A 9–5 school day is actually anti-family

School schedules and work schedules are ‘misaligned.’ No kidding. But the solution isn’t a longer day for kids.

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Pretty much every working parent knows the “morning shoe” struggle: You’ve timed your school run down to the minute, and you’ve timed your work commute down to the second—and one of your kids won’t get his freaking shoes on. In order to get out of the door on time, I’ve spent many frantic minutes hunched over a recalcitrant kid, stuffing limp feet into sneakers and sweating bullets about being late to work. The afternoons aren’t much better: we have a roster of babysitters who juggle my kids’ different pick-up times, and I’m always braced for a text that someone is sick, stuck in traffic, or otherwise somehow immediately requiring me to do something. For the dozens—literally dozens—of school holidays that don’t correspond with national holidays, we rely on an insane Jenga system of child care, camps, and paid time off. I have a calendar so big you can see it from space. Don’t even get me started on the summer.

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The school system has not kept up with the changing work world—the school day ends at 2:30 or 3; the number of half-days and holidays is dizzying. Most people don’t have paid time off or flexible schedules, and even the parents who do are forking over thousands of dollars in child care to fill the gaps. A lot of women who would otherwise work stay home because they can’t manage the cost or the child-care Jenga. According to a new report from the Center of American Progress, the productivity losses due to this “misaligned” system are estimated at $55 billion.

The authors of the report, on the mismatch between school schedules and work schedules, seek to answer several questions, two of which are:

1. How misaligned are school and work schedules?

2. What can schools do to support parents as they try to meet their obligations to their employers and to their children?

The answer to the first question is obvious: pretty darn misaligned, as anyone who’s ever had a kid in school knows. And while this misalignment is merely challenging for middle-class families, it’s catastrophic for low-income families, who are much less likely to have paid time off, to have flexible schedules, or to be able to afford reliable child care.

The answer to the second question, according to the authors, is a longer school day that aligns with work schedules (95 or 8:30–5:30) and fewer school closures. This would allow parents to know their children are reliably cared for during the work day as well as allow educators to increase classroom learning time. A longer school day would permit more physical education and recess time. It would mean that poor families could finally catch a break on scheduling and child care costs.

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question

But I wonder whether the authors could have posed a different question and proposed different solutions. Instead of asking “What can schools do to support parents as they try to meet their obligations to their employers and to their children?” perhaps the question should be “What can employers do to support parents as they try to meet their obligations to their children?”

We are a productivity-obsessed culture. We ask people what they “do”—meaning how they make money. We hustle three-year-olds into their shoes and roust sleepy teenagers from bed all so we can meet adults’ needs—to get to work on time, to make money. We don’t consider that school is already pretty inefficient and that long days are too much for young children. We don’t consider that being involved in a family and a community outside of school is valuable for kids.

The 9–5 school day is a solution to one problem—it eliminates the frantic child-care scramble, and I’m not dismissing that, especially for struggling families. But the gap between school hours and work hours is a symptom of a larger problem—namely that, as a culture, we have prioritized work over family life, community and the well-being of children. We need to think more holistically.

I remember an anti-poverty activist saying “low-income housing makes poverty more comfortable. It doesn’t really fix the problem of poverty.” Similarly, while I am all for stopgap solutions, for band-aids (and for low-income housing!), I can’t help but wish for a society that prioritized the needs of children and families over the needs of employers. Not everyone needs to work a 40- or 50-hour week. Many people now—those who can, admittedly—choose to create value for their communities by opting out of paid work and contributing in other ways. It is worrisome to me that these kind of lifestyle choices (which are usually some kind of care work, and are usually performed by women) can carry such harsh financial penalties for families. It creates a culture in which work is a frantic hamster-wheel rather than labor we perform that creates value for the society at large.

What I’d like to see is a more nimble school and work model, one that supports all configurations of families. If we had an economy that supported one-income families and a school system that supported one-parent or struggling families and employers that recognized the value of part-time and flexible workers, we might be able to create a system that works for the community at large. It might mean you have enough time to carefully prepare dinner, to chat with a neighbor, to supervise your kids playing in the park for an hour after school. It might mean preschoolers put on their shoes in their own sweet time.

Leigh Anderson
Leigh Anderson
Leigh Anderson is the author of "The Games Bible: The Rules, The Gear, The Strategies" (Workman, 2010) and has written for Vox, Newsweek.com, and Popular Science, among others.

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