Teachers need to know wrong answers

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” said Mark Twain. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Teachers need to know the wrong answers to teach the right answers, says Philip Sadler, a professor of astronomy who runs Harvard’s Science Education department. It’s hard for teachers to explain concepts unless they  “understand the flaws in students’ reasoning,” writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

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It takes a lot of “mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself,” says Sadler. “It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.’ ”

Sadler gave a multiple-choice science test to middle-school students, including a “distractor” — a common misconception — for each question, he writes in American Educator.

For example:

2. Eric is watching a burning candle very carefully. After all of the candle has burned, he wonders what happened to the wax. He has a number of ideas; which one do you agree with most?

a. The candle wax has turned into invisible gases.

d. All of the wax has melted and dripped to the bottom of the candle holder.

Fifty-nine percent of students chose “d.” Only 17 percent chose the right answer, “a.”

When Sadler tested the students’ teachers, they knew 85 percent of the right answers, but only 41 percent of the “right” wrong answers, writes Kamenetz. Students whose teachers were more aware of common errors “learned significantly more science, based on a retest at the end of the year.”

A first-rate teacher for every classroom

To “get a first-rate teacher in front of every student,” schools need to retain teachers long enough to build expertise, writes Marc Tucker on his Top Performers blog.

Attrition is higher in the U.S. than in top-performing countries, writes Tucker. Teachers who quit “typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching.”

“Most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years,” Tucker writes. Novices are motivated to learn how to do the job to survive — but, after that, “all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.”

A new, very large international study by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond looks at how schools support high-quality teachers and teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, he writes.

These high-performing countries work hard to hire the best possible teachers, then focus on building their expertise and providing “a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards” expertise, Tucker writes.

In these countries, novice teachers are less likely to quit and teacher effectiveness doesn’t plateau after three years. They keep getting better.

St. Paul seeks equity, finds chaos


Brawls broke out at two St. Paul high schools in October. Photo: KSTP News

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

Aaron Benner

Student behavior is getting worse, says teacher Aaron Benner.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students.

(Teachers) have no way to discipline. If a child is running around screaming, we let them run around and scream. If a student throws a chair at the Smart Board we remove the other students and call for help. If a student shouts obscenities, we simply use kind words to remind them to use kind words themselves. I am not kidding.

. . . The only consequence at the elementary level is taking away recess or sending the offending student to a ‘buddy classroom’ for a few minutes.

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher at Como Park High, wrote that teachers “now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

He did not mention race.

Black Lives Matter had threatened a “shut-down action” at the school if Olson was not fired.

The same day Olson was put on leave, another Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffering a concussion. “The two entered the classroom to assault another student over a marijuana transaction gone bad,” an associate principal told the Star-Tribune.  Two 16-year-olds face felony assault charges.

Massachusetts’ test for teachers is humbling

After years teaching middle school English, Peter Sipe decided to seek an elementary teaching credential in Massachusetts. Tackling the state teachers’ exam was “humbling — and motivating,” he writes.

He missed half the answers on the practice math test. “Questions 20 and 36, for example, gave me a bit of a workout,” he writes.

Then there was biology: “Why would some cells have more mitochondria than others?” He had to relearn bio.

With the help of knowledgeable friends, hours of study, and a kind and patient man named Sal Khan, I got better at the sample tests. But it was humbling. If you factor in my two graduate degrees, my fifteen-year teaching career, and the fact that I’ve written disparagingly about teacher preparation standards in these very pages, my humbling was squared (or cubed, or something).

That practice math test is not easy.

Why principals inflate teacher ratings

New teacher evaluations are a lot like the old evaluations, concludes a new study that includes interviews with 100 urban principals. Very few teachers receive poor job ratings, notes Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

In 19 states with new teacher evaluation systems, the median proportion of teachers deemed below proficient is up from less than 1 percent to less than 3 percent, researchers found.

At the start of the year, urban principals estimated that 28 percent of their teachers were performing below the proficient level, but planned to assign low ratings to 24 percent. At year’s end, fewer than 7 percent of teachers received “below proficient” ratings.

Some principals felt uncomfortable delivering bad news to teachers. Others told the researchers that they didn’t have adequate time to deal with all the documentation and support that comes along with giving a teacher a poor rating.

Principals also said they didn’t want to discourage teachers with potential to improve or didn’t think they could hire a better replacement teacher. Some said it was easier “to urge a teacher to find a job elsewhere than to go through the process of assigning and justifying a low rating.”

Focus on effective teaching, not effective teachers, writes Timothy Shanahan. It’s not about people. It’s about what people do.

For example, effective teaching employs instructional time more wisely.  It is teaching that gets started right away—no 30-minute circle times, no large portions of class time devoted to getting a head start on the homework—and such teaching keeps kids productively engaged throughout the day. Observational studies have long showed that effective teaching avoids long wait times by the kids; avoids disruptions; encourages more interaction per instructional minute; follows a sound curriculum intelligently; gets a lot more reading into a lesson; explains things better; notices when kids aren’t getting it and does something about it.

“I can’t teach you to be an effective teacher,” he writes. “But I can teach you to do the kinds of things effective teachers do.”

Teacher forced out for nude photo on stolen phone 

Leigh Anne Arthur, who teaches mechatronics at a South Carolina high school, was forced to resign because a student who’d stolen her phone found and broadcast a semi-nude photo of the teacher via text and social media.

Leigh Anne Arthur was forced to resign after a student stole her phone and circulated her semi-nude photo.

Leigh Anne Arthur was forced to resign after a student stole her phone and circulated her semi-nude photo.

David Eubanks, the interim superintendent, said it was the teacher’s fault because her phone was unlocked.

Students had access to very inappropriate pictures of a teacher,” he said.  “I think we have a right to privacy, but when we take inappropriate information or pictures, we had best make sure it remains private.”

Arthur said she took the picture for her husband as a Valentine’s gift.

“Eubanks said he was unsure whether the student who took Arthur’s phone would face any discipline,” reports The State.

I shouldn’t be surprised at the depths of administrative stupidity, but — really!

He, she or . . . ?

Siobhan Curious, who teaches at the Canadian equivalent of community college, is facing a Pronoun Problem. She doesn’t know the gender identity of a student.

“My first impression from the student’s online ID picture: woman,” she writes. “My (not immediately conscious) impression from our first classroom encounter: very pretty gay man. My impression after 10 minutes of 1-on-1 conversation in my office: no idea. Maybe a very boyish transgender woman?”

The student’s name doesn’t help matters. Curious foresees pronoun issues. “Do I ask? If so, how do I ask?”

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

Teachers are professionals — not missionaries

Teachers are skilled professionals — not missionaries, writes Amanda Ripley in The Washingtonian. Talking about teaching as a low-status career for the selfless drives away the smart, ambitious people the profession needs.

In Washington, D.C., public school teachers earn as much or more than other college-educated professionals, Ripley writes. Median pay was $75,000 last year and “teachers who work in low-income public schools and get strong performance reviews can earn more than $125,000 after fewer than ten years.”

In addition, teachers can “apply to become master educators, who formally evaluate teachers and provide targeted feedback.”

Yet, “many people still talk about teachers as if they volunteer in a soup kitchen—as if the hardest part is just showing up,” she writes.

Hope Harrod, DC’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, is tired of being told she’s doing “God’s work.” Teaching is not a sacrifice for her. It’s an “intellectual journey” she finds “deeply engaging.”

By “intellectual journey,” Harrod means the workplace questions that teachers grapple with daily: Why is Juan insisting that the answer is 15.5 and not 18? What’s happening in his head that isn’t happening in Scarlette’s head? How can she give him the tools to take apart his own process and rebuild it, piece by piece?

D.C. “now retains about 92 percent of its highest-ranked teachers,” writes Ripley. Boosting pay and status makes a difference.

That issue comes up in a Tampa Bay Tribune story about a veteran teacher who quit to become a librarian, complaining of mandatory lesson plans, endless meetings and micromanagement.

The profession of teaching comes in for a lot of “bashing,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “The unions and reformers and legislators, whoever, are telling you that teaching is a lousy job and nobody lets you do it the way you want to do it. It has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Idea: Make it easy to try teaching, hard to stay

To get better teachers, should schools make it harder to qualify as a teacher? No, make it easier and cheaper to try teaching, argue Chad Aldeman and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel in a new Bellwether report. Let would-be teachers try tutoring or co-teaching with a mentor. Fire those who don’t work out.

It’s hard to predict who will be a good teacher, they write. Teacher training or earning a master’s degree makes little difference. There’s some evidence that new teachers with stronger academic credentials are more effective, but “the value of those credentials is relatively small, and they are not a guarantee for any individual.”

So why not open teaching to anyone with a bachelor’s degree, then focus “on measuring and acting on teacher effectiveness in a teacher’s first years on the job.”

Districts should have the authority to license teachers based on “observations of candidates’ performance in real-time classroom settings and demonstrated effectiveness in supporting students’ academic growth.”

It’s a “radically sensible proposal,” writes Matt Barnum on The Seventy Four.  “Give novices the opportunity to learn on the job and figure out whether teaching is right for them, without sinking thousands of dollars into teacher training programs.”

New teachers with low value-added scores usually remain below average, if they remain in the classroom, Allison Atteberry tells Aldeman. Some will improve significantly, but most do not.

District of Columbia Public Schools are replacing low-performing teachers with teachers who are increasing student achievement, according to a newly published working paper.