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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E10: The Unworkable Burden On Schools

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

Michael asks Diane to explain what expectations are unrealistic for schools to fulfill. Diane discusses how the layering of requirements and regulations on schools have stretched them in unintended and burdensome ways that require a redesign — not a bolted-on approach.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. It’s good to see you off of that great conversation with John just in the last episode.

Tavenner: It is. It is really good to see you, Michael. And it makes me realize, remember how we were both so excited to have a holiday rest and refresh. It’s been less than a month, Michael, and honestly, I feel tired already.

Horn: I am not surprised, Diane. There’s a lot going on. It has not been the month we were hoping for with the Omicron surge and all of this craziness and pressure on so many parts of our schools and the people in them. And this, of course, is why we started this podcast. As folks who listen know, we never thought we’d be in season three of this podcast, let alone in the third year of schooling dramatically impacted in an ongoing way by this pandemic. But here we are, and we continue to feel that there are some opportunities to transform schooling more widely, even amidst all the chaos.

Tavenner: I appreciate that reminder so much, Michael, and I have to keep coming back to it in order to be able to move forward. The other thing we’re doing to stay present and resilient is being curious this season. So we’ve built this entire season of our podcast around trying to answer the big questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how of schooling.

And today we want to dig a bit deeper into the “what.” During one of our most recent episodes in the last year, I said something that got you really curious, which in turn surprised me and caused me to reflect when I heard what you were thinking. So we’re going to circle back to that today.

Horn: Precisely, Diane. And it’s a question that we arrived at in a circuitous way. So I want to bring our audience along in this one because I think it will be helpful context. So a couple episodes ago, you mentioned something. I think it’s three episodes, precisely, when we were talking about the challenging behavior that we’re seeing from so many students this year. And you said a line, almost a throwaway line, that people’s expectations of school are just so unrealistic right now.

And in the spirit of pressing each other in the language we use because is it’s our joint belief that sometimes people use words or phrases, but they mean something totally different by it, and if we don’t clarify, it’s easier for confusion, or as we’ve seen on the ground, even anger to mount. I don’t think when you said people had too high expectations for schools that you meant that we ought to lower expectations around preparing children to successfully lead lives of purpose and choice, I think you had something else in mind that’s worth digging deeper on.

Tavenner: Definitely. And I’m grateful because I would hate for people to think that I wanted to lower expectations around schools. So when you raised this with me, it was such a helpful mirror you held up for me. And I absolutely do not want those lowered expectations for schools, and I do believe we should be preparing every student for a fulfilled life. And as I sit in the seat of a school system leader right now, and as I might add, one that is pretty experienced. This is not my first go around here, and I am leading a system of schools that I founded and help create. I feel like we have an elephant sitting on our chest. That feeling comes from both the history of public education in this country just being one of constantly layering new expectations on top of existing ones, and with the feeling that that has been massively accelerated over the last two years. And Michael, I thought it might be helpful if I just shared a couple of quick examples to illustrate what I mean by this to make it actually real.

The first one, and I’ve talked to you about this many, many times, this one’s been simmering for a long time. It’s under the big headline of special education. And so like almost everything in education, the important and well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. This is a federal civil rights law that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in school, among other places, of course. And, of course, we want this, Michael. Of course, this is good. And once the law is passed, there begins a process to figure out how to realize it in day-to-day, school-by-school, student-by-student situations.

And so oftentimes people point to the fact that these requirements that are in law have never fully been funded, and certainly that’s an issue, but I want to actually focus on the fact this law brought about an extraordinary number of new expectations on schools and educators without thinking about how those changes would integrate with existing school designs and expectations. And essentially this all just got piled on top of everything else that already existed.

Now another example I want to share is what we’ve seen as a result of COVID. And today, and since the start of COVID, schools have been asked to take on entirely new work streams that they just simply weren’t even doing before. For example, everything from setting up a system to do daily screenings of students to becoming COVID testing sites to contact tracing and so many more.

In this case, money was allocated to fund these new work streams, as you know, a significant amount of money. And at the same time, nothing was removed or taken away. This was added on top of everything else and continues to be added on top of everything else. And as you and I both know, even if you can hire more people, the impact is not neutral on the people who are currently in the system and the system itself, especially with functions that are so core to the daily operations and experiences of students.

Horn: Yeah, and those are really helpful examples. Even reflecting on watching my own kids walking into school these days and under the test-to-stay policies and watching people that have other responsibilities manage that logistical craziness, it really brings it home just how much that’s layering on them. I want to push you one step further though, because a lot of people listening to us probably have heard us talk about the importance of schools addressing children’s social and emotional states or their health in some cases, tackling sources of trauma, leaning into actively building up students’ habits of success is one we return to a lot.

And I suspect people might say, well, wait a second, aren’t you all layering on top new things of what schools and teachers are expected to do when you talk about these things? Robert Pondiscio, he’s a well known education writer, and he recently wrote a recent report for AEI about the challenges of asking teachers to tackle social and emotional challenges for students and the danger of pathologizing childhood, his words, not mine, by having teachers take on tasks for which they aren’t trained. So I’m curious how you think about the things that we’ve done and talked about relative to the examples you gave.

Tavenner: Such an important and nuanced point. One of the reasons I love our conversations because we get to get into the nuance that so often gets lost in this field. One that I do think can be really confusing for people, too. And so it’s critically important that folks hear both parts of what I’m saying, what I think we’re both saying, when we talk about schools taking responsibility for teaching, not just academics, but also habits of success. And that is that school must be redesigned to do this.

I am 100 percent opposed to the layering on of “programs” for social-emotional learning. That approach doesn’t work from two perspectives at least, the first being the layering effect that we’ve just been talking about. But more importantly, it ignores the science, and this is the science of learning that we talk about all the time, which makes it very clear that one can’t effectively teach academics, void of the development of skills and habits of basically successful human being-ing, if you will. These two things are intimately connected, and I think it’s fair to say that this fundamental misunderstanding of how humans learn leads to very uneven academic outcomes, the ones that people are very concerned about.

And if you are a school or a teacher who does not attend to the developing of the habits of success side by side and in an integrated way with academic skills, you’re simply advantaging… Is that the right word, Michael? Advantaging, yes. Those students who have developed those habits elsewhere because they aren’t naturally born with them, Michael. These are literally skills and habits. And what we know is that without them, academic progress will be much more difficult, slower, like all of the challenges.

Horn: Yeah. So I really want to just underline and highlight the point because this is a topic, as you know, I’ve thought a lot about and studied. And it seems clear to me that, and I’m going to take the innovation lens on it, is that even if schools view their primary role as building up academic knowledge and skills and little else, pretend they say that’s what we’re here to do, for many children, if the schools aren’t making sure that they have basic health and food and social/emotional needs met and habits of success, there’s literally zero chance that they will be successful in helping children master those deeper academic knowledge and skills about which they say they care. It will not happen, period.

Tavenner: And Michael, there’s so much data to prove that that is true. So much data.

Horn: Yeah. And frankly, if you just think about it logically, it makes sense as well. So now a school I would argue they have to be clear about why they’re tackling these additional things. That integrated view that you just talked about, I think, is really important. And that helps them understand, we can bring outside resources to do this element versus we actually have to support this in the context of the learning in class themselves. But to not treat these things is actually far more expensive, I would argue, from a societal perspective than having schools lean into these areas up front. And so it may be masked, if you will, on the balance sheet of given how we account for things in the society, but integrating them actually makes it far more affordable for schools and society.

Tavenner: So here’s the thing, Michael, you and I agree that there should be a broader view of schooling.

Horn: Yes.

Tavenner: And it’s about much more than just academic knowledge and skills that we ought to really be preparing students to lead productive lives as citizens of this country, which requires investing in habits of success in the context of academic knowledge and skills. But to do any of this successfully just isn’t workable in the current system. And this is where we start to get into the conversation around the layering of expectations and what the buildup of regulation and red tape has been over the years and what that really ends up meaning.

Horn: So here we get to the question, which is, what do you mean it isn’t workable?

Tavenner: I mean it literally isn’t workable. But let’s get more specific about those examples I started with and go a little deeper on them, recognizing that this is a topic we could probably fill two seasons with, but let’s see what we can do in this episode.

Horn: Never stopped us before.

Tavenner: So let’s take the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in schools. What comes out of that law is that each student who has a qualified disability, and just to give folks a sense, these range from dyslexia and auditory processing issues to autism, traumatic brain injuries, so this full range, who have a qualified disability and it’s impacting their education, they get what’s called an IEP or an individual education plan. This is the plan that helps prevent the discrimination and helps enable them to truly access school.

But before we even get to the plan, let me just give you a high-level summary of the expectations on schools related to identifying students who have learning differences and determining if they qualify for one of these IEPs. And this includes the responsibility that the school and its educators are constantly searching and seeking to identify students, even the ones who aren’t in their school, in their community. That’s the expectation, literally, the legal expectation.

When a student is suspected of having a learning difference that is impacting their learning, the school needs to form a student study team to decide upon, implement and track the interventions to try to help with it. This happens over multiple weeks. You’re supposed to iterate on it, collect data, analyze it, and do the processes that we all believe in and care about. And the school is also required to conduct a battery of tests to determine if the student has a learning difference and if it’s impacting their learning, and then ultimately to create an IEP, if one is warranted. All of this is done in close collaboration with the family and alignment with a very precise, very prescriptive set of legal timelines and specifications and rights.

And so let me just pause there, Michael. All of that sounds logical and rational and good for the student, right? I mean…

Horn: Sure.

Tavenner: Yeah. And it also requires multiple hours of meeting time with teachers, education specialists, school psychologists, principals, parents, and even the student. And it requires that these groups of people meet, discuss, come up with a plan, try it, analyze it, test it, make determinations. And again, that all seems right and good until you pause for just a moment and think, when are all these meetings going to happen? I mean, teachers are teaching most of the day, Michael. Most teachers in America have maybe one hour of preparation during the day where they are literally not with their students teaching, which as we now know, everyone wants their teachers with their students during the day.

And so is it supposed to happen in that hour? And if so, how? Because when one teacher is not teaching, the other one is. And so you’re getting them together, so now we’re talking about outside of school hours. Is it before school? Is it after school? Is it in the evening? Is it on the weekend? What about parents who are working? What about the principal who’s running around doing all of these other things? And so, I went back to do just a very basic calculation, and I would argue that you’re looking at a minimum of six hours of meetings over an eight-week period, just for a single student in this identification phase. And that’s if everything goes perfectly and it’s probably more like eight to 10 hours, plus the testing time.

And so when you multiply that by the number of students in a school, it doesn’t fit. It literally doesn’t fit. There are not enough hours in the day. And I also just want to add here, I’ve talked about this very dispassionately, but this experience we’re talking about here is often very emotional. It rarely is triggered because everything is going lovely. It’s often triggered because the student is struggling or there’s a challenge or something like that. And always hovering over the top is this very legal system that is very scary if you’re someone who’s in charge of running a school and trying to do right by everyone, but know that if you mess up, there are significant financial consequences to those mistakes, in addition to the impact on students. So, whew, that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.

Horn: Yeah, and that’s a lot. And so nothing you said is something you would want to deny the student or their family. And on the present structure, it’s really onerous and doesn’t work very well. And to your point, when families need the most social and emotional support, they’re possibly getting the least because it’s at the tail end or the thing that you don’t want to be doing because there isn’t time for it. It’s getting squeezed. Not that you would want to act that way, it’s just human nature at wits end. So that’s daunting, Diane.

Tavenner: It is daunting. And it is the emotion. What I think sometimes get underestimated is, educators are in this work because they care deeply and they want to support students, and so these things are very personal. These are at our core. This is our purpose. And it’s incredibly stressful. And one of the things we see in this time is the weight of stress of these roles. But let me give you just a few others, now that you’ve gotten me started Michael… 

Horn: Yeah, let’s go for it.

Tavenner: I’ve got a few others that all, again, start from a good logical place. But here’s one. When we aren’t happy with how teachers are teaching or something that’s going on in the schools, what do we do? We raise the credentialing expectations on teachers and we say, we should just teach them more before they start teaching, so they can be better at that. And we discussed this a few episodes ago, but I think it bears repeating how many teachers we’re excluding from the profession who have incredibly relevant backgrounds and expertise, but honestly can’t afford the cost of a credentialing program, including the loss of income required during their unpaid training time and all of that. And additionally, the very bureaucratic constraints on who can teach what really stifle innovation, Michael, especially at the middle and high school levels. It is very difficult to think about a different approach to organizing learning when credentialing laws, in combination with graduation and college requirements, effectively mandate that one person teaches English, another person teaches history, another person teaches math, and this person can only teach these specific sciences and so forth. So there’s one that just keeps layering.

One huge layering has come with technology. I mean, the reality is that no one can run an organization these days, including schools, without technology. And you and I both believe strongly that good technology is a powerful tool in schools that we need and want. And in just a few decades, schools went from having a person or two to manage phone systems and copy machines to an IT team that is now managing one-to-one devices for everyone in the system, broadband, multiple enterprise software packages, so much more and in an environment where privacy is paramount and of great concern and importance. This is a completely different set of work streams that are infinitely more complex and expensive and they just got layered on. There’s no taking away of anything when they come in. Is this helpful?

Horn: Keep rolling. Keep rolling.

Tavenner: I’ve got a couple more.

Horn: Keep rolling.

Tavenner: Here we go. This one’s going to come out of left field for some people, but here’s what seems like small and weird. Freedom of Information Act requests that are known as FOIAs. So the idea here is that public schools are accountable to the public, and so the public should be able to request and have access to documents and information that the schools have. This makes for good open governance and accountability to communities. All sounds great. And the laws that enable this are also being, in some places, exploited or just used in ways that are not, I don’t think, the best use of public resources. So let me give you a couple of examples.

There are companies who sell products to schools who will request that schools turn over extensive documentation on not only all of the contracts they have for things like supplies and whatnot, but also detailed information on what is being purchased, how much is being paid, et cetera. And these companies are literally using this information to inform their sales and marketing efforts. I do not believe this was the intention, and I don’t think it’s a good use of public resources for people to stop what they’re doing to go gather these documents to help a private company do their marketing.

And this is a good moment to say, for those who don’t know, a FOIA request means that an organization literally has to do that. You have to, in a very short timeline, respond to these requests and send all of these documents that could possibly be responsive to what’s being asked for. And this would be one thing if we were talking about basic documents that are really accessible, but more and more, we are seeing expansive requests that, in some cases, end up being hundreds to thousands of pages of documents. We responded to one request that literally had 40,000 pages of documents that were required in it.

So here’s another example of this. There’s this research group at a university that asked if we would participate in a research study they were doing. And it was a pretty expansive study, and while we definitely do that partnering sometimes, in this case, this study wasn’t really useful to us or our organization or students, and it was super time consuming and so we declined. Well, the research group, they didn’t want to take no for an answer, and so they basically sought to force us to participate through a series of massive FOIA requests. So it’s that type of stuff. And there’s, there’s so much more on that one, but just that alone.

And then let me just give you one last one. You can tell, I could go on for days about this, which relates to safety and security, which is something we’ve been talking about, especially in this year that we’ve returned to school. There’s so much in this category, but let me just go with something that is very fresh and present. As we all know, we continue to have school shootings in our nation. And before the break, the heartbreaking shooting that occurred in Michigan was deeply present for everyone. Sadly, what often happens after school shootings like this that’s highly public, there are a number of copycat threats. And these are no longer sort of phone calls on the school voicemail or notes, they are now much more prevalent on social media. And so lots of people seeing it, middle of the night types of things.

And as a school and school leader, when you become aware of a threat of violence or a shooting at your school…Let me be very clear, your response is immediate and overly cautious. There is not an educator on this planet who can imagine living with a school shooting happening on their watch. And so what that means is everything else gets dropped. And it’s a 24- to 48-hour, all hands on deck, everyone is investigating, coordinating with a number of outside agencies, making these excruciating decisions about, should we proactively close the school to protect the community, communicating with the community. And the speed of communication now is off the charts. I can’t describe to you how stressful, and quite frankly, terrifying these experiences are.

And Michael, just before the December break, this was happening across the country at schools. These are not infrequent anymore. This was happening everywhere, so much so that in one case, one of our schools called the police department and the police department said every school in our community has one of these, we couldn’t possibly get out and help all of you. And so basically, you’re on your own. It’s these types of things that people don’t think about and consider, and how do you even begin to staff for that?

Horn: Yeah. Well, first, I’ll say I’m even more honored with that list that you spend this time with me on a biweekly basis to do this podcast. But I want to give you a moment to pause because I can literally feel, and for those who can’t see, I can see the stress as you get into these descriptions. And quite frankly, I’m feeling it just hearing what you’re describing, which I know is only, as you’ve alluded to, a drop in the bucket of all the sets of things that you grapple with. And so I just want to take the pause to note a couple things.

First, a lot of these are about process and adult issues, not the actual learning for students. So meaning a lot of these start, and I want to honor that, they start in good places. And then to comply, it becomes a lot about these process and adult issues.

And second, a lot of these things, I think, that you’re mentioning show, as I said up front, just how hard it is to run a school. And you think about the large school system with tens of thousands of students, you have security forces, food services, health professionals, teachers, oh yeah, teachers, building operations. Some of these districts have the infrastructure of small cities, and being a superintendent is like being the mayor and running a city. In many cases, more than just serving as an institution focused on, say, the academic success or successful preparation of students.

And while we’re at it, Diane, I’ll just throw another at you, which hopefully won’t make you too stressed, but it’s waivers.

Tavenner: Waivers.

Horn: People say, well, you want to get around regulations? Just throw some waivers at it.

Tavenner: Please say more, Michael, because waivers from regulations sound like it could be a good thing in the context of what we’re discussing, but…

Horn: Yeah, totally agree. But if it’s a blanket waiver, sure. But what I’m talking about is a lot of waivers in which states will say, for example, we have policies that do allow schools to get out of seat time requirements or line of site requirements. And therefore, you can do mastery-based or competency-based learning or do some of these alternative staffing arrangements.

But here’s the thing, Diane, as you know better than I do, a school default to operating under that policy. First, they have to know that the waiver is there. That’s a big hurdle, given all the other things going on. Then they have to apply to get relief from it. That takes up spare time and resources, which I am very confident from hearing you that they don’t have either of those things. And then there’s the chance they might not actually get the waiver approved.

So what would you choose to do if you’re a school with limited capacity? Would you choose to spend it on applying for waivers? I mean, all the policy makers, when I used to testify all the time in state capitals and say, we have a way to do mastery-based learning. Really? You’re a school system and you’re going to spend your scarce resources that don’t exist on applying for waivers?

Tavenner: Nope. I wouldn’t and I feel confident we have data on how few waivers are actually applied for and used for that very reason. I would say, and I’m saying that coming from an organization that has, as you know, relatively strong capacity and this is not a thing we do. But Michael, I don’t want to focus on just the negative. We are all about the hope on this podcast. So let’s shift to thinking about a better way forward.

And we want to start with this, all of these policies get added generally from a good heartfelt place of wanting to protect students, keep them safe and help them. And because they get bolted on in this sort of hodgepodge way over time, one policy here and another one there without any coherence or integration or asking what can be sunset or what can we stop doing, I mean, we just end up with this morass of, quite frankly, Michael, red tape. That’s what it…

Horn: Yeah. So to me, that’s where I think it comes back to a focusing on the outcomes. What are the outcomes that we want to see for students rather than mandating every single process or input. And I’ll give you an example. Clearly we don’t want to see students suffer abuse in a school setting or at the hands of a teacher. But then rather than micromanage all the things we could possibly see, have seen, or imagine, and create a lot of what I’ll call process regulations, how things must operate, that frankly, you just can’t do successfully at the policy level, given how each schooling community should have the autonomy to define the right policies for its circumstance, I’d much rather have a focus on the outcomes that we want to see and be clear about what we don’t want to see. You can’t abuse children, full stop. Here’s the growth we want to see from each child, full stop. Here are the deeper learning outcomes that we believe all children can accomplish.

It goes back to what we said, you measure what you treasure and treasure what you measure. And that requires clarity and discipline. But look, I get in the process of creating checks and such for these things, government agencies write in all these regs and create processes to make sure that things are done. But I guess from my standpoint, I think we have to be much clearer about what we’re looking for rather than what we’re trying to avoid. A positive outlook rather than a negative one, and let the existing policies that do exist in our society around privacy and security and so forth, take over and be clear that schools are subject to the spirit of those and can’t violate them. I’m curious how that lands though, for you, as someone on the ground.

Tavenner: You know, Michael, you are describing what so many educators want, including me. And quite frankly, this is what I was hoping to get in operating charter schools. I mean, this is why my schools are charter schools. And 20 years ago, it was about as close to what you’ve just described as we’ve gotten, at least if you were a charter school, where I was. Unfortunately, over those 20 years, the layering has happened even in the charter sector. And so we were supposed to have a charter, a contract, that made us accountable to the outcomes like you’re describing, but freed of so many of the processes and the red tape and the bureaucracy to how we get there.

But we find ourselves, more and more, buried all the time as time goes by, which is really sad because that makes innovation and redesign really challenging. And that’s what we believe needs to happen, you and I. That’s why we’re here every other week talking about this. I guess the hope I would conclude with is, if COVID has taught us nothing else, it is that living organisms will adapt and evolve. And so let’s hold on to the hope that one good thing will come out of COVID and that is, it’s going to provoke us to find ways to adapt and change because we just can’t keep doing what we’re doing.

Horn: Yeah, yeah. Clay used to always say to me, maybe the individual practices or things like that won’t scale, but let’s hope the principle does. And so I hope that that principle does and that would be an optimistic thing. So before we go, as we transition out, what are you reading, watching, or listening to right now, Diane?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, I think you have had an influence on me. So as you know, I really prefer fiction, but believe it or not, I’m currently reading this giant 500-page nonfiction book called 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History. It’s by Jay Winik. I know, it’s just so out of character for me, but the short story here is that my son is studying in Berlin, which we’ve talked about, this semester and, cross your fingers, we are going to visit him. And so when I have the chance to visit other countries, I always try to read some of their great literature leading up to the trip and really try to immerse myself in what that country feels like and learn about it. And so don’t worry, I have my literature for sure, but my son is such a history fanatic that I really wanted to be more knowledgeable about where he is going into this trip. So about 200 pages in, and surprisingly, Michael, I’m really enjoying it and learning a ton. So how about you?

Horn: I love it. I love it. So this isn’t what I was going to say, but I’m actually reading the Doris Kearns Goodwin book right now about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. So we may have some overlap to talk soon.

Tavenner: Sure, we’ll have a book club.

Horn: Yeah, exactly. But the book that I just finished was The Girl with Seven Names, which reads like a work of fiction because, Diane, I am trying to make a resolution once I get past a couple more books on my list to go into fiction for the year. So you’ve had an influence on me. But The Girl with Seven Names, it’s a nonfiction account of a woman who escapes from North Korea. And obviously, your son was just studying in South Korea. And it’s her harrowing account of ultimately ending up in South Korea and then bringing her family over that didn’t want to come as well.

And it’s a great book, but it’s just such an interesting example of how where you grow up and what you’re taught shapes so much of your worldview and the circumstances that you see the world through. So I think it has resonance also for what we talk about when we reimagine the world of schooling. And we’ll leave it there, once again, on this episode. And thank you for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential. Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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