Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Today's old fashioned schools

There's one way in which our schools are more old fashioned than ever before, and that's in the demands they place on parental time. So great are these demands that they assume a world of families in which at least one parent has, at most, a half-time job. Furthermore, because our society remains sexist in its expectations of men's vs. women's availability for unpaid labor, the assumption is that it's the mothers who should be volunteering their time.  

But now, as an article in yesterday's New York Times reports, demands by schools for parental (maternal) volunteer time have reached such a fever pitch that some mothers are speaking out and pushing back:
Some complain that the system preys on maternal guilt and that it creates a sense that a mother’s worthiness is measured in how many hours she puts in at her children’s schools. Under the headline “Just Say NO to Volunteering,” Sarah Auerswald, a former PTA president in Los Angeles, wrote in June, “What I am about to say is not very PC, so get ready: Moms, stop volunteering so much.”
The article notes a whole host of demands on parental (maternal) time: PTA meetings, room-parenting, chaperoning, decorating, baking, designing T-shirts, teaching art classes, and organizing, organizing and organizing: class parties and graduation parties and class gifts and teacher appreciation days. On top of this there's fundraising, fundraising, and fundraising:  T-shirts, movie nights, restaurant nights, book fairs, fun days, and ice cream socials. 

Why have things gotten so much worse than they used to be? A lot of it is financial:
As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help, The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.
But these same economic factors, as the article notes, have also "forced some stay-at-home mothers to go back to work." 

Plus--plus--we're not living in the 1950's any more, and back wen we did, schools weren't making such demands. Even in the 1970's, when my stay-at-home mother asked to volunteer in my classrooms, my teachers were extremely reluctant--even baffled--about it, and only invited her in a couple of times.

Left out of yesterday's article are some of the more infuriating reasons for increased demands on parental (maternal) time. These have nothing to do with budgetary stresses, but instead result from current fads in education: namely, group-centered discovery learning, project-based learning, ever more frequent field trips, "balanced literacy," "differentiated instruction," and Reform Math.  These fads have increased the manpower ("womanpower") demands at school and the parental (maternal) help needed at home.

At school, the more the teacher serves as the "guide on the side" while students work in groups on hands-on activities, the closer chaos looms, and the more dependent the teacher is on extra adults in the classroom. The more the group activities are supposed to provide multiple levels of "differentiated instruction," the more extra supervision is required. The more field trips, the more chaperones.

At home, the more of those open-ended, organizationally demanding projects are assigned, and the more teachers tell parents to teach their kids the multiplication tables at home (because all that discovery learning leaves no time for this during the school day), the more parental (maternal) help is needed. The time demands increase even further the more parents (mothers) start to realize how "balanced literacy" and Reform Math have failed to teach their children how to sound out words, write neat letters and coherent sentences, and use the standard algorithms of arithmetic.

Given how maddeningly upside down so many things are in the world of education, it seems fitting that our schools manage to be traditional in only the bad ways--guilting out of women yet more unpaid hours of baking, decorating, social organizing, and supervising of children. But traditional in the good ways--the ways that are most liberating of mothers--would mean offering a solid, directly instructed, teacher-centered curriculum and assigning children much smaller amount of homework that they are capable of doing on their own based on what they're learned in school.

And that would be, well, way too old-fashioned for today's 21st century schools.


Knowledge Based Science said...

This really confirms my impression that parental involvement pendulum has swung way way WAY up in recent years (maybe the last decade? earlier?).

The thing is, parental involvement isn't just a consequence of those edu-fads you mention. Parental involvement is an edu-fad in and of itself.

I think it started with the findings that greater parental involvement, parents reading to children, etc., correlated with student success.

And yes, they did. But correlation is not causation. Schools were trying to tap into that causal relationship to get better results for their students. It's a way of improving educational outcomes without actually improving education.

(BTW, when studies find that teacher quality is correlated with student success, that is called "blaming the teacher.")

- Hainish

Anonymous said...

In this economy, companies are trying to get more work out of fewer employees, which will make it really hard for many parents to take time off. Stay-at-home mothers often have younger children at home and may have no one to turn to for childcare while they do volunteer work.

As for teaching at home, that has become a necessity. When I went to school, I rarely needed help with my homework because I understood what had been taught during the school day. Many kids today have no idea what to do without their parents helping to figure it out. The percentage of grade schoolers who can read independently by 4th grade would plummet if parents (yes, mostly mothers) didn't step in and do so much reading instruction. Unfortunately, I don't see that changing anytime soon. We have to fund the schools with our taxes and do the teaching too.

Anonymous said...

This is why we decided to forgo my half-day unpaid volunteer efforts and go for full-day, all-inclusive homeschooling.

At least I don't have to attend a bunch of useless meetings to get that job done.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that you must spend a lot of time at your child's school to support your special needs child. How do you balance volunteering at J's school and work?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I teach at an inner city high school and we really don't have the parental involvement of which you speak, so the demands upon teachers are very great. It is wearing.

Students and teachers alike are short changed and it seems like in education there is simply so much change for change sake, rather than truly measured outcomes.

We are so busy meeting the needs of the individual that serious concepts which can and should be taught as "whole group instruction" are neglected (multiplication tables, etc.) and reinforced at an individual level. It does seem to have become backwards, ineffective and burdensome on students, parents and teachers. So much for education reform. I agree with Hainish regarding blaming the teacher. If this trend continues, and it has been on going on for a number of years, I really feel that fewer people will enter or remain in the teaching field.