The Big Story Blog

The Big Story Blog: February 23, 2012 Archive

Thursday 2/23/2012
Teaching put to the test

Posted at 6:20 AM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Hed

End seniority rules. Change testing requirements. Everyone, it seems, has a view on how to reform teaching in Minnesota. We'll look today at the politics and policy of teachers and teaching. Join in.

For teachers, a sudden spotlight on seniority, training

Posted at 6:20 AM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

I wrote and edited education stories in the Twin Cities from 1998 to 2008. I can't recall a week like this where so much potential change was set in motion for teachers and teaching.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law requiring Minnesota public school teaching candidates to pass skills tests in reading, writing and math before receiving a teaching license.

The Senate Education Committee signed off on a bill to eliminate seniority as the sole factor in deciding teacher layoffs, a major change approved last week by the House.

On top of that, MPR News reported a group founded by former Washington, D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is ramping up its presence in Minnesota with an eye to ending the seniority rules.

MPR News education reporter Tim Post writes, "Although some teachers think it's time to shake the system up, many are opposed to any change in the long-standing system of tenure, a form of job security for classroom veterans."

Will the changes improve teaching? Will they help students learn more or close achievement gaps? How much of a student's success or failure rests on a teacher?

Good reads on teachers, schools, training

Posted at 9:00 AM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

We'll be putting up a bunch of data and insight today on teacher training and seniority. Before that, though, it's worth reading some recent stories on the issues at hand in Minnesota.

Minn. teachers weigh in on proposed tenure shakeup. MPR News education reporter Tim Post gets teacher reaction to the proposal moving through the Legislature that would end seniority as the only factor in deciding layoffs and compel districts to look at teacher competence and other factors.

Teacher-layoffs plan puts DFLers in a jam. MinnPost examines the political currents of the teacher / seniority debate and how they may be shifting.

More stories on teachers and schools:

Could you do the math on a teacher licensing test?

Posted at 10:20 AM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

They're called basic skills tests, but could you answer the questions?

Minnesota has long required teaching candidates to pass gatekeeper tests in reading, writing and math as part of the process to get a license. The rules used to have some built-in flexibility -- a candidate could get a provisional license and teach while working toward passing the tests.

Legislation signed into law this week by Gov. Mark Dayton, though, now requires teachers to pass those tests before getting a license.

But how hard are the questions? We found some sample items on the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations site.

The reading and writing segments require reading long passages first, so best just to click on the link and read through them.

Below are some of the sample math questions. Take a look. For those of us long removed from a math class, it can be pretty humbling.

If the sum of two nonzero whole numbers is odd and their product is even, which of the following statements about the numbers must be true?
Neither number is prime.
Only one number is prime.
Both numbers are odd.
Only one number is odd.
A laser printer purchased for $3350 is expected to be worth only $800 in 6 years. If the value of the printer is modeled by an equation of the form y = mx + b, where y equals the value and x equals the number of years, which of the following describes the significance of m?

the initial value of the printer
the rate of change in value of the printer
the average value of the printer
the minimum value of the printer

Which of the following mathematical concepts are being applied when a photographer enlarges 4-inch by 6-inch photos to 12-inch by 18-inch photos?

analyzing patterns
ratios and proportions
applying percents
estimation and rounding

How teachers see the seniority / layoff system

Posted at 11:56 AM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

Mary Supple says changes working through the Legislature to scrap the seniority-only system for teacher layoffs will not fix the problem of ineffective teachers.

"Effective administrators do that," Supple, a teacher from Richfield, wrote us. "Seniority ... removes the temptation to just eliminate the teacher with the biggest salary."

We reached out to Supple and other educators in the MPR News Public Insight Network seeking their views on changes that would end seniority as the sole factor in deciding layoffs and let administrators weigh teacher evaluations and quality when cuts have to come.

We found teachers were not in lockstep. Some were opposed. Others thought it was time to rewrite the rules but weren't sure of what should be done and thought the Legislature was on the wrong track. Click on the map icons below to read what they told us, then add your voice.

View Teacher views on seniority, layoffs in a full screen map

Charles Moore of Frazee acknowledged he's seen "old, lazy tenured teachers stay in a district and not contribute anything to the learners -- but those numbers are very, very small."

He worries that the tenure debate is all political and "not motivated for the improvement of education."

"I think there needs to be more than just seniority in the equation, but I don't think anyone yet has the answer to what that 'more' needs to be," said Kathryn Gardner, a teacher from Rochester.

There are a lot of layers to this issue and it can't be subject to a quick fix. Teachers do so much more than teach content and somehow all these other things need to be considered.

But how do you measure the influence that teachers have on their students, the school climate ... How do you keep the layoffs from being politically motivated or financially motivated?

What is good teaching?

Posted at 2:00 PM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

When I covered education, I'd get questions about how to judge teachers. A school might have poor test scores and people assumed that meant bad teachers, which wasn't necessarily the case. A school might have great scores and the belief was teachers were doing great things (again, not necessarily). People wanted an easy answer and there wasn't one.

Emily Hanford, an American Radio Works correspondent, really dug into the research on teachers a couple of years ago and put together a great, concise look at the research on what makes a great teacher.

Here are some excerpts from what she learned.

It's hard to predict who will be a good teacher.

Researchers have tried for years to identify the characteristics of effective teachers. They have looked at test scores: do smarter people make better teachers? They have looked at credentials: are teachers with master's degrees or teaching certificates more effective in the classroom? They have looked at knowledge: are teachers who majored in the subject they teach better at teaching that subject? And they have looked at experience. The surprising result of all this research is how little it has revealed about what makes a good teacher.

Credentials don't seem to be the answer. Master's degrees and teacher certification have no significant impact on how effective teachers are. Experienced teachers tend to be better than inexperienced ones, but there are plenty of experienced teachers who are not effective. Teachers who majored in their subject area appear to be no more effective than those who didn't, with the exception of math teachers at the high school level. And teachers who score high on tests of cognitive ability appear to be more effective than teachers with lower scores, but the research on this is spotty and not completely clear
What is good teaching?

Researchers are focused on learning more about what good teachers do in their classrooms. But Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, warns this might go too far. His concern is that the complex craft of teaching will be reduced to a checklist of things all teachers will be required to do. He says there are many ways to be an effective teacher.

The bottom line is, do the students learn? Daly says one way to think about good teaching is to think about the question, what makes a good comedian?
"Is it a person that tells jokes in a certain way?" he asks. "Is it somebody that is very racy and uses a lot of profanity? Is it somebody that talks about everyday things or tells long stories?"

No, Daly says. "We can think of people that are considered very good comedians who do it every different manner of way. The universal is that people laugh," he says.

And that's his point about good teaching. The universal is that students learn. This is why Daly and many other education leaders say using student test scores to evaluate teachers is essential.

I tended to focus more on the principal than on the teachers. The principal set the tone in a school and the best ones had the savvy to find the resources they needed and the leadership ability to get the staff to work in harmony.

No school worked for children when the adults, for whatever reasons, were in turmoil. On the flipside, when the adults were working together with a leader they respected, great things happened.

As part of Hanford's reporting in 2010, we asked people in our Public Insight Network to talk about the best teachers they've known and why they were great. Check out the responses below. They're pretty revealing.

View The best teachers you've known in a full screen map

Teaching in their field?

Posted at 2:59 PM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

There's a common lament that teachers end up teaching topics they have no business teaching: They might have been trained to teach English but here they are trying to dissect a frog in biology.

It's definitely a problem in some states, but not in Minnesota, where nearly 9 of 10 public high school teachers are teaching in their fields of expertise.

Below is a chart I put together from a National Center for Education Statistics report examining the credentials of teachers in core subjects in 2007-2008.Teachers were considered to be teaching in-field if they had majored in the subjects they taught.

It stands to reason that if you focused on a subject in college you're better equipped to teach it. The research isn't definitive on whether this leads to higher student achievement. Still, if you're looking for ways to judge teacher quality, Minnesota looks really good on this measure. And Wisconsin looks great.

State% teachers with a major in
main teaching assignment
New York87.7
North Carolina87.7
North Dakota86.9
New Jersey86.8
New Hampshire84.7
South Carolina84.6
West Virginia82.2
Rhode Island78.9
South Dakota78
New Mexico66.6

You can find all the data here.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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