|CORRECTING THE CURRICULUM
What should be done to improve our students' education?
March 24, 1998
in this forum:
Why are students going downhill as they enter high school? What are the pros and cons of a national curriculum? What can or what should we do to make education more relevant to our students? How important are math and science scores? Wouldn't reducing class size and teacher workloads improve the situation? Is it a question of not holding students to high enough standards or a lack of parental involvement? Are there better teaching techniques, such as Montessori? Melanie Masek of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia asks: After a number of years in the U.S. public schools, I took a job teaching in an American school in Malaysia. My largest mid-school class has 16 students & the teachers have a common prep period as well as their own prep period. For a lot of teachers it comes down to the number of students they have to deal with and not having enough time during the day to be as effective as they would like to be. After years of having between 25 and 29 students per class, having only 14-16 per class at present has helped me be much more effective. Why does the focus seem to be on more tests & more training when the people who are actually in the classroom will tell you that numbers and time are everything?
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, responds:
While I'm sure numbers and time are important to good teaching, we have to recognize that only for well-trained and successful teachers do numbers really count. You can take a class down from 30 kids to 13, but if you don't have a teacher who knows his stuff, has a great deal of autonomy to teach, and is held accountable for results, you won't change the equation at all. Research bears out that neither the number of advanced degrees nor the class size has any bearing on overall achievement. What does matter is that a teacher is prepared flexible, and works as part of a school team that holds children to the same vision and goals in every classroom. With that kind of equation, you get success. But most researchers today are looking skeptically on the calls for smaller classes when, despite conventional wisdom, there is no evidence to suggest it makes a huge difference. (Note: the only difference is when you get below 10 students in a class -- which is too costly for any policymaker to entertain and not a big enough achievement difference to warrant their attention.)
Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center of Education and Economy, responds:I don't think it is either/or. The pupil-teacher ratio in Japan is about the same as it is here, but the results are very different. There are lots of reasons for that, but there is no evidence that changing the pupil-teacher ratio by itself will make much difference in student achievement. When combined with other practices, it certainly can make a difference.
Gerry Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, responds:
Teaching is a tough job, as you point out, for many reasons.
All of us want students to achieve. Testing, if done well, is one way to measure student achievement. But it is important to remember that testing is just one component of the education system.
Every day science teachers are faced with large classes and labs, far too little time for teaching and planning, a glaring lack of teaching materials and adequate facilities, and scant support for professional development.
The science teacher is the single most valuable resource in the science education equation. There are many qualified and very dedicated teachers in classrooms across the nation. But they cannot do the job alone. Our greatest challenge is for all of us to work together to change the system in which they work, including teachers, parents, scientists, administrators, business, and policy makers.
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