Friday, April 16, 2010

In which false economies screw poor kids.

I want to talk a little bit about class sets.

First, a little background: Lots of teachers make absurd amounts of copies. Completely preposterous amounts of paper get distributed to students, who end up throwing it all away or losing it in the sea of mostly-useless papers that their backpacks become. In addition to being counterproductive, this is environmentally unsound and costs schools a shitload of money. So many schools, as a way to counter this, put limits on the number of copies teachers can make, either by giving them accounts on copiers with limited numbers of copies, or by giving them a paper quota and making teachers keep track of their own paper. And some teachers, even when they're not so restricted, feel bad about the paper they're using, and try to cut down themselves on the number of copies they make.

One of the forms this takes is the class set. Since many teachers teach three or four or five sections of the same class, they'll make one set of thirty copies of whatever they would've handed out, and expect kids to use them in class, but then return them at the end of class in a state that allows the next class to use them.

Sometimes, this is done for things like readings -- in which case it makes sense, if we assume that no one is going to re-read these texts after the class ends, and they're simply going to get thrown away anyway, which is often the case. But more often than not, this gets done with things like worksheets, along with the instruction to work on a separate sheet of paper (the same principle is at play when math teachers assign problems out of the book, although on a somewhat longer-term basis).

What gets lost in this is that paper provided by students is also paper. In fact, we end up using more paper this way: we've gone from 150 sheets (one for each student) to 180 (one for each student to write on, plus a class set of the questions). It's actually even worse than this: many teachers know that students benefit, when reviewing, from having the answers and the questions in the same place, so instruct them to copy the questions onto their own sheet, so we now have to have enough paper for two sets of questions (one of them presumably copied in somewhat larger print).

We're also then using class time for the copying of words that are already printed, as well as the extra time the teacher needs to spend making sure to get all the sheets back (as a substitute, this is a huge issue -- teachers are sometimes generous enough to leave a couple of extra copies, but even so, if I lose an average of one in each period, I won't have enough for the last class, and since I don't have copier privileges, it's tough to remedy this) -- this ends up occupying three or four minutes of class time, which sounds trivial until you remember that it's almost ten percent of the class.

So in doing this, we use significantly more resources, all in order to transfer costs from schools to students. And the funny thing is, this always fucking happens in the schools where the students are poorest -- schools with rich students almost universally can afford a few extra copies. We are, on a large scale, transferring the costs of education to poor kids and their parents, and we're calling it "greening."


  1. Jesus, what an entirely backwards situation. Obviously I'm in the clouds for suggesting this given the fact that the CPS doesn't like to fund things that help students, but this seems to be as good of a reason as any to provide things like e-readers, laptops, iPads, or whatever to students, at least at school. I know people hate the thought of it, but I think we should really be heading towards as minimal use of paper as possible, however that's possible.

  2. The problem with that is that schools are fucking terrible about technology. Even in a fairly young, fairly technically literate math department like the one I was in last year, the standard way of combining parts of two assignments involved a copier, scissors, tape, and a copier again.

    Also, inevitably, we'd end up with software that privileged making sure people didn't look at porn over actual usability -- there would be really serious restrictions on what you could do with it. Right now, as a teacher, you can't look at (e.g.) YouTube at school -- and I don't think there's any way to even petition for an override, if you want to use it for educational purposes.

    The funny thing is that of course the kids know all the proxies to get around these kinds of restrictions -- but the teachers don't.

    They'd inevitably decide they wanted software tailor-made for the situation, and they'd inevitably end up contracting for software that sucked. For example: since our gradebook software doesn't allow courses to be transferred from one teacher to another, they created new classes for me with all the same students in them as classes that already existed -- which means I spent my morning re-entering all the previous teacher's grades manually, since obviously you can't transfer assignments between two different classes.

    Another example: the school has a cart of laptops that you can wheel around, so you can bring the lab to your class instead of bringing your class to the lab. This sounds like a good idea, but it turns out they forgot to get one of the carts that allows you to plug in the laptops while they're in the cart, which means in order to use it you need to have thirty conveniently-spaced outlets around your classroom. Guess how many classrooms do.

    The list of these things goes on.

  3. Have you seen the episode from season 4 of The Wire where Prezbo and a student discover, halfway through the year, that the school has the newest edition of the math textbook they're using, still in packaging and undistributed and collecting dust in the school storage room?



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