Sal Khan’s book The One World School House offers a provocative vision for the future of schools. So I am reluctant to nitpick, but one sentence in the introduction caught my eye. He wrote that “parents worry aloud that their children are falling behind relative to some vague, mysterious, yet powerful set of standards.” The claim caught my attention, because as a parent, and from talking to other parents across the country, I never hear that as a main worry. I rarely hear parents talking about standards at all (or metrics or outcomes or any other regulatory jargon). What I do hear them talking about, and what troubles me the most with my five children, are these two concerns:
(1) Are my kids in an okay environment? Are they safe? Is it clean enough? Is the food decent? Are people kind?
(2) Are my kids learning enough?
To provide some context for these concerns, consider the main “jobs” parents and society “hire” schools to do. (For more on jobs-to-be-done theory, listen to this.) One of the main jobs for parents is purely custodial. Most parents need a safe, supervised place for their children to be during the day while they’re at work or otherwise busy. A second job is instructional. Parents want their children to learn the things they need to know to become successful, independent people.Most of the rank-dreaming parents have only one aim of sending their kids to school. It is to become the proud parents of a rank-holder for which the taming responsibility is with the school staff. Beyond this tunnel vision, they have not concerned whether their child’s aptitude is in spoon-feeding to replicate in exams. While selecting the school, they visit the website and look for the list of board exam toppers, campus and smart classrooms.
Too often education leaders fixate on the instructional job, focusing on the achievement gap and test scores, and forget about the importance of the custodial job for parents. Last week I toured a public elementary school and found the F word scrawled on the wall of the restroom used by kindergarteners. Since 2011, 35 percent of Chicago’s 681 schools failed food inspection at least once for reasons such as no hot water in bathroom sinks, food kept at unsafe temperatures, and more than 200 rodent droppings found in food service areas. Such deficiencies in the basic care of our children are horrifying to parents, but often overlooked as educators focus on standards and other instructional items.
I am optimistic, however, that parents are on the cusp of accessing a broad new set of options that will allow them to breathe easier about both their custodial and instructional worries. I spend most of my time at Innosight Institute studying blended learning. Schools are increasingly discovering great software that delivers compelling instruction and content over the Internet, and they are blending this into their classroom settings. Two of my kids are doing all of their math learning online this year, using Dreambox, Khan Academy, and ALEKS. They have both completed more than a year’s worth of math on the programs, and we’re not even to December break yet. The math software is getting good enough to nail the instructional job for my kids. The case studies I’m following in other blended programs are showing strong results among both advanced and remedial math students. Other subjects will follow.
As schools migrate to such software, and as the technology improves, the question arises of what will be the future of the classroom? This is where I get excited about the school’s custodial function. I see a future where schools will have the luxury to focus less on the instructional job, thanks to helpful online solutions, and they can focus instead on really nailing the custodial job. Imagine if schools became pitch perfect at delivering healthy environments, with nurturing mentor-guides, first-rate meals, excellent athletic and art programs, and lovely physical settings. From a parent’s point of view, that would go a lot further to relieve my worries than any revision of standards and rubrics.