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_Five Reasons Why the Economic Downturn Could be Good for You and Your School
© Dr Kathie Nunley

Recently the media has been filled with news of economic woes, not just here in the US, but globally. People everywhere are tightening their budgetary belts and that includes taxpayers, towns and school districts. It seems like everyone and every institution is making cuts. While at home, budget cuts generally mean that we have to learn to do without, budget cuts in schools can sometimes lead to a better educational experience for students.

How can the economic downturn be a GOOD event for schools? The tightening of the school's money belt usually means cutting out nonessentials, reexamining priorities and reducing the number of people working in nonacademic and administrative activities. Basically, cutting the waste and cutting excess staff. Often this can mean fewer people working in the upper layer of the school and fewer gatekeepers for those people. Here are 5 reasons why this could result in a better system for children:

1. Smaller staffing creates more direct and personal contact between students and administration. Rather than going through secretaries or assistants, students may spend more time directly interacting with administration. This creates a stronger environment of trust in the school. And the development of trust and the perception of trust is probably the biggest factor in predicting whether students are willing to report threats of violence and bullying in schools(1), as well as ensures their successful school adjustment(2).

2. The more people involved in any activity, the more likely it is that any one individual will fail to take initiative. Most of us are familiar with the "too many cooks in the kitchen" scenario and this is true in schools as well. Heavy-staffed schools can create a "too many cooks" scenario. No decision can be made without a meeting. Discussions tend to go in circles, little is accomplished and details are rarely planned well, if at all.

A smaller-staffed school allows teachers and other staff to feel more involved, more willing to make decisions, and more willing to speak out about problems they see. Given that nearly half our population of adults are reluctant to speak out about anything when placed in a group situation(5), a smaller decision-making dynamic allows people to be more comfortable in expressing their ideas. Poor projects that traditionally continue simply because no one is comfortable speaking out against them, could be retired. (7)

3. Less diffusion of responsibility leads to greater empathy and better learning outcomes. The greater the perception we have that we are solely responsible for the helping of another human (in this case, a student), the greater empathy we have for that person and the more willing we are to respond to them(4). When there are fewer staff and support persons in a school, there is less diffusion and /or confusion of responsibility. Each staff person becomes more empathetically involved and more willing to help. (3)

At first glance, you may panic at the thought of losing your classroom aide. You may feel that having a special ed support person or paraprofessional in every classroom is a good thing. In fact, it often leads to poorer instruction due to this diffusion of responsibility. As I write in my book, "Enhancing Your Layered Curriculum Classroom",

I have seen many school districts, in their zealous attempts to run a well-funded special education department, actually end up defeating the purpose of inclusion. When special education students come into the regular classroom with an aide or other professional specifically there because the student is there, we often undermine differentiation. This happens because it now becomes tempting for the regular education teacher to not worry so much about including that particular student, because there is another professional adult in the room who will be doing so. Not only does the regular education teacher not worry about including the student, they may feel that to do so would encroach upon the special education professional's territory.. . . (scenario given). . .
If we look at this classroom, which by the way is run very typically, we can see how an overzealous special education program has undermined the concept of differentiation and inclusion. [the regular ed teacher] feels no need to run a differentiated classroom because [the special ed teacher] is there in the room each day and takes care of individual accommodations. Not only that, [the regular ed teacher] might feel uncomfortable offering accommodations to these 3 students, because that would in essence be taking away [the special ed teacher's] job. (8)

So the turf battles we often create by adding staff, can sometimes undermine our purpose.

4. Students benefit when schools have a more streamlined staff. When a school has an excess amount of people doing a myriad of jobs, a system develops to ensure each of those jobs continues. After all, if there are 3 layers of gatekeepers around a principal or other administrator, then a system develops to ensure students pass through all 3 layers before the ultimate face-to-face meeting. This perpetual ensure-everyone-keeps-their-job scenario was seen recently in an expose' on New Jersey's failing hospital system. They had so many specialists on staff that test after test and a myriad of lab screenings were prescribed to all patients, whether they needed it or not, just to ensure they were utilizing all their specialists. (7).

We certainly see this in schools. A local high school in my area has a guidance department which consists of a receptionist, a secretary, the guidance counselors and a director of guidance. A student with a schedule change request must first state their business to the receptionist who then sends them to the secretary, who then schedules a meeting with the guidance counselor, who then after meeting with the student gets final approval from the director of guidance. The whole system really has no purpose other than to sustain the system.

5. A more efficient school leads to better academic achievement and possibly more money spent on those directly involved with instructional delivery (teachers). Look around your school and imagine if you could cut out the excess, streamline processes, policies and decision-making. Imagine if ALL staff were empowered to make decisions, not just those who seek leadership roles (by the way, groups of people consisting only of leadership-seeking types tend to squabble the most and solve the fewest problems successfully) (6).

What if teachers and other individual staff members were each given autonomy to solve problems and do what you do best - serve children.

So the next time you hear the bemoaning of the masses over the budget shortfalls and the cuts that will need to be made, smile and imagine the possibilities.


(1) Sulkowski, M (2011). An investigation of students' willingness to report threats of violence in campus communities. . Psychology of Violence, Vol 1(1),53-65.

(2) Baker, J; Grant, S.; ;Morlock, L. (2008). The teacher- student relationship as a developmental context for children with internalizing or externalizing behavior problems. School Psychology Quarterly, Vol 23(1), Mar 2008, 3-15

(3) Whyte, G. (1991). Diffusion of responsibility : Effects on the escalation tendency. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 76(3), 408-415.

(4) Shaw, L, Batson, C. & Todd, R. (1994). Empathy avoidance: Forestalling feeling for another in order to escape the motivational consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 67(5), 879-887.

(5) Henderson,  L., & Zimbardo, P. (1998). Shyness. In H. S. Friedman, R. Schwartzer, R. Cohen Silver, & D. Spiegel (Eds.) Encyclopedia of mental health, Vol. 3, (pp. 497- 509). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

(6). Nazimiec, J. & Johnson, J. (2010). Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Group Profieciency and a Function of Social Boldness and Reticence. Presented at the NEEPS Conference, New Paltz, NY

(7) Inside Healthcare: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen. http://www.inside-healthcare.com/index.php/sections/columns/1608-too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen

(8). Nunley, K. (2011). Enhancing Your Layered Curriculum Classroom: Tips, Tune-ups and Technology. Brains.org: Amherst NH.

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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