Monday, January 24, 2005

What Are Schools For? Part I

The district in which I work is facing a shortfall of upwards of $18 million next year. Serious cuts will have to be made to balance the books. Discussions center around layoffs (the current number is 142), closing/consolidating smaller schools, deleting jobs (counselors, nurses, vice principals, etc), and even the most sacred cow of them all--extracurricular athletics.

This last topic was the subject of lunchtime discussion today. At the heart of this topic is the question, what are schools for?

If you poll random people with this question you get several answers. Having done this in the past, I'll share with you the most common answers:

1. to teach students (master a body of knowledge)
2. to prepare students for life
3. to prepare students for college
4. to prepare students for the workforce
5. to help each student reach his/her potential
6. to instill a love of learning
7. to make good citizens for our country

Of course, the actual answer is probably a little bit of each of the above. While we can argue over the percentage of time and effort each of those answers would merit at an ideal school, certainly schools exist for all these reasons and more.

So when beans have to be counted and cuts have to be made, should we consider cutting athletic programs?

In today's discussion I took the side of cutting athletics. A fellow math teacher took the opposing view. I'll try to summarize her points here:

1. not every student feels success in a classroom,
2. school should nurture the whole child,
3. athletics is sometimes the only hook that gets certain kids to school, and
4. athletics plays a large role in the college aplication process.

Given these views, she asserted that athletics should be spared and that the district should cut non-school-site-related activities (e.g., administrative overhead) only.

I can argue with none of those four points yet draw a different conclusion.

In a district our size, $18 million is a huge sum of money. Deep, painful cuts will have to be made, and I don't know if $18 million can be cut from the district office(s) and still leave a viable district (as opposed to a collection of schools). We must prioritize our programs because cuts will have to be made. By definition, extra-curricular activities, those above and beyond the school's curriculum, should at least face the axe. But given her points above, how could we possibly cut athletics?

To be continued....


Jeff Erickson said...

Your colleague's arguments in favor of athletics could just as easily apply to art, music, or drama. Or church.

Darren said...

Art, music, and drama are part of the school curriculum. Courses are offered in those fields, as are courses in PE.

Extra-curricular athletics, like church, are not part of the school curriculum.

Thank you for posting!

MikeZ said...

(First-time visitor, coming from Nr 2 Pencil)

I'm a long-time California resident. Ever since I can remember, there have been school bond issues on the ballot. Eevry 4 years, another hundred million or so gets approved for education. An outside observer would conclude, based on that enormous flow of money, that California schools would rival the Taj Mahal in architectural elegance, and Microsoft headquarters in technical excellence - and have Nobel laureates teaching classes.

The true picture, as you know, is somewhat short of that lofty ideal.

The question remains, then, where does all the money go? I'm not inclined to pour more money down an unstoppable sinkhole, or into a system that seems to have no clue on how to allocate what it gets.

As a front-line teacher, how would you explain the disparity between what the voters send the schools and what the schools report?

I recommend reading Richard Mitchell ("Graves of Academe", "The Underground Grammarian", ...). "Underground Grammarian" is online, at

Underground GrammarianHe was hammering away at "educationists" long before Dians Ravitch ("Left Behind").

Anonymous said...

"1. not every student feels success in a classroom". So? How many students who are successful in classrooms are harrassed everywhere else as nerds or geeks? This is true of math students in particular, so it's surprising a math teacher would say something like this. Furthermore, the argument is sometimes made that few students will even need algebra outside of school, let alone more advanced subjects. What if she were laid off?

"2. school should nurture the whole child". Why?

"3. athletics is sometimes the only hook that gets certain kids to school". So? How many students like this are there? Divide the number of such students into the total amount spent on athletics. Is this a reasonable amount?

"4. athletics plays a large role in the college aplication process." In this age of questioning everything, perhaps we should question why that is and if it's really a good thing.

Jim C.
zgystardst at yahoo dot com

Polski3 said...

Welcome to the world of educational blogging!

From what you have written, you must teach in the San Juan USD. As per your recent comments, I believe athletics is good, that athletics is beneficial to many who participate, but, if due to the budget problems, the students are faced with no teachers or no coach, IMO, it is a no brainer.....bye Coach! Interestingly, I have never heard of any pro sports team financing any high school athletic team.

Darren said...

MikeZ: Bond measures don't fund schools or programs, they fund construction and "modernization" and the like. Where does school district money go? I don't have a clear picture. But if I made babysitting wages ($4/student/hour) I'd make between $120,000 and $160,000 per year, and I'm not making that much. That much money's not coming to me or my classroom, that's for sure!

Anonymous: I share many of your "why" questions. We kept adding and adding over the years, in some cases usurping parental rights and responsibilities in the process, and have forgotten what is essential and what is merely nice to have. Additionally, you asked "what if she were laid off?" She may very well be. I'm somewhat concerned for myself, too.