Outside the Echo Chamber

echo-1Education is messy. Like any system, nothing in our public schools is simple. While it’s really easy to point the blame at teachers, school boards, and the government, the problems run deeper than that. Yesterday, it came to light that a school in Pennsylvania had enacted a controversial practice of trying to recoup the money families hadn’t paid towards their children’s hot lunches. A firestorm of comments broke out across social media. A handful of people* defended the district’s idea, but the general public seemed to be outraged.

But like all things in life, things aren’t always how they seem. When I did a search on Twitter at 6:30 PM, only one person actually tweeted at the school district. Their Facebook page didn’t reveal much either. People opined all over the news yet none of them suggested the one thing that might actually fix the problem: speak up to the school.

The same thing happens in the personal finance world. One blogger will lament the fact that school teaches so little about life. Another will say that they learned about algebra and Homer but little about consumer education and finance. Seconds later, the floodgates open with people commiserating about how ill-equipped they were to face the real world.

It’s heartbreaking that people feel this way. It’s equally tragic that these comments are going unheard. You see, it looks like hearts and favorites, retweets and quotes are signs that people are listening. But remember your audience. These aren’t the stakeholders of Canon-McMillan School District in Pennsylvania. This isn’t the curriculum committee that designed your high school units of study. These are your followers. People who sought you out for ideas and insights, laughs and GIFS. These are the people you follow. This is a curated list of people from around the world that you–or Buffer or some other tool that I’m too inept to use–selected to follow.

If you see something, really say something. If you want to talk about real life, talk in real life. Step outside the echo chamber and have a real conversation. No one can change what happened, and the only way to try to prevent it from happening again is to get the dialogue going.

*My eye is twitching. Yes, the post is coming. No, I’m still not calm enough to write it without saying naughty words.

So Tell Me…How do you really say something? What issues matter to you? Share links if you’ve got ‘em!

Note: In case you’re so inclined, here’s the link to the school district and the letter I mailed to the school principal.

September 20, 2016

Mrs. Unitas,

I’m certain that you, your school, and your district are overwhelmed with feedback from the public regarding your hot lunch program and the strategy the school board employed to recover money from families. I’m also certain that a lot of that feedback hasn’t been diplomatic, kind, or productive. Of course, this is a complex issue that is being boiled down to a few paragraphs in the media.

Nonetheless, I’m writing to you in the hopes that your district will reconsider your program and find other ways to ensure that all students’ basic needs are being met without making students feel different, ostracized, or responsible for something outside of their control. As someone who is very familiar with public education, I still only have a fledgling understanding of the nuances of school budgets. But balancing a budget at the expense of hungry children can’t possibly be the answer. Certainly, as an educator who has students’ interests at heart, you know that. In fact, I doubt very much that you were even involved in the policy. Still, I couldn’t not say something. You have my support as your lead your school and your district in a new direction.

Thank you for doing what is best for children,



Outside the Echo Chamber

19 thoughts on “Outside the Echo Chamber

  1. It is very sad that parents in this rich country cannot pay for school lunch. We should know the reason why they cannot afford to pay or send home made lunch to kids. Here in Toronto, when my daughter was going to school, I send her home made lunch. Most parents paid for that. I cannot understand why parents didn’t make the payments for the lunch.

    1. As a school administrator who has dealt with this exact issue, some parents cannot afford the lunch but can’t or won’t fill out the free & reduced lunch paperwork. We have a team of social workers to address that and help families if they are eligible. We have another group of students whose parents are just above the cut offs and do struggle to pay bills. Then we have kids who have nicer phones than me whose parents couldn’t be bothered to pack some money or go into their online account to make sure there is money there. The key point in this – they are KIDS and they are not the problem. (Our mantra – the problem is the problem, the kid is not the problem!) Our district opted to address parents first, add collections if absolutely necessary and leave the kids out of it. There are other places to cut – and their lunches aren’t it.

  2. I think the issue is more to do with the nature of the Internet. People find like-minded people on Twitter, for example, so they can then in turn complain or go “look, see, this is awesome/horrible/whatever” and have commiseration about it. Not much is intended in the way of change, just to be a “voice” calling for it – to, of course, be able to say “well I helped too, I posted a tweet!” which isn’t at all how things need to be done, ha.
    It’s become easy to have the appearance of a “warrior” on the Internet, because we tell everyone what we do. And if that happens to be that we are enraged about something, we spew it into the ether, under the guise of “raising awareness” and think our part is done. Yay, Internet, lol.

    1. Yes, Jessica, that’s exactly it. People almost treat it like a checklist of sorts. Spoke out about x, y, z. Now I can return to tweeting about Scandal and wine (guiltily raises hand).

  3. Penny, you make a very good point (as usual). While I hadn’t heard about this particular issue before, I have been among those lamenting about the lack of financial literacy education in our schools. So I asked our local school board about it and learned that NJ has mandated financial literacy education. Now, I didn’t take it far enough perhaps and do something to influence all the states that don’t have it, but I was glad I spoke up and I learned something in the process. Complaining or raising awareness among your friends and followers certainly has its place, but by itself, it doesn’t do much to change the situation.

    1. Gary, you’re the best and this just confirms it. There are so many things that could be improved in education. Literally no good comes of badmouthing schools or ideas or whatever to people who have zero input. Taxpayers have so much more influence than they realize. I wish more of them would voice their concerns to the proper channels. A lot of us agree, but their money talks more than anything!

  4. The echo chamber can make things seem much bigger than they are, and much smaller. For instance, when I see the posts my tea party relatives share, I get the sense that they are extremely upset over things I have no knowledge (and little concern) for. But if I click out of curiosity, I’ll get a bunch of similar links to Breitbart, etc and see they are all whipped up about the same thing. Maybe this happens to my aunt too if she clicks on my some of my more progressive FB shares. (Like the one time I was shocked when she liked when I shared “MItt Romney for President of the Zombie Apocalypse”)

    We could all use some time and air to get things calmed down enough to converse rationally sometimes.

  5. Well, Mrs. PIE and I whole-heartedly agree with you here. Our wish is that some of our readers would actually disagree with us and give a reason for it. Being Brirish by birth, our sense of humor can sometimes be taken as offensive at times. Too drole, too sarcastic, too….
    I even hesitated about our last post on PIE tunes and my musical ramblings. But hell, I published it anyway and people liked it. Who knew?

    So, I would say I am getting more comfortable with the blogging space. At least to start speaking my mind a bit more.

    With that, if you see anything from us on Twitter or posts that you wish to challenge, disagree with, please tell us. We’ll take it as conversational, will not be offended and hopepfully laugh about it in that very annoying British way. 🙂

  6. I agree that the proper parties need to be addressed if you want to see change. You don’t get far challenging a return policy to an entry-level cashier, for example. They didn’t make that policy and they aren’t allowed or able to over-ride it. Of course you ask for the manager or someone with more “authority” in that situation. Same goes for public education–or really any sector. Thanks for pointing this out–it is easy to lose sight of this in the echo chambers of the Internet.

    1. You’re always so thoughtful, Kalie. That’s the perfect way to explain the situation. It’s important to make sure that we’re communicating with people who have a say.

  7. Morgen says:

    I support the policy.

    While it certainly it is ‘felt’ by those ABOVE the level of needing governmental assistance, as the story notes those students are not affected simply because the government has already agreed to paying their way, I suspect it’s a great thing to be teaching our middle income children:

    If you can afford to pay, and you charge an item, you must pay for that item or there will be consequences.

    It IS the real life financial class so many of us beg to have taught in schools.

    We know that the program is working, reducing debt to the school by something in the range of 60 – 80%, so we know that for the majority of those behind paying their bills, they were able to pay and the incentive required to do so was simply moving from a hot lunch, to a cold one, or as an older child skipping a meal.

    If the concern is that pride is involved, I have to say that it’s something for the parents to ‘get over’. It is not appropriate or acceptable to go thousands of dollars into debt in order to maintain your pride, or to ensure that your child has a lunch above room temperature. Teaching your child that accruing debt, walking away from obligations and simply taking what you want is acceptable as long as it makes you appear to be like the others (keeping up with the Joneses anyone?) is the horror story that our society is currently built on.

    Finally, If there is a family that has need that would be supported by qualifying for governmental assistance, then I believe it is likely the school would work with them to absorb the prior balance as long as the family is then signing up for the assistance. From a financial point of view, the school gets reimbursed for those on the program rather than carrying the burden of an extra 100,000 a year by itself… which I think we know would be well spent on tutors, supplies, electricity.

    To address the actual issue of the error where a young man received a hot lunch but should only have received a cold one, I think the error had already been made and there was no need to call attention to the issue by switching out the lunches. This was likely a mistake on the part of whoever was staffing the kitchen at that point as I think it’s highly unlikely that the policy suggests actually wresting the food from crying children’s hands.

  8. Nice! It’s sometimes hard for people (it was really hard for me, at least) to speak their mind because with all of social media / permanent record of words being written through email and whatnot these days, it’s easy to get recorded and to be used as evidence to put someone in a negative light. I’ve been working on this though because the squeaky wheel gets the grease and no one is a mind reader in knowing what I want to be changed. Great job speaking up and taking leadership!

    1. Thank you. I feel incredibly conscious of that as a teacher because there are so many stories of teachers getting fired for toasting with wine glasses on Facebook and other kooky things. But this was something that needed to be said, and I would say it to my school board, too. Thankfully, our school has a fantastic plan in place for when kiddos forget their lunches!

  9. You speak such truth. I get so TIRED of complaining for complaining’s sake, or constant rants with no solutions. I’m completely enamored with the letter you wrote.

    I’m not even active on my facebook page anymore because I hate the hollow politics that get promoted or the hollow everything that gets posted. I’m sure I’m missing out on blog traffic and birthday messages, but I just cannot stomach the noise.

    1. Thanks, Amanda. It gets really frustrating to see people complaining but not actually positing solutions…or even talking to the right people. In a lot of ways, I think that’s the first step. But it’s important to take other steps.

  10. I really appreciate this post and this letter. It cannot be enough to point out the problems. We must offer solutions. And at least talk to the right people about what is going on.

    With love – a formerly hungry child.

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