Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ought There Be a Law?

It's easy to get caught up in the "there ought to be a law" jingoism that reigns in the legislative branches of the post-modern United States. We see it every year: some 'bad thing' catches headlines and legislators, eager themselves to catch headlines, propose new laws to protect us from the bad thing. Usually, of course, there are already laws on the books designed to protect us from these bad things, and layers of redundant, yet semi-conflicting laws are piling up, clogging the arteries of the American legal system.

I generally cringe when I hear someone say, "There ought to be a law," because there is often already just such a law on the books. And even if there's no such law, there are an entire host of topics about which our society does not need laws written, about which laws should not be written.

The preceding is, of course, a prelude to my own pet grievance. A thing about which even I believe there ought to be a law.

"237," the title of my previous blog posting should be all I need to say, assuming you read the previous post. For most of the 2007-8 school year, I found myself with more than 200 students on my rolls, maxing out at 237 in September/October. I went to my department chair, my Assistant Principal, and even my union (Texas AFT) and was told the same thing: There is no law in Texas mandating a maximum teaching load for high school teachers. There is a law mandating the maximum teaching load for elementary teachers, from which the general public mistakenly infers that a similar law protects high school teachers and their students. That inference is, as my year has proven, dead wrong—and, yes, there ought to be a law.

It is difficult enough to ensure that there is enough of yourself to go around to your students when there are only 150 on your rolls. Giving each student approximately 1/150th of your professional time during a school year may not seem like a lot of attention, but it does make a substantial improvement over 1/200th of your time (or 1/237th). Many teachers at 'better' schools across the country would consider 150 students (an average six periods with 25 students each) to be a heavy load in itself, but it is more typically teachers at the 'worst' or lowest-performing schools that see numbers nearing 200. Typically even within these schools it seems to be that the teachers assigned to teach the non-gifted, non-Honors, and non-AP classes—those filled with the students who are most difficult to manage—whose numbers drift up near 200.

In other words: the students who need the most attention, in the schools that need the most help, are most likely to get the least.

In my previous posting, I discussed how the No Child Left Behind Act shifts priorities away from helping students and focuses on achieving high test scores for schools.* The problem of my own 237 was discussed in the context of speculation that school administrators were trying to "bulk up" the test scores of 11th graders (whose Social Studies class sizes were very small) and while 9th graders, who do not take a standardized Social Studies test, were packed into classrooms like so many sardines. Before NCLB, however, problems like fiscal mismanagement and/or misplaced priorities led to the same results: overloaded teachers with underserved students.

Truthfully, however, it should not matter all why teachers are being loaded with more than 150 students (and why students have to make do with less than 1/150th of a teacher). It just should not happen. Period.

I am not going to take the time in this post to sing the obvious song about teacher burnout or to dance the obvious dance about how schools failing to properly serve 9th graders will pay the price when those 9th graders take the 11th grade test. I'm just going to hum a few bars and shuffle a few steps about right and wrong and let you fill in the blanks.

If you're the kind of person who has read this far into the letter, then the blanks are easy to fill:


* I haven't met anyone recently who still believes that raising a school's test scores is the only--or even the best--way to actually help students learn what they need to know to have a good chance at being successful in life.