.

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