Podcast: Expert Stacey Childress Talks the Science of Learning, Importance of Teaching Character & the Education System’s 9 Key Roles

McKinsey’s senior ed advisor joins Class Disrupted to discuss the challenges schools face relating to core education and their role in communities.

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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.

Michael and Diane welcome back Stacey Childress, Senior Education Advisor at McKinsey & Co., for the first of a two-part series on the challenges facing K-12 education and strategies to address them. In this episode, they outline the nine roles/players of the public K–12 education system in the U.S. and the problems each is facing in 2024. They highlight the disconnect between current teaching models and the latest learning sciences, unravel the operational challenges schools face, stress the importance of intentionally teaching character and values, and more.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Well, hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. How are you?

Diane Tavenner: I’m well. It feels like it’s been a minute since we’ve been together here, but I am excited about how we’re coming back together. We are so pleased to be welcoming back Stacey Childress to the podcast. What fun! Great to be here. We are getting the band back together again. For those of you who’ve been following along this season, the three of us spent two pretty extended episodes talking through the elements of higher education, the problems there, and potential solutions. We did that in response to a podcast by Mark Andreessen and Ben Horowitz.

We were all pleasantly surprised at how much great feedback we got from our listeners. They loved those episodes, enjoyed them, and wanted us to do a parallel experience for K-12. We couldn’t say no to that. So here we are again, and I’m looking forward to this conversation. The last one was quite rollicking, and I suspect this one might be fun as well.

Michael Horn: I’m glad, Stacey, that you chose to, against your better judgment, I’m sure, rejoin us for this conversation.

Stacey Childress: Listen, I’m thrilled to be here. I had such a great time with you guys last time. I heard some feedback from people I know and some people I didn’t know. Through LinkedIn, people sent me messages. That’s been happening in the last week, which is interesting. I’d love to do it again. I also just left that conversation feeling certainly challenged but also energized from the quality and dynamism of the discussion. So I look forward to doing it again.

Michael Horn: Well, we are glad you are back. Go ahead, Diane. 

Introducing the Two-Part Series and the Nine Roles of Education 

Diane Tavenner: Michael, I should just say, I guess I’m assuming that everyone knows Stacey, but let me do a quick introduction for those of you who may have missed those episodes and don’t know Stacey. Stacey is a good friend of ours and a good friend to education. She has a long, amazing history of being a teacher, a very popular professor at Harvard, and working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and AirDef. I could go on and on about her credentials, but most importantly, she deeply cares about what happens for our young people in America and has always been at the center of what we can do to serve them better. We are super grateful for her rejoining us.

Michael Horn: Yes, indeed. With that, let’s frame the episode today and get into the meat of it. For those who remember the higher ed episodes, we did two responding to the Mark and Ben podcast about the challenges facing higher ed. We reacted to those challenges they identified in the first episode and their solutions in the second episode. For this one, because we are doing it from scratch ourselves, Diane has been willing and generous enough with her time to come up with the core functions of the K-12 system, and I’ll put it in air quotes. Right, it’s sort of tasked with providing in this country. Diane will go through her list of, I think, nine areas at the moment. Stacey and I might supplement a little, but then we’re going to dive into each one. Diane, you’ll tell us why you put that on the list and the problems or shortcomings right now. We will withhold solutions and thoughts about how we can make it better until the next episode. With that as prelude, Diane, dive in. Tell us, what are your nine areas? Just give us the overview, and then we’ll go from there.

Diane Tavenner: Great. Thanks to both of you for your comments, feedback, and help in organizing, because, as you know, the original list was very long, and we’ve done some grouping. There are nine. The first six are broadly related to the student experience and their actual education and learning. The next two are more about the function and role of schools in the community and the local environment. The final one is more about the role that K-12 schools play in America. I think it’s fair to say that we’re focused on public schools in this conversation. Obviously, there will be some overlap with private schools, but we’re here talking about public schools.

Just quickly, those first six include what we’re calling the core education, the role of teaching character or values to young people, the role of the school in terms of custodial care (Michael, we’ve talked about this several times on the podcast), and the security of those young people you’re charged with caring for. Number four, we’re labeling it a social services agency—school as a social services agency. Five is policymaker. I think this one’s interesting to dig into in terms of the policies that schools and school systems make. Six is what we would call evaluator or recommender. We could start with six. There’s a big argument about what comes first, chicken or egg.

Nonetheless, those are our first six. In terms of the local community role, the first is that schools and school districts are, in many ways, local government agencies. That’s a very important role they’re playing. They are also a community hub. Those are seven and eight for us. Finally, we’re calling it social reformer in this national role. But I’ll be curious as we get into it. I think we might come up with a different name as we talk about it.

So those are the nine that we’ve landed on for today.

Michael Horn: It’s a good list of nine. I’m not sure I would add much to it. Stacey, how do you think about that list before we dive into each one?

Stacey Childress: Yeah, I think it’s a good list. I can’t think of things that aren’t contained in those categories. I’m excited to dive in.

Michael Horn: Let’s do it. Diane, why don’t you take us through that first one, which is core education? Talk to us about what’s in this grouping, what’s maybe not in this grouping if that’s relevant. Then let’s start to go deep into the problems before Stacey and I react.

Core Education

Diane Tavenner: Great. I think when people think of schools in the most traditional sense, they think of the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. This starts there and then grows a little bit. Obviously, over time, it has grown, but it is what most people think of as the most core function of a public school: to teach kids academic skills and knowledge, including reading, writing, and arithmetic. Of course, we’ve expanded to history, science, second languages, and I couldn’t even begin to list all of the elective and interest courses that have come into schools. But there’s still that core set of knowledge that is generally tested, assessed, and common across schools.

Then there’s also how that is done. Schools are places where lots of people come to learn together. This is not individual tutoring. So, how are you part of a community, a group, a classroom? What do those skills look like? A big part of schools has become extracurricular activities and interests—all of the activity that happens in schools for young people. Regarding core education, which is a little more about how we do it, we have a very significant and robust special education component to our system. This is driven by federal legislation providing supports, resources, and accommodations for young people who qualify for having a learning disability and therefore an individual learning plan. That is a significant part of what happens in the core program now, in terms of resources, people, focus, etc. So that’s what’s in this bucket.

I started listing problems, and when I was at the micro level, I was getting into hundreds of them. So, I rolled it up to one big problem from my perspective. Thank you both for laughing at me. I would argue that the core education model in America, in the vast majority of schools, is just not aligned with the current science of learning. I would say on two fronts: what we teach and what we prefer to teach, and very much how we teach it and how we expect people to learn. As I went through my laundry list of all the things that were wrong, every time I thought about what was wrong, it was because we’re not following the science. You can take this all the way down to the youngest kids. As the country is waking up to, we have not been using the science of how kids learn to read. We haven’t been doing that in most of our schools. It’s everything from that all the way up to something we are all very passionate about: how you actually personalize learning as young people get older, enable them to self-direct their learning, drive their learning, build those skills around it, and everything in between. I’ll stop there, but that’s my macro problem.

Michael Horn: Stacey?

Stacey Childress: Yeah, I definitely agree, Diane, with that as a way of thinking about an umbrella category for lots of things that we might list in more detail. Alongside that, maybe not always the choices that folks are making in the system and in schools within the system about the academic program and the social aspect of schooling and all the other things you mentioned. There’s not always agreement at the community level or, if you think not quite that broadly, at the family level. What’s our overarching idea as a community or bundle of ideas that school is for? How do we ensure that what we’re doing every day for twelve years for young people, from kiddos all the way through late teens, is driving towards some common vision of what it means to leave our system ready to do whatever’s next?

Sometimes there’s either ambiguity around that or, where there’s more specificity, tensions and disagreements about the end goal. This can filter back through, especially at the high school level, but it can go all the way back through what frame within which we are making choices as a community and a group of professional educators about academic programs, how we’re approaching the social learning aspect of school, how much emphasis and what’s the mix of interest in extracurricular activities, and how these tie back with a longer-term view of purposes, skills, and mindsets that kids might leave their experience with. I think that ambiguity or lack of coalescence around purposes makes it hard to balance all those things, Diane, on your list, all of which are absolutely functions of school within its core education mission.

Michael Horn: Yeah, it’s interesting to hear you say that, Stacey, because my head went one way when Diane was giving the list. I was noting that as you look through the extracurricular or non-core classes in American schooling over the 1900s, it was just an ever-expanding list of classes. The proverbial grocery store analogies were so prominent in “A Nation at Risk,” of course, in 1983. At some point, it became, well, actually the definition of school is how much you are learning, which shifts much more to how we teach and learn, as Diane referenced. I would argue that schools continue to expand in scope along the other eight dimensions you listed, Diane, which we’ll get into later on.

Another point within core education is that special education has continued to expand in terms of resources and identifying students who need special education. Diane, you spoke passionately and persuasively last season about how our incentives in special education are not around innovation, efficiency, and delivering, but around more resources and a lot of box-checking.

I reflect on that expansion theme. Stacey, when you jumped in, I loved where you went with the purpose conversation. What’s the purpose of this education? As you both know from my most recent book, my big argument is that communities need to have that conversation almost tabula rasa. What are we trying to go for here? They don’t. Instead, they just accept the four math, four social studies, three or four science, whatever it is, and just accept these structures that have been handed down without getting behind the intent.

So many of the food fights, even within the camps trying to find their way through what the science teaches us about how and what we learn, are because we are guilty of not having an “and” conversation. We’re too often having an “or” conversation, talking past each other in some of these rooms, and missing the changes we could make if we started with Stacey’s conversation around what we are driving toward and why. Those are my three reflections from this list. At the end of the day, it means we’re teaching a bunch of things that don’t have a lot of coherence. We haven’t given a lot of thought to why we’ve privileged this branch of math over another one, and we’re not following all the lessons from the science of learning. We’re not incorporating them or at least trying them out with different populations to learn what works and why.

Diane Tavenner: Yep. We’re off to a rough start, friends, because that’s the thing we’re supposed to be good at. Oh, all right.

Michael Horn: Well, then tell us your second one. Maybe we’ll surprise you.

Teaching Values and Character

Diane Tavenner: Okay, here we go. This one we’ve labeled as the teaching of values and character. I almost hesitate to say those words, but I do think some of this conversation is designed to provoke a little bit. Those are provocative words in our country, as we know. It’s confusing to me why because young people are in schools for a good amount of time, as you said, for twelve or thirteen years and for significant parts of their days. It seems logical to me that a school should help them figure out basic norms of being a person and being in a community beyond just the learning side. How are you preparing to be an adult and a participating member of our democracy? When public education was conceptualized, these were huge aims of what we were trying to do.

We could go back in history and talk about some of the ill intentions, such as forcing certain groups of people to adapt to other norms. But at a macro level, just the idea of being a citizen of our community, our country, and our nation, and how you actually do that and become an adult, it seems logical that the school would play a role in partnering with families to help that come about. There are very significant challenges here. I’ve expanded to two this time, but they’re still broad. The first one, for people who’ve been listening, will not be a surprise: I think it’s the college-for-all push. In recent history, we’ve gotten away from preparing people for careers, employment, and life outside of school. We’re so focused on preparing them for the next educational institution that we’ve lost focus on that front.

Michael Horn: We’re all going to generalize.

Diane Tavenner: Systematically, right? So, I think that’s problem number one. The second one is the obvious one in our current society: whose values and whose role is it to teach these things? These are not small, little bickerings; these are big societal questions, and schools are caught in the middle of them. School systems, using the fight, flight, or freeze analogy, do one of the three. Some are duking it out, some are running away as far as possible, only teaching the three R’s, and some are frozen, not knowing what to do. There you have it, category two.

Michael Horn: Stacey, you get to go first again.

Diane Tavenner: Great.

Stacey Childress: I love that fight, flight, or freeze analogy in this context. You’re right, Diane. Going back to something we talked about in the higher ed episodes, the original podcast we responded to called this “moral instruction.” We weren’t crazy about that phrase. The podcasters had a particular point of view about it that we didn’t entirely share. I’ll go back to part of our discussion there. I grew up in a very religious and politically conservative part of the country and moved back here. I went to high school about 13 miles from where I’m sitting today. These issues are still fraught with challenge.

Part of what I think about this is, I get why it’s hard. It’s hard because it’s very important, and it’s hard because of the multiplicity of points of view about which values and whose values. Schools are in the context of our larger political and cultural moment, which is very hard. We know it because we’re trying to work through it and bridge it in our own lives with people in our families, friends, and colleagues. Of course, it’s hard in schools. The flight or freeze option is not happening because, as I said about college, values are being transmitted, messaged, inculcated, shared, and massaged even if it’s not intentional. As you said, Diane, kiddos are in school from a few minutes after they wake up until right before, right as, or right after their parents get home from work. It’s impossible for your eight most active waking hours of the day to be values-neutral or values-free.

If you are fleeing or freezing, what you’re opting into is almost anything goes until somebody is mad about it. Individual educators and administrators are making almost individual choices about which values they’re bringing to bear and which norms they’ll prioritize or not in their classrooms or cohorts of students. That’s a recipe for more tension and more upset because there’s not an overarching perspective. There’s not an overarching, even loose agreement about why we might be committed to ensuring that a set of values and some character attributes are prioritized in our experience. This while allowing for plenty of different perspectives and points of view across families, religious traditions, countries of origin, and other factors. Fighting over hot-button cultural issues or freezing or fleeing because it’s hard and you don’t want to upset anybody is missing the boat both at the micro and macro education levels. 

Acting as if it’s not the role of schools and educators to provide some underpinning of values, character, and moral reasoning is misguided. You need to filter it through age appropriateness, but we need to be more intentional about it, not less. Lean into it with intentionality and good intentions rather than trying not to offend anybody, which usually offends more people than being intentional about what you’re doing.

Michael Horn: It’s interesting to hear you say that, Stacey, because you mentioned age appropriateness. The last time we were recording, you said moral instruction was one of Ben’s lists. The thought I had at that time, which has been borne out based on recent events, is that college is too late to build in a lot of these things we want to see students do—having civil conversations across disagreements and recognizing disagreement as a strength rather than a threat. Obviously, there’s age appropriateness regarding not introducing content that is inappropriate for, say, a six- or seven-year-old. But I think building these character skills, these habits, what I think of as fundamental democratic values, is incredibly important. And to your word, intentionality—very intentionally. This was the purpose of the public school system. This is why we got public dollars.

Stacey Childress: That’s right.

Michael Horn: To do this enterprise above anything else—preparing for careers or anything. With all the caveats that Diane alluded to, where it was misapplied and certain groups were discriminated against, the purpose was to knit us into something larger. The debate now is often, should we or shouldn’t we, not acknowledging that we are. And then it’s this weird pose, like the right being, “Character matters,” and the left, for a period of time, was like, “I don’t know about that.” Now, it’s the opposite: actually, it’s important, and here are the values we think. 

And the right saying, “Wait a second.” It’s a weird conversation against a backdrop where I’m going to get the number wrong, but 80% of the population largely has a common set of answers for what these values are. That’s what is so frustrating. It goes to your first point when we were talking about the core program. If individual school communities came together and said, “What’s our purpose? Where’s the agreement that we can all get behind?” My wife and I were having a conversation recently, and she said, “Isn’t that great?” Or I can’t remember it exactly. I said, “I don’t know if they should be doing this.” She said, “Good point. We ask educators to do a ton of stuff for society that probably overstretches them.”

I don’t know if it was in reference to the bad therapy book by Abigail Schreier or what. The point, which I learned deeply from you, Diane, is that a lot of these things can be done in the context of academics rather than a special carve-out lesson that’s going to offend some group. My fifth-grade graduation speech comes to mind. I remember talking about learning the value of fair play, respecting your classmates, in just the lessons themselves. David had three apples, and I took two. That sort of stuff communicates a lot of this. We pull these things apart in strange ways that provoke fights. As I’ve learned from Diane, you actually learn it better when it’s all knit together rather than atomized. One other quick point, Diane, before you react: you also mentioned the notion of college for all distorting a lot of this, which I completely agree with. It looks like Stacey’s going to jump in after this. What’s interesting is that I think preparing people for careers, life, etc., outside of school is spot on. That’s also a controversial statement.

Many would say it can’t be about those material interests or shouldn’t be about whatever else it should be about. I’m not sure what they think college’s purpose is. They would say it’s about something larger, and college represents it. In the backdrop we are in right now, that seems absolutely crazy to me. 

Stacey Childress: Yeah. Diane, Michael, I’m glad you flagged that because, Diane, I was glad you named this value in the system that many of us had been working on for a couple of decades—the college for all value and the expectations we were trying to build in for students to see themselves as capable and worthy of being on a path to college. The Ed reformers from 1995 to 2015 had college for all as a driving purpose. I always try to be cautious about this and say it wasn’t in a vacuum.

It was in the context of very real national data that showed up in medium and small ways at the state, local district, and school levels, where you had significant gaps in outcomes. If you traced them back, you could see why those outcomes were so different because we developed a great way of sorting kids pretty early, before they were preteens.

Michael Horn: Yeah. Deeply disturbing ways, right?

Stacey Childress: Deeply disturbing ways. You’re either on the path to college, which only a small percentage of you are headed towards, and the rest of you, well, we’ll do other things for you. Much of policy in general and different sorts of social issues and reform efforts end up being these pendulum swings. To counteract that undesirable state we were in 30 years ago, we ended up narrowing our focus. We’ve got to get everybody to college or at least ensure everybody could go to college. It’s hard to do all the things on our top six things that we’re going to talk through. We’re only on the second one. It’s hard to do all of them, so we focused on a few things. Let’s do reading and math to ensure our kids are ready to take important tests that will make or break this college-for-all path.

When it comes to character or whatever other words we use, it’s in service of good grades and doing well on tests—the persistence, grit needed to get to and persist in college. I don’t mean to suggest those things are bad, but because we narrowly focused and hyper-engineered an accountability system around it, we ended up in a place where a broader notion of what it means to be a successful human, a young adult who has what they need to choose a path and navigate it effectively, got chipped away. So the three of us and a lot of other great folks we’ve been on this journey with have been pushing in a different direction or an adapted direction. It does have values embedded in it. That’s why I was glad you put it here. Those values affect young people, families, and educators. I talked too much on the last podcast, so I won’t do it again.

Custodial Care

Diane Tavenner: No, it’s a robust conversation, and I think we are too ambitious when we begin, but I will encourage us to pick up the pace here on these next ones. Those are two big ones, and probably the rest are as well, but maybe we might not be as passionate about them. Let me go to number three. I’ll start with the problem here. No passion here, conflict with the first two elements in many ways. This third one is the role that the school system plays in providing custodial care. If we’re going to be provocative like Ben and Mark, we’d say babysitting. With that comes the obligations around protecting the security and safety of young people. 

That’s two levels at least now: their physical safety and emotional, actually three, as well as their data and privacy. This is as big in the virtual world as it is in the physical world in many ways. The biggest problem here is that people who work in schools, for the most part, don’t want to do this job. They don’t conceptualize it as their job. They don’t like it, and they don’t do it terribly well, probably because they don’t like it and don’t want to do it. Most school people think of themselves as academic teachers, learners, not babysitters or security guards.

I think that’s one of the biggest problems. The conflict is that families want and expect this. It’s also not done well because the people doing it don’t want to do it. I’ll stop there.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. You want me to go? You want to stay in our order?

Diane Tavenner: Michael?

Stacey Childress: I would say a couple of things about this. I don’t have children in our public schools. I see all these videos now. I’m not on social media often, but when I am, I see these videos. If I went by that, I would assume not just our high schools but especially our high schools are in chaos with physical safety concerns. Thinking about the physical safety of kids from each other, and sometimes from teachers, and teachers from students. I don’t know how widespread that actually is. I have educators in my family. They teach younger ones, and I do not hear these stories about their schools.

But I see these videos, so there is a sense in the popular consciousness that at least our high schools are out of control. Part of the contributing factor, maybe the biggest driver, is discipline policies. I know we’ll talk about policy later, but the approach schools have been taking to ensure good community order in the building has changed over the last decade to think more about restorative practices and ways of building community through tough moments rather than just a punishment philosophy. There’s this tension playing out and who knows where it’s headed. It’s not only physical safety from outside in, but physical safety from kids, kids from each other. What it makes me think about is school shootings. You know that some young people in my family were high school students in a school shooting in our hometown back in 2018. There’s so much to talk about there, which we’re not going to, but the idea that kids are a danger to each other.

In my niece’s situation, the shooter was a student, an 11th grader that people had known since third or fourth grade. It wasn’t an outside threat. That shifted the culture of the community and the school, with kids as dangers to each other. The stakes and incentives that creates around safety result in an enormous amount of community time, attention, emotion, and real dollars. The dollars have to come from somewhere, so they come from something else, probably those things we were already talking about, academics, values, etc. The interplay between physical safety and what we have to do to signal to the community that we’re providing safety and what it turns our view of young people into, and therefore, how that affects the culture of the school, is a uniquely American problem right now, and a real one, certainly for the concrete reason of physical safety but also this cultural notion of how we think about our schools and young people. We used to have fire drills when we were kids, and now active shooter drills start as early as they can.

So there’s a real issue here. I’ve already spent too much time on it, but it’s a real challenge that our professional educators are facing day in and day out in their communities.

Michael Horn: I’ll try to be brief, but just pulling from that, I’m having a déjà vu moment because it occurs to me the three of us were at an elevator in a hotel about a year ago having this very conversation, and it spurred Diane and me to have a podcast on the issue you just talked about, Stacey.

Stacey Childress: Yes, folks should go back and listen to that. It was very good.

Michael Horn: So, with that acknowledgment, the couple of things I would say are, one, the tension in this one seems ironic at this moment in our society’s history, between the childcare piece, not having adequate hours or time and availability for the working families of today, and on the other end, chronic absenteeism being the highest it’s ever been that I can remember. Those are two things in direct tension with each other. It connects to a couple of things here, which is, it connects to the safety and discipline piece of this. It connects to the formation of character in the second one. It connects to the relevance of the curriculum in the first one, and whether people have passion for this and see a place for it in their lives. That all connects to mental health, which then connects to the shootings.

So these three actually connect in interesting ways. The last piece is this is yet another place where we fight a lot on the edges with each other. One of the fights is the restorative justice, don’t discipline versus the zero tolerance policy. A lot of people pushing for restorative justice get lumped in with the restorative view, but that’s not quite what they’re saying. Like Dr. Becky or someone like that, they believe in consequences for actions and hard lines and limits. They just don’t believe in arbitrary ones that have nothing to do with what you just did. Again, there’s this third way through these poles that we keep missing. Maybe I’ll just leave it there.

Diane Tavenner: Yeah. It’s hard not to go to solutions, and it’s hard to do all of these in short periods.

Michael Horn: Sorry, I jumped.

Diane Tavenner: Right.

Michael Horn: Let’s get to the next one. Because it connects also to these.

Social Services Provider

Diane Tavenner: It does. It’s deeply connected because, quite frankly, a big element of schools’ purpose, or at least what they’re spending their time and resources on, is essentially as a social services agency. When we go through the responsibilities of most schools and districts, transportation—many school districts run full transportation fleets. Meals—they are serving not just lunch anymore, but breakfast and oftentimes snacks. They’re providing full feeding of large numbers of people and some basic health elements.

So, they’re testing your eyesight, for lice, and dealing with all of the COVID-related issues. Schools literally turned into clinics. I’m not even going to talk about how I felt when California started encouraging every high school to have the ability to administer Narcan if there’s a drug overdose. What more, please? Schools have always played this role, but it’s more complex now. They have to connect families and children to other agencies that support them, especially during crises. Let’s not forget the role of schools as mandated reporters. It is incumbent upon schools and everyone in them to report if they suspect child abuse or neglect. Some schools now employ social workers, counselors, and school resource officers. So, they’re running huge systems that go well beyond just the classroom.

The most obvious challenge here is that these are operationally intensive endeavors. They require a whole set of skills and knowledge that are not necessarily aligned with everything we just talked about. Most people in schools don’t want to do these extra jobs. They feel extra, on the side, added on. When you treat jobs that way, without operational efficiency and excellence, they don’t get done well, which ends up being this whole spiral.

So, those are the big problems.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. I have nothing to add on this one. I agree completely with your explanation and identification of problems.

Michael Horn: Yeah, I’m in the same boat. I think this is maybe the best evidence of the expanding nature of what we have thrown on schools. Every social ill, it seems, we ask schools to solve. This is where we have thrown another one. I’m not sure they can completely get out of thinking about these things if they’re trying to accomplish the first three, which we can get into maybe in the second episode.

So, Diane, why don’t you march on?


Diane Tavenner: Great. A lot of tension there. Number five shifts us to what we’re calling policymaker. I think later, I’m going to offer a local government agency. Some people might say, what’s the difference between the two? Aren’t those the same? Let me make the case for why I have separated them here. When people talk about government, they spend a lot of time thinking about the federal government, less time thinking about their state government, and even less time thinking about county government. We’re talking about people in school buildings and on school boards who are literally making policy decisions regularly that have the biggest impact on the lives of children and families. Everything from grading policies, discipline and behavior policies, and health and safety policies. All of those decisions during COVID were made at local school and school district levels, generally with guidance from the federal and state governments.

One of the challenges we had was that they didn’t actually tell us what to do. They gave us guidance, and then we had to decide what to do, which basically meant they told us what to do but gave us no cover for doing it. Local people have a lot of power to create policies that impact families. For example, when schools and districts decide to have professional development during the workday, parents have to pick their kids up at noon or whatever schedule. To your point about not being family-friendly in terms of care and things like that.

The problem here is that under any circumstance, good policy is hard to write. I would challenge anyone who has never written a policy to try to do it and see how hard it is. We have about 130,000 schools and almost 14,000 districts. We do not have people who are well-resourced experts capable of writing the best policies under hard circumstances. Instead, you get whatever people think sounds good, and the implications are extreme.

Stacey Childress: Yeah, totally agree with that. The policymaker, the local school district, plus any school-based policies are the biggest policy influence on the day-to-day life of families. It dictates what time people get up in the morning because whatever time school starts, you have to count backwards from that. Wake-up time is dictated by the school schedule and then on from there. We just make it very concrete and embedded in our lives. One of the things that was so hard about COVID, or a thing about COVID that was difficult for families, was just how central school policy was in their family clock and calendar. 

Diane Tavenner: Right.

Stacey Childress: When you go with what you said, Diane, I totally agree with just how hard it is to make good policy at any level. It’s hard, and we ask folks to—well, it’s their job, it’s their responsibility as board members and educators—to make policies that touch every family with a school-age child in their community without a lot of support and knowledge building. It’s very complex, and we have it here. It could be elevated depending on how you want to structure a list.

It does flow through almost everything: grading, course schedule, graduation requirements, all the things.

Michael Horn: Yeah. I don’t know that I have much to add. It spills into transportation or transportation spills into it, and all these things just show how interdependent these are. What I’ll observe is that pulling them out and naming them, Diane, in this way is useful because we see all of the complexity and all of the possible areas for breakdown. As you said, people aren’t trained to do a lot of these roles, and yet they are core functions that they have been asked to play or defaulted into playing in many cases. With that, let’s go into your sixth, which I think is sort of an exclamation point for a bunch of these.


Diane Tavenner: Well, and it sort of rounds out the student experience grouping. I could have led with this one because then everything sort of falls from it. The role of the school district in K-12 is to evaluate young people—their skills, their knowledge, their character, etc.—and to recommend them for what comes next in their life. This is a profound role that the school and the people in it are playing in terms of the outcomes and lives of young people and their families. This is true in terms of determining the grades of kids, which we know makes a big difference. They confer the credential on them. They make recommendations to colleges and employers. The quality of their school signals to those other folks the type of education that the young person has received and the experience they’ve had.

Okay, there’s a problem with every one of those things. They assign grades, but this is discounted now because of grade inflation. They assign the high school credential, but that isn’t valued in our society anymore, so it’s pretty meaningless. They write recommendations for colleges, but those are undervalued, partly because it’s the same people having to write them over and over again with no time to do it and not a lot of resources. They all start to sound the same. In fact, a lot of people kind of copy and paste, and colleges know that. So those are undervalued. There’s this huge, giant role that they’re playing, but no one values them playing it. What I would argue is the most important—and this is sad to me—role that K-12 is playing, and this is primarily high schools, is the reputation they have. Colleges and universities have these perceptions about high schools, mostly aligned to the socioeconomic status of the student population, of how good those schools are. They factor that into their admissions decisions. There’s this giant, important role that all this time and energy goes to that I would argue is not actually being valued or used in meaningful ways. Big problem.

Michael Horn: Stacey, would you like to jump in?

Stacey Childress: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think when we go to solutions in the next episode, we can get a little more detailed about how some of these components of this function play out and how we could do it differently. It’s interesting, Diane, this last one that you mentioned about school reputation being the signaler, especially to those applying to selective colleges. Then you tie that to the higher ed conversation we had on the last episodes. It’s a very small percentage of kids go to a selective college. Even in the college for all concept, it is a very small percentage of institutions, higher ed institutions that fall in that bucket. So then what about for everybody else? What’s happening here with this evaluator recommender function? It’s a weak signal.

Back to some of the other things we talked about, not very intentionally conceived and organized around outside of compliance. Transcripts have to get created and all that kind of stuff. Like, what’s. So what are the use cases for a credential and to what end? And how does that backward map to things we might do in the core education component and then the social component?

Michael Horn: So, yeah, that’s interesting. The compliance observation. When I was looking at this, I was struck by two things. One, Diane, question: Would you put the counseling function, the guidance counseling function here, would you put it in courses? Would you put it in social service agency, all three, because that’s something we know schools are tasked with doing. But do it. I mean, we know the ratios are like 400 something to one students, to guidance counselors. But it seems to fall into a bunch of these.

And so this is the one where I thought to mention it, because you have this signaler or helping shape, right, where students will go after in this one. And then I guess the other one that occurred to me was this last bullet that you had as well. I heard Raj Chetty speak recently, and I hadn’t focused on this before, but he put the slide up of schools that disproportionately get their students into selective colleges. And I had just assumed. I live in Lexington, Massachusetts. I had just assumed Lexington high School, closer to where you live, Diane, Palo Alto High School. I just assumed that they would be on par, frankly, with the top private schools, and they’re not.

And I was struck by that statistic. It’s like, basically a title one Lexington high school sort of count for about the same andover. Whoa. Okay. Now, that counts for a lot. And so I thought that was just interesting against this backdrop then that you mention it. And it seems to me, obviously incredibly problematic because it’s completely decoupled, as we know, with the actual work that students are, in fact, doing. And the rate of, as Ryan Craig would call it, the distance traveled.

Right. We would call it growth, but of individual students and what that might signal about where or where not would be a good fit for them.

Diane Tavenner: On the positive front, I think this category is ripe for solutions, and there’s a big opportunity there. So I’m excited to talk about it when we get into the next episode. 

Local Government Agency 

Diane Tavenner: So that sort of rounds out the experience of the young people. Now I want to shift to two that are more about the local community and the role that schools play there. And so this first one is what we’re calling local government agency. And I just want to tick through the role that schools and districts play. So, number one, they generally have elected school boards. So we’ve got a full election that’s going on. And this seated board that holds public meetings and are beholden to all of those public meeting laws and rules and regulations and all that goes on there. I will just quickly say that many superintendents say that they spend literally half their time, this is the chief executive of a school district.

They will argue that they spend half their time managing their board and those meetings. So take that. The next thing that they do at schools and school districts, most of them can levy taxes, they can issue bonds. I mean, these are government agencies taxing the people. Maybe the most important role of the government in the US or the thing we take most seriously schools can do. They also are required for collecting an extraordinary amount of data and reporting it at the local, state and federal level. This goes on and on all year long. It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.

They are, when we think of this, they are entrusted with significant dollars, state and federal dollars. I was talking to a state superintendent the other day, she, as the chief learning officer, the state superintendent of instruction controls half the state’s budget. And that is not abnormal. Most states are spending about half their budget on education. These are significant dollars that these boards and these people are entrusted to spending. Well, thoughtfully, etcetera. And then finally, they control huge amounts of the public land, you know, and it depends on the state and how that goes. But in some cases, they are even the people who perform the tasks of zoning and entitling land.

Diane Tavenner: This is the role that the city or the state is often playing for everyone else. But, you know, schools can get exemptions and do that themselves in a lot of cases and places. And so massive, massive governmental roles that schools and districts are playing. And as I thought about this one, I just, I think about my experience in schools and how people who do things like this that involve a lot of money and a lot of land, I would argue, and I’m not going to give a value judgment here, but that is more valued by our society than educating people or providing care for children. Like, when we think about who do we think is more professional, who do we pay more, who do we get? You know, it’s the people on the side of the land and the money. So if you revere that a little bit more, where will your time and attention go in a system? But to that, in my experience, there’s very little connection between the six things we just talked about.

And this part of the house, and there’s very few people who work on it in K12. And I contrast that to our conversation about higher ed, where one of the critiques was, we’re starting to see like a one for one, an administrator for every student, not so in K12 at all. So you have far fewer people with different areas of expertise kind of disconnected from the mission and the purpose doing all of these functions. That’s a big problem in my mind.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. I don’t have data in front of me, but I want to push a little bit on that last point you made, Diane. I think this is where a broad brush might smooth out a lot of variability. So what you described, with far fewer people charged with managing, governing, asset, revenue generating, and liability functions, with far more educators, where these fewer positions are paid a lot more. I think in midsize to small communities, that’s probably right. In medium to small size school systems around the country, it might break a little bit when you get to the largest school districts in the country. If you look at the 100 or 200 largest school districts in significant metro areas around the country or in those large counties in Florida and Maryland, there are a lot of administrators. You start to get ratios that are closer.

So if you look at the headcount allocation in large systems like that, classroom fair headcount FTEs as compared with non-classroom FTEs, you get closer to that one to one or sometimes even one plus to one. But your point is well taken. Depending on system size, it might look different in most places. What you said, I think, is exactly right. The other contrast I’ve made is I agree with the way you framed it. As educators, their value in terms of what we are willing to pay and the people who manage this stuff in the school district, that’s one comp. Another comp would be, some of these places, like the larger mid-size and the large ones, we’re talking billions of dollars of assets in terms of real estate, physical plant, cash debt, all of those things. You’re looking at 300 grand for somebody to be the head of one of these systems. That fits in the public sector. But start to think about the private sector. Somebody who’s got billions of dollars of assets under management that they are accountable for, then you put the extra, what should be accountability and transparency of it being my tax dollars and yours and yours and all of ours are actually kind of underpaid. Well, I will be underpaid in terms of the kind of judgment, leadership ability, ability to bring people along into some of these, public levees that we need to do and the kind of expertise at the general management level to even know what right questions to ask, of the financial people who are managing all these assets. I can see it both ways. Underpaying educators relative to administrators. Yeah, maybe underpaying some of these administrators relative to comparable jobs in the private sector, managing this level of resources and complexity. I don’t know. I could make that case, too.

Michael Horn: It’s interesting, Stacey. I was just thinking about AI as it comes in and perhaps maybe changes some of these dynamics. We want more human-facing roles, and some others can change because I had the same reaction as you did. I think of places like in New York City or Newark, where it’s like half the dollar doesn’t even reach the school. It gets stuck in central admin and what the heck is going on there? The second thing I had more as a problem because I think this is a good one to identify, Diane, is how many of these places, like the elections are off cycle. Voting is not very high, and yet you realize what a disproportionate impact.

Stacey Childress: Yes.

Michael Horn: These places play in our society and they’re kind of decoupled from the democracy. Sometimes we hear an argument, oh, I just wish you were out of politics. Well, guess what? When it’s public dollars from taxpayers, it’s part of politics. We can hate it, but it is. We’ve done a lot to sort of take it out of the politics, and I’m not sure that that’s been a good thing given to your point, the gravity and enormity of some of these decisions.

Diane Tavenner: Yeah. Just to close this one, I’ve spent a lot of time in school board meetings over my career, and I think it’s just so clear, the tension and a charge that I think is an impossible charge where you have, like this school board that is in the same meeting deciding, if an individual student is going to be expelled from a school and considering whether or not they should sell or buy a gigantic piece of land and whether or not they’re going to exempt themselves from zoning and then how to spend bazillions of dollars. There’s a problem with that. That’s what your regular school board looks like.

Stacey Childress: Absolutely. As you were kind of tying those two things, might want something. Michael was saying, what you just said, Diane. Oftentimes, school board election turnout is in the single digits. It can pop up above that in some smaller communities where there’s a lot of, but not much like it’s still a pretty low percentage of people in a given catchment area that are actually making these decisions about who is going to do all of these very critical functions indeed.

Community Hubs

Diane Tavenner: All right, number eight, staying with this community theme, schools are a hub of communities. They are a centerpiece of many, many communities. When you get to smaller communities and rural communities, they literally are the heart of the community in many cases. If we have seen this over time, when anyone tries to close a school, even in a large city, the response from the community is generally overwhelming in terms of trying to protect that school from closure. So community hub is a huge role, partly because oftentimes schools are a very significant employer, a regional employer in some cases, and a union employer. So this is a significant role they play. They also are a huge part of something that everyone cares about, which is traffic. The comings and goings and the traffic are always a big issue around schools. 

As we’ve talked about, a lot of things happen in schools and their buildings and their campuses, everything from they are the polls, polling places in most cases where democracy is where we do go to vote, they host a whole bunch of events for communities and become the place of that. So this community hub is a significant role they play. The problem I would point out here, in addition to what we’ve already talked about, which is just like mission creep and capability and all of those things, is oftentimes we talk about in schools that adult interests get put above those of students. I think you start to see it here, where a lot of this is much more about the people in the community and the adults who are working there than it is about the kids. Those interests will preempt those of young people on a variety of topics.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. Nothing to add there, Diane.

Michael Horn: Yeah. The only thing I would say is there’s a parallel to higher ed, right? Small colleges in danger of closing in many areas, many of these in rural areas. The argument you hear, we got to save them, is employment, not some deeper community value necessarily, which I think speaks to the dynamic. Not to say that employment isn’t a deep community value. It is in service of what, right? So I think that’s often a question.

Pathway to the American Dream

Diane Tavenner: All right, well, let me bring us home then with number nine. Now we’re going to zoom way out to schools and back to the beginning, Michael, of maybe the original purpose of them or some of the original purposes at the most inspirational level. Public schools are the way that Americans achieve the American dream. The idea is that every single American can go to school, a good public school, and have the opportunity to achieve whatever they want to achieve. There aren’t doors closed to them. Everything is possible. The American dream is possible because of our public education system. I think over the years, we’ve sort of layered onto that.

People have built on that and added onto that, you know, this is the place where we actually bring socioeconomic classes together in public schools. And this is where we mix as people and as a community. Stacey, you cited the reformers of the last 20-ish years, or we’re moving out of that era. We’re not sure what’s coming next, but kind of Clinton, Bush, Obama eras. Many people I know have often referred to public education as the civil rights issue of our time. So it is that significant and big that the aspiration and expectation of public education. I guess I would start, I would open the problem conversation here with the idea that I think we have a growing amount of evidence that the system that is public education today is actually producing results that are counter to those aspirations I just named. They might actually be doing harm rather than good. The system might be producing those results.

Certainly we can go into depth there, but I will just leave it there for the two of you.

Stacey Childress: Yeah. Yeah. I think this is a great one to spend a little time on next time. What we might do, what, if anything, we might do differently, going forward here. That civil rights issue of our time was very grand. It’s kind of a messianic evangelical plea, I think, with all good intentions. You’re trying to mobilize a broad coalition for improvement, change, transformation because many of us believed, lots of us believed, and I think still believe to some degree, that part of the promise of America is that if you work hard, play by the rules, get a good education, anything’s possible for you. There’s something deeply American about that notion. Even though we’ve got shifting ideas of what the American dream might be, I think the power of that as a concept is still quite salient. Even though it might be in transition to some updated definition, it’s still a very powerful mobilizer. Part of my stump speeches for years was a quote by Barbara Jordan, who said, “All Americans want, what Americans want from their country is just an America that lives up to its promise.”

Diane Tavenner: Yeah.

Stacey Childress: Which is small and enormous. Then I would say, part of that promise is a free, high-quality public education near you in your neighborhood. That was my kind of some of the animating instinct behind entrepreneurship for education. The ed reform crowd from, as you said, ’95 to about 2015, like, we all talked about it maybe in slightly different ways, but it was that chief animating function. Again, it’s kind of, as Michael said, back to the beginning of why we ended up with public schools that then became compulsory high schools that then was, like, kind of embedded in this notion. I think there’s some critique of this both on the left and the right politically these days. On the right, the grandiose, progressive project of improving everyone all the time is kind of suspect, and on the left, what is the American dream, anyway? Who gets to decide? Are these institutions so kind of rotten at their core from the beginning, in their design that, of course, they’re producing these inequities? It’s what they were designed to do in the first place.

I think there’s contested ground. But, you know, as we said, on some of these other things, I think there’s, I won’t call it the great middle or I just think most Americans would still agree. Let me say it even differently. I think most parents and caregivers who have children in schools from pre-K to 12th grade have some things they agree on about what our public schools are for. If kids are going to be in school for 12, 13, 14 years, depending on whether they start at three or four years old, kindergarten, there are some things about our country, about our society that we want kids to understand, feel great about, be challenged maybe by some of the tougher moments in our history, and want to work to make those things not true in the future. That there’s some role for our schools to still be that kind of aspirational meeting point, great leveler among different socioeconomic statuses, where in this country, you can still be anything you want to be if you show up, work hard, work with others, figure out where you want to go, and our schools should help you get there. I think there is an element of social reformer. I still can’t think of a better word for it. There is one.

I just can’t think of it. Like reformer sounds, again, it sounds so 1920s progressive, and we’re going to technocratically fix everything through our institutions, which I’m not a huge believer in that, on balance. But I still find something very inspiring about the underlying concept here. If almost every young, well, whether it’s private or public, everybody except the percentage of kids that are homeschooled, goes to school starting certainly no later than five or six years old, and they stay there until they’re 17 or 18, the things that are going on in those years during the daylight hours, autumn means something for who we are as a country and who we could be. So anyway, I’m starting to preach again, so. But it’s still, you know, I’m still very sappy about it.

Diane Tavenner: Yeah.

Michael Horn: Yeah. No reason to run from that, right? I think the only two observations I would have here are one, when I saw this on the list, Diane, I thought of the zip code, one that you mentioned that everyone should have a great option for them in their zip code. I guess I thought of something different, which is I thought of our broader trends in society around segregation. We know the history with racial segregation, of course, but the bigger segregation we live in with right now is not race. It’s one of ideology and political party, and that we, in fact, don’t live in districts where we mix with people who generally think differently from us. So we don’t have these conversations or are forced to compromise and live with each other at the Little League fields and in the schools, and sort of live up to what Stacey just was sketching. I guess that’s the second thing that I’ve been wondering about a lot, which is, you both echoed the rhetoric that we used to have of the civil rights issue of our time. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s the causality? Is it actually the opportunity, maybe above, that drives education to be in service of it, or is it the education that creates? I’m sure it’s a bit of both. But going back to your original observation, and I’ll end my thought here, Diane, is if we’re not teaching in line, like, if we’re not running an institution set to, you know, fundamentally around learning, we don’t have a great what you learn or how you learn it, maybe it isn’t actually driving the causality and the success in the American dream we’ve historically had. So I guess then that’s a difficult set of questions. Is it in service of, and that’s where we need to be asking our questions, or can it be different and actually drive this in a more positive direction going forward? That I think we all would hope because we all spend a lot of time on it, so.

Diane Tavenner: Well, that’s a good place to wrap today. Thank you both for wading through my list with me. And if folks have hung in with us this long for an extended episode, we appreciate you and hope you will come back for number two, where we’re actually going to talk about solutions that are both already beginning and that we see might be possible and opportunities. So thank you.

Michael Horn: We’ll leave it with that. Right. Thanks for joining us in Class Disrupted. We’ll see you next time.

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