The blog of the Urban Institute
June 18, 2020

Making High School More Flexible and Supportive for Teens after COVID-19

June 18, 2020

With unemployment at its highest level (PDF) in recent history, families across the country are scrambling to make ends meet, and food insecurity is increasing. Research shows that in such moments of instability, young people often step up to help their families by cobbling together resources, watching younger siblings so their parents can pick up extra work shifts, and helping manage their households.

But it can be challenging for teens to balance family responsibilities with the competing demands of traditional high school. Some young people end up missing too many school days, falling behind in course credits, and failing classes in large part because schools do not provide adequate flexibility and support. Students also need opportunities to align paid work (PDF) with their education so earning a paycheck doesn’t require them to sacrifice long-term career prospects. Without more adaptive policies and practices, mainstream schools essentially force students out or into “alternative” systems—but even then, only after students are in acute distress or have already dropped out.

The pandemic presents both challenges and incredible opportunities to reinvent how we think about mainstream education. Overnight, schools began exploring new ways to support learning for all students (such as online or correspondence classes); providing flexibility so students can engage with schoolwork at any time that works for them; focusing on proficiency, skills, and knowledge rather than time spent in class; and testing new ways to keep in touch with students and parents outside the physical school building.

In a new toolkit released today, we highlight schools and programs that—well before the pandemic—were reinventing how our mainstream schools support both working teens and others who face unique challenges fitting into a rigid, traditional school environment.

School systems interested in supporting new approaches to education can learn from these existing programs, but they need support from state policymakers to make innovative strategies sustainable:

  • Adjust school funding formulas. Many states calculate school funding based on enrollment or average daily attendance. This funding formula discourages schools from using online or correspondence courses because of the challenges of tracking attendance, and it penalizes schools that have students with the most challenges. School systems and state policymakers need to consider more flexible ways to think about enrollment and resource allocation that explicitly account for student need and support innovation. 
  • Allow flexible funding for school districts to create, invest in, and scale schools with more flexible designs. This may include moving toward more student-centered and proficiency-based education models, which could blend more flexible, student-paced curriculum delivery with work-based learning or a college and career focus. These models would deemphasize seat time in favor of earning credits by demonstrating knowledge and skills.
  • Communicate existing policy flexibility to local school districts, particularly any policies related to direct instruction and seat time. For example, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction publication (PDF) explains current seat-time requirements and describes 18 flexible ways to innovate.
  • Preapprove online college and other courses for high school credit. Many local colleges offer online classes that could fulfill high school requirements. State departments of education should evaluate the quality of these classes and consider preapproving ones that meet high standards, negotiating low-cost or no-cost access for students and promoting their availability to local schools.
  • Create, aid, and empower intermediaries to support paid youth apprenticeship, and ensure any state initiatives around apprenticeship explicitly include young people.
  • Pass legislation that can connect employers directly to students. Colleges, universities, and the military already have access to student information for recruitment purposes with parental approval, but employers do not. States have the power to facilitate this kind of data sharing, which would help employers reach out directly to young people about employment opportunities without overburdening school staff.

Many unanswered questions exist about how we ensure that flexible learning works and that students are supported by trusted adults, particularly when students have limited access to technology or home environments unconducive to learning.

However, we are hopeful schools can emerge from these extraordinary circumstances with stronger will and capacity to serve students who need more support and flexibility to succeed. Establishing a next generation policy framework now will ensure schools are empowered to do so.

A sophomore at Brooklyn Friends School checks into classes from home after the school announced that it will be closed because of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

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