Education Reform: My Way

When people start talking about education reform, I’m always surprised to discover those who speak the most loudly and critically have never taught.   My first suggestion for reform education is that before anyone can state an opinion or sponsor a law, he or she has to teach in a classroom–putting together lessons plans, grading papers, taking care of discipline–for two weeks.  After that, maybe they’ll have a better, more realistic what they are talking about.   My hope is that they no longer compare education to  a business model and don’t talk about competition improving schools as if students were widgets.

My second suggestion is that the reformers should chat with teachers and listen to their suggestions.  The teachers unions have been criticised–fairly or unfairly–but teachers have never been listened to about what would make schools better.   I taught high school Spanish for thirty years.  I have some good ideas.  Ask me!

And now my BIG suggestion:   limit the number of students in a classroom in grades one to three to fewer than fifteen students per classroom.  As well as an experienced teacher, there should be at least one teachers’ aide.   It’s during these years  students gain the basics to build on.   If  students can’t read, how do we expect them to handle sciences classes or history classes?  If students don’t know basic math skills, how well will they do in basic math much less algebra and geometry?  By the time students enter high school, it’s too late to make much of a difference.  Teachers in math classes can’t go back and teach multiplication tables which means students who arrive without that background won’t succeed and will drop out.  

Oh, one more thing:  all that mandated testing.  If students don’t learn the basics in small, supportive classrooms which address each student’s individual needs, they aren’t going to do well on tests.  A student who flunks the accountability tests in third grade will not pass the next test or the next or the next.  That student will fail over and over because we have failed to provide a sound foundation.

I often hear, “Education is our first priority” from politicians who then cut money to schools which cuts teachers and increases class sizes.  Little by little, I’m beginning to believe education is not a priority.

What do you think?  How would you reform our education system?

28 thoughts on “Education Reform: My Way

  1. You are absolutely right Jane. Studies have shown that smaller classes make a tremendous difference.
    I taught special ed for 10 years in a small urban-type district. What everyone forgets is that so many children have problems at home that it makes it difficult for them to learn. Little food, parents who are missing/in jail/have severe problems, etc. all add up to make things hard for today’s kids. How can you expect a child to learn when he’s hungry or worried about his family? As adults we have problems with issues. It’s harder for kids!
    Until you address some of society’s problems there will be a large population who has trouble learning even in the best of circumstances.

    1. Roni, thanks for writing. There was one study about 20 years ago that said class size didn’t make a difference. All superintendents quote that. Of course, the study was for lecture classes! Well, if the teacher is lecturing, there is no difference between 25 student slistening and taking notes of 3000! But teaching reading? You’re absolutely right about a child’s homelife. And parents of children in special ed have that additional pressure. I thought about putting in this blog that a large percentage (one study says 70%) of the male prison population can’t read. How much money we save if we’d made sure they could read before passing them and how many lives wouldn’t have been destroyed!

  2. I’ve never taught but I have many friends who do. I’m continuously shocked at what a teacher these days is required to do–with less. I feel that somewhere the “lesson” gets lost. I do have a child that went through both private and public education. I didn’t find a difference in the teachers. I did find a difference in the systems. My thoughts? Listen to the teachers, give them the tools they need to teach, give them classroom sizes that are reasonable, stop spending money foolishly, and give it to those who stand in front of our children, our future leaders, to help them build good character and knowledge in our kids before we send them out in the world.

    1. Good points, Candis. Thanks. Yes, at a time when we ned to be educating people to build our work force, we’re cutng back. I donate to a non-profit called DONOR’S CHOICE. Teachers who don’t have suppies they need make requests–for thing like paper and books and equpiment which schools should provide. And the amount of money that goes to administration–don’t get me started!

  3. I was really interested in your post Jane. While I am not a teacher myself, I have taught adult education classes and have friends and a daughter who are teachers, so I am fully aware of the discussions around education and the pressures on teachers. It is a profession like no other and we should all value teachers more.

    I can’t comment on the US education system but from the UK point of view my little granddaughters (9 and 5) adore school. They are in classes of around 24 but with at least two aides (sometimes more) as well as the teacher, and all the children are encouraged to learn at their own speed. Things like multiplication tables are incorporated into other learning as well as math, so that the children often sing their tables or learn them via a fun grid. The 5 year old’s class room is a riot of colour that spills out into the outside play area with numbers and letters painted all over the ground in a variety of shapes so that the children don’t just have to learn by rote but can have fun with them as well.

    Both of them are excellent readers (even the 5 year old) and they also really enjoy math. They get to cover a lot of other topics too and the school also has an intranet that is sometimes used for their homework but which can also be used to contact their friends or play learning games.

    They do not attend a school in a high end catchment area so the intake is very mixed but when I go in through the door it is very obvious that it is a happy school where every child is valued and helped to achieve their potential. Is this the answer? Is it all down to the principal and the ethos he has developed across the school? I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that I have been very impressed with the changes in primary education over here in recent years, and with the creativity of the teachers.

    Are my grandchildren just lucky with their school or is our primary system very different from yours? I would love to know. Over here they take all the assessment tests too but it never seems to be a big issue…to the children it’s just another day at school.

    1. Although I do agree a great deal of the feel of a school depends on the principal, I believe that there are so many other areas a principal has to deal with that it’s hard for him/her to have time or energy to develop an ethos. On the other hand, I’ve worked with princiapls who’ve done everything they can to destroy a good feeing and teacher creativity. One of the greatest problems today is that teachers are blamed for the lowering scores instead of supported. Distrcits reward superintendents for raising test scores when the real work is done be teachers who don’t receive a big bonus or even tips on how to teqach to the test. I could go on and on, but I will say the school you describe sounds wonderful and that we SHOULD value teachers more.

  4. Excellent post, Jane. I’m not a teacher but, as a parent, I agree with everything you say. I think the bit about small classrooms with a lot of support in the first few grades is especially important. Give kids the skills to succeed early and we won’t have to convince them to stay in school in the later grades. They’ll want to stay.

    1. Absolutely, Sandy. They’ll want to stay because the CAN do it! They’ll succeed. I can’t imagine how a student who can’t read would feel in high school Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. I was a teacher for 8 years before I had to quit. It was amazing and terrible all at the same time. I taught high school English and theater in a rough-ish part of town. The one thing I desperately wanted more of was time. I felt like I never had enough time to plan my lessons, grade everything, straighten up my room, breathe…. It was constant motion. When we were rehearsing a show, I got to work between 8:15 and 8:45 and left at 8:30. I had a thirty minute lunch, a 55 minute planning period, and about half an hour between my last class and students arriving for rehearsal. So basically I taught for 10 hours with two hours to eat, breathe, and do everything else I was supposed to do to teach 3 different subjects and run a theater company (and that was if students didn’t come in for tutoring during lunch or after school). Weekends were spent finding costumes and building set pieces. I figured it out the first year I was teaching theater, and the “stipend” I got for being a theater director was less than $0.40 per hour (and I figured that out before the year was over; it would have been quite a bit less if I’d waited until June to do the math).

    I think teachers should get paid more, but I would’ve taken the same paycheck for more planning time and been happy. I could not get everything done, and so I ran in a constant state of feeling like a failure (although I got Teacher of the Year my last year, so I guess not everyone shared my negative assessment of my worth).

    1. When I first taught–1967–I DID have time for everything. When I retired, I felt like you: constantly juggling and usually dropping the balls. I was working 50-60 hours a week just so I didn’t fall further behind. IF the school had given me a schedule I could teach (meaning fewer than 4 preps a day), I wouldn’t have retired. I agree–I would have taken the same pay with a schedule that didn’t exhaust me. You SHOULD have been cherished–I’m glad you were recongized for all you did. Thanks for the reply.

  6. YES, YES, YES! I am so with you on this. And if we do not educate children well, who will run our industries when they grow up? How will the United States stay competitive in the world? I want kids to love learning as much as I did and you’re right–legislators should listen to teachers.

    1. Seems to me as if those who make the decisions don’t think further than their own lives. They’ll be gone by the time there are no more doctors or teachers or plumbers. What depresses me is this: will we realize this in time?

  7. Over a broken period of 16 years, I taught everything from 2nd grade through doctoral students. My mother was a teacher, and my father taught for a short time just after college. When I had my first classroom (elem.), I soon learned a big lesson: My teacher prep was sadly lacking. Finding things to teach the children was not a problem; getting the kids to sit down and be quiet long enough to learn was the problem. Nobody taught me about the importance of discipline–and how to manage it. (Smaller classes and aides would help here. Forget individual attention when you’re stretched so thin.) I soon learned.

    I always remember what a colleague told me. A third grader said to her: “You can’t make me. I don’t have to listen to you. My daddy can sue you if you try to make me.” (The sad thing is that the teacher realized the kid was right.) If I had said something like that or caused trouble at school, I would have been in bigger trouble when I got home. Not always true today.

    This brings me to my point. Reforms must begin in the home. Parents must learn to respect teachers and education and instill that respect in their children. (Now there’s a biggie & I don’t know how to do that either.) My grandparents and parents valued education. (Both my grandfathers were on the school boards in their small communities.) I could hardly wait to go to school. Learning was fun! And if we didn’t have aides, the faster kids helped the slower ones to everybody’s advantage. Getting to help was considered an honor and taught the helpers new skills; a new peer point of view helped those who needed special attention.) Positive attitudes are powerful! Positive affirmations are too. (They can be magical, but don’t get me started on that.)

    Shamefully, U.S. students are way down the list in almost every category of basic subjects. Why? There are, of course, many reasons, but a big one is that other countries VALUE education more than we do. It’s a culture thing. Giving teachers more money is great; they deserve it. Smaller classes will help, sure. Getting a good foundation early is critical. But we need a culture/attitude shift. Maybe a really, really great advertising campaign for valuing education could get the ball rolling. Smart is cool. Nerds are hip. Learning is where it’s at! (Look at our kids role models today; look at what they value.)

    I’ll hush now.

    1. I’m so impressed, Jan. I subbed in 2nd grade and those kids knew exacty how to drive me to distraction. My teacher prep was also lacking: all theory, nothing practical. Although I agree with you partially that reforms should begin at home, like you, I have no idea how to do that AND kids in homes with mentally ill or drug addicted parents–well, it would never reach them. As long as politicians SAY educatgion is important but don’t back it up with funding or stop saying, We have the best educational systmen in the world–as you poinot out we dont–American won’t wake up. Perhaps it should start in the grassroots with people demanding a better system, but I’ve never had a parent tell me I demanded too little.

      I appreciate what you say. Thank you. You’ve raised some important concerns

  8. I agree with you, Jane! I taught for 9 years and by the time I left I was teaching Language Arts to 5th, 6th & 7th graders AND I was the ESL Coordinator for the campus as well as the ESL teacher. I got a $1000 stipend for the ESL Coordinator job. I worked one full day every weekend for 3 years, in addition to all the time crunch that everyone else has talked about. I quit for a few reasons, but one important one is I felt I was stretched too thin, couldn’t do anything as well as I wanted and I was WAY under-appreciated.

    1. It’s awful when a good teacher has to leave a professiona she/he loves. Happened to me, too. The idea is one teacher = another teacher which isn’t true. In my opinion, most teachers would prefer a teachable load to a raise. One way to imporve the system would be to retain our best teachers, but smaller classes and fewer preparations cost money as does a pay raise. You and all good teachers should be allowed to teach.

  9. I been a teacher for 16 years, but I’ve only taught in Texas for the past 3 years. There’s absolutely no question in my mind why public schools in Texas are mostly lackluster. The students are sacrificed to the god of standardized testing and in return, politicians make money. It’s no mere coincidence that in the three years that I’ve taught in Texas that no one has ever mentioned the need to foster “lifelong learning” nor “critical thinking skills” at a meeting. There’s a tremendous amount of talk about teaching “rigorous lessons” and “assessing data,” which are code words for preparing for standardized tests.

    1. Thanks, Teresa, for sharing a comparision between compulsively-testng Texas and the other states where you’ve taught. In my opinion, politicians support the tests so they can say they hold the educational system accountable because NOBODY knows how to really measure education or teaching. I would imagine “creativity” isn’t a word you’ve heard much unless in the context, “Teaching to the test doesn’t allow creativity” in teaching or build it in students. Very interesting observations.

  10. I so agree with you about class sizes, Jane. We were so frustrated with our older daughter’s kindergarten class of 32 (and no aide), we went the private school route from first grade on. Ten children per class. Made such a difference.

    1. Oh, Tracy–32 in a kindergarten class with no aide! Amazing. There’s no way the teacher can do anything but discipline. I’m glad your kids got/are getting a good education but it makes me really angry we don’t care enough to make sure ALL of our children do. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Jane, I whole heartedly agree with your assessment. I’m teaching K this year with 17 students and what a difference from 21. The K’s get more personal attention, more time to ask questions, more time to problem solve and they have become such independent workers who love to challenge themselves. More time for each student is such a gift. Thanks for bringing up this wonderful topic!

    1. Thanks, Debbie, I appreciate your thoughts. When I was teaching, I noticed that for every student I had over 15, the time I spent on discipline doubled until that’s all I was doing: attempting to keep the students quiet enough to teach and then too exhausted to do it! Seventeen kindergarteners would be my worst nightmare. I’m glad there are people like you who enjoy this and I imagine you give each one of them a great background. Should I add that in K thru 3, class sizes should be smaller?

  12. Jane,
    I agree that small class sizes in the early years would result in fewer high schoolers who struggle to read and do basic math. As we both know, it’s heartbreaking to encounter fifteen-year-olds who can’t do long division and read at a third- or fourth-grade level. What’s more, I’ll take your argument a step further and advocate for classes of no more than twenty in high school.

    1. I agree with you about less than 20 in a high school class! Many years ago, I read a book called “Up the Down Staircase”–or “Down the Up” I don’t remember which. the writer said that to decrease class size by one student in every school in New York City would cost $1m. I can’t imagine what it would cost all these years later. Providing good educations for all our children will take money and I don’t believe people want to pay for it.

  13. What a great common sense discussion!

    As for standardized testing, when I was in school we were told not to worry about the test. Our “prep” included being instructed on which pencil to bring and told to guess and move on if we didn’t know an answer. By contrast, my own daughter seemed to spend 90% of the school year preparing for standardized tests. Teresa is right – we live in a society where critical thinking and learning skills aren’t valued. It’s shameful that we are now watching our kid’s education level drop into the gutter while the teachers on the front-lines are being forced every year to do more with less. No wonder we are losing the “good” teachers. There is no way to maintain any standards with this type of pressure.

    Great post, Jane!

  14. Thank, Irene. I feel as if the testing is used to show that we ARE doing something! I’ve heard stories about the stress some 3rd graders feel. What are the statistic? 50% (help me on this number) have left the profession after five years? Seems we have a lot of problems we aren’t facing.

  15. You’re so right about all of it, Jane. Teachers can’t give gajillions of dollars to politicians, so they feel the brunt of it when the government needs to “balance the budget.” It’s ridiculous. I was teaching in Louisiana when Al Gore got lambasted for saying he met a student who didn’t have a desk by people who didn’t believe him, and some of my students didn’t have desks in the beginning of the year.

    What would life be like if we got campaign financing under control, and politicians actually made decisions based on what was best for everyone? Hmmmmm.

    1. “There are no students without desks” is very much like, “I don’t know any hungry people in America.” Maybe people aren’t looking.

      And I agree: what would life be like if we got campaign financing uder control? What would it be if we hadn’t been plunged into two wars and tax rates lowered for the rich? I sometimes get so angry I want to cry “Do over.” Sadly, we can’t. Thanks for stopping by. Give me a minute to calm down.

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