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Non-Custodial Care

The custodial aspect of schools has, in some ways, eclipsed their educational function.

In the many debates about the future of US education, I don't often hear mentioned the custodial function of schools. This has long been one of the most important responsibilities of public education -- the physical guardianship of our children from early childhood through adolescence -- yet it is seldom acknowledged in public discourse on education, except, perhaps, in the context of school safety.

Safety is unquestionably important. But I'm thinking of the more mundane aspect of custodianship: simply, providing children with a physical place to stay during the day while their parents (their true custodians) are working. For the past three decades, as more and more families have two working parents or are run by a single working parent, the custodial aspect of schools has, in some ways, eclipsed their educational function. Parents often have more options to help their children with learning (even if the imperfect option is casting themselves as tutor) than they do if their child has taken sick and they have to go to work. And unless our economy takes a very different turn and a single income becomes enough to support a family, I don't see this scenario changing.

That is why I have always remained a friendly skeptic of the notion that technology is going to render obsolete the traditional schoolhouse. As mobile phones become mobile computers, we may truly be arriving at a time in history when learning can be delivered anytime, anywhere. But the mere fact that students can practice multiplication tables anytime of their choosing doesn't address the issue that they still need to be physically under adult care.

I was struck by the tension between educational and custodial responsibilities in a New York Times story about a high school e-learning program that uses computer labs in order to meet state-mandated class-size restrictions (which do not apply to labs). There is no teacher for the lab, only a facilitator. This has not sat well with many parents, teachers, and students, some of whom did not understand they would not have a teacher with the class.

I'm confident that these students are receiving solid instruction. It's provided by Florida Virtual School, which has been a state-certified homeschooling option for many years. I also don't fault school administrators, who came up with this option as a way to balance the corrosive effects of budget cuts with class-size mandates. And in a purely pragmatic sense, the schools are executing their custodial function with the provision of these virtual classrooms.

But the New York Times article at one point conflates these labs with blended learning. As the kids like to say, Not! In a true hybrid model, technology and face-to-face instruction are leveraged for what each can do best -- and there is a teacher with content expertise involved with the students. In this new Florida model, what we have is a non-custodial custodial arrangement, in which, like in an acrimoniously divorced family, none of the parties are particularly happy.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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