Scarce resources

Today after classes ended, I attended a planning meeting for teachers of advanced algebra.  The teachers meet once a week to discuss where they are, what they’re planning, and any problems they had.

The actual discussion of material relating to advanced algebra only took a few minutes.  But one of the teachers is also on the budget committee for the school, and she let everyone know that the copy center would run out of funds in two months.  This means, in theory, that by January no one in the school will be able to make copies.  What followed from this was a lengthy conversation about the copy situation.

What was so interesting (and informative) about listening to this was that although I was sitting in a room of mathematicians, there were many mathematical questions posed that most people at the meeting seemed uninterested in answering.  For example, one person began asking questions about the copy contract, wondering why it cost so much for us to make copies in the first place.  He suggested that it would be good to try to reduce the cost.  No one suggested an alternative to making lots of copies (perhaps this had been discussed at another meeting).  Next, the teacher on the budget committee also pointed out that our school receives a smaller percent of the state allocated per-student dollars than schools in another district.  She wondered why that was, but had no other information on that point.

After attending a conference on social justice a few weeks ago, this situation struck me as a great opportunity for learning.  It is certainly a lot of work for a single person to request a copy of the school district’s budget and do any sort of fiscal analysis.  But I have read about teachers who have requested that data and then had their students do the actual analysis.  This seems like a great way to demonstrate to students how real mathematics can be, and empower them to learn to think critically about choices those in power might make.  I am pretty sure that must meet the state standards somehow.

I realize that this is much more easily said than done.  I also realize that some people might consider such a task “political suicide,” and decide that it comes too close to risking their jobs.  I have to wonder, though: if the district is squandering money* and student learning is suffering as a result, don’t I have an obligation, as a teacher, to try to do something about that?

*I don’t mean to suggest that I think my district is really squandering money.  But it is a little bit suspicious for the district administration to hold back so much of the state funds.  What are they spending that on?  By my own observations, it’s not either technology or textbooks to foster student learning.  So what could it be?


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