Opinion: Teachers shouldn’t have to buy supplies
School budgets were tight in the Oklahoma farming community where I grew up, but teachers’ dedication was boundless. Take, for instance, my high school biology teacher, who seemed to live for his students and active learning. To experience dissection, he instructed each of us to bring a frog to class. When 17, farm-pond frogs, mostly alive and jumping, invaded our school, it didn’t take long to realize the slip-up.
It was the 1960s when teachers were expected to provide their own instructional supplies for the classroom. Not much has changed since except that teachers are ordering scientific dissecting kits online, and the public is beginning to question the “buy-your-own” supplies mandate.
“What business office would expect the workers to provide their own copy paper and printer cartridges; yet, we’re expected to pay for the consumable materials we use,” one teacher recently explained to me.
Put that way, the problem seems to have a simple fix, but it doesn’t. The problem is more than whether or how much teachers should pay for their supplies and materials. The blind spot may be that age-appropriate supplies and instructional materials are often considered nice “add-ons,” not vital tools to support a rigorous, interactive curriculum. Effective teaching does depend on paper, scissors and other supplies together with hands-on teaching tools, especially in science classes where students need to do observations and experiments not just read about them.
Daniel Koretz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the lack of quality instructional materials and teacher professional development in their use impacts the continuing low-test scores of American students compared to those in other countries. The real problem goes beyond who spends how much on supplies. It’s about the general lack of consistently provided supplies and high-quality learning materials in schools.
A 2018 federal Department of Education survey showed that 94% of American teachers spend about $500 yearly on their classrooms. However, teachers have differing rates of spending due to the grade level or subject matter they teach or personal decisions about options. One teacher told me she spent $750 per year on supplies while a teacher in another school said she spent almost nothing.
Currently classroom requirements are funded several ways: Some districts provide stipends, ranging from $100 to $250. Other districts keep a supply “closet” until stock is gone or ask teachers to write requests to be approved by the principal or a school committee. School districts also have budgets for durable teaching tools like basketballs and microscopes. Teachers solicit nonprofit organizations or apply to government agencies for grants or go online to crowdsource. Families and teachers also shop sales at discount stores.
For the past few years, Kansas students have shown lower achievement on national and international exams compared with students in places beyond Kansas. Exams are not fully reliable evaluations, but they are how the public compares educational progress.
An important part of increasing students’ knowledge is for teachers to have adequate teaching supplies and materials for hands-on learning, and Kansas needs to figure out how to achieve this because putting this funding on the backs of teachers is unfair, unequal, inconsistent and not effective.
In the meantime, it’s December, the season for giving. Current requests include books for classroom reading, notebooks, markers and. for some classes, dissection kits. Let’s give what we can to a nearby school.
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean and professor emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.