Two concepts I remember from my high school economics class are the related principles of “division of labor” and “specialization.” The basic idea is to break a complex manufacturing task down into its component parts and assign a specific task to individual workers.
As individual workers specialize in one task, they become more efficient, thus cutting the time it takes to make the product, saving money in the long run. The savings can grow even more when you produce lots of the product, another economic concept called “economies of scale.”
Such ideas revolutionized manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution, but they also crept into other aspects of the modernizing world — like education.
This was partially out of necessity. As our population grew and became more urban, the educational system had to transform from agrarian or artisanal work-based learning at parents’ side, to one-room schoolhouses, to larger “factory”-like institutions. The division of labor between teachers and parents allowed one to focus on education and the other to focus on breadwinning; eventually teachers further subdivided and specialized. Teaching one grade or one subject allowed them to hone their craft.
The division of labor between parents and educators has come with some terrible costs, however, as we’ve been forcefully reminded since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
While there have always been parents and teachers who have viewed the schooling of children as a home/school partnership, too many others have been content to let the teacher be in charge of their kids’ lives for half of their waking hours. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this to a screeching halt.
When parents became, by necessity and overnight, full educational partners, it exposed the weaknesses in the social system we built using economic ideas. Parents, who’ve not yet mastered the adaptability that is the hallmark of modern education, were inundated with school resources to facilitate continuity in student learning. As simplified and relaxed were many educational expectations, a great number of parents were ill-equipped to absorb managing daily pedagogical routines and expectations into their already chaotic lives. Pile on job insecurity, food insecurity and other anxieties inherent in a pandemic, and it’s unsurprising that some students who did so well in brick-and-mortar schools have floundered outside of them.
Having outsourced their children’s education for years, many parents are breaking under the weight of the new educational home economy.
This is not to say that all parents are struggling, or that educators are unfeeling, dispassionate taskmasters. But educators have become so good at their craft that it’s been easy in the past for parents to slip into the trap of letting teachers juggle all the educating, all the managing, all the accountability. The societal division of labor between education and parenting has proven a disastrous one.
We can’t treat children like a manufactured product, expecting that industrial processes can churn out refined, contributing citizens after funneling raw kids through a compartmentalized and specialized process. Economic principles may provide insight into, but cannot effectively solve social problems.
We will need to find a better solution to parenting/school partnerships going forward. If we prolong a return to educational “normalcy,” the consequences will be dire in the years ahead. Success will mean more communication, more organization, more shared accountability between home and school.
Until then, I’m sorry, parents, but modern education failed you — by being so successful. If our society doesn’t do a better job of sharing the teaching workload between school and home, we may soon find every child left behind in one way or another.
Nathaniel R. Ricks is a teacher in the Canyons School District and parent of three children.