Talk to just about any Valley teacher and he or she will tell you it’s the personal connections with the kids that keep them coming back year after year.
"You believe in them, and they don’t yet," Jonathan Parker, a teacher at Thunderbird High School, explained. "And when they realize their own potential, it’s unbelievably rewarding."
Christine Marsh, 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year, says forging those personal connections is harder now than it used to be.
"I remember when I would think to myself, 'How could I possibly teach 32 kids in one class?’ Because that was, like, a really big class then," she said. "Now it’s 'How can I possibly teach 42 or 40 or 39?' Thirty-two is now a relatively small class -- or at least average. It’s no longer my big class. And it makes a difference because that leaves less time to have any kind of individual impact or individual relationship with kids."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent numbers, Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers. Our student-teacher ratio is almost 23:1 while the national average is 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.
Rosina Verdugo is a first-time teacher at Meridian Elementary School in Mesa. She has 22 second-graders.
"You get to know them, they get to know you," she said. "It’s that great relationship."
With that age group, though, she’s not just teaching. She’s also playing traffic cop to kids who sometimes struggle to stay on task.
In high school, there’s an added challenge. Most teachers are assigning a lot of work to their students, and those teachers have several different classes.
"If I've got 180 kids and I'm going to give them an assignment, if I spend just one minute on that assignment, that's three hours of my time afterward," Parker said. "If I give each student two minutes of my time, both to evaluate it and provide feedback -- or five minutes, God bless me -- 180 students at five minutes per. The math adds up quickly and you're out of time during the day."
So why are class sizes in Arizona larger than those in other states?I remember when I would think to myself, 'How could I possibly teach 32 kids in one class?’ Because that was, like, a really big class then.There are a few theories.
Many education advocates tell us teacher recruitment and retention is a big problem in our state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.
In addition, Arizona puts less money into public schools than almost any other state.
There are a few ways to measure that. In terms of adjusted per pupil spending, Arizona ranks last at $7,620 per student compared to the national average of $11,667 per student. Our state is 47th in the nation for state spending as a percent of taxable resources.
Regardless of how you look at it, more of the burden is falling to local districts. Those districts increasingly ask voters to help by passing bonds, but not all districts get the money they want. Ballooning class sizes are one result.
"If you starve public schools and then use the corresponding results as evidence for the prosecution," says Parker, "it’s self-perpetuating."
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