Every politician making a run for office mentions education. On the national and state level, a league of educational "experts" toil away at finding solutions to the broken gears in the American public school entity. Some have the purest of good intentions. Some are looking to look like they have the purest of intentions because, let's face it, if you hold a big public office or work for the government and aren't involved in some form of education reform movement/bill, then A) You don't care about our children or our country's future; or B) You don't believe our country's public education system is in need of repair. If you have a political/government job that's in the public eye, then you obviously need to give the impression of caring about education, even if you don't.
Overall, I believe the desired end result of education reform is honorable. After all, I've always heard that admitting you have a problem is the first step to fixing it. After that, however, our country gets lost in the woods time and time again after looking for the latest style of jumper cables to hook to our system. At some point, someone with clout has to stand up and admit that the structure is broken beyond the repair of new teaching approaches or assessments or curriculum alignment. At best, these tactics will yield either short term or mild results. Not a bad thing, but nowhere near an actual remedy to our ailing public education.
One problem we'll discuss in a later blog is that too many American students have no buy-in to their education. School, for too many, is seen as a negative have-to and not as an opportunity, particularly with our lower middle class and poverty line students...the very ones who SHOULD be using the system as a means of social mobility. Obviously, this issue is huge, but one that politicians and education leaders need to start being honest about. Government, school employees, and parents all have to take ownership for the mess. Anyway, that's a TBD rant for a later date.
The one thing that is much simpler to peg, and probably the single biggest impact we can make to public education is (drum roll, please...): HIRE MORE TEACHERS. More than any of the other approaches that we have tried, and that have resulted in us to need to keep trying something else, if we make class sizes smaller, we set the stage for improved education in our public schools, especially ones with at-risk demographics. Certainly, there needs to be standards in place that set the bar for quality teaching, but most teachers already do their jobs with a drive to do it well. The thing many of us need is more time to dedicate to the students we have. Unfortunately, more testing...more standards...or observations...more blah blah blah (which is what it becomes after a decade or so of teaching) means less time to do what we are supposed to be doing--TEACHING.
I am a high school teacher. For the past five years, I averaged about 120 students a day. I'm sad to admit it, but it is too easy with that many kids for some to get lost in the herd. For me to do what I need to do with paperwork and planning and actual instructional time, there just isn't that much left over for individual attention to students. "Relationships" is the buzzword in a lot of systems. I agree, but as a teacher, I am more likely to get in trouble for not having my paperwork up to date than I am for not maintaining impacting relationships with students. Politicians and top-of-the-chain education leaders talk about how teachers can impact young people. Well, it's time they put their money where their mouths are and fund school districts with enough money to cut class sizes.
"Maybe you should be more dedicated" some might say. "Then some of your students wouldn't fall through the cracks." As a culture, we love inspirational stories of the teacher or coach who goes above and beyond to inspire and move and transform young lives. Most teachers want to be that person. The reality, though, is that it just isn't a practical expectation with a full class load. Not unless we compromise other areas of our lives, mind you. The Hillary Swank character in the movie Freedom Writers is a prime example. Our faculty was shown that movie some years ago as a source of inspiration. I like the movie, but I also like to play devil's advocate a pointed out to a colleague that the teacher in that movie also got divorced in the process of pushing herself to be a teacher that impacted all her students...and that the real Erin Gruwell only taught high school for four years
before moving on to the collegiate level. Teachers who are driven to be like her tend to burn out after a few years. It's a noble ambition, and most teachers truly want to make a difference, but it is too much to ask too many of them to do so on their own time and on their own dime, because that it what it takes.
With class sizes cut from 30 or so down to 12-15 students, the potential to impact students' lives bursts wide open. Double the personal attention. Half the paperwork, which means more opportunity for quality feedback and progress monitoring. For at-risk students, the small size classroom is a savior, on both an academic and a personal level. Reducing class sizes to 12-15 students per class would be an action that would single handedly make the biggest impact on our public education system. As a bonus, teachers would no doubt rate higher levels of job satisfaction, as well as improve teacher retainment.
Of course, it would cost millions to hire more teachers to create smaller classes...and then schools would need additional classrooms. Obviously, the money it would take to do so is better invested in newer and better teaching reform R&D and newer and better testing R&D and assessment costs for those new tests. And then in seven to ten years we can realize all those reforms were misguided, and start from scratch all over again with more new tests and reforms...