Washington, DC - The classic teacher student ratio has been said to be “Socrates at one end of a log and the student at the other end.”
Unfortunately, even in the time of Socrates, there were very few such teachers. And today one suspects there are none.
The educational bureaucratic effort is to get the most students taught by the fewest teachers. They hope that the students learn something and the teachers do not walk away from the process. Unionized teachers, however, seek to teach the fewest number of students with the shortest work day implicitly (if not explicitly) citing Socrates as an example.
The U.S. educational process has seen an interesting evolution.
Two generations ago, my aunts were school teachers who got their teaching degrees from a two year “normal” school. One recalled she taught a 50-student class when she was 19 years old—some students being almost her age. My other three aunts followed her pattern and that of their mother, who had taught grade school, and father, who was a grade school teacher/principal.
“But things were different then” is the counter comment defense by those insisting on educational credentials equivalent to medical residency board examinations for brain surgeons. Indeed, a generation ago, Vineland, New Jersey, fired the only PhD (chemistry) in its school system (an individual who had been the valedictorian of the high school class hired by its principal hired to teach 9th grade mathematics). “No teacher’s certification; no teaching job,” proclaimed the school board. The education courses were risible; the PhD took evening classes at a local community college and passed the exams without reading the texts.
Skip forward another generation to an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia in the 1970-90 time frame. The school had eight classes (double first and second grades). Attending the “opening of school” Parents/Teachers Association meeting, the principal introduced school staff. I counted 52 people including teachers; assistants; specialists in reading, music, gymnastics; and “special education.” There was a school nurse and two secretaries for the principal’s office plus custodial staff and cafeteria attendants.
But for my own elementary school (Alexander Hamilton #19 in Scranton, Pennsylvania), there were six grades (with a double second grade that mixed first and second grade). Staffing was as elementary as the school: one teacher per classroom; a principal shared with another elementary school; and a custodian who kept the massive furnaces stoked with coal and removed the ashes. Occasionally, a visiting music teacher appeared and one that taught/corrected “cursive” penmanship for the entire city.
Class size was at least 30 students and all teachers (in my recollection seemingly old as the hills) were clearly individuals with considerable experience. It was a good career for an unmarried woman. And while there were students who fell into the “empty socket” so far as mental illumination was concerned, my impression remains they moved to middle school literate and numerate.
Today in Ontario there is a provincial mandate that average class size must be 25 students for grades four to eight. But teachers are unhappy about a wide variety of subjects starting with pay and ranging through working hours/conditions, class size, sick leave, etc. On 25 May, Ontario passed “back-to-work” legislation for high school teachers on strike; others continue “work to rule.” Both actions greatly irritate two-career parents.
Part of the general irritation is prompted, particularly in the USA, by fear that despite massive expenditures on education, students are not learning. This fear isn’t new, see Why Johnny Can’t Read, circa 1955 urging “phonics” to solve reading problems.
But perhaps the problem is more basic—originating where it is politically incorrect to venture. Bluntly, neither our teachers nor our students are as intellectually capable as once they were. Certainly, this is true for teachers: my four school teaching aunts were succeeded by a lawyer niece and an MD/PhD doctor, PhD chemical engineer, and financial firm partner great nieces. All were far beyond thought of teaching elementary school. Indeed, a high school teacher told one, “You’re too smart to teach.”
Moreover, the regulations, reporting, testing (including “mainstreaming” highly problematic students), those from “broken homes,” and restrictions on serious discipline for students simply burn out other teachers who escape to private schools or nonteaching alternatives.
In Europe there is an implicit emphasis on the top tier with the expectation of vocational education for others. And regarding the rather smug Finnish teacher featured in a recent media blurb who suggested paying teachers at the level of doctors would raise the students’ results, a riposte might be that teaching only Finns might also help.
We are trying to do too much for too many with too little.