Indianapolis Schools Ponder Classroom Flex Time, Master Teachers, a Revamped School Calendar

As labor market shifts, Indianapolis Public Schools seeks to make teaching more attractive — and the district more competitive

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Can flex time make the teaching profession more attractive? 

Indianapolis Public School officials think so — and are investigating ways to offer teachers a three-hour or even a full-day block of flex time that can be used to plan lessons, meet with colleagues or study student data. 

The move is part of the district’s plan to “make teaching a more attractive profession long term,” said Alex Moseman, Indianapolis’ former director of talent acquisition, who initiated the effort. “The labor market is shifting, and we have an opportunity to create a more sustainable work-life balance for teachers.”

There is little doubt teachers feel stressed and dissatisfied. A recent Rand Corp. study showed stress was the top reason public school teachers left the profession, even before COVID-19. In a Merrimack College Teacher Survey, job satisfaction sank to an all-time low this year, with only 12% of 1,300 educators polled saying they were “very satisfied” with their jobs. That’s down from 62% about 15 years earlier. A report this year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Learning Technology shows the same trend — more than three-quarters of teachers feel negatively about their profession. 

“Being in a classroom is stressful and difficult,” said Melissa Kay Diliberti, an assistant policy researcher at Rand who has studied how both current and former teachers feel about their work. Teachers who say they are considering quitting, even if they don’t follow through, are indicating job dissatisfaction, she added. “That says something about morale.” 

In Indianapolis, the idea of flex time for teachers came after educators proved over the last 2½ years that they could transition from remote instruction to socially distanced classes to fully in-person learning, Moseman said. District officials thought now was a perfect time to investigate making big changes. The district is working with the national nonprofit Education Resource Strategies to create some plans that can be tested this year. 

Three ideas seem to be early leaders. One would designate a master teacher who would offer “high-quality remote learning” to multiple classes online while the other teachers on the team have flex time. Moseman emphasized that any virtual component would take up only a small portion of a student’s week, as opposed to the all-day, every day remote learning the district used during the early days of the pandemic. 

The second idea would be a day or block of time when students would work online completing teacher assignments on their own. The third concept would change the entire school calendar: Instead of taking classes from August to May, students would attend school for five consecutive weeks and then have one week off. Two-week breaks would occur in the summer and around the winter holidays.

The district expects to test two or more options by January, Moseman said. Several classrooms would pilot each program; the goal is to have an entire school use the new model by the 2023-24 academic year.

Indianapolis already has lots of school choice, including traditional public schools, charters and magnet schools. Any flex time program would have to work in all types of schools, Moseman said. And while the district has some funds to spend creating a plan, ultimately, the flex time arrangement can’t add staff or expenses to the budget, he added. “That’s a tight needle to thread.”

Moseman said the plan is part of a broader effort to make teaching more attractive, as Indianapolis competes for staff not only with neighboring districts, but with private-sector companies seeking talent for white-collar jobs.

The district is vetting its plans with a 10-member advisory group, which includes principals, a teacher and district officials. While Moseman said teacher approval would be vital, the district hasn’t run any of its ideas past the Indianapolis Education Association yet. Union officials did not respond to several inquiries for comment.

The one educator on the advisory panel, Rosiland Jackson, is a second/third grade teacher at the K-8 William Penn School 49. She said she likes the idea of gaining a substantial chunk of flex time but isn’t sure it would bolster recruitment or retention. 

Right now, Jackson said, teachers typically have a 35-minute free period during the school day that can be swallowed up quickly by calls with parents, meetings with students or discussions with other teachers. 

She opposes changing the school calendar, saying she thinks the week off would “not be productive to the classroom” because students need time to re-acclimate after a break. Plus, the change would disrupt family schedules and teachers’ summer vacations. 

She also questioned the idea of using a master teacher in a grade level or subject, saying, “Teachers are very territorial about classes and students.” Having students learn online part of the time might work if it isn’t too much like the remote learning in 2020, which neither parents nor teachers felt worked for students, she added.

Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education, was skeptical that Indianapolis’s plans would improve teacher retention: “I haven’t heard anyone say flex time would change their career.” And she rejected the notion of remote learning, saying, “Subbing virtual teaching for in-person teaching is a bad idea.” 

Creating more time for teachers to work together sounds more like good scheduling than the overhauls being discussed, she added. 

While Jackson said she liked the idea of flex time, she believes it wouldn’t make a huge difference in attracting or retaining teachers. “Would it help? Some, but not a lot. Teachers have been bashed for so long about what a horrible job we’re doing. … The narrative has to be changed in this country” to make the profession more appealing.

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