Schools Should Do Less

I recently published an article in which I suggested that schools should not be doing their students’ laundry. My rationale was that schools already do too much and the more they do, the fewer things they will do well. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation.

  • Restaurants that focus make better food than those that try to make everything.
  • Companies that focus make higher quality products.
  • Individuals that focus are more successful.
  • Even teachers that focus are the only ones you’ve heard of. Jaime Escalante taught calculus. Lucy Calkins teaches writing. Rafe Esquith was best known for teaching kids Shakespeare.

To get really good at something, you have to aim your energies in one direction. Schools do the opposite. As a result, most of them rarely excel at anything.

Suggesting that schools not do students’ laundry led to predictable responses. A fair number of readers agreed with me. Those who didn’t argued that schools have to step up and be the communities kids need. Schools should fill the gaps left by neglectful parenting. Kids can’t learn unless their basic needs are met, and if those needs aren’t being met at home, then schools must do everything within their power to meet them. We shouldn’t punish kids for the sins of their parents.

All of those are appealing sentiments, which is likely why they’re hard to resist. But resist schools should. Because it is such thinking that exhausts educators and provides fuel for the failing schools narrative.

What Schools Offer Becomes Expected

Every disappointment results from unmet expectations, which means that schools should be very careful about what they offer. Provide lunch and you can bet that parents will complain about its nutritional content, the time allotted for kids to eat, the noise in the cafeteria, the demeanor of the adults staffing the noisy cafeteria, food waste, a lack of gluten-free options, and 15 other things that aren’t ideal. Offer free transportation to and from school and prepare to field complains about the safety of the buses, the lack of supervision leading to bullying, long bus rides, the professionalism of drivers, and many more.

When schools add offerings they shouldn’t expect gratitude; they should expect disappointment and criticism. Humans are kind of assholes, and one of our more unattractive traits is that we quickly feel entitled, take new things for granted, and find stuff to bitch about. It reminds me of this Louis C.K. bit where he talks about wi-fi on airplanes:

“I’m sitting on the plane and they go, ‘Open up your laptop, you can go on the Internet.’ It’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips. It’s amazing! I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down and they apologize. ‘The Internet’s not working.’ The guy next to me goes, ‘Pssh. This is bullshit!’ Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”

Schools like to make people happy, so their leaders hardly ever tell anyone no. The irony is that taking on too much hasn’t led to a greater appreciation for schools; it’s led to scapegoating. Doing so many things means that schools do very few things well. And like wi-fi on airplanes, you’re better off not having it at all than having it perform poorly.

Responsibilities Adopted by Schools Become Responsibilities Forfeited By Parents

When schools continually take on more responsibilities, society starts expecting schools to take on larger and larger roles in the socialization of young people. That means we all start to expect families, churches, and communities to do less.

Once schools take on a role previously reserved for parents, a not insignificant number of parents will be happy to abdicate responsibility for that role. The thinking might go something like this:

If the school is teaching sexual education, there’s a series of uncomfortable conversations that I don’t have to have with my child.

If the school is providing an hour of exercise through recess and gym class, then I don’t need to play with or supervise my child outside. Alternatively, I don’t have to let them roam the neighborhood and risk my neighbors’ judgment over my free-range parenting methods. One less hassle for me.

Since the schools are providing counseling services, I don’t need to get my child the professional help he needs.

Where does it end? Schools have already taken responsibility for their students’ physical health (why have nutritional guidelines for the federal lunch program if they haven’t?). Those with washing machines have taken a step toward accepting responsibility for students’ cleanliness. But if schools are going to launder students’ clothing, shouldn’t they also provide a time and place for morning showers? Shouldn’t schools supply deodorant and toothpaste if parents aren’t providing them?

Why stop there? If schools are concerned with students’ physical health and hygiene, how can they neglect mental health? After all, students with mental health problems can’t properly learn. Shouldn’t schools provide counseling services? Shouldn’t the state provide funding so every school can afford to have a therapist in the building? Shouldn’t there be a nurse on every campus to administer mental health medications?

The More Schools Attempt To Do, The Less They Will Do Well

Every teacher knows this. Ask us to teach 100 things and we’ll do it; we just won’t do it particularly well. Tell me to cram 18 different things into my seven-hour teaching day, and I’ll cram them in; they just won’t be done effectively.

Many schools act as if tradeoffs don’t exist. Teachers are expected to teach exceptional reading lessons and exceptional math lessons (and don’t forget great science and social studies lessons, too!). We’re supposed to build a positive community of learners and instill moral character in our pupils, but those test scores better also be high!

You don’t get to have it all. Nobody does, and that includes schools. That’s just not how the world works, and schools, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don’t get to change the fundamental rules of time. They must either choose, which means saying no, or accept mediocrity (at best) in most of what they do.

The More Schools Attempt to Do, The More Resources They Will Need

One Facebook commenter said, “If we do want educators to do all of this, we must provide resources.” There are two problems with such an argument. First, there are large segments of the population that think we already spend too much on education. They are unlikely to support more money for things that aren’t directly related to academics. Second, asking for and receiving more funding opens schools up to even more criticism and makes them more vulnerable to the narrative that our schools are failing. Read any article critical of public schools in this country and you can be sure to hear about how much more money we spend than other countries and how even though we’re spending more on education than we did ten or twenty or fifty years ago, our results haven’t changed much. We’re not getting much bang for our buck, the argument goes, so maybe we should spend fewer bucks.

More spending means higher expectations, especially from those who think we already spend too much on schools. But those expectations are tied to academic performance because in most people’s minds academics is still the primary responsibility of schools. Nevermind that the money is being used for more administrators, counseling, discipline, and safer buses. The critics will pounce if increased funding doesn’t lead to higher test scores, regardless of whether those funds were intended to lead to higher test scores.

Schools are being judged on academics, even though academics make up a progressively smaller part of schools’ focus as they foolishly take on more and more non-academic responsibilities.

The Less Schools Do Well, the More They Will Be Criticized

By accepting responsibility for an ever-expanding role in the development of young people, schools have set themselves up for consistent, blistering attacks. Consequently, they have made it less likely that they will effectively develop young people. Their noble intentions have sabotaged their intended results.

Pulled in 50 directions, schools make it harder to do the one thing almost everyone expects of them — educate their students. In the process, they exhaust the people responsible for producing the desired outcomes. Every person working in a school has too much to do, and it’s no wonder.

When leaders fail to focus and instead attempt to solve every societal problem, it’s those doing the actual work who end up spread thin. Exhausted people aren’t effective. And when schools are blamed, the people working in them take it personally. They feel shit on, and shit on people don’t perform well. Some of them walk right out the door and never return.

Burned out people don’t need more to do. Those trying to solve every problem created by society don’t deserve to be scapegoated. Schools will never get the results they seek if they continue to stretch their employees like rubber bands and set them up to be criticized for failing to solve all of the problems they’ve been asked to solve.

When schools act as if they can do it all, then anything they fail to do well is ammunition for their critics. Enemies of public education can point to countless “failures” of public schools because schools have blindly accepted responsibility for so many things that they can’t help but fail at most of them.

If you take on reproductive health, then you’re going to be blamed when teenage pregnancy rates rise.

If you serve breakfast and lunch, you’ll be culpable for a nation of obese children.

If you’re going to have drug-prevention programs, then kids better use fewer drugs.

If you teach financial literacy, then guess who’s fault it is when millions of people grow up and take out zero-interest loans, creating a real estate bubble which eventually bursts and sends the entire economy into a tailspin?

If you’re going to take responsibility for instilling character in your students, then where will fingers be pointed by those who believe the country is in the midst of a moral crisis?

If you’re going to train teachers on suicide prevention, then who gets the blame when a student takes his or her own life?

Nearly every societal problem today can be blamed on schools. That’s because schools have made it easy for critics to blame them. When public schools attempt to solve every societal problem, they do nothing but undermine their own mission. They open the door for their enemies to point and say, “Look at how badly those public schools (fill in the blank).”

One commenter on my last article summarized: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”

I might finish the line… “when to others no responsibilities schools leave.”

19 Replies to “Schools Should Do Less”

  1. Very well analysed.
    Totally agree to the views expressed above. We really need to start demanding the respect that an important institution like a school should command rather than become a business catering to customers. When Goodness starts getting viewed as Weakness, it’s time to stop being too Good. Parents need to become more responsible towards their duties as Parents.

    1. And parents, “put your phone down and nobody gets hurt”. Some students are so desperate for attention. Are teachers now responsible for that too?

  2. Seriously, one of the reasons I am taking early retirement even though I can’t afford it. I raised my children! I don’t have the energy to raise 30 strangers children and still have them pass the state testing expectations.

    1. R
      I too retired early. I have found many ways to supplement my income. My mental health is WILDLY improved and I am truly living the dream!!
      I made that hard decision to ‘fail’ at the career I loved and leave. This really took some “head work” to get over the shame of not being able to handle it….. The expectation, again, is that we suck it up for the kids!
      The advantage of being teachers that have been expected to make so many things happen for so many years, as the author states, you will make your life happen with such quality…..because you are focused on one thing….YOU~
      After nearly 3 years away, I am just venturing into helping those that choose to stay in teaching have the resources they need to do it without mental breaking.

      ENJOY!

    2. My husband and I decided it in my best interest to retire at 25 years without drawing my retiree benefits because of the stress it was having on me. I left a profession that I love dearly. I hope now that I can help to support those still in the trenches to be impactful. This article expresses the exact reasons why I left early. I hurt every day for my career but not enough to go back and keep damaging myself by trying to attain the unattainable expectations of the American education system. My question now is how can we who see the problem for what it is, change it? I look forward to reading your responses.

  3. Washing machines? I had no idea there were washing machines in schools.
    As a second grade teacher, children are learning about what they will take from their class, 2R (respect and responsibility). When children learn those values at home, they come to school knowing they are a community of learners and that everyone has the right to learn.

  4. All kinds of AMEN! I love your analogy of restaurants that focus on a few things and doing those well. Schools have become the panacea for all societal ills, which is why we are “failing” to educate. Thank you for stating what many of us have felt for a long time. Will you please replace DeVos?

  5. I thoroughly enjoy all of your articles! They are spot on and convey thoughts that most of us are feeling. Do you still teach? I just wonder how your admin and district feel about your comments. I feel like we can’t be as vocal, share and express these kinds of thoughts. Somehow I don’t feel it would go over that well and we would be told as much by the higher ups. Thank you for being the voice for all of us teachers!

  6. This is a “No win situation” people think that they are entitled to all this. Maybe if we implement home economics and basic life skill courses, in addition to how to budget, and write checks, the students can start to learn how to do “Their own laundry?”

  7. AMEN!! Well said. I am calling it quits because I just can’t do it anymore. Parents have abdicated all parenting responsibilities and students are not prepared to come to school to learn. I feel sorry for new teachers just starting out. It’s no wonder they burn out in a few short years. I wonder if private schools are experiencing the same things.

  8. The reason these extra duties keep falling to schools is that school is virtually the only institution left that recognizes the vested interest our society has in providing for its children.

    Companies no longer believe that their wage structures should allow their employees to support an entire family on a single salary.

    Programs to provide nutrition and medical care to impoverished children come under constant attack as a waste of taxpayer money.

    People who foster and adopt unwanted, neglected, or abused children are greeted with surprise and, all too often, the words, “I sure couldn’t do that,” when these actions are revealed in conversation.

    And it ultimately comes from a cold-hearted attitude of shirking all responsibility for the well being of children not your own. An attitude so cold-hearted, it doesn’t even want schools to teach those children sexual responsibility in order to reduce the number of impoverished and unwanted babies born each year.

    The author of the article reveals her true attitude when she says, “If the school is teaching sexual education, there’s a series of uncomfortable conversations that I don’t have to have with my child.”

    God forbid the schools should actually be teaching kids something important that will better their lives.

    Should teachers and schools be doing less? Yes, of course — because society at large should be doing much, much more.

  9. Good article. As a 30 year veteran public school teacher, I can vouch for the fact that schools are increasingly taking over for parents. It disturbs me on more than one level. Reading an article like this gives me hope because it shows me I’m not alone in my thinking.

  10. Oh my now I know why I’m so tired. I am one of those doing laundry at least 5 loads per day. I give out shampoo, deodorant, etc. I council students with their problems. I serve over 300 girls daily in my PE classes in a crowded gym. My school is guiltily of all the above.

  11. Sadly, we, the education community, have allowed parents not to parent! I teach students with moderate to profound disabilities. Although my main focus is to teach my students to live independently, find a job, and contribute to their communities, many parents send THIER children to school without food, not bathed, in dirty clothes, and refuse to even attend an IEP meeting! I can refuse to help, but my heart won’t allow it! I can’t just walk a way. I am my students voice, literally. How do we fix this? Is it even fixable? I suppose I’m a part of the problem. However, I will do what ever it takes to see that my students are successful. For some of them, I’m it!

  12. I worked as a bus driver and a district administrator and everything in between, and it sure would be a lot easier if all our students were prepared in every way before that came into our schools and classrooms. Until the last few decades, schools did it right. 25 to 30% of the little buggers dropped out, and a far higher percentage of poor, minority, and disabled kids just left, and good riddance. Kids got it the way we taught it or else. It wasn’t our fault that some kids did get food from their no account parents, or the little bastards experienced psychological problems instead of toughening up a little. And just who’s idea was it to make us get the little truants to school in the first place. If a parent can’t summon up the effort to get their kids to school, the odds are we’re better off without that kid in the first place. And letting kids exercise DURING school? What evidence is there that exercise helps learning; I bet not any!

    I’m down with getting rid of all these ridiculous expectations of alleged school responsibilities. If kids can’t get their well fed, psychologically and psysically trouble free, well exercised and well adjusted behinds to school, we are better off without them. Give me the kids who are ready and able to learn without too much trouble for the rest of us. I sick of being forced to work with the other little ingrates

  13. Actually some exercise does help students focus more in the classroom and there is research to back it up. The problems started when it was removed decades ago. This is my 26th year of teaching and it would be fabulous if children did come to school fed, clean, and ready to learn, but the fact is that a lot don’t. I personally don’t consider the children the problem and if you do then “Don” please leave the classroom because you are certainly not the solution.
    That being said, the article has valid points that I support, but it doesn’t mean that I will hold powerless children responsible for their society’s shortcomings.

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