Defeated by too many students and scripted instruction, a good teacher becomes an ex-teacher

A south Georgia grand jury indicts a sheriff and two deputies related to alleged abuses during a schoolwide pat-down in Worth County.

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky is back with another interesting column today. He delves into why a dedicated and effective teacher left the profession, focusing on the number of students she was required to teach and the scripted format she was told to follow.

At the recent Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum, teacher turnover was deemed a critical issue facing the state in 2017.

“As with the rest of the nation, teacher attrition is a significant issue in Georgia. Approximately 70 percent of teacher hiring statewide is done to replace teachers who have left the workforce. Since 2010, 13 percent of Georgia’s newly hired teachers left after their first year. After five years, 44 percent of those newly hired in 2010 were no longer teaching,” according to GPEE.

And there are fewer new teachers in the pipeline. Between 2010 and 2015, enrollments in Georgia’s teacher education programs declined by 36 percent.

WIth that background, here is the essay:

By Peter Smagorinsky

Fiscal conservatives have often criticized government spending as “throwing money at the problem.” Public education—“government schools” in this nomenclature—is often among those considered over-resourced, as stated by Hoover Institute Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek: “available evidence suggests that there is no relationship between expenditures and the achievement of students and that such traditional remedies as reducing class sizes or hiring better trained teachers are unlikely to improve matters.”

Hanushek and others consider “available evidence” largely to consist of standardized test scores. Bill Gates, for instance, after investing a small fortune in small schools, decided that because test scores didn’t change significantly in the small schools he underwrote, class size is irrelevant. He in turn has invested additional small fortunes (now totaling over $3 billion) in initiatives predicated on the idea that large classes don’t inhibit learning, because test scores remain flat regardless of the number of kids a teacher must manage and instruct each period of the day.

These researchers and financiers rely on “big data” to inform their opinions. These studies rely on statistical evidence, and the bigger the data set, the better.

But the bigger the data set, the less the nuance.

My own research is much smaller in scope. I mostly study single cases in detail. Although some find studying small samples to have questionable potential for generalization, I find it instructive to look closely at the real people who are reduced to numbers in the sort of research that reigns over educational policy.

I recently conducted an interview with a case study participant I’ve been following for seven years, as part of a longitudinal study — a multi-year project that takes into account how one’s thinking develops over time —of how teachers develop understandings of how to teach effectively. This was the final interview for this young woman, because following a very frustrating experience in one of Georgia’s elite school districts, she has left the profession for a career in the hospitality industry.

I have reported on her here in the past, before her return to Georgia, when she taught English in a school in rural South Carolina. She taught there for three years, experiencing both joy and frustration. As she told me recently, in that district, her typical class size was 20 students. She learned all of her students’ names by the second day of school, something she worked hard to accomplish. Her motivation for teaching, she had often said, was to teach kids, more than it was to teach English.

Getting to know her students promptly helped her teach them effectively, because she cared about them as people. Not only did she know her own students quickly, she knew many other kids from hall duty and other interactions. Engaging with kids, even on the days when they had other things on their minds than school, was what had made this profession so appealing to her.

She and her husband had deliberately planned to move back to Georgia to return home to their families. Getting a job in the same district she’d attended as a student was a dream come true. She began the school year with great anticipation. By the end of one semester, she told her principal that she’d finish the year because she had committed to a contract, but wouldn’t be back after that.

In one semester, she’d gotten burned out by the work conditions of what many would regard as a desirable district for a teaching career.

Many of her reasons for leaving her job, and the profession, could be traced to a single source: an oppressive student load. In contrast to classes of 20 in which she quickly learned her students’ names and personalities, she was assigned classes that averaged 35 students, totaling about 175 for a subject, English, in which teachers should optimally assign and grade a lot of writing.

Let’s say that she took one minute each day to devote to each student assigned to her classes. That’s three additional hours a day. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day or week to teach such large numbers in caring, personal ways.

But the time per student was only part of the problem. With so many students, she had trouble learning their names quickly, taking weeks instead of days. Meanwhile, with students getting schedule changes for several weeks into each term, the idea of learning so many names of so many students who might be gone tomorrow rendered that essential value of hers obsolete.

The great waves of students produced additional problems for her as well. Out of 175 students, you’ll have some hardheads, some kids with unseen problems, some kids working long hours after school, and kids with all manner of other reasons for finding schoolwork to be an afterthought. With small class numbers, those kids can become known relatively quickly, and individual attention can be catered to provide them with an encouraging academic plan.

But with enormous classes in which students get lost in the crowd, a teacher might have far less energy for chasing down kids who are disengaged and helping them find a pathway forward in the classroom. If you don’t know them, you can’t possibly know what makes them tick. And the more kids crammed into classrooms, the more likely those kids are to be left behind.

Class size was one of two points of frustration she named. The other was the scripted curriculum that required all teachers of a grade level across the whole district to teach the same thing in the same way on the same day, every day. This teacher, in contrast, had gone through a teacher education program that had taught her how to think about teaching her discipline. Taking instructional planning out of teaching might please teachers who are less invested in the intellectual aspects of teaching.

But to a teacher who finds planning to be highly stimulating, exciting, enjoyable, and fulfilling, teaching a centrally designed instructional script is immensely frustrating. Like the reduction of real kids to test scores, the implementation of a scripted curriculum takes the engaging, interpersonal, relational career of teaching and reduces it to mechanical operation.

A teacher entrusted to exercise her judgment is always playing with ideas, tinkering with lessons, and using her intellect to teach more effectively. Teaching scripted lessons requires no judgment, only fidelity to someone else’s idea of what to do.

The teacher I’m featuring is one you would want working with your own children. She’d wanted to be a teacher since starting first grade, and had dedicated college to teacher education. She’d found her first job both stimulating and frustrating; but when she moved to a district with overwhelming numbers of students and a centralized curriculum that removed her own judgment from instructional decisions, she couldn’t do it any more.

Does class size matter? The answer depends on where you look for evidence.

Reader Comments 0

46 comments
Glenda Faye Flemister Britton
Glenda Faye Flemister Britton

It's sad for America's students, but the author of this article is right. I retired at the age of 55 for these reasons. I love children and I love teaching them. However, I wasn't allowed to teach them for the last 10 or more years of my career.

Ryan Mclean
Ryan Mclean

It's getting worse .. Teachers are leaving in droves

Joel Shipp
Joel Shipp

I retired in May, man. I sure miss my coworkers, but I was so exhausted at the end of the week, I couldn't do it anymore.

Randy Stapler
Randy Stapler

This article brings out the truth, it is so bad thinking about starting a go fund me account to buy back 13 of the 17 years I took out and retire myself. It is bad!

Chanda RobertsWhite
Chanda RobertsWhite

I have been support staff in public schools since 2005, and decided to go through TAPP this year. This will be my first and last year as a teacher. Being stabbed with a rusty steak knife by an angry parent while removing children from a violent home is far easier.

Jules Starling-Savant
Jules Starling-Savant

There will be another opportunity for you. Thank you, from the ones who never told you, "thank you."

Kaycee Norman
Kaycee Norman

This is so sad but so true. Education has taken a drastic change but not in a good.

DrDeborah Santiago
DrDeborah Santiago

If it is all script, why not give them all a laptop and learn from home? This is ridiculous and it gets worse every year!

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I taught in a system that, for years, insisted on teachers following a script, INCLUDING USING A DOG CLICKER TO SIGNAL STUDENTS TO ANSWER IN UNISON.


I kept waiting for "Heil, Hitler!"

Melissa Wardley
Melissa Wardley

AJC Get Schooled are you coming to the May's cluster meeting tomorrow about the school closings?

BAW
BAW

This is an interesting article even if it is rather depressing.  I am a big fan of drilling down to the individual and personal level as the Prof has done in his piece on this disillusioned teacher, but how does he reconcile this narrative with the "big data" showing no appreciable correlation between classroom size and student achievement?  It is counterintuitive to me that some children would not perform significantly better in a class size of 20 vs 35 and yet the data apparently indicates otherwise.  So, how do you explain this?
Apart from this issue, if large class sizes are making the workload unmanageable and the teaching experience pure drudgery for the teachers so that they are leaving the profession in droves, it would seem like the large class size model isn't sustainable even if it doesn't hurt student achievement.

class80olddog
class80olddog

So what does it mean when a school says it has a student: teacher ratio of 15:1 and teachers say they have 35 students in their classes? How are paraproes counted?

BRV
BRV

15:1 is the schoolwide ratio including special education classes. Thirty-five is not an unusual class size in middle and high school. A couple of years ago I went to open house with my then 9th grade daughter. I made an offhand comment to her math teacher that there were a lot of desks in the room. The teacher responded that the good news was that they were "down" to 34 kids in the class from 37 a couple of days prior. Heck my kids had 29 - 30 in their classes by the time they were in the upper elementary grades. One of my daughters' fifth grade teacher decided not to have a desk for herself in the room to create some extra space since there were 30 kids in a room not designed for that many students. As for parapros, at least in Forsyth they're almost non-existent outside of special education.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@BRV In addition, virtually everyone with a certificate is counted in the ratio.  For example, the media center specialist (librarian). PE teacher, music teacher,art teacher, etc all count.

whatIsAJCgoal
whatIsAJCgoal

Did you report whether the teacher was teaching in the same grade level when she moved to the Georgia 'dream' job?

class80olddog
class80olddog

So let's say you want a class of 20 students (which I agree with). With spending of $8000 per student, this would average $160,000 per class. If only 75% were spent on the teacher, that would be $120000 per year for teacher salary and benefits. Sounds like plenty to me. We won't even talk about how much APS spends per student. So we can easily afford 20-student classrooms unless the administration takes a lot of money or schools are forced to spend a lot of money providing medical care or teaching English to non-english speaking children of illegal immigrants.

otherview1953
otherview1953

@class80olddog As someone below posted, anecdotes aren't evidence, but its my understanding that a massive amount of funds are directed towards special needs students who frequently have their own lawyer, necessitating the county having a lawyer to respond to each real or perceived slight. 

I think everyone believes in providing the most practical services in this area. But, when I hear stories of one teacher and one para spending all of each day with one autistic child,  and spending much of that time documenting each incident of self directed and outward directed aggression I question what is sustainable. At any, it would certainly skew the "average expenditures"

And, I'd be interested if those stories are fact or urban legend


Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

In one school in another supposedly good suburban district, the principal and assistant principal lurk in the hallways, eavesdropping to see if teachers are proceeding exactly on schedule.  When a "collared" teacher responds to a complaint of running behind by explaining that the kids didn't understand a concept yet, she is told to stick to the script, anyway.


With administration like this, maybe we can save $$$ by replacing the teachers with speaker systems.  Why pay for a teacher's brain if she's forbidden from using it?


Lisa Fern Mozer
Lisa Fern Mozer

Very timely read - thanks you. I will add that large class sizes leaves teachers physically tired and in need of energy at the end of the day - the drain of energy impacts creativity, shortens interactions outside of school, and frequently seeking help ( grading papers, preparations for class activities...) while at home

Another comment
Another comment

Sounds like Fulton County! My 16 year old is literally crying tonight that all the teachers do is pile homework on in 8 of her different classes. She doesn't understand something and does not want to ask the teacher because it would just be a waste of time. Remember what happened when she actually did ask questions in one class.

I asked her if she wanted to try homeschooling again. The answer is No! I knew that would be the answer because that is too socially isolating and she has made friends.

I am with the smaller class size folks. Public schools need to look at what folks are paying $29k for. It is smaller class sizes, smaller schools, less administrators and 100% parental participation.

Ed Danger Watson
Ed Danger Watson

The Gates Foundation is a huge part of the problem. Teachers should be teaching and not constantly collecting data.

Coach72
Coach72

I taught for 38 years. 23 in private and 15 in public. Every grade 7-12. Coached for 36 years. Retired last year. It was time. Education has become data driven rather than student driven. Graduation rates, end of course scores, standardized test scores drive education now. Students understand they get several chances to pass. Funding for schools is backwards with successful districts getting more and poorer districts getting less. Teacher raise money used to offset district debt. It was time for me to go. Miss the kids, not the schools.

Dana Bonham
Dana Bonham

It always comes back to class size, doesn't it? It seems so simple.

Pelosied
Pelosied

Anecdotes "prove" nothing, and are typically utilized by someone hoping to sell us a pet theory that hard evidence simply won't support. 

And when it comes to education policy, haven't parents and taxpayers been taken in by enough bankrupt theories? 

Isn't that a key reason traditional public schools too often underperform?


Pelosied
Pelosied

@Your Teacher 

Every occupation has its bellyachers. And they tend to hang out together, as we've all noticed.

TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

@Pelosied Says the person who has never spent significant time in a public school, particularly those in urban settings. Class size/pupil-teacher ratio DOES matter. Ask any teacher. That's all the evidence one should need.

BAW
BAW

@Pelosied

I agree with your first point, this is very often the case.  A very deep thanks to you, Coach72 and other teachers in this strand for your years of service as a teacher.  Good teachers are priceless and way under appreciated in our society. 
I am puzzled why the data doesn't support the anecdotal evidence as it seems pretty intuitive that teachers should be able to do a better job of teaching children with smaller class sizes and a number of kids should learn better, at least to a point.  As an experienced teacher, why do you think the reality is (i.e., the data shows) that there is no correlation?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@BAW @Pelosied In a primo system, there is a critical mass that carries the load.  In addition, less able students are cooled out to alternative school.


The higher the parental SES, the less harm it does to cram in the maximum number of students.  These kids get what they need.  Lower SES students are much more sensitive to large classes, because the school provides so much more than just class instruction.

BAW
BAW

@Wascatlady @BAW @Pelosied Thanks for that reply.  I had to look up SES, was not familiar with the acronym.  Your explanation makes sense, but I have to believe that Bill Gates didn't spend $3 billion on funding small schools for children coming from high SES households.  I imagine he was targeting low SES households, probably in poor and underprivileged communities.  The Professor at UGA may want to look at what Bill Gates and others are trying now and the results of those efforts to see what works best in those communities. I doubt poor education results can be solved with a "one size fits all" approach.

BRV
BRV

Eduk8tr - Every education article has faux teachers trolling the comments section. They like to hang out together too.

Mary Lindsey Lewis
Mary Lindsey Lewis

It happens everywhere. It will be worse under DeVoss because scripts are rampant in that sort of philosophy.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

It appears they would get rid of that not have more of it.

Mary Lindsey Lewis
Mary Lindsey Lewis

Shira Newman Are you a teacher? Scripts are part of corporate school philosophies. They get to sell them and make money. DeVoss promotes privatization.

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

Public schools have become machines, designed to process pupils with the minimal administrator worry. Teachers are strangled with bureaucracy and the "one size fits all" philosophy. Everything is scripted to minimize litigation. The end goal is not education.

Wendy Stewart
Wendy Stewart

This happens every year all over the nation.