Utah's overwhelmed teachers
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah schoolchildren are scoring at the bottom in English and math, and near the bottom in science when compared with students in states with similar home environments, according to a 2007 Utah Foundation study. What's keeping our students from excellence?

Many have argued that it's spending. Let's look at a more specific shortfall for a moment: Utah has the highest national ratio of students per teacher, according to the National 2011-2012 NEA rankings.

I commend Ann Florence for having the courage to speak up about the crisis that teachers have been facing in this state ("Why teach?" Opinion, March 23). I would like to share my own experiences as a new teacher that led me to seek a different profession.

Last August I was hired by a public school as a junior high science teacher. I had some experience teaching in other states under a reasonable workload and with class sizes around 20 students. Now I taught seven periods a day, three different grade levels, with up to 34 students per class. I had one 48-minute prep period to prepare three distinct lesson plans, and grade the work of 180 students.

On top of this, I was asked to clean my own classroom, make my own supply runs, and spend 35 minutes a day on curb duty. I was working 80-hour weeks until my fellow teachers made some helpful suggestions: don't grade assignments — score them all 100; don't prepare new material — make do with old material or anything you can scrounge off the web; teach to the state exams; always make your own exams multiple choice; and forget about doing class experiments because they take too much prep time.

As a result of these strategies, I was able to get my weekly workload down to about 65 hours a week, though my students' grades fell from a B average to a C-minus average and classroom discipline became a problem.

I finally decided that I needed a job with less stress, better wages, and more time with my wife and son. Last month I quit and took a job as a computer programmer.

I admire those teachers who stick it out in our broken school system. Some of them, despite the hardships, do an excellent job. Too many of them are swamped.

Finland faced a similar challenge in the 1970s. Its educational bureaucracy was bloated and it was ranking near the bottom of developed countries in student performance. They made a number of reforms that have since launched it to the top of international rankings, notably: (1) they eliminated multi-track segregation and standardized testing, (2) they reduced classroom sizes, and (3) teachers were given more time and freedom to develop their own coursework.

Today, Finnish teachers spend only three to four hours a day teaching, with 10 to 15 minute breaks between each period. The rest of the day is for preparation. Their average class size is 21, and science classes are capped at 16. Students spend less time in the classroom, but this time is more content-rich, stressing hands-on activities and critical thinking.

Finland is now near the top in math, science, and reading, according to the international 2009 PISA exam. It has the highest number of scientific and engineering researchers per capita, and the second largest high-technology manufacturing industry among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Based on these and similar statistics, it was ranked first on the Global Technoloogy Index in 2011.

Finland spends less on education than you might think — about two-thirds the amount per student that we do in the United States. Perhaps the biggest challenge in improving Utah's educational system is simply mustering the courage to change.

Sam Thomsen is a computer programer with experience as a math tutor, a college philosophy instructor, and a logic teacher with Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. He lives in Midvale.