The Des Moines Sunday Register reported a study of Iowa’s number of teachers drawn in contrast to both academic performance and student enrollment. The subtext of the analysis is that over the past five years Iowa’s teaching ranks have grown and we have little to show for it in terms of achievement gains.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Register’s reporting on education. On one hand they are the only Iowa news organization committing significant resources to reporting on the subject. However, they are seldom able to report more than mere numbers, ratios, and scores; they tend to take education officials at their word; and they present headlines that are readily used by politicians to argue against funding of teacher salaries and public education in general.
This article has many of the same weaknesses. While there was an effort to understand how teaching levels have risen despite overall declines in student enrollment statewide, the article did not uncover any alternatives. And, the usual list of experts were consulted: big school superintendents, small school superintendents, state DOE officials, and ISEA representatives. Add an analyst from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who called current staffing levels “unsustainable”) and we have the typical Register run-down of policy wonks that are consistently called upon to construct our portrait of just what is going on in Iowa’s schools.
I would have liked to have heard from teachers, students, and parents about their impressions of the situation. Would they have talked to me I could have shared my own analysis of student-teacher ratio (my current situation is 178-1) and my own ideas for how to create a more sustainable and cost-effective school structures:
1) Get back to neighborhood schools. Students would spend less time on the bus and more time in the classroom. Communities would become more involved in their schools and each other. Districts would certainly save money on transportation.
2) Mixed grade classrooms. The one-room schoolhouse had some distinct advantages. Teachers could provide acceleration and remediation in every subject. The reality is we have always had students who perform at “grade level” (the Register’s Freudian slip ‘trade level’ made me chuckle) in some subjects, above in others, and below in still others. Mixed-age classrooms/structures have been used to some success in urban schools, why not get back to this in our rural districts? Plus, their biggest advantage is to provide leadership and teaching opportunities for students who already are achieving. These students would deepen their understanding by teaching and gain valuable skills and experiences they can take into the workplace.
3) Completely invest in student access to technology. Textbooks should be a thing of the past, web 2.0/social networks should be a daily component of every child’s educational experience, and individualized assessments and projects should be created and stored in the digital realm. This is the component that would tie my first two proposals together. Imagine a small school physical setting with university scale access to content, research, and specialization.
Competent teaching is the needed ingredient to bring results to any educational reform effort. A willingness to engage in lifelong learning (therefore continual change and improvement) is the first pre-requisite for any good teacher. Perhaps my suggestions for restructuring would result in fewer teachers, perhaps they would not. They certainly would allow more flexible assignments and the ability to put teachers where they are needed most.
What Iowans need and should demand is reporting that moves the debate forward and uncovers alternatives, rather than merely describing the situation and going to the fallback of scapegoating teachers for the failures of the system. The stakes are high, but the future is bright!