Pandemic Reveals the Perverse Incentives of 'Larger is Better' in K-12 Education

The COVID-19 pandemic, has exposed the education system and all of its strengths and weakness. Of all the entities affected by the shelter-in-place order, arguably the most fragile of these is our public schools. School is where children are socialized and learn to become active, engaged, critical-thinking citizens. Yet, with schools closed, and the shift to online learning, engaging students is more difficult than ever. That is, for some schools.

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While most districts, schools and administrators are focused on enrollment and average daily attendance (ADA), some schools are focused on really serving the needs of its students. With ever increasing demands on teachers to ensure student learning, and to serve all students by providing FAPE, a free appropriate public education, the cost to educate students continues to rise. Thus, the focus of most schools becomes a rush to enroll and place as many kids into schools and classrooms as physically possible. While high enrollment numbers ensure greater funding from the state and stronger financials, left to chance is the quality of students’ educational experience.

COVID-19 further highlights the drawbacks of focusing on enrollment instead of students’ learning experience. With many schools struggling to issue technology, school supplies and engage with families during this time, others have somehow transitioned seamlessly. Our school, Crete Academy, is one of the schools that transitioned smoothly to online learning while continuing to maintain close connection with our families. How was that possible? Our focus is not on enrollment, but instead on quality.

I have worked in many charter and district schools throughout my career, and regardless of the type of school, one theme remains in common: a focus on enrollment and ADA. The fear of running a deficit, due to a loss or decrease in enrollment is instilled in the staff. Therefore, pressure on teachers to continue adding students throughout the year, despite the classroom not being large enough or the culture of the class suffering, is overwhelming. Still, schools are treated as businesses, with students as clients and the bottom line being revenue, which is driven by enrollment and attendance. The irony here is obvious: public schools are often asked to “think more like businesses” – and they are when it comes to garnering public revenues – often to the detriment of student and parent engagement. It’s a classic perverse incentive scenario.

At Crete, we see things differently. Our focus is on providing a high quality education to our students. Crete Academy is a non-profit charter school for students TK-6th grade in South Los Angeles. The mission of Crete is to serve students experiencing homelessness and poverty. To that end, we cannot focus our attention on enrollment or we sacrifice the quality of our instructional program and level of service. Crete opened its doors in 2017 with 110 students and ended the year with 130 students. For the past three years, we have added between 30-40 students each year, for a total this year of 182. We have intentionally kept enrollment low so that we could truly meet the needs of our students and families.

Part of the approach at Crete is to build trusting relationships with our students and families. Because we are a small school, it is fairly easy to forge these relationships with all of our students and their families. I know the names, stories, worries, fears and dreams of my students. With the transition to online learning, as the result of COVID-19, many of our supporters and donors worried about our students and families. I too, was concerned, as I know that they are already struggling financially, emotionally and mentally. The pandemic further exacerbated many of their personal and financial struggles. However, since we are a small and have close knit relationships, the transition was seamless.

We were able to provide technology, hotspots, school supplies and food to 100% of our students and families in need. Private funding was secured to provide grocery gift cards to over 100 families, and ensure our community had access to proper nutrition during this time. By providing regular communication, taking attendance, reviewing participation notes from teachers and making phone calls and house visits, our team has maintained the close bond that we have built with our students even during the pandemic.

As we look to re-entry plans for the 2020-21 school year, districts and schools are still working hard to figure out what our return will look like. For large schools, planning is even more compounded, as creating safe distance between students and teachers and students and students, is nearly impossible in some schools. At our school however, reentry planning includes 25 staff and 200 students. Creating safe distancing plans and developing stricter sanitation guidelines is feasible. It seems that the focus on quality and not quantity is glaring at us now more than ever.

The focus on enrollment and budgets being school’s bottom line has to change. The goal of education is to develop the best gifts and talents of the next generation in hopes that the world will continue to improve and evolve. To truly invest in people, we have to meet their individual needs, especially our most vulnerable humans, children in poverty. As such, schools must remain small, connected and focused on quality. Only then, can we adjust to pandemics, poverty and other barriers plaguing the educational experience of the next generation.

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