Why Schools Don’t Need Washing Machines

The term mission creep is defined as “the tendency for a task to become unintentionally wider in scope than its initial objectives.” It’s usually used to describe military operations, but schools have made mission creep their standard operating procedure. Schools no longer simply concern themselves with providing students a solid, well-rounded education. In fact, it’s hard to think of a role previously reserved for parents that our schools haven’t adopted. Today’s schools provide breakfast and lunch, character education, dietary guidance, after-school child care, transportation, counseling services, athletic opportunities, computer programming courses, foreign language classes, and about 100 other things.

Now some schools have even started acting as full-service laundromats. The Care Counts program, a partnership between schools and Whirlpool, places washers and dryers, as well as detergent, fabric softener, and laundry bags, inside urban schools with the goal of reducing absenteeism. It’s working. Research from the 2016-17 school year showed that high-risk students attended school nearly two more days a month while participating in the program. The success has led to more than 1,000 school representatives reaching out to the program’s sponsor.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? The media certainly think so, with laudatory headlines like:

The Key to School Attendance: Washing Machines

60 Schools Across the US Are Using A Genius Strategy to Boost Kids’ Attendance Rates

How Installing Washing Machines in Schools Can Change Students’ Lives


What’s to criticize about a program that increases school attendance for the most at-risk kids in the country?

There’s an image in a USA Today story on the Care Counts program of a school principal loading clothes into a washing machine, which prompts the question, what is that principal not doing when she’s doing laundry?

Read through the articles and it’s as though trade-offs don’t exist. Nowhere in any of them does a journalist ever wonder what isn’t happening while school employees wash kids’ clothes. Is that principal not meeting with teachers when she should be? Is she neglecting student discipline responsibilities or pawning them off on another staff member? Should she be looking at assessment data to evaluate the effectiveness of a program she initiated last school year?

Even if cleaning clothes does boost attendance, we should ask if it’s worth it. Is it worth it to ask principals, who often make in excess of $100,000 a year, to wash blue jeans? Is it worth it to give the leaders of our schools, who are already overwhelmed with work, one more thing to do?

Just because a program works and people like it, doesn’t mean it’s worth doing, especially in schools, where almost every employee is already expected to do too much. Click To Tweet

The Care Counts program, well-meaning and effective at reducing absenteeism as it is, exemplifies schools’ eagerness to solve every problem faced by their students, and it highlights their inability to consider trade-offs. Instead of following the lead of successful businesses and people all over the world and deciding what they’re good at and doing that relentlessly, schools attempt to do it all. As a result, they end up doing very little exceptionally well.

The number of programs teachers are being asked to implement continues to grow. The number of ongoing district-wide initiatives expands unabated. The number of electives today dwarfs the options available twenty, or even ten, years ago, to say nothing of the extracurriculars held before and after school. Today, there’s something for everyone! Sports teams, drama, band, robotics, foreign language, school gardens, visual arts, choir, dance, photography, web design, culinary arts, metalworking, and many more. Schools have eagerly accepted an ever-expanding menu of responsibilities, offering students more opportunities, and expecting staff to pitch in when the workload inevitably becomes overwhelming.

Teachers are trapped inside such a system, which makes doing less exceptionally hard. The expectations placed on educators have gotten so bad that when teachers were striking in Oklahoma and West Virginia in 2018, many of them came to work to feed students, sometimes spending their own money to do so.

Schools are trying to solve so many societal problems that it is now somehow educators’ fault if kids don’t eat.

We don’t expect this of any other profession. Health care providers don’t attempt to counsel patients on their spending habits. Financial advisors don’t care what you eat or how much you exercise. Real estate agents don’t offer spiritual guidance. Schools haven’t just failed to stay in their lane, they’re off-roading across the entire landscape.

While it may seem that offering more to students can only be a good thing, the reality is that the more schools try to do, the less they will do well. And the more schools try to do, the more their leaders will ask teachers to “do their part”. They’ll claim that there’s too much to do, so they need everyone on board. Many hands make light work, they’ll remind you. If you complain, they’ll question your dedication. They’ll shrug and tell you that this is the way it is, never bothering to consider that it’s the way it is because school leaders have allowed it to be that way.

You will not simply be a teacher. You will also be a role model, a counselor, a nurse, a motivational speaker, a secretary, a data analyst, a test proctor, a dietician, an event planner, a cheerleader, an interior decorator, a referee, a judge, a janitor, a coach, an entertainer, and a computer repair technician.

It’s no wonder teachers are exhausted.

Why Schools Still Need Libraries

A guest post by Frankie Wallace


For kids, today, living in the digital age might seem like a lot of fun with the endless learning opportunities technology provides them with. Devices like cell phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers all give students the ability to access an endless amount of information on the web. Even though the digital age gives students the ability to learn new things, kids are still missing out on a wide range of sources of learning, social interactions, physical activities, and most importantly, emotional intelligence.

Since technology has taken over, the question of whether or not libraries are dying in the world — a common misconception — has been a hot topic. While technology is an amazing tool to have, even the best devices are afflicted with fake news, spam, and other dangers of online life.

It’s true: School libraries aren’t what they use to be. But they still help provide education to students about what’s going on and what’s worth reading and knowing. In theory, libraries help bridge the digital divide by providing students with the same access to different books and databases. Despite what students might hear about the death of print and the lack of interest in libraries, they’re still important. Here’s how:

Libraries Get Students College and Career Ready: K-12 students today will one day compete for future jobs in our growing global economy. The most interesting part, however, is that most of the jobs students will one day compete for haven’t even been conceived of yet. In order for students to have a fighting chance in the job market, they’ll need to be good readers and lifelong learners as well. They’ll need to gather, analyze, evaluate, and find ways to use new information to their advantage, which can be taught to students through the use of school libraries.

School librarians can use set standards and educational tools to help students learn these valuable lessons. They can also design programs to educate students on the importance of growth, research, and proper use of resources. Libraries located on K-12 campuses can also provide students with critical information about colleges, universities, and career opportunities. For instance, most librarians are familiar with their school’s layout and can find useful information to help students locate what they’re interested in and help them determine what career might be best for them.

Helps Students Become Lifelong Learners: Picture a place where all students feel the desire to learn and feel welcome when they come to school. Well, that place actually exists — it’s in the school library. For most instructors, trying to teach students how to improve their working memory can be a difficult process, especially if students aren’t cooperating.

Luckily, school libraries can help by providing students with more than just books, computers, and internet access. They also provide students with safety, security, and opportunities to think, create, explore, and grow to new heights. This means that libraries, like classrooms, can turn out to be students’ favorite spot and expose them to an endless amount of knowledge. In order for this to happen, students need to be willing to practice.

What do students need to be willing to practice? The fundamentals of learning — things like reading and writing. Simply put: Reading is the window to the world. Students who want to improve their education can benefit from reading about communities like the ones they live in or read about people like them. They can even seek information about people who aren’t like them, exposing them to new perspectives.

For some educators, the hard part is motivating students to read. Social media could be to blame for children not wanting to read books as much as they used to. Even though social media use among teens is a controversial issue, it’s being used in positive ways by student athletes and coaches in schools. Students, for example, can write collaboratively and get feedback from their classmates just as fast. In other words, if used correctly, social media platforms can be used to help improve students knowledge rather than minimize it. This means that the media can be a useful reading source for students and help them learn the core values needed to improve their reading and understanding.

Increases Student Success: According to the American Library Association, research suggests that school library programs staffed with qualified faculty members have a positive impact on students’ academic success. This research shows education officials that librarians can, in fact, help students do better academically. English as a Second Language students can perhaps benefit the most, since books and other resources can be used for them to get familiar with the American English language.

That being said, qualified school librarians can impact their schools in a number of ways that normally includes the following:

  • They’re essential partners for teachers and can help students discover topics that interest them.
  • They can help faculty members find current trends and resources to bring to their classrooms.
  • Librarians can provide students with the information needed to improve their reading, writing, and academic growth as well.

Districts of all sizes have reached a crisis point. In cities like Los Angeles, for example, over 600 elementary and middle schools are currently without librarians. To make matters worse, budget cuts are making it even more difficult to hire qualified faculty members to help students improve their skills and have a chance to land jobs.

Libraries have always played an essential role in our society, especially when it comes to preserving important information. Because of this, it’s our duty as educators, leaders, and parents to teach children the value of knowledge. What better place is there to start than the library?

What Defenders of Teacher Evaluation Reform Still Get Wrong

Back in June, Rick Hess, who writes about education stuff and works for some think tank (I think), wrote an article called 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Gates Foundation’s $575 Effective Teacher Initiative. After summarizing the epic scope of the failure and the ludicrous price tag, Hess attempts to resuscitate teacher evaluation and compensation reform by defending the initiative’s goals and blaming, as education policy advocates are wont to do, implementation problems for the overall failure.

Hess writes:

“While it may be tempting to regard the RAND evaluation as closing the book on another oversold education reform, doing so would be a mistake. There’s much that can and should be learned from the exercise, especially given that the core idea makes good, intuitive sense—however problematically it was executed.”

Let me suggest an alternative conclusion:

The RAND evaluation makes clear that yet another oversold education reform failed to solve the problem it set out to and created a set of unintended consequences that harmed teachers and, by extension, education as a whole. There’s one thing that can be learned from the exercise and that is regardless of how intuitive a solution might be, the implementation of drastic changes inside complex systems will always be difficult and will always lead to outcomes we cannot predict, many of which will be bad and make things worse than they were.

Hess details five lessons we are to learn from the abject failure of tinkering with things best left alone, presumably so the next billionaire who wants to upend American education can fail less spectacularly.

First, Hess says that the reforms demanded too much time and paperwork. So I guess future reformers should design ways to expedite the process of getting rid of teachers they don’t like. Principals shouldn’t have to actually observe and document things. Due process is for suckers. I’m surprised Hess didn’t advocate for principals using their gut instincts and asking teachers to clear out their rooms by the end of the day.

Hess also points the finger at principals who wouldn’t rate teachers low enough. This is a favorite criticism of education reformers. It’s not that teachers are any good; it’s that principals are too weak to label them as bad as they really are. Instead of believing principals who work with their teachers every day, we’re supposed to believe people in think tanks looking at spreadsheets.

Hess admits that changes to teacher pay failed to attract new candidates to the profession or entice teachers to change where or how they work. Duh. That this couldn’t be predicted by those who advocated for the changes reveals a distressingly large blind spot. Let me spell it out: People who go into education don’t do it for the money. They are not motivated by the same things people who enter the corporate world are. Therefore, dangling incentive pay and saying you want to reward good teachers with more money is not going to attract the kind of people we actually want in classrooms. Investment bankers, it should go without saying, would not make good second-grade teachers. Similarly, offering combat pay to teachers to go to low-performing schools will never work as long as those teachers are going to be evaluated in the same way every other teacher is evaluated.  It doesn’t matter how large an incentive you accept if you don’t get to keep your job.

Hess ends by telling us that none of the failures in the report means that teacher evaluation reforms don’t work, even though that’s exactly what the RAND evaluation concluded. Rather, he says, “it’s complicated” and hard to do. In a nutshell, Hess argues that we should still do this thing that failed, we should just figure out how to do it better, which can, of course, be said about every failure ever.

One wonders if Hess believes the same thing about Prohibition, which, like teacher evaluation reform, could also be considered a “core idea that makes good, intuitive sense.” The Bay of Pigs wasn’t a bad idea; it was just more complicated and harder to do than people thought. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something similar in the future!

When initiatives fail because they’re hard to implement, we should wonder: If this idea is so hard to get right, then maybe the idea itself is a bad one.

The lesson that should be learned from Bill Gates’s ill-fated teacher evaluation reforms is that reforming teacher evaluations is really hard to do without making things worse than they are and that anyone looking to follow in his footsteps ought to be a lot more careful about where they walk. They might even decide to walk on a completely different path altogether.

Cobra Control and Teacher Evaluations


According to a famous anecdote, during the time the British crown ruled India they became alarmed at the number of venomous snakes populating their colony. A solution was soon settled on. The government would pay a bounty for every dead cobra. The strategy was an insssstant successssss. Cobras were slaughtered in cold blood. Eventually, however, enterprising Indians figured out that they could avoid all that pesky cobra hunting and increase their profits by breeding their own cobras, killing them, and collecting the bounties. The British were unamused. They ended the dead cobra rewards. In response, the cobra breeders released their now worthless cobras into the wild, thereby making the problem worse than before.

Cobras 1, Humans 0.

The story led to the coining of the term cobra effect to describe any “solution” that makes a problem worse. Problems are tricky things to fix, and those who propose simple solutions almost always underestimate the complexity of the situation and fail to foresee unintended consequences. It’s happened many times, often by governments who don’t take that whole “learn from history so you don’t repeat it” thing all that seriously.

Prohibition comes to mind. Prohibition sought to solve the many problems associated with alcohol by simply banning alcohol. Additionally, supporters believed that Prohibition would lead to economic prosperity. Saloons would close and neighborhoods would improve, leading to higher property values and rents. Sales of consumer goods were expected to boom. Soft drink companies eagerly anticipated filling the beverage void and raking in the profits.  Theaters planned for larger audiences as Americans would need to find ways to entertain themselves that didn’t include drinking themselves into a stupor.

None of that happened.

Instead, Prohibition harmed the economy in numerous ways. For starters, everyone associated with the production and distribution of alcohol lost their jobs and governments lost out on tax revenue generated by excise taxes on liquor sales.

But the economy was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the unintended consequences of Prohibition. The illegal liquor trade made criminals of millions of Americans, much like the War on Drugs would do decades later. The legal system couldn’t keep up, so courtrooms and jails overflowed. The amount of money involved led to the corruption of public officials and law enforcement agents. Organized crime flourished during the Prohibition era, costing people their lives and further stretching law enforcement resources. When it was all said and done, Prohibition not only failed to reduce the alcohol consumption of Americans, but it also led to terrible consequences that its proponents failed to anticipate.

In 1928, President Hoover described Prohibition as, “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.”

The same words could have been uttered by President Obama about teacher evaluation reform. Like Prohibition, our teacher evaluation experiment has not only failed, it’s made things worse.

Those Cruddy Teachers

In 2009 America had a problem with its teachers. We had too many shitty ones. At least, that’s what a few Very Important People (they were rich) thought. The solution was simple: Make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. To that end, districts needed a way to identify the duds and they needed annoying barriers to removing them removed. Enter teacher evaluation and tenure reform, yet another in a long line of simplistic solutions to complex problems that ultimately failed and led to harmful and long-lasting consequences. 

That teacher evaluation reform didn’t work is in little doubt. A RAND evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s $575 million Effective Teacher Initiative concluded that it failed to reach its goals. Read more here. See the RAND evaluation here.

But that’s the least distressing part of the story.

Like Prohibition, teacher evaluation reform did not solve the problem it set out to. But also like Prohibition, the reform led to a host of unintended consequences that will likely harm American education for years to come.

It’s a lesson that seems to need learning over and over: Sometimes, the medicine is worse than the disease.

Doing something about a problem isn’t always the smart thing to do because it’s really difficult to:

a. Solve the problem you are trying to fix.

b. Not create bigger problems than the one you are attempting to remedy.

As Jordan Peterson once said during a discussion on hate speech, “The question is what do you do about it, and the devil’s in the details. I’m not an admirer of hate speech laws even though there’s plenty of hateful speech because I think the best thing to do is to leave free speech alone as much as you possibly can. Not because that will result in the perfect conditions for free speech, but because anything else that you’re likely to do is going to make it worse rather than better.”

We’re always going to have some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. The question is what do you do about it? As we’ve seen, devising a solution that solves the problem without creating worse ones is easier said than done.

It comes down to this: Is trying a solution worth the risk of making things worse, especially when history shows us that there’s a damn good chance that the solution is going to make things worse? 

When it came to Prohibition, the answer to that question was a relatively swift no and the government quickly abandoned its efforts.

The same response to teacher evaluations is overdue.

Was it worth disrespecting a large segment of the nation’s teaching corps, including many good teachers who decided to leave their classrooms?

Did it make sense to evaluate every teacher with the same system, even those who had been doing the job well for 20 years?

Was it worth it to send the unmistakable message to the nation’s teachers that we suspect they might not be very good at their jobs?

Was it worth adding more work to principals’ plates and forcing districts to dedicate scarce funds to additional administrators so they could handle the extra responsibilities?

Was it worth making the job less appealing to young people, as a once secure profession now offered the same type of performance reviews they could get in the corporate world at a much higher salary?

Was it worth more teacher turnover, which cost districts money they could not afford, to hire teachers who may not have been any better than the fed up ones who left or the inadequate ones they replaced?

Did it make sense to design a system that made it less likely there would be a pool of unemployed teachers waiting in the wings to replace the ones found wanting if the only way such a system could possibly improve education was in fact if such a pool of better teachers did exist?

Was it worth all of that, only to have most principals rate their teachers as effective anyway?

It’s time to admit that the solution has been worse than the problem; that the unintended consequences haven’t been worth it. It’s time to acknowledge that the old way of evaluating teachers, perfunctory and toothless as it might have been, was like the presence of alcohol or hate speech in our society: Not ideal and likely to lead to some negative outcomes, but preferable to the problems created by the solution.

It’s time to go back to the kind of evaluation system that, while not perfect, had far fewer negative effects than the Gates-inspired failure that harmed educator morale, led to teacher shortages, and didn’t solve the central problem it set out to remedy.

Every state should end the current model of teacher evaluation before it continues to do additional damage. We should, as a society, admit that the solution to getting rid of bad teachers was worse than the problem of having a few bad teachers.