Let’s ask teachers how to fix our schools

Teachers in the United States have it tough. They work longer hours than their counterparts in other developed countries and get paid below the world average relative to the amount of work they do.

In too many states, teachers’ starting pay is truly pitiful. Think South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin.

Especially during the last decade, teachers have had to contend with two major classroom bullies, as federal and state governments amped up on their standardized-testing binges. No Child Left Behind, with its ridiculous mandates and infamous lack of funding, was only the beginning.  Many states followed with their own bad ideas and additional testing.

Then consider how budget cuts have increased class sizes.  In classes that used to contain just 20 students, we’re now seeing 30, or if you’re unlucky enough to go a public school in L.A., maybe even 40 or more.

All of this hurts teachers’ ability to effectively manage a classroom. You try teaching 40 hormone-inflated high-schoolers on a Friday afternoon to read Shakespeare when you’ve got administrators breathing down your neck! It also makes learning more difficult for students.

Feeling like they’re underpaid, overworked, and not getting any respect, it’s no wonder so many would-be teachers choose other careers.  It’s got to be soul-crushing to lose the right to innovate in the classroom.

But administrators and legislators largely have done little more than pay lip service to the issues.  Amazingly, teachers are sometimes not even consulted when it’s time to make educational reforms, even though they’re the ones who spend each day in classrooms where the changes will take effect.

Still, there does seem to be hope, exemplified by work happening right here in the Bay Area.  The Palo Alto school board is expected to adopt a policy that would limit the amount of time kids can spend working on homework each night.  And for once, it’s not just another top-down, do-as-I-say approach that ignores teachers.

While the proposal sets specific time limits on how many hours students would have to work on homework in a week — an idea that takes away some freedom from teachers — it’s the result of work by an advisory committee of parents and teachers.

The committee held dozens of meetings all over the school district, often receiving input for students to determine what constituted meaningful, helpful homework, and what was just a waste of their time.

They also discussed sticking points like zero-credit policies, group projects, and homework over breaks.  Best of all, the new rules would be more like guidelines, allowing for some flexibility from place to place.

There’s a lot of work to be done to fix our educational system, but the model used by Palo Alto in this case gives us a blueprint for what change should look like: Parents, teachers, and administrators working together to find solutions that work best for students.