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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E11: What is Driving Parent Frustration with 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 and Diane explore what’s driving parent — and educator — frustration with schools, and how misalignment between different groups may actually create a path toward a more personalized school system where grace and gratitude return.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane, it’s been a topsy turvy couple weeks over here, as you know. But it’s also given me the opportunity to think a lot about grace and gratitude, which are themes that, as you know, we’ve revisited a lot over the podcast.

Tavenner: Michael, I know you have been carrying a lot and I appreciate all that you’re holding and your ability to stay present through all of that. And so if I’m reading you correctly, it sounds like there is something you might want to talk about this week.

Horn: No surprise, but you know me well, Diane. And as we’ve discussed, the Omicron surge obviously has really upended schools, and it’s created even more frustrations. And in some cases, even anger, the opposite of that grace and gratitude. And a lot of parents and educators, it seems to me, are just fed up. But as listeners know, you and I, we didn’t start this podcast just to talk about people’s frustrations amid COVID. But to also talk about the opportunities that these frustrations reveal to transform schooling more widely.

Tavenner: Yeah, Michael and we’ve embarked on this season around trying to answer big question of “who, what, where, when, why and how?” And we’re focused on all of those questions in relationship to schooling and the design of schools. And we’ve really been trying to put our money where our mouth is and follow curiosity. And I must say, I’m pretty curious right now, what’s on your mind with this?

Horn: All right. Well, I’ll take it a level deeper. I want to dig deeper into the what question today. And specifically, what is driving that parent frustration? Because maybe the lack of gratitude or grace is actually more rational. And if we can understand it, I think it might have some implications for how we shape schools. So let me just try to frame this one, and then you can dive in more deeply, Diane.

Because what I’m seeing and hearing right now is all manners of reactions to the interruptions and efforts of schools right now. Some parents, they want in-person schooling at all costs.

Tavenner: Yep.

Horn: They are sick of confirmed close contacts, pushing children to stay at home. They’re sick in some cases of testing asymptomatic children. And yet at the same time, juxtaposed against that, we’re seeing some pockets of educators, most visibly, perhaps in Chicago with the teachers strike a little bit back. Not wanting to really be near the classroom. Or for some schools, they don’t have enough teachers and staff to be able to even keep the doors open given COVID infections. So you have that juxtaposition.

Then you have the parents who’ve been clamoring for schools to close and go remote again.

Tavenner: Mm-hmm.

Horn: They’ve been seeing the spiking numbers of people with COVID, the stretched hospitals, the reports of children in hospitals, the interruptions to their routines with confirmed close contacts and the like. And they want their children nowhere near schools. They’re frustrated with the many schools, I think, that have looked at the sum of the evidence. And as we discussed with John Bailey, a couple episodes ago, concluded that schools can be held in person safely. And that it’s actually important for the majority of children to be in school in person.

And then there’s a third group, I think, which is a bunch of parents who are frustrated that their state or district has essentially barred any remote option at all throughout all this. And they don’t want to hear that remote schooling doesn’t work for most children. They can point to a good online school here or there and show where it’s working. Or they can point to an end of one and say, “Hey, it’s working for my kid, for my family. Why can’t we have that?”

And then maybe there’s this fourth group, Diane, which is like people like my wife who are basically like, “I get there’s going to be times where my kids aren’t allowed to go to school. It’s really annoying, but please, please don’t do remote schooling when school closes. It’s just too hard on the parents.” And I’m not sure that’s me, that we’re in the same bucket. But that’s a dynamic. And look, I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of nuance, but it feels like those are the tent poles to me. And that families sort of exist somewhere across that wide spectrum right now.

Tavenner: Well, I love that you, in your own family, might be in different places. Because I think it’s so reflective of the full spectrum of perspectives we’re dealing with, Michael. And I actually think you’ve done a really good job of staking them out from what I’m experiencing and seeing. Which is very affirming of what you’re talking about.

Our families are pretty split on what they want right now. And some, as you’ve said, really want us to be virtual. They’re just like, “What are you thinking? This is a huge surge. Like, why are we in buildings? This is crazy.” Some cannot fathom going back to virtual. They’re like, “No, never again. We can’t do that.” Some are most worried about their children’s physical health in relationship to COVID. Others are more worried about the mental health of their children in relation to socialization and isolation. Others are more worried about their academic progress. And so there’s different calculations that are going on here depending on what people think is more pressing, prevalent, important, given their own family and children. Everyone has different opinions on the various health and safety levers.

So here’s another sort of matrix element. Because not only do you have those pieces, but now we’ve got, what do people think about masks, testing, contact tracing, isolation, quarantine. I should say, not just masks, respirators, as we learned from John Bailey, because those are different things. There are so many intersecting dimensions to what an individual wants and needs. And you, therefore, have families literally all over the map. So what does this look like and feel like for the people who are in schools, leading schools?

Well, I’ll be honest with you, Michael. It feels like a lose-lose situation every single day. It truly feels impossible to make everyone happy, let alone honestly, anyone happy. Because you might make them happy on one dimension and then upset on another one.

Horn: Mm-hmm.

Tavenner: And catering to the majority is deeply challenging. When people feel really strongly and act accordingly, as we’re seeing and as you alluded to with your frustration and your anger at the top. Even if you’re catering to the majority, what is the majority on each dimension? The people in the majority sort of shift around. And so you’re right back to the place where literally no one’s going to be happy, let alone satisfied with the decisions you’re making. Because even if they like one part, they aren’t going to like another. And that isn’t even factoring in faculty members. And you noted educators up at the top, but they have equally complex and varied opinions. So the bottom line is, this is a technical term, it really sucks to be a school leader right now.

All of that said, I have noticed that many educators just do not share a fundamental perspective that I think you are saying most parents believe, which is that a core service that schools provide is childcare. And in my view, this is one of the big disconnects. Like a safe place for their children — this is what parents believe. A safe place for their children to be during the day to allow them to work and bring home important income for their families. Like this is not what most educators that I know think is their job.

Horn: I think that’s super interesting, Diane. And it actually relates to a new paper that came out by Kairon Shayne D. Garcia and Benjamin Cowan that a colleague at Education Next flagged that showed that actually school closures had little impact on whether parents worked. Which to me was surprising. But where it’s maybe perhaps less surprising, school closures had a huge or significant effects on whether parents worked full-time and the number of hours they were able to work per week. So that’s no surprise. And no surprise, the effects were most concentrated among low-educated parents.

So I think it’s maybe too simplistic to say that a core purpose of schooling is to provide custodial care. Like I’ll grant the educators that. We have research as you know, showing that parents opt to schools to do four jobs, to be done in their lives. Like escape a bad situation, be part of a values-aligned community, be part of a school that will focus on developing the whole child or help them execute “their plan” for their child, which is all about college. But I think a different and related model might be helpful here, Diane. And it’s called the Kano Model.

Tavenner: Huh? Okay, Michael. You’ve allowed me to geek out and vent a few times. And so I think it’s your turn now. Okay, I’ll bite. What’s the Kano Model?

Horn: I thought you’d never ask, Diane. So the Kano Model is essentially a way of figuring out what features an entity ought to invest in. It basically helps organizations create a product roadmap, if you will, and prioritize what’s most valuable. So the idea is actually really easy to visualize, but a little difficult to describe. So I’m going to do my best given this is an audio format. But what I want listeners to do is essentially picture a graph where the Y axis represents satisfaction of users. So the higher you go, the more satisfied you are and the lower you are, the less satisfied you are. And then the X axis would represent the sophistication of any given feature. So the more you go to the right, the more you’ve invested in making a given feature perfect, more advanced, complicated, things like that.

And what Professor Kano concluded in the 1980s, when he developed this, is that there are three kinds of features. And I’ll do it in reverse orders, so I can land my punchline here. But the first set are what you would call excitement features.

Tavenner: Right.

Horn: So these are features that when they’re absent, no one cares, per se, because they didn’t expect them in the first place. But when they’re present, oh boy, do they excite users because of the unexpected delight that they create. So you might think about the school that maybe offers amazing connections to a local community based organization for after-school internships. Or projects that allow students to connect to that like not just a professional in the field, but like truly the rockstar professionals in the field.

The next set are what he called pro performance experiences. So these are essentially like every dollar invested in these features result in a one-to-one level of satisfaction improvement. So the way to think about it is like that parent who’s really invested in school, helping their kid get into college. Maybe every single extra AP class offered brings that much more satisfaction. But not having any AP classes at all would make that parent really dissatisfied.

And then the third set are what he called basic features. And essentially these are the features that like, if they’re not there, your user is totally dissatisfied. But the more you invest in them, you don’t get credit, necessarily, for making them better. So they’re sort of the opposite of those excitement features. They just have to be there. Like think seat belts in cars. Ford doesn’t get extra points with customers for improving the seatbelt. But if seat belts aren’t there or are totally dysfunctional, well, you get the idea. The customers are going to walk.

Tavenner: Yes, I do. I get it. OK. I like this framework a lot, Michael. I’ve got a lot of stuff going through my head right now. What I think is, it says here is that childcare, for the vast majority of parents, is a basic feature.

Horn: Yep.

Tavenner: It isn’t an excitement feature, for sure, or a performance experience. But it’s just sort of table stakes. And without that baseline of childcare, most parents are just going to opt out and walk or be really, really angry. Because, well, they’re not having a space for their child to be cared for.

And so what I think is really interesting is that pre-pandemic, I don’t think anyone really thought much about this. Probably because school was relatively stable for everyone. Like there was this just basic agreement that school was for the most part happening Monday through Friday from around eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. And that students and teachers are in the building for that. There are a bunch of requirements around supervision that I think teachers internalize as like legal requirements. But I honestly don’t think they internalize them as, “I am providing childcare.” And so I think it was more of thinking of their role as to manage a safe classroom and a campus and create productive spaces for learning. And I realized that like all could fit into childcare, but I honestly don’t think that most teachers process it that way.

So that might be at the root of some of this disconnect, that when the pandemic along, completely disrupts the basic elements of school. And so suddenly everyone is thinking about this differently. And in the absence of that reliable childcare, families suddenly are getting really clear about that as a basic need because it’s missing.

Horn: Mm-hmm.

Tavenner: And they have to actually supervise their children instead of the school. And so this was something that was probably, I’m guessing, taken for granted before. I’d be so interested to know if like those basic features often end up becoming taken for granted.

Horn: Mm-hmm.

Tavenner: But now parents, because of the pandemic, are really clear that this is a basic job that they need a school to do.

But I still think, Michael, that many educators went in a different direction. And maybe this is where we’re starting to see a further divide. Because suddenly educators experienced a work life that didn’t require them to be in a school building every day, with childcare responsibilities all day long. And I think that many of them, honestly, really liked it. And if they didn’t see themselves as childcare providers pre pandemic, but rather educators. I think they started to think, “Hey, wait. My job is to teach, not babysit. And I’m starting to see other ways to do that. And they are more flexible and less stressful. And hey, I kind of like this.” And they start to question if their job should be to provide that basic function. Which since it wasn’t super explicit before and more taken for granted, maybe doesn’t feel totally real.

I also think that the societal context is having a big impact here, Michael. We’ve got a huge percentage of people who are rethinking their jobs and/or careers and quite frankly, quitting them. And we are starting to see that one of the top criteria that people want is work flexibility. And so let’s be honest, working in a school is not a flexible job. It just isn’t. School, as it is currently designed, it just doesn’t work if teachers and educators aren’t there every day from the beginning to end. And so I think we’ve got some really significant tension that is brewing here.

And now this isn’t going to be true across the board, if you’ve been an educator for 15 or more years, that’s an arbitrary number, but say somewhere in there. A year or so of virtually being flexible, probably isn’t going to fundamentally change how you think about your role. You’ll probably be able to return to a routine that was working for you. But if you’re a newer teacher and half of your teaching experience has been virtual, or in some cases like all of it was. Well, that’s going to be a pretty profound shift. And since that is the future of the teaching workforce, I think we’ve got some significant misalignment between what families are expecting and what teachers are expecting. And right now I’m not seeing them come together on what you’re helping us to understand is a basic element of… 

Horn: Yeah, I think it’s all right, Diane. And something you just pointed out that I hadn’t thought about before is the Kano Model’s really dynamic. So at one point is a performance defining feature, over time becomes taken for granted and becomes basic. What I hadn’t thought about until you just said this is, because all of a sudden the basic was taken away, maybe for some families that even became a performance defining feature. Like how much childcare? I never even thought about that.

But the other part of the Kano Model that’s really interesting is that it’s all relative to an individual circumstance and their job to be done. So for some parents, I think, it turns out that like childcare probably isn’t one of those basic features. They never thought about it to your point before, but their circumstance is different. They don’t need the custodial care. And perhaps health and safety is like their baseline thing. So custodial care might not be one of the features they care about at all, or it might be the cherry on top. I just don’t know.

But I think this points to the fundamental problem here, and to answer the question we started with up top around, what’s causing a lot of that frustration, frankly, lack of grace. Is that we continue to treat these challenges as needing a one size fits all solution. And there just isn’t one. The media and certain policy makers love to talk about how in-person schooling is the only way to do school. Well, frankly, it’s just not. And it’s not best for some kids and families and certain circumstances and when done well.

Now for most families, I think they need childcare. It’s table stakes. And for those families who opted into a traditional brick and mortar school, and now want them to stay closed because they don’t need the childcare. I think frankly, it’s kind of nuts to expect most individual schools … like, I shouldn’t generalize. I’ll say most and maybe you all are the exception and able to balance this. But I do suspect a lot of your families need the in-person care. I think it’s nuts to expect most individual schools to be simultaneously doing both in-person and a remote option. I think that’s really a lot to expect.

And so, I think what we need to do is create room in the “system,” if you will, for different options and for folks to specialize. I recently interviewed Pat Brantley, who leads the Friendship Public Schools in Washington DC. And she was telling me about the portfolio of schools they operate and how they’re leaning into opening more micro schools now and things of that nature. But what really struck me was that they had a great virtual school before the pandemic. And because they were set up for virtual, it’s been done really well. And the enrollment in it has skyrocketed. But it’s also held steady, it’s not declining even as the other schools they operate are both fully in person. And also doing well and fully enrolled in. And so, I thought that dynamic is just showcasing, there’s a lot of people with a lot of different preferences right now.

Tavenner: Well, Michael, there is a very good reason that most of our conversations end up back in the very same place, which is personalization. I mean, the reality is that a gigantic one size fits all school design simply does not work anymore. And you’ve just pointed out all of the good reasons why. We are living in a time when people have the ability to customize almost every aspect of their life. In most cases, to a level of preference and granularity that can frankly be overwhelming. Like we have too many choices, sometimes, on that front.

But when it comes to the care and development of their child, they simply have to take whatever is offered as it’s offered from a particular place. It’s kind of this package and you don’t want to have the ability to customize it. And to date, the only real choice has been a different school.

Horn: Mm-hmm.

Tavenner: But there are so many elements and nuances of the school experience that like just picking another school doesn’t mean you’re going to get the package that actually fits your family. And so this model just is not working in the modern world when people have so many things that they’re comparing and contrasting to, and the experience feels so strange to them.

And what it says to me is that school choice alone is not nearly sufficient to address the need to personalize. I know a lot of people who are excited about school choice are all excited right now, and they think this is what the pandemic’s going to bring. I just don’t think that it’s sufficient. And I don’t think either of us have, for a long time. It’s great and not sufficient. And so while a growing number of parents may be exercising this choice, given their levels of frustration right now, it still isn’t really addressing the core issue and the need. And so what we need to be thinking about is, how are we personalizing the day to day educational experience with much more nuanced choice and opportunity?

And what I think is exciting is this requires new designs and models, that I believe could also provide some of the desired flexibility on the part of educators. And so, that’s where these two groups can come and meet together. I truly see incredible opportunity here. But it’s going to take some courage because people don’t like change. Especially when it comes in schools and kids. 

And so it’s going to take courage, it’s going to take collaboration to meet the variety of people’s needs. And my hope is that this frustration actually gets turned into something positive, that people bring grace to it. Enough so that they can collaborate. And that they’re willing to take a bit of a leap to create what might be possible if they do.

Horn: Well, if that ends with educators and parents innovating together, that’s a thought I’m very happy to leave it on, Diane. But before we go, I’m curious, what are you reading, watching, or listening to right now?

Tavenner: Well, continuing with my theme of pre-reading for our trip to Germany, you can see my fingers crossed right now. And the fact that I love fiction, I have picked up the book, The Book Thief by Marcus … I don’t even know how you say that, Zusak? And Michael, this book is old. I had planned to read it with my book club back in 2006. But there’s an opening scene that at that moment, as a young mom, I was just like not equipped to read the book at that time. So I set it aside and I’ve just returned to it. It’s this highly acclaimed young adult novel, I love the young adult sort of genre. It traces the experience of a young German girl during World War II. And I must say, Michael, it is a really beautiful expression of everything I love about that YA genre. It’s just a beautiful book and I’m really appreciating it a lot. How about you?

Horn: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I’ll go the TV route, just coming off NFL playoffs, I guess this will be a little bit dated by the time it comes out. But we’re recording this just after four nail-biter games, each one better than the last. And it’s gripping, it was fun. And I confess, I was stealing a way to watch parts of it on my phone and not on the TV so that I could have a couple minutes by myself. But try to get away from book editing over the weekend. But it was a heck of a lot of fun and a great distraction. And I think judging from social media, a lot of people enjoyed that distraction, which maybe is what we all needed right now.

And with that, I will leave you all with that thought of distraction and being able to come back to a place of grace, hopefully as we do so. But thank you all 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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