The news that Apple and Facebook will pay for female employees to freeze their eggs has caused a stir in the ongoing conversation about how best to help women and families juggle work and family. But egg freezing, a risky and invasive procedure with a low success rate, misses the forest for the trees. There is one obvious way to help the countless families with two parents working outside the home: overhaul our country’s antiquated school hours and synch them to those of a typical workday.
The typical American workday runs from nine to five. Many schools, however, start and end their days earlier, leaving parents in the lurch when it comes to juggling schedules. The average American public high school, for example, begins before 8 a.m. Most schools release sometime in the three o’clock hour, when working parents are likely to be sitting down to a meeting or still facing several hours worth of toil on a to-do list. And then there is the summer, that three-month stretch that kids pine for and parents dread. Summers are especially tough—and expensive—for parents with young children who suddenly have to scramble to keep their kids occupied during the workday, whether it’s with babysitters or summer camps.
The current American school calendar system is rooted in a time when the country was 85 percent agrarian and there was no such thing as air conditioning. Children worked at home after school and helped on the farm during the prime planting months of May through September. Even in urban areas, women did not work outside the home, and so words like “daycare” or “extracurriculars” or “childcare costs” were non-existent. As Arne Duncan, then Secretary of Education, put it in 2009, “our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today.”
Fast-forward to 2014, and we operate on basically the same school timetable with a radically transformed labor landscape. Today, just 2 percent of American families work on farms or ranches, 70 percent of women with children under the age of eighteen are in the workforce, and the average American’s working hours are only increasing. The current school hours model puts a major strain on many families.
There is also evidence it’s not a great model for kids. Doctors have argued that early start times—like the 7:20 am start-time for Fairfax County schools in Virginia or the 6:50 a.m. start for some students in Las Vegas, for example—deprive kids of sleep and affect their health and behavior. In one recent study researchers found that “eight hours of sleep appears to be the dividing line in terms of risky behaviors by teens.” There is also an ongoing debate about whether or not the United States’ long summer breaks contribute to America’s lagging academic performance on the global stage.
Yet, scrolling through my Facebook news feed during the first week of summer vacation paints I see a mass of beleaguered working parents struggling to manage two jobs and an array of summer activities to keep their children supervised. And most parents run this circus in some fashion during the school year as well, frantically rushing to get children to school before their workday begins or figuring out which parent can slip out at 2:30 to pick up the kids.
Ordinary American parents, especially American women who want a career or who have to work to make ends meet, don’t need their eggs harvested and frozen. They need the school system, the one they pay for in tax dollars, to work for their family schedule, not against. Some countries, such as France, offer universal preschool beginning as early as three years old and free or highly subsidized daycare year-round. Such programs merit serious consideration. But as a first step, our schools should start later, end later, and consider running year round with longer breaks around holidays. That doesn’t need to mean more time in the classroom. It could mean more time spent in the library doing homework or time spent on an athletic field.
It could also mean a little more sanity for today’s modern families.