The average American parent has a strange schedule. The 9-to-5 work schedule hails from the early 20th century, when labor reformers sought to institute fairer labor conditions. The school schedule for children dates to the 1960s, when rural and urban school districts settled into a rhythm of six and a half-hour school days, five days a week.
This mismatch between average work and school schedules was once sustained by the fact that only about a third of women worked outside the home and were generally available to care for children after school. But last year, the labor force participation rate for women with children under age 18 was 71.5 percent. Eighty percent of employed mothers with school-age children (ages 6 to 17) worked full-time.
So many American parents face a difficult (and often costly) challenge around 3 p.m. on weekdays to figure out how best to care for children until work ends. And that schedule discrepancy represents both an economic and relational hardship for many people, especially for lower-income families who are unable to afford day care or a nanny.
Politicians have tried to address the problem. The most recent entry is theFamily Friendly Schools Act from Senator Kamala Harris. She wants to keep 500 “family friendly schools” open for 10 hours a day, to align children’s school schedules with parents’ typical work hours by keeping schools open an additional three hours (as well as offering extracurricular summer programs when school is not in session).
But her bill conflates two distinct problems: the optimal school day for children’s education, and the limitations represented by our current stringent workweek. Both ought to be considered separately — because while parents do need better options for the care of their children, longer school days may not be the answer.
Some schools have had measurable benefits from longer school days. When extended school day programs work, they do not work merely because hours are added to the day; they’re part of a larger reform effort which includes excellent leadership, skilled teachers, increased engagement, careful performance monitoring, and other efforts to improve the overall school environment.
But they could also be stressful and exhausting for schoolchildren. Many students, the author and filmmaker Vicki Abeles has noted, are “loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring,” often to prepare for test scores and build college résumés.
Other countries have actually shortened school hours — like Finland, which generally operates on an approximate 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. schedule — and have experienced student learning outcomes far better than ours.
What’s more, as Ms. Abeles notes, much of a child’s education takes place outside the classroom: “through play, reading, family dinnertime interaction, community participation, volunteering and working part-time jobs.”
Other proposals have approached the problem in a slightly different way, like the bill from Representative Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington (and others). It makes an important differentiation between schools and child care centers. Indeed, the two have different roles, and should not be treated as equivalent.
But we must consider the toll inflexible work hours take on the American family — because Ms. Harris’s proposal is not primarily about education. It’s about work. Her bill offers economic statistics on the cost of misalignment (for instance, “Misaligned school schedules cost the United States economy $55,000,000,000 in lost productivity annually”). But it is hard to look at these statistics and see them as problems to fix with policy.
Children offer long-term benefits to both society and the economy, but present a lot of short-term, immediate costs for both parents and companies. It is therefore vital that politicians like Ms. Harris reorient their view of economic goods to transcend work productivity and to include human dignity, family and community.
In 2017, Americans worked a collective 270 billion hours, or 1,739 hours per worker. We work longer hours than the average worker in any peer European nation. But many of our workers are not paid for overtime, do not have the work-hour flexibility they need and have little or no paid family leave.
Most Americans are forced to structure their lives around rigid jobs that make it difficult to prioritize children’s needs. Wealthy parents fill the gap with nannies and paid help, while lower-income parents may have access to a grandparent or other family member. Many other parents have to drop out of the work force or leave children unattended. It’s important to note that fathers and mothers should have the choice to stay at home full time with their children if they want to, and that we should appreciate the economic and social value of that decision. But it’s also true that many parents make this choice out of necessity, and feel a financial strain as a result.
Ms. Harris argues that her proposal would serve to “modernize the school schedule,” but it’s chained to work norms that many Americans already detest. Irregular shift and on-call work often put an excessive strain on family life. Overwork leads to stress and poor health, yet does not actually increase productivity. In contrast, companies that have implemented even small changes in favor of flexibility and choice — the ability to work remotely, or to trade, drop, or add shifts — have enjoyed tangible benefits.
When Microsoft Japan tested a four-day workweek, productivity jumped 40 percent. Greater flexibility and family-friendly policies are important to workers’ job satisfaction; half of American workers say they would switch jobs if it gave them greater schedule flexibility and freedom.
Next year, Finland will implement a law that will give the majority of the country’s full-time workers the right to choose when and where they work for at least half of their working hours. Many other countries have “right to request” laws which enable employees with caregiving responsibilities to at least for work flexibility without fearing retaliation.
Congressional leaders have made some efforts toward passing work flexibility laws — Schedules That Work Act, Workflex in the 21st Century Act, Flexibility For Working Families Act and the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2019, among others — but there’s often a tension, in these bills, between Democrats who want to protect workers’ rights and benefits and Republicans who want to increase flexibility but also want to protect employers’ rights.
There may be hope for a compromise. In a recent speech at the Catholic University of America, Senator Marco Rubio quoted an 1891 encyclical (on capital and labor) from Pope Leo XIII, which said, “Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create.” The senator still supported the rights of businesses “to make a profit,” but he also acknowledged that workers should have “dignified work” and that our economy should serve the “common good.”
We need solutions to the work-school schedule discrepancy that address both sides of this problem. A solution like Ms. Harris’s, which makes school schedules longer but ignores the role of corporations, will not help. Parents and children should have the opportunity to work and learn in a way that smooths over the awkward incongruities of our daily schedules. If we can do that, we will have achieved something truly “family friendly.”
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