For the sake of full disclosure, I am an independent school teacher and the product of a rural public school system with relatively small classes. My partner teaches in a large, suburban public school in a working class community. While we both teach, we have completely different careers because of the contrast in the expectations, bureaucracy, and freedom in our two, very different environments.
In his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Bill Gates argued that we need more teacher development to turn around the achievement of public school students. Oh, my. Must we blame the teachers yet again.?Perhaps we should add one more national plan with a catchy title or set of tests (and pre-tests, tests, post-tests) to assess student achievement. When was the last time that these Foundation heads or bureaucrats actually sat in a classroom for an extended period of time? Have school administrators tried to plan and implement daily or unit lessons of their own? How many of them ever taught?
Could the problem be the sheer number of students in a classroom? Gates says no. According to him, "perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets - and one of the most unchallenged - is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement." He goes on to say, "one approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students." He suggests that paying these teachers more (not based on degrees but their proven ability) will make up for increasing class size.
Really? When teachers are given classes of 30+ students and told to teach so that students perform well on standardized tests, how does that create a culture of learning? What is the motivation for students? Are we forcing teachers to be motivated by tests and not lessons? How does this prepare students for the future?
Gates suggests that we should pay the best teachers more and give them more students. Is increased pay the answer for those teachers who take on extra students? A public school teacher with the same amount of experience and same level of education (by degree) earns more in my county than most teachers in independent schools in the area where I live. My classes are smaller and we have more freedom. Both achievement and learning are on a high level in my school. We can give our students personal attention. Does salary drive the motivation and quality of teaching in my school? No. The combination of class size and opportunties to innovate in the classroom make teaching a joy. We can give detailed feedback on student work rather than a mark on a checklist. When my student load is 60 and my partner has 170, and both of us teacher in the Humanities, does it take a lot of thought to figure out whose students will be able to get more attention in class and with their written work?
There are some incredible public school teachers who, despite the system, are creating true learning communities. It's disheartening to hear what some talented teachers have to do to help students learn rather than prepping them for tests. They should be indentified, applauded, and set out as role models but not isolated as only the top 25%. Give teachers a chance. They should be given smaller classes not more mandates, more tests, and more criticism. Let's praise those who touch the lives of our youth. Let's give them help.