I’m worried that the recession will never end for children in our Oregon public schools. The crisis will be declared over and the general public will have adjusted to larger class sizes and fewer programs. We’ll continue with classes near the largest in the country and wonder why our children still aren’t outperforming kids in countries that invest more in education.
Two years ago I had a class of 23 fourth graders. Even with that number of students I felt that if I had fewer students I could have personalized instruction more and seen better growth. After all, many private schools have 15-20 kids per classroom. Last year, with a 22% reduction in my district’s teaching staff, I had 38 students. This year I have 32. When I took my class on a field trip this year, the district bus driver noted how nice and small my class was. Yes, 32 students is now considered to be a small class.
With the instructional expectations of today, there can no longer be a debate about the value of fewer kids per teacher. Many of the best practices that train kids for a high tech world are not possible with many students. Individual writers’ conferences are recommended for teaching writing; small group skill-based instruction leads to success; making special connections with students is important. We need to listen to kids talk through their thinking and coax them to think at a higher level. We need to give kids time to discover and express themselves as they create their own meaning. All of this takes time and attention.
Last week I taught in a first/second grade classroom that had 36 students. The teacher of this class is a veteran and a master at organization and management. Despite the management systems, the wasted instructional time was horrendous. Six and seven year olds have issues that need handling and when there are 36 of them it takes a lot of teacher time and energy. There were coats left in the gym, missing special pencils, and squabbles about places in line. Just the waiting time to get everyone paying attention to the directions was ridiculous. Less gets done, so less gets learned in a large class.
As teachers, we feel helpless to change what we see harming our children. We know what we need to do instructionally to gain results, but are not given the resources to put plans into action. It’s frustrating and disheartening. As a result, some of our high quality teachers are leaving. In my building, one of our star teachers is taking a leave of absence to evaluate her effectiveness. This teacher works weekends, stays late and pushes herself constantly. She also has more than 30 students, two kids with autism, and seven kids on behavior plans. I’m sad to see her go and hope she’ll come back.
In an era where reform ideas are plentiful and many of us are eager to move ahead, we need to realize that we can’t just restore funding to where it was. In order to get our kids to provide a bright future for Oregon, we need to commit what it takes to give each kid a high quality education.
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