August 2, 2011

The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher

I came across this article today in the Huffington Post by Ellie Herman that I think everyone involved in Education Policy needs to read.

The article criticizes a very popular belief that reductions in class sizes will have very little effect on student performance. I, for one, think that anyone who believes this has not actually been in a classroom.

The US wants to compete with Japan and South Korea, whose class sizes are much larger than ours with better results on high-stakes tests. No one, though, talks about how the majority of of those families pay for after-school tutoring to make up for a lack of individualized attention at school. Or about how Finland, with the best scores in the world, has average class sizes in the 20s, and it caps science labs at 16.

Herman argues, "...we can't demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence."

Last year, I was in a middle school language arts class of 11 ELL students and a mainstream class of 37 students (including SPED). When it came to writing essays, my ELL students had one-on-one writing conferences with me up to seven or eight times. They were able to get specific, detailed feedback about every area of their writing.  I loved being able to coach each student individually in whatever areas they needed. Their needs were so diverse, but because my class was so small, I could sit down with each child multiple times to provide mini lessons and spend as much time as necessary helping them edit and revise.  The improvement from their first to final drafts was incredible. 

All of my mainstream language arts classes use rubrics (considered Best Practice) for grading that concentrate on maybe five areas for each assignment. It makes the grading process much more streamlined, which, let's face it, is necessary when you have that many papers to grade.  Conferences were very limited simply because of time restraints, though I did make it my personal goal to meet with every student at least once.  My mentor suggested that I allow my students to choose their own writing focus for our conferences. This way, she told me, they have one specific thing about which they want feedback, and it helps contain meeting to two or three minutes

How can anyone argue that this is what's best for my students?

An extraordinary teacher, any job applicant will tell you, will consider each child's learning preferences, multiple intelligences, and personal interests in addition to their academic needs. And I believe we all try; we really do. But when we have thirty-some students in teach classroom, it's next to impossible to consider all of those things in every lesson. We have no choice but to teach to the majority (or to the majorities if we are using cooperative group learning), and clearly, some students are sometimes left in the "sucks to be you" category (although no one wants to admit this) because their interests, needs, or learning modalities aren't what suits the others, and the reality is that no one has the time or energy to modify everything for that one child's needs. 

Herman declares, "I'm willing to work as hard as I can to be an excellent teacher, but as a country we have to admit that I'll never be excellent if we continue to slash education budgets and cut teachers... Until we stop that, we'll never have equal education in this country."

I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

  1. And what you left out is students in Asian countries come from families in which education is HIGHLY valued, adding to their performance in school. Until our students are supported at HOME to reach their education goals we cannot be successful in school. Do we blame doctors if we get sick because we failed to take our medicine? Car mechanics because we forgot to chance the oil? But what happens when a child fails a test after getting no sleep the night before and not provided breakfast? "It's the teacher's fault." Ugh!!
    Interesting how policy makers never ask those on the ground to evaluate the policies before putting them into action, huh?