The School Supply Debate

School SuppliesChristina Vercelletto, senior editor at Scholastic’s Parent & Child Magazine, has something to say about shopping for school supplies. 

Has anyone else noticed how specific school supply lists have gotten? I’ve had friends in Florida tell me they have, so I know it’s not just me here in New York.

For the last few years, my daughter’s lists have included items like Fiskar scissors, Pearl pink erasers, a box of 24 Crayola crayons, marble composition books in five different colors, Ticonderoga pencils, and a purple 2- inch binder.

I’m finding school supply shopping harder and pricier. Have you ever tried to find a purple 2-inch binder? I wound up having to order it online, and pay shipping that nearly doubled my cost. This specificity also keeps me from being able to reuse still-serviceable supplies from last year, which seems like a waste.

But what bothers me most is that my daughter is missing out on the fun of picking out her own markers, or the folder with the cute puppy on it. I always enjoyed school supply shopping as a kid. There was something about notebooks so new the pages stuck together that was, as corny as it sounds, magical. And what was more exciting that finding sparkly pencils in your favorite color, or cool erasers in the shape of baseballs and footballs? It makes me a little sad to think that my daughter can’t take that same delight in it.

I’ve discussed this phenomenon with other moms, and two theories on why it exists have emerged: some of us think it is simply because the brand name, presumably higher quality, goods will work better and last longer, resulting in fewer requests sent home for replacement supplies. The rest imagine it springs from the modern urge to make sure all kids are equal. In other words, maybe the old way resulted in some kids being unhappy that classmates had fancier supplies than they did.

Teachers: which camp is right? Maybe neither? Maybe both?

And parents: do you love uber-detailed supply lists, or hate them?

Plus: Get Back-to-School Tips for Your Best Year Yet from Parent & Child!

image via MomMaven

26 thoughts on “The School Supply Debate”

  1. There is also another option. In the past, teachers could order supplies from the school budget, or at least access ordered materials from a school supply room. When this was an option, they could give kids the supplies they thought worked the best. With schools cutting back more and more, the teacher is no longer able to provide the specific materials that make the classroom work work.

  2. My child’s school has not yet released lists for school supplies (he’ll begin 3rd grade next week). So, we have been free to shop for whatever “school supplies” he wants for home. The only items occasionally requested are classroom use supplies like tissue, gluesticks, or hand sanitizer. Maybe these specific lists will come in my son’s future, but thus far we have not encountered what this article references.

  3. I can give my opinion from both the teacher and parent position.

    As a teacher, I ask for specific items because I know they are better quality from using them over the years (dollar store may be great for a discount, but much of it’s stuff doesn’t last), and because it makes me a more organized teacher. If I have my student get the same notebooks and put their name in the same place, it saves me tons of time from trying to figure out whose puppy book this is since I can’t read their name on the zebra striped background. As a secondary teacher, I have almost a hundred students on my role (this year more than a hundred). Things that seem like details to you make a HUGE difference in my day. My daughter’s teachers, both who are in early elementary, put supplies in a common area to be used when needed. She has yet to have her own desk, so there would be nowhere to store those supplies you’ve let her pick out.

    As a parent (who lives on a teacher’s salary), I have never ordered supplies online. In fact, if something was too expensive or I couldn’t find it in the store, I sent her with a note or email to the teacher instead. They might have extras or they might give me another week or so until the stores have restocked. I try to pick up extras of the things I can afford to replace it. Don’t assume that the specific supply list means that teachers are so unrelenting that they won’t listen to your needs as well.

  4. I am not a homeroom teacher so I do not receive supplies that parents send in, but I know that it is hard for many teachers to keep up with which supplies belong to whom. For this reason, many teachers simply put all the supplies together and pass them out as needed. If all of the supplies are basically the same, then all of the children have the same thing and no one is unhappy. Some of the name brand products are better quality and do last longer, but I know that many of the teachers purchase similar products with the limited supply money that they are given. The parents are given the option of supplying these products or paying the district a $35.00 supply fee.

  5. The one thing I can say as a teacher who has yet to find a full-time position but has been in multiple classrooms as a sub, etc. is that Ticonderoga pencils do seem to last longer and break less often than others, plus they are usually easier to sharpen. Other than that, I think it’s reasonable to give a number of each item but not really a brand (i.e. 24 count crayons, but not 24 count Crayolas). And asking for 5 folders (or notebooks, or whatever) of different colors is reasonable because they are probably trying to make it easier for students to find supplies for each subject quickly.

  6. I think if it is costing more for parents than it beats the purpose helping the kids who couldn’t afford the unique stuff before. i understand teachers need more help since they get less and less money. i am thankful my son school has not done this. lots of parents would raise their voice about this. my sons school though has a green color uniform shirt u can only get at one place. So i think we should let kids get what they want so they can enjoy going back a little.

  7. As a teacher, when I went to make a list on the Staples website – I had to use specific name brands. I couldn’t just say ‘pencils’ or ‘glue’. I refused to make the list because I don’t want to require specific brands.

  8. As a mom and I teacher I think it has gotten out control. My daughter is in the 7th grade and has full page of supplies that needed to be purchased. I know that she really doesn’t need five 2-inch binders, 3 packs of notebook paper, a pack of tennis balls, 3 boxes tissues, 3 rolls of paper towels, hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes. But we have purchased them again this year along with all of the other items on the list that barely get used because she is afraid that she will get in trouble with the teachers if she doesn’t have EXACTLY what they asked for.

    I, on the other hand, gave my 5th grade students a very general list of supplies. This is the first time in 11 years that I have even asked my students to supply their own materials. I have simply asked for pencils, crayons, scissors, 4 spiral notebooks and 5 folders. I don’t care what color they are, where they are purchased, or if they are being reused from last year. And should any of my students arrive without the needed supplies, I will go into my closet and pass out whatever is needed just like I have done in the past.

    I don’t expect teacher’s to purchase the supplies for their students, but if they are going to be so very specific then maybe they should. I would be willing to reimburse him or her. I do, however, draw the line at ordering supplies off the internet to meet the specific requirements of any teacher.

  9. I’m a teacher. I can explain the color of the binder…at least at the secondary level. It’s to help keep kids organized. Their English binder is purple, math is red…and so on. However, as for the brand name pencils and erasers, that just seems silly. I’m thinking it has to do with perceived quality, but I don’t know.

  10. I HATE it, especially because so many things they never actually use. Our school district has a district wide list all the teachers have to use, no matter their actual needs. This year I am going to talk to the teachers personally so I don’t have to buy six kids’ worth of expensive dust gatherers.

  11. If it were intelligent…”we’re teaching the kids to keep their subjects separate by color”… Or something similar I could understand. But with no context we hae no idea why they are so picky. Is it the school got money from fiskars? Do they get a kickback on certain crayola sizes? Who knows?

  12. I’m an 8th grade teacher. I feel that supply list get less specific as they get older but most of it is consistency and ease for the teacher. While you have a valid point with the durability of items (Ticonderoga pencils are fantastic and sharpen easily—10 secs per student is much better than 1 minute per student)–for me I am specific because when I say it is time to get out your “reading folder”–everyone will know that is a specific color. You might say, can’t you just label it? Yes, if students would not pick at the label or pull it off and stick it in their neighbors hair….thus causing a parent conflict. Being specific up front saves time, class sizes are growing and we can no longer walk around and check 20 students to make sure that they all have their specific puppy / favorite superhero reading folder, etc. It is easier to glance around the room and make sure that all 35 students have their purple folder on their desk.

  13. As I enter my 18th year of teaching, I am mindful of the financial hardships my family suffered when I was a child (yes, my mom made the glue I used for school projects). Therefore, regardless of what the school list says, I purchase $100 worth of supplies and will GLADLY give my students what they need. If they have a pink notebook, I could care less. We have to stop the madness at some point.

  14. Hi! I’m a second grade teacher. We have definitely become more specific with our list, but not due to name brands. I don’t think we actually ask for anything name brand, though I do love the pre sharpened Ticonderoga pencils! My team’s reasoning for narrowing the list is because the kids come in with so much that there a) just isn’t room for it, and b) the items become a distraction. It is sad-I still love picking out fun school supplies, but it is for logistics more than anything else.

  15. I am an itinerant teacher so I am in and out of many classrooms working with students. I’ve noticed, especially in the younger grades, that students do not keep their own supplies. When supplies are brought in at the beginning of the year they are separated out and stored to be used as needed. Instead of each student being responsible for their own pencils, crayons, glue, etc they are kept in trays at the center of each table. The specific colors for folders/notebooks may be so teachers can have students all use the same color for each subject “Take out your blue math folders.” I’m not saying I agree but this is what it appears to be.

  16. I really dread the school shopping. Most of the teachers take those items and put them in their closet and hand them out as they see fit. What really irks me is when you went all out to purchase what was on the list and your child comes home with the cheap stuff. Some schools have a list (Columbia co., GA) where you just pay for the package of items online and the school provides it to the students. The school that my kids go to has just been remodeled with top of the line everything smart boards, computers, Internet, projectors, intercom, mics for teachers, buzzers for students, and yet they would not provide the classrooms with pencil sharpeners.

  17. I think it’s a little of both. Certain brands are better. Cheap pencils with designs on them usually clog the sharpener and don’t sharpen evenly. Crayons that aren’t Crayola are usually too waxy. As for notebooks and folders being a certain color that is so the teacher can say take out your purple folder instead of your math folder. Children are given less and less responsibility for organizing themselves and taking care of their needs at home and at school. Teachers feel it is easier to color code the subjects and keep everyone organized.

  18. I agree, I hate uber detailed lists of back to school supplies. Could it be the helicoptering approach is taking over teachers too? I almost wish that if the list is going to be very detailed, it should then just tell parents where to get such supplies as I too have had to buy supplies online after not being able to find it at the store or worse yet…bought an almost similar supply and have it returned back. Ugh!

  19. As a teacher, I do not ask for specific brands or colors. I work in a Title 1 school, and only about 2/3 of the kids even have supplies when they come, the rest get whatever I buy from whomever has the lowest price, since the supplies come out of my pocket. I suspect that teachers are trying to make sure that each child has equally good materials, though.

  20. I will say that as a second grade teacher, I don’t get too specific with my list here in NJ. Two thoughts though…1. As school budgets have shrunken, teachers are spending more money on their classrooms and can order less. Certain items help with classroom management. For instance, “Take out your yellow reading folder”. 2. As for the Ticonderoga pencils, nothing sharpens better. Sparkly fun pencils often WON’T sharpen which is such a waste!

  21. We’re definitely seeing this trend on, and we asked teachers why. By far, the most common reason was quality. And commonality was right behind. Much easier for teacher to manage the classroom and disruptions when the kids all have same items.

  22. The detailed school supplies are ridiculous and truly unfair to parents who cannot afford to buy all the items on the list. Likewise, I don’t think it is right for teachers to have to spend hundreds of dollars on their own supplies either. There has to be some sort of creative way to ensure that everyone gets the supplies they need without spending tons of cash every year.

  23. The Catholic school in my town isn’t specific. I have a friend who’s little brother goes there and the only specific things were a black 1 inch black binder for band and the type of scientific calculator.

  24. As a teacher, I will say that brand names aren’t important to me, but that I put specific items on my supply list for a reason. The most important items that make a difference in my 3-4 classroom are the multicolour duotang folders and multicolour lined notebooks. In both cases, I use the colours to help the students organize their work. When a parent sends a giant rainbow unicorn folder instead of an orange duo-tang, it will not fit in the basket that holds the Social Studies duo-tangs, it will not be the same colour as the Social Studies duo-tangs, it will not have the name labelled in the same spot as the Social Studies duo-tangs, and it will not have the 3-hole punch format. The result- one child whose Social Studies stuff always gets wrecked or lost, and takes more time, every time, all year long. Is that “fine” for one kid? Sure. Now imagine twenty kids’ parents ignore the supply list and send whatever fanciful folder option they want instead of the 5-pack of multicolour duotangs. Now we have 20 kids with disorganized, poorly-fitting, Social Studies folders, and ten extra seconds to find lost stuff becomes 400 lost seconds, each and every time. Now extend this to 4 other subjects requiring a duo-tang. 2000 lost seconds per day, plus disorganized and wrecked work and handouts. You get the idea. The same goes for those 80-page multicoloured lined notebooks. The savvy parent who sends 250-page spiral-bound ones instead? 170 of those pages are wasted, and the spiral binding gets torn out and played with, and the book doesn’t fit in the basket, and so on.

    There is room for balance between brand-name exclusivity, and total chaos. I couldn’t care less if the kids’ erasers are the right brand, but if it’s something that will affect the student’s organized work for the whole school year, count on me to insist on the right product.

  25. As a kid, I too loved picking out fancy new school supplies, writing my name on them, and getting them ready for the first day of school. However, I was also a very conscientious student, who took good care of my supplies, and loved being organized, and was not easily distracted. As a teacher, I see SO many students who spend half of their writing period sharpening a glittery pencil, or students whose Spiderman erasers turn into “action figures” in the middle of a math lesson, or students who end up writing their social studies notes in three different notebooks that all look the same (even though we spent the first week of school putting large labels on the front). In an age where class sizes are growing, where schools are punished for having low test scores, and where teachers’ jobs and evaluations are based on their students’ progress, every second counts. Unfortunately, while many of these schools supplies are fun and exciting, they end up wasting valuable classroom time.

  26. I worked in a district that did have some of the items listed as specific brands (such as Crayola crayons), but they did not specify a specific brand of pencils, scissors, etc. The school supply list was created based on the idea that a parent would not have to spend more than $25 on the supplies for one child. This was a district wide policy.

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