The PEU: Toward a More Public Public-Education

School will return.

That statement seems aspirational at this point of the summer. The number of new COVID-19 cases in Tennessee matched the high set the first week of May, just after the spring semester had been canceled. And the next school year is slated to start in just eight weeks.

I have already written about my experience moving to fully online teaching during the Covid Crisis. I have taught online, "paperless," for years, and while I was ready to post assignments and grade essays online, the experience felt lacking for me.

Non-school (Building) School, Leads To...

The more I thought about educating outside the classroom, the less I saw technology as the best solution for students' needs. Covid-19 will push a larger share of the burden of learning onto students and families.

Maybe the answer is making public education more, well, public.

One of the biggest challenges that public schools have faced since the 1980s has been siloing. Public schools have a designated job. So do the police and the courts.

But other entities have arisen in competition with public schools: private schools, charter schools, and a real rise in the number of homeschooled American students, which has doubled since 1999. Public schools aren't the only "education silo" on the community farm. Moreover non-traditional schools are leaner and find it easier to solicit and develop community support.

The P.E.U. which would Lead To...

This is where a more public, public education begins: with moving lessons and education away from the classroom--or the silo--and into the community, where it belongs. After all, the community is the place that will provide jobs for a significant number of those who complete the local K-12 program. It is a place where local entrepreneurs will identify niches and create the next generation of local jobs.

This begs a question: shouldn't a community's entrepreneurs and businesses have a greater role in the roles public schools are preparing their students for?

Thinking about my teaching during the Covid Crisis made me break down my practice to its barest elements, beginning with this question: what is a unit of teaching?

I teach in a block-based semester system. Classes last 90 minutes. I teach anywhere from 2 to 4 lessons per class, anything from a 10-minute grammar assignment to a 45-minute discussion or an hour-long video. Thinking to middle school, where periods are 50 minutes long, and to elementary school, I came up with the number of 45 minutes.

When you strip away administrative stuff (attendance, announcements, etc.) and just focus on teaching/learning, I believe that a teaching unit is 45 minutes long, which I will describe hereafter as a Public Education Unit or PEU--an unfortunate acronym, I will admit.

A quarter, then, would be nine five-day weeks times, or 45-PEUs. That's 45 squared or 2025 minutes. A semester would be worth 4050 minutes or 90 PEUs. And credit for grade-level learning would be 180 PEUs (8100 minutes) per subject.

In pre-Covid-19 education, students who were in my classroom were evaluated based on 180 PEUs, with homework balancing out class time missed due to absence or pep rallies or intruder drills or class parties.

During the spring semester, of 2021, students completed 45 PEUs in Room 953 with me. They tried to make up the other 45 PEUs through Zoom sessions and work posted online. By my estimate, the best of them completed 30. An equal number completed 0-2.

...A More Public, Public Education

But what happens when students can't earn the necessary PEUs? What happens in a pandemic? Or if the family travels out of state for a funeral? Or if the student is in an unregulated home-school? Or if the teacher is uncertified?

In many cases, the families might come to my "silo" and ask for tutoring or additional work.

In most cases, I believe, they should find alternatives for themselves. And the community is the place to find them.

Here's an example. Last fall, with my son entering college and looking for ways to enhance a summer trip to Germany, I took a second job at a hotel--the Hilton Garden Inn in Gallatin. I work front desk several days a week, and I get to work with one former student of mine.

When I am at the hotel, I see real-life math and chemistry lessons all around me. We are constantly checking the occupancy rate or deciding what prices to set on new items in the shop. The housekeeping director, who has been short-staffed since the beginning of the Covid Crisis, has to figure out how many cleaners to call in for the daily check-outs. Someone has to create maps of the hotel so that guests know where to find the ice machine or the swimming pool.

And I get to meet interesting people, most of whom are in town on business. It makes me think of the learning opportunities that might be had at the new Subaru dealership a group of guests from Texas are opening or the most efficient delivery route for the propane distributor.

I realize that there are PEUs to be earned at my hotel. What I mean, is that if teachers were given a day to shadow at the hotel, they could come up with lessons in so many areas, that might be worth 1 to 5 PEUs. A math teacher could help students to calculate occupancy rates. An ELA teacher to have students compose letters based on the complaints file. A chemistry teacher could determine the most efficient amount of bleach for a load of laundry--or evaluate how blood stains or make-up marks might be impacted by a set amount of chlorine. All these would be worth PEUs.

And just down the street from my hotel is a Lowe's hardware store. Beyond that is a bank. And there is the new Subaru dealership. Would they be willing to have kids come to their location to learn, while parents walk around the lot? On top of that is the non-PEU credit of being a public education partner--they get to have a hand in creating the next generation of car buyers, car salesmen, automotive engineers, and inventor/entrepreneurs.

Just imagine what a teacher--using state standards--could develop in lessons from a simple grocery store flyer. I know that I have copies of flyers from German supermarkets to use in my foreign-language class.

Here are some of the ways in which PEUs could be used:

  • If a teacher has to be absent for sickness or school business, students could make up the PEU with an off-campus project rather than learning from a substitute.
  • Families who know ahead of time that they will miss school could submit PEU assignments to make up credit.
  • Credit recovery for students with excessive absences.
  • Classes missed for field trips, testing, or school events like assemblies or pep rallies (if they every happen again) could have PEU replacement.
  • Homeschool equivalency for families that choose to teach at home but still want to ensure that lessons are up to state and national standards.

And beyond teacher-developed lessons, the PEU could apply to internships and field trips, encouraging students to think beyond school and pursue learning for its own sake--to see school as more than just a building in which to park from 8 am to 3 pm.

Here are just a few more ideas about the PEU that should be kept in mind:

  • The first place to develop PEUs is in community institutions, especially parks and museums. Most museums already have education staff that could develop the lessons. State parks and playgrounds get kids outdoors and are ideal laboratories for sciences like biology, ecology, and physics. Police and fire departments. Agriculture extension agencies. Libraries. These institutions already share with public schools a community-focused, learning-focused mission. They would be ideal places to start.
  • The lessons need to be developed by certified grade- or subject-level teachers. Job shadowing would be a great opportunity for teachers to develop the lessons and integrate themselves more fully into the community. And the money to pay teachers could be raised by grants. Or teachers could "earn" time off for every 8 PEUs they developed.
  • Districts would need to routinely audit the available lessons to ensure rigor and adherence to state standards. I would hate to hear, "My daughter bought a tape measure at the hardware store and got 2 PEUs." Instead I would love to hear, "My son designed and built a doghouse and earned 4 PEUs."