The effect the CA state school budget is having on our children’s learning potential has become cataclysmic, to say the least. According to a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley researchers, when the high school student-teacher ratio is less than 19 students to one teacher, there is a dramatic increase in the percentage of productive learners/teachers. If the student teacher ratio is greater than 19 students to one teacher, the number of discouraged students begins to outnumber the number of learning students, consequently affecting teacher success. In the educational setting, this implies that classes should have a student-teacher ratio smaller than 19 students to one teacher in order to have the most effective learning and teaching attitudes in the classroom. (*The average CA public school class size in kindergarten through third grade has risen to 25 students, compared to 20 just two years ago. Average class sizes in higher grades have grown from about 28 students to 31:Huffington Post – 2011).
Another example as to how the state school budget is affecting children’s learning is the high-pressured curriculum squeezed into a reduced school year. Nearly 60 percent of California school districts have reduced the length of the school year, and 30 percent have shrunk their teaching days to 175 days. The number of days students in the United States attend school is low compared to other industrialized countries. For example, Japan (243 days) South Korea (220 days), Israel (216 days) and Luxembourg (216 days), to name a few, remain as the countries most extended school year (EDU In Review, 2011).
Other learning problems caused by the drastically reduced state school budget are numerous mismatches between children’s cognitive developmental levels with the required curriculum that could also affect students’ learning potential. In other words, perhaps there is not enough time for developmentally immature students to catch-up to a mandated 175-day curriculum. In short, the school’s curriculum is often being taught on a schedule similar to that of some runaway train schedule. A good example of this curriculum mismatch is when fourth graders are asked to learn long division, which is a formal operational exercise requiring students to entertain three plus ideas at a time, including their math facts. And, this formal operational skill of long division is being taught within a reduced teaching year. Unfortunately, most fourth graders are still thinking concretely or can only entertain two ideas at one time, and are less likely to grow into the next stage under classroom performance pressure. Such negative experiences can remain with some students throughout their lives.
To add credence to my argument that such learning environments reduce student learning and intelligence, we only need to look at the physiology of the brain. For instance, the learning process begins when information is taken in through the senses. The information is quickly delivered to two major areas of the brain – either, the amygdala, a part of the brain whose primary role is the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events, or directed to the hippocampus, the part of the brain noted for memory consolidation and the transfer of short term memory to long term memory. However, it is the thalamus that determines where the information should be sent. If the incoming information is threatening, negative emotions are attached to the learning process and instantly sent to the amygdala, which prepares the body for a fight or flight response. The end result becomes the short-circuiting of long-term memory, located in the cerebral cortex, drastically reducing use of brain potential. Apply this fight or flight interpretation to a student experiencing a stressful learning situation, be it large class size, shortened school year, developmental delays, and even mismatch of a preferred intelligence and the child’s ability to tap into the brain’s learning potential is compromised. Teachers witness on a daily basis the fight or flight behavior of struggling students or observe the parent dealing with children struggling with a difficult homework assignment. Conversely, in a positive learning environment (reasonable teacher-student ratios, a longer school year, ect.), information can be sent to the thalamus, then to the hippocampus, seat of memory consolidation and finally to the cerebral cortex for processing and long-term memory and/or greater learning potential.
The less effective high school teacher-student ratio, shortened school year, rushed developmental levels, and even mismatches with intelligence are negatively affecting children’s brains and learning processes. Politicians hold the keys and have the power to choose what type of learning situation we create for our children: fight or flight or greater learning and memory consolidation. Is anyone listening?
Dr. David Sortino, a psychologist and current Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, students. To contact Dr. Sortino, e-mail davidsortino@comcast or contact Santa Rosa Press Democrat – Dr. David Sortino.