I’ve been visiting schools over the past year — I’ve visited all the public schools in Belmont and Watertown and many public schools in Boston, including some charter schools. Overall, I’ve been encouraged by my visits.
My typical visit has involved a sit down with the principal for half an hour or an hour followed by a tour and some classroom visits. In some visits, we were able to observe classes at length and to talk with teachers and students.
While we didn’t come in with a check list or make scientific findings, the visits gave me a better feel for the many challenges that teachers and students face today — much food for thought.
One tangible fact is that, in all three communities, especially in the elementary and middle schools, the adult presence is much stronger in the schools now than when I was a child.
I went to public elementary school and middle school in the 60s. Teachers struggled to control relatively large classes and, once the classroom doors opened, it was pretty much a free-for-all in the halls and on the playground. Children can be cruel to each other and they often were.
That was before all of the progress we’ve made on special education and the inclusion of children with special needs in many classrooms. The whole educational model has changed — most classrooms, especially in the lower grades, have many different kinds of learning happening at once. Some children need a full time aide dedicated to them. Some classrooms may have more than one aide or specialist present in addition to the main teacher at any given time.
The federal government tracks school staffing nationally through the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, the student to teacher ratio in public elementary and secondary schools has fallen from 25.8 in 1960 to 15.4 in 2009. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Education, student to teacher ratios are comparable to the national averages — Belmont at 16.8, Watertown at 11.7 and Boston at 12.0. Overall, enrolled students per instructional staff (not just teachers) nationwide has fallen from 24.8 in 1960 to 11.5 in 2010.
My perception in every school that I visited was that the emphasis on inclusion and the larger adult presence contributed towards a culture of greater respect among students and better acceptance of all kinds of diversity. The schools all make very visible efforts to socialize students to kindness and I saw very diverse groups working harmoniously.
At the same time, I perceive that we can and should do better at meeting the varying needs of children. The range of achievement levels even in lower grade elementary classrooms was stunning.
Early education is part of the solution. At the BaldwinSchool in Brighton, which serves children from ages 3-6, kids come in with widely varying vocabulary levels, but almost all are reading above grade level when they leave the Baldwin for second grade in other Boston elementary schools.
Technology is another part of the solution. Online tools help teachers serve kids learning content and testing that is appropriate to their ability level.
And, given the emerging challenges that they face, my take was that essentially all the schools I visited could easily make good use of additional teaching staff.
The effort to make sure all of our children achieve their own unique potential is one to which I will remain dedicated.