College: They pay for laundry nowadays but are we still being taken to the cleaners?

A friend called me to consult about a high school graduation gift for my daughter and said one her ideas was to give my girl rolls of quarters to use in the laundry machines in the dorm. We often joked about how we never did break the habit of hoarding quarters for laundry and still cashing them in at the supermarket every couple of years. Being a thorough person, she called my daughter’s college to find out if the machines still take quarters and discovered that students no longer have to pay to do laundry at school – it’s covered under the exorbitant tuition (they do offer to send it out for a fee – I wonder who does that?). My theory is that as soon as the college went from women only to co-ed in the late 80s they figured that if the machines were free the guys would be more likely to do laundry. But even as late as 2005 students were paying, so I have to wonder if it became a selling point with parents – “Look! If you go into debt up to your eyeballs your kid will still have clean clothes.” Or something like that.

But with the recent flap at the University of Virginia and others like it (they basically fired their President for not being prescient about the economic downturn and a patsy for big donors), I am beginning to wonder if the education we are about to pay for will become obsolete. College is important, yes, but has the one we have chosen to give our daughter the kind of education she needs? Any number of families we know have seen their freshmen turn on their heels and return home, saying the schools are not providing the kind of teaching they expected or want. Kids have always come back home, of course, for any number of good reasons – I took a year off myself to regroup emotionally and financially – but part of it seems to be that students are not satisfied to learn in a lecture hall what they can easily look up on the Internet. Somebody, somewhere is probably designing a degree program based entirely on TED talks. MIT and Harvard have seriously upped the ante on online learning – for free, for now – and now all universities are scrambling to figure out what that means, whether they should copy the Edex, as it is called, model and whether they can afford to. But I don’t want my child to learn online or at home. She learned how to use the internet for research in high school, and lucky for us her the actual teaching environment at her high school is low tech – it’s an essential school, which means it values dialogue and critical thinking more than anything else. If she finds herself in a lecture hall she may roll her eyes but she’ll stick around and listen.

What’s even more worrisome is the message that all the college and high school graduates are hearing this year: that it doesn’t matter how educated they are, come graduation day they will not be able to find a job. Just this evening I heard my girl tell her younger brother that when he ventures off to college in several years she will probably be back living at home – not a terrible fate but not the one most young adults (or their parents) have in mind. These days it seems easier to instill values than it is to instill optimism. I keep trying to think of my parents, growing up during the Depression and then World War II and how they never could have foreseen the prosperity that came after those times. They said that during the 1950s, it was like the sun coming out for the first time after a long winter. While we have not endured the same kinds of darkness they did, we are nonetheless steeped in a fog of misinformation and cynicism that gives us no clear path back into the light. Even the foundations of faith and democracy feel less solid than they once did – why should academia be immune?

Hope springs eternal, though – and I cling to the cliché. I recall the moment last fall when our girl was perched on the edge of her seat in one of those lecture halls at the school she will attend, listening to a professor reveal the threads of evolution in a Victorian poem. I see the books pile up in her room that are summer reading for fun (Nabokov? Seriously?), I hear her name the movies she wants to see this summer and note not a single zombie or vampire walks among them. And I remind myself – again – that the way we acquire knowledge is less important that the way we prioritize, sift and synthesize it, and the way we apply it is most important of all. Whether colleges and universities are funding that process – and putting salaries and teaching fellowships ahead of laundry services and coffee bars – is what we are about to find out.

Dusting Off the Soapbox


I have signed up for another tour of duty advocating for special education in our school district and so am subject to ruminating and ranting about how to do this kind of work without becoming jaded.  It’s probably already too late. 

The local organizations, committees, boards and councils charged with overseeing or advising school districts are made up of people who have consciously chosen to volunteer and advocate on behalf of students and communities.  These are roles people take on outside of their chosen profession; it’s not anyone’s day job (although we could certainly make a cases that it can be a full time job).  In larger towns and cities the lines between volunteer organizations and professional and political organizations are distinct, but when it comes to schools (and churches, for that matter) in smaller communities, those lines become blurred.

My point:  while the volunteer groups are in it (mostly) for the community and the kids, the same cannot be assumed to be true of educators and staff.  Hear me out.  At the outset it seems cynical, but education is a business and the currencies are power and turf – for every fabulous, gifted educator there are a dozen for whom it is a job where they do what they need to do, benefits are good, job security is great and the summers are open.  Being a teacher or a special education provider doesn’t automatically make someone a better person or make them insightful enough to see what is best for each child; not everyone is equally good at their job.  I hasten to add that people who volunteer don’t win the altruism prize automatically, either – they are just as vulnerable to power grabs and turf wars as anyone; for years we had PTA groups who refused to sit in the same room with each other to share fundraising and or even calendar event information.

Parents should recognize that administrators and teachers are under tremendous pressure to perform in a variety of ways, and for some teachers and schools the best way to get your students’  statewide test scores up is to get the children with difficulties assigned to another class or school.  Inclusion is a wonderful idea that takes tremendous work to implement successfully; not everyone is up to the task.

I didn’t come to this view quickly or easily myself – someone in my family, a high school teacher and track coach for over 30 years – clued me in ages ago when my kids started school but it took some time for me to grasp his fuller meaning.  He advised me that, just as in the business world, educators  are (understandably) interested in establishing their place within the educational community and that parents and kids are transients in that world – parents come and go but, especially with unions, colleagues are forever.  Sticking together and resisting certain kinds of change among staff peers is key to survival.  I remembered this when I learned over the summer that teachers in our district were asking that their non-certified colleagues get the ax, regardless of how successful they were with the kids.  I also thought of it during the various search processes where people lobbied to get friends hired or took our staff with them with them to new assignments.  People have a right to pursue their professional goals, but sometimes those goals do not match up to those of the students they serve.

Thus, I think parents who advocate for their children with special needs hobble themselves when we assume that everyone at the table is in it only for the kids – we are constantly having to push people to make child-centered decisions because in many cases they really don’t know what that means and making a child-centered decision often means change – and we know that people are naturally resistant to change even when their intentions are good.  We have seen again and again that some of the people working with our children do not learn quickly or adapt well to new methodologies.  I’m not saying that such educators are not doing their best (though some aren’t); I am just pointing out that they are people who are not inherently more virtuous or altruistic than anyone else, that education is their job, and that parents and volunteer organizations would do well to remember that when they interact with district staff.

 When advocating for children who are having difficulties, parents often feel so vulnerable and exposed by the process of asking for help they fail to see clearly what other people bring to bear on the situation.  Parents are seldom at their best when their children are the topic of a meeting (duh) and this adds to the power imbalance and increases exponentially the possibility of misunderstanding.  Most of the families that come to me at the outset of their interaction with the district tend to exhibit one of two postures:  fierce and demanding, or needy and apologetic.  The demeanor I strive for – and don’t always achieve – is unrelentingly realistic and collaborative.  It requires listening when I don’t feel like it to people I don’t respect, overlooking small slights that are painful for me but that don’t affect my child, arriving with an agenda that has as many bullets praising things that do happen as things that require attention, and advocating for teachers getting what they need so that children get what they need.

 Naturally, it is not fair or realistic to assume that everyone is as invested in a child’s success as the parent, or that they are invested in the same way; indeed I have seen several cases where schools offer help and parents decline services.  In both schools and families there are so many things competing for attention and resources it’s impossible to give every issue, every child the attention they deserve.  The key is to try, and to create and maintain a climate in which that effort is rewarded.

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