At a recent trip to my primary care physician I am struck by how much his world and my care has changed in 10 years. Only a decade ago my Dr. had a manageable number of patients and spent about 30 to 45 minutes with me every time I came to her office. She retired. My new Dr. has 5 times as many patients and can barely let his feet settle on the floor of the exam room before he is off to the next patient. My care has become less personal and less effective. In classrooms all across America the number of students a teacher must teach is expanding. I began my career with a 5 period day and under 20 students in each section. My last year of face to face teaching was an 8 period day with 25 + students per class. My largest load was 195 students each day. That is strikingly similar to my current doctor’s plight. My diagnosis of educational needs was less sharp. My daily interactions were more group oriented and my time with each student was reduced. I still did a good job. However, it took a huge emotional toll.
As in current medicine, we need better diagnostics and that takes more time. We need more focused feedback and more time to meet the exceptionally individual needs of our students if we are to increase achievement and develop well educated citizens capable of developing their abilities to the fullest. We cannot do that with more students. We can get creative, as my physician has, and use para-professionals, digital record organizers and time management systems. However, those interventions only help with the short term stress on the system. Kids need teachers. They need the gift of our rapt attention to their educational needs.
My Doctor says that he could increase the quality of his health care 100% with another Dr. in the practice and cut his patient load in half. We can do the same in education. Are we as a profession strong enough to call for a doubling of the teaching force by 2030? The system says we cannot educate enough doctors to meet demand. Are we capable of educating enough teachers? I think we are. The fly in the ointment is the cost of employing all of the new teachers.
NCLB had a fragment of a good idea in that it mandated that all students have access to highly qualified teachers. There was some craziness in how they defined that. It is time to refine our priorities and give every child access to educators with enough time to teach well. I recently was at a school board meeting where they were deciding not to fill a teaching position when a teacher retired. The class size projections only went up by 5 students per class. I argued vehemently against the move and lost the argument. In the next half hour the board added 2 new assistant football coaches to make sure the team was competitive in the conference. Let’s focus on being competitive on a global scale.