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Building a Better Science Teacher

Ohanian Comment: The article subhead gives a good clue for the bias of the article:

Experience and degrees don't matter in the classroom nearly so much as mastery of science and math and some plain old smarts

And then there's the picture. Don't miss the offensive, stereotypical nerd doll, portraying the modern science teacher, red tennis shoes and all. I happen to think many of Benjamin Simon's 3-D creations are quite marvelous. At first glance, this one seems to miss the mark by a mile. But read the horrendously biased article, and then look again at the illustration. You'll probably agree with me that it satirizes the entire thrust of the deeply biased article.

One wonders if the article author "gets" it.

You won't be surprised to learn that Pat Wingert has written for Newsweek for 25 years. Wingert co-authored Why we can't get rid of failing teachers in 2010, and I expressed regret that I didn't subscribe to Newsweek--so I could cancel my subscription. Jim Horn deconstructed that offal over at www.schoolsmatter.info.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) also called them out.

Nonetheless, the drum roll continues.

Katie Bellucci, a career-changer and in her third year of teaching, is getting a lot of attention. She was also "noticed" two years ago in Building a Better Teacher, in the Sunday New York Times Magazine . . . when she'd been teaching about 15 minutes.

The reader might guess that this Scientific American piece borrows more than 4/5 of its title from The New York Times. Coincidence. Elizabeth Green's New York Times piece was the culmination of her stint as a Spencer Fellow in education. Now, Pan Wingert "hopes to use her Spenser Fellowship to learn more about the science of learning, and how the country can use education research to improve science and math instruction."

When the Times chose to highlight Bellucci she'd been teaching only two months. Now, in her third year, according to Wingert's theory of teaching, she's close to being over the hill. Wingert expounds (without attribution)in the same vein as both Bill and Melinda Gates on the theory that a teacher's proficiency typically "flattens out" after a few years. Wingert writes that Bellucci started at Troy Prep with no classroom experience and no master's degree in education. "What she does have, and what research has shown is even more important, is strong mastery of her subject area: she holds a bachelor's degree in applied math and crunched numbers at an engineering firm before switching careers."

Indeed. Whose research shows this Ms. Wingert? Is this maybe the education school in Botswana (referred to further down in the article)? Or just Bill and Melinda Gates spouting off? They both like to expound on this point. They'd like people to believe that no pedagogy is needed. All that is needed is lots of math and science smarts. They and those of their ilk like to bemoan the fact that if he were alive today, Albert Einstein would not be "qualified" to teach math or science in public school because he didn't take any courses offered by schools of education. My husband's book, Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius has been called a "forensic biography dissecting Einstein's scientific mistakes" and persuasively arguing that "the defining hallmark of Einstein’s genius was not any special mathematical ability but an uncanny talent to use his mistakes as stepping stones to formulate his revolutionary theories." True. But what sticks with me are Einstein's profound personal failings. I will be forever haunted by how he treated his own son. I'm glad that there are state licensing and certification requirements and procedures that say math and science "smarts" are not enough.

Truth in Disclosure: I got into teaching through the back door, when New York City was issuing "emergency certificates" to people willing to try their hand at teaching high school English. I had a Master's degree in medieval literature from the graduate school then ranked top in the country. On paper, I knew plenty about the subject matter.

Ohmygosh, I went home every night and cried because I knew how inadequate I was. And I would say to those who belittle "teacher instinct," that as I look back, I can see that I had good instincts that first year, instincts that I learned to develop and expand. I think those instincts were the only thing that saved me. Certainly my expertise in English did not. And very few of the "smarts" I gradually learned as a teacher had anything to do with the subject matter.

Enraged science teachers on Twitter report that Pat Wingert's piece below starts with a math error. The first bothersome thing that caught my attention was the "zipping" up and down the aisles.

Isn't it typical that such hurly-burly would catch the attention of a reporter?

Does anybody remember Mary Budd Rowe's famous work on wait time? In the days before Twitter, by then a remedial reading teacher in upstate New York, I got on the train to New York City and went to the McGraw-Hill bookstore to buy the Mary Budd Rowe book they had published Teaching science as continuous inquiry, now available at Amazon used books for $.19 plus $3.99 postage. I'd been teaching about 8 years when I bought that book--over the hill, according to Pat Wingert's regurgitation of Bill and Melinda Gates' formulation. That book is up there along with Frank Smith and James Herndon as profound influence on my teaching life.

In small world "connections," in this article Pat Wingert is ecstatic about a teacher in Troy, New York. My first year of teaching in the Troy, New York public schools (which hired me despite the fact that the superintendent who did all the hiring was offended that my Master's came from UC Berkeley and my husband was "a foreigner") was the year Herndon's The Way It Spozed to Be appeared, and I insisted on interrupting my colleagues' recitation of sports scores by reading parts out loud. To his credit, when my principal stumbled upon one of my readings, he insisted on taking the book home. He enjoyed it almost as much as I did, and I went on to work with him in two other schools.

I looked in Willam Schmidt's new book Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, co-authored with Curtis C. McKnight, for mention of just which schools of education in the U.S. compare with which schools in Botswana. Six pages are devoted to how ill-prepared U. S. mathematics teachers are, but no schools of education are mentioned by name. Nor are any schools in Botswana mentioned. I think Pat Wingert should document this quote.

And speaking of books, in May 2012, the University of Texas, Austin, received $30,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Purpose: to support development of a chapter about the UTeach Observation Protocol for the edited volume of the Measures of Effective Teaching project.

30,000 smackers for the development of a chapter in a book? I'm currently writing a chapter on Bill Gates for an edited volume. What do you suppose that is worth?

Of course this is nothing compared to what the Foundation isi paying out for the Measures of Effective Teaching Project:

2012 Stanford University $30,000
2012 RAND Corporation $30,000
2012 Harvard University $30,000
2012 Harvard University $30,000
2012 Educational Testing Service $45,000
2012 Educational Testing Service $50,000
2012 University of Texas at Austin $30,000
2012 University of Virginia $49,864
2012 Rutgers University $10,000
2011 University of Michigan $1,297,627
2011 Learning Forward $212,000
2010 Mastery Charter High School $1,798,818
2010 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards $1,195,639
2010 Denver Public Schools $10,000,000
2010 Dallas Independent School District $951,293
2009 Denver Public Schools $871,202
2009 Hillsborough County Public Schools $2,502,146
2009 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools $1,439,034
2009 Fund for Public Schools Inc $2,722,939

Michael Lach directs the work related to the 100Kin10 initiative as a joint effort of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) and the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Center. Before that, he was special assistant, STEM Education, U.S. Department of Education. And before that, he served as officer of teaching and learning, overseeing curriculum and instruction for the Chicago Public Schools, a member of the $100,000 club , a Substance listing of all CPS non-school employees being paid more than $100,000 per year as of June 30, 2008. In his U. S. DOE capacity, Lach spoke at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Hey, somebody's got to do it. At least Lach has solid science teaching experience. It's interesting that his list of qualifications at the University of Chicago/Urban Education Institute does not include any mention of his award-winning teacher experience.

NOTE: Maybe I've gone overboard with the hotlinks. The article at Scientific American provides none. I don't think such a screed can be read without having some context--and some counter-screed.

by Pat Wingert

In a renovated warehouse in a weary-looking section of Troy, N.Y., 25-year-old Katie Bellucci has the rapt attention of 27 fifth graders. They are singing, stamping, clapping and waving their hands in the air—far more excitement than you would expect for ratios and fractions. The class is working together on a word problem involving a fictional basketball team with a win-to-loss ratio of 9:3. What is the ratio of losses to total games played? Bellucci gets everyone involved in breaking down the process ("What do we need to do first?"). Once the class arrives at a fraction—wins plus losses, divided by losses, or (9 + 3)/3—she encourages them to reduce it. "Okay, who's got the GCF?" she says, referring to the greatest common factor. She zips up and down the aisles, cajoling one student and then another for one more piece of the solution. The students track her every move, knowing she may call on them even if their hands are down. "I'm seeing so many lightbulbs and so much diligence," she says. If an answer comes easily, she will push ahead with that student and ask for the how and why behind it. The bell rings, and as the kids file out for lunch, each one hands Bellucci an "Exit Ticket"--the solution to two problems that exemplify the core lesson of the day, which Bellucci will scrutinize to determine if the class mastered the day's objective.

Troy Prep, where Bellucci teaches, is one of the higher-performing public schools in New York State even though the vast majority of its students come from low-income families. In 2011, the second year the school was open, 74 percent of its fifth graders scored at the "proficient" level on the New York State math exam, as compared with only 66 percent of fifth graders across the state. Even more impressive, after two years in the school, 100 percent of Troy Prep's sixth graders scored in the proficient range. What accounts for the school's success? Doug Lemov, a leader of the Uncommon Schools Charter Network, of which Troy Prep is a part, does not hesitate: outstanding, well-trained teachers like Bellucci.

In recent years a mounting stack of research has shown that a good teacher is the single most important variable in boosting student achievement in every subject. A good teacher trumps such factors as socioeconomic status, class size, curriculum design and parents' educational levels. Stanford University's Eric Hanushek showed that students of highly effective teachers make about three times the academic gains of those with less talented teachers, regardless of the students' demographics. That is exactly the trouble with math and science education: there are too few teachers like Bellucci. The teacher dropout rate is high, and the education system rewards the teachers it has for the wrong reasons.

The crisis has not gone unnoticed. Not since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 have American policy makers, educators and businesses been so focused on improving math and science education. They have been spurred into action by the U.S.'s economic downturn and by growing competitiveness in China, which includes its students' top scores on international tests. Major players from President Barack Obama on down are describing the U.S.'s lagging performance in science and math education as a dire threat to the country's future competitiveness. According to results from two Nation's Report Card tests released earlier this year, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are proficient in science and 35 percent are proficient in math. Meanwhile students from Shanghai earned top scores on the 2010 Program for International Student Assessment test in math and science, whereas Americans placed squarely in the middle of the pack. To help close the gap, President Obama has proposed infusing our school system with a fresh supply of talent. His prescription: making it a priority to prepare 100,000 highly effective math and science teachers by 2020 and raising learning standards in all 50 states [see Can the U.S. Get an 'A' in Science? Science Agenda, on page 12]. "Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success," the president said during last year's State of the Union address. "But if we want to win the future--if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

Indeed, at the instigation of the White House, the U.S. seems to be embarking on a national experiment on how to encourage more effective math and science teaching. Increasingly, research is showing that much of what we thought we knew about how to prepare and reward teachers is wrong. According to the conventional wisdom, for instance, Bellucci should not be half as effective as she is. Before coming to Troy Prep, she had no classroom experience, and she never earned a master's degree in education. What she does have, and what research has shown is even more important, is strong mastery of her subject area: she holds a bachelor's degree in applied math and crunched numbers at an engineering firm before switching careers.

Yet in most school districts, teachers' raises and retirement benefits are pegged to experience and postgraduate degrees in education. In fact, classroom time does not predict student achievement as well as many experts have assumed. A new teacher's proficiency typically grows for a few years but then flattens out. The difference between the achievement scores of students who have a very experienced teacher and one who has been in the classroom for three years, like Bellucci, is small. Graduate degrees do not correlate with higher performance in the classroom, either. Analysts suspect that is because 90 percent of those degrees are master's degrees in general education rather than in a specific subject area. Conversely, several studies indicate higher math achievement among students whose teachers hold an advanced degree in math.

"An Utterly Chaotic System"

Legislating change has not been easy. Since 2001 and the passage of former president George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, states have been encouraged to hire teachers with degrees in the subjects they teach. As recently as 2008, however, only about 25 percent of science and math teachers at all grade levels held an undergraduate or graduate degree conferred by a math or science department or school. That is partly because of poor teacher retention. Every year 25,000 mathematics and science teachers, out of a corps of 477,000, leave the profession, with nearly two thirds citing job dissatisfaction. To fill vacancies, each state has devised its own rules and regulations for "alternative" and "emergency" hires, some of whom get great training and some of whom do not. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says, “It is an utterly chaotic system. The best way to summarize American teacher education programs is anything goes”.

In general, teacher certification standards still vary widely from state to state. Some aspiring elementary school teachers, like those in Massachusetts, are required to take rigorous math classes designed for teachers and to score well on tough exams that probe for deep content knowledge. In other states, including Arkansas and Nevada, prospective teachers need only repeat a course they took in high school or one designed primarily to ease their math anxiety rather than increase their mastery of the content, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

This type of training pales by comparison with what higher-achieving countries offer. A 2007 study of prospective elementary and middle school mathematics teachers' content knowledge in 16 countries found that future American teachers knew less math than many of their counterparts. Whereas nearly all future middle school teachers in Singapore, Germany, Taiwan and Korea took courses in linear algebra and basic calculus, only about half of U.S. future teachers took those fundamental courses. When it came to algebra knowledge, American teachers scored dead last. One of the reasons for that is there is no agreement about what constitutes a quality teacher preparation program for math or any other subject. "Some [American teacher colleges] are competitive with the best in the world," says William Schmidt of Michigan State University, who directed the U.S. part of the survey. "But some are more like the ones in Botswana. We have that kind of range".

Equally disturbing was the survey's finding that the U.S. teacher preparation programs that ranked lowest in terms of future teachers' math knowledge tended to be at large public universities that produce the largest numbers of teachers. "The bottom quartile of the distribution—the colleges whose students don't know much math—produces more than half of the future middle school teachers of mathematics," Schmidt says. "States need to close those institutions that are doing a really poor job."

Road to Reform

There are reasons for optimism. Some states are embarking on ambitious reform agendas, helped along by well-respected teacher training programs that are expanding, thanks to an influx of funds from companies and nonprofits. For the past few years the best math teachers in Louisiana, a state in the middle of a major overhaul of its teacher training program, have consistently come from Teach for America, the highly competitive national program that recruits top graduates from the nation's top colleges to make a two-year commitment to teach in hard-to-staff schools. Teach for America's recruits have higher college admission exam scores in math than most teachers, and some data have shown that higher scores correlate with higher effectiveness, says Jeanne Burns, associate commissioner of teacher education initiatives for the Louisiana Board of Regents. Studies of Teach for America in Tennessee and North Carolina schools have shown similarly positive results for science student achievement. Until now, only around a third of Teach for America's members have specialized in science or math, but that is about to change. This past February the organization committed to recruiting 11,000 new math and science teachers by 2015 for the 31 states it serves. The downside is that many of Teach for America's recruits drop out of teaching after just a few years.

A model program for retaining good teachers is UTeach, an innovative teacher training program that originated at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1990s. Its goal is to prepare many more science and math teachers with a deep knowledge of their subject. It does so by offering freshmen with math or science majors two free semester-long teaching workshops staffed with mentors. Five years out, 82 percent of its teachers are still in the classroom. UTeach credits those high numbers to the fact that it gives students lots of time in real classrooms right from the start, “so they can decide if they like teaching or not,” says Mary Ann Rankin, former dean of the University of Texas at Austin's natural sciences department who helped to launch the program. “Some are seduced once they have a really fun experience and see how rewarding it can be.” At the end of four years, recruits graduate with a bachelor's degree in a field of science or math, plus all the courses needed for teacher certification.

UTeach has won recognition from the National Research Council, among many other groups, and has attracted enough funding from nonprofits and companies to help it expand. In the past three years the number of campuses offering the program has tripled to 30 in 14 states. (Most create their own versions of its witty name: the University of Kansas's is UKanTeach.) Meanwhile Rankin, who last year became the president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, has made a commitment to keep the expansion growing. Her goal: 4,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) teachers prepared by UTeach by 2015.

Other teacher training programs have had success by recruiting professionals with strong math and science backgrounds at later stages of their careers. The New Teacher Project (TNTP) focuses on those in their 20s and 30s "who made the wrong (career) choice early on" and still have low opportunity costs associated with making the switch to teaching, says Tim Daly, president of TNTP. The program, an alternative training organization started by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, offers free teacher training to its fellows, who then go on to earn a subsidized master's degree in education while teaching. All their math and science teachers have strong backgrounds in their subjects, like Bellucci.

"We used to think there were all these people who would quit their jobs and go back to school, where they would take out a loan to pay for their master's program so they could become a teacher and make a pittance on the other end. That doesn't happen much," Daly says. "We find that the sweet spot for recruiting people is between the ages of 25 and 35. They are just a few years into their career and have a math or science skill set and a desire to do teaching as a vocation instead of a short-term experience. These are people who are good at these subjects and highly motivated, mission-oriented and willing to teach in a school where they are badly needed."

Whereas TNTP—like Teach for America—gets criticized by advocates of teacher colleges for their condensed training schedule, alternative programs that recruit people with deep content knowledge are an essential piece of the STEM solution, Daly says. "If you don't offer alternative certification, will anyone volunteer to do this?" he asks. "I would argue that the answer is no—no one will take on midcareer financial hardship when they have a mortgage and a family to go back to school to become a teacher. The number interested in doing that is zero."

Learning from "Superstar" Teachers

As educators and researchers learn more about the best ways to attract and train teachers, they are also formulating a better recipe for retaining them. Matthew G. Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, says pay may not be as clear a motivator as one would think. "There are only a handful of rigorous studies on merit-pay programs," Springer says, "and the number of different ways you can design them is tremendous. We've tested only a few models." But, he adds, the U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey has shown that it is about twice as hard to find a good math or science teacher as an elementary school teacher, and "one may conclude that could stem from the fact that there isn't more market-driven compensation." What is becoming more clear is the idea that excellent training and job satisfaction go hand in hand. Julia Toews, head of Basis Tucson, a 700-student charter school that is ranked among the nation's highest-performing schools in science and math, uses a combination of competitive pay, ongoing development and regular feedback to keep her staff motivated. Her teachers tend to come from the ranks of academe, graduate and postdoctoral students who decided they enjoyed teaching more than conducting research.

Toews is quick to add that holding an advanced degree in science or mathematics does not guarantee anyone a job. "Every teacher [applicant] has to do a teaching demonstration, and for every five I watch, I hire one," she says. Once applicants are hired, the school provides ongoing teacher development and regular feedback on teachers' performance and pays higher salaries than the local districts and private schools. With good results, "teachers get a lot of authority and freedom and creativity," Toews observes. "We make people want to stay."

Uncommon Schools' Lemov agrees that inadequate training may be behind many teachers' early departures from the profession. "Who doesn't know a lot of people who were teachers who are now realtors?" he asks. "Without the right training, they are not successful. When someone decides to go into teaching, they know they may not be paid well, but they think they're going to make a difference. If they end up leaving, it's because they're not making a difference. This is actually one of the hardest jobs in the world. We have to give the people who do this work better tools."

What might those tools look like? In other words, what are the specific techniques that, in the words of the White House, "prepare and inspire" students? There is little conclusive research, particularly when it comes to science instruction, write the authors of a 2010 National Research Council report, Preparing Teachers. Experts agree that students need a mix of factual knowledge, opportunities to practice scientific inquiry and an understanding of "the nature of science," which refers to how scientists gather and make sense of new information. There are better data when it comes to math. Students need to both memorize facts like multiplication tables and think through deep conceptual knowledge before they take on higher-level mathematics. There is also "some evidence" to support the use of cooperative learning and individual assessments to tailor student instruction. But there is more agreement on what should be taught than on the best ways to teach that material.

Efforts to change that are under way. Deborah L. Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, has devoted herself for more than a decade to identifying the specific skills that new teachers need before they are ready to take over a classroom. The program she helped to establish, Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, aims to teach new instructors to diagnose accurately why a student is confused, to maintain a class's attention, and to put together a tool box that includes, for example, a variety of strategies to explain fractions. Her own experience in the classroom, as well as her years as a researcher, Ball says, has convinced her it is "very misguided" to assume good teaching is "intuitive."

Teachers who score high on the Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching skills are more likely to generate student success than those who do well on straight math tests, says Paul Cobb of Vanderbilt, who teaches the strategies to his own students and to experienced teachers looking to improve. Along with his colleague Kara Jackson of McGill University, Cobb has seen dramatically increased levels of student learning by training experienced teachers to use these same techniques. But he acknowledges that the groups were small—12 to 15 at a time—and the effort took more than a year. The challenge now is to figure out how to bring this kind of training to scale. "We know there are exceptional schools," Cobb says. "We're interested in creating exceptional districts."

Lemov, too, has identified 49 techniques that, in his words, "separate great teachers from the merely good." He has spent years observing superstar teachers and zeroing in on the concrete, reproducible traits that make them highly effective. First, Lemov's team focused on how to make reading instruction more effective, and now it is doing the same with math and science, producing teachers like Bellucci. Among the factors the team has noted so far: not letting students off the hook (coming back to a student who at first answered incorrectly to make sure they understand the correct answer) and normalizing error (showing students that getting something wrong before getting it right is normal).

Striving for the Top

While the debate continues over the best ways to overhaul the training of math and science teachers, the Obama administration has pledged to continue to boost STEM education from the bully pulpit as well as the treasury. Its Race to the Top program (a national series of competitions that reward the states with the most ambitious education reforms with billions in extra federal aid money) has motivated states to overhaul their teacher evaluation programs and made it easier for charters such as Basis and Uncommon Schools to open and for alternatively trained teachers (like those from Teach for America and TNTP) to be hired. The competitions have encouraged states to do more to recruit STEM teachers with stronger core mastery and to link student performance to educational school reforms. Stimulus money has also been made available for schools to modernize their science laboratories, and federal money is funding programs such as the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which pays for teacher training for top science and math graduates in university settings. Even so, the administration knows it needs to do much more.

That is one of the reasons government officials are working closely with the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation of New York on what they call the 100Kin10 effort. In the past year they have succeeded in getting more than 100 government, business and nonprofit organizations to join the cause and raised $24 million in their first round of fund-raising from groups that include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. They are promising donors that investment of this money will be restricted to teacher training programs that have already proved their effectiveness by undergoing vetting by University of Chicago researchers. (So far UTeach and Teach for America are among dozens that have been green-lighted for investment, as have California State University, Arizona State University, Michigan State University, Boston College and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.)

There is no doubt that the cause is creating heat and light, and its advocates insist that this time around, we will see real progress. "We know this is necessary, and we know this is possible, and it's not happening enough for enough kids," says Talia Milgrom-Elcott, who is managing STEM teacher initiatives for Carnegie.Don't miss her bio "We can do this by activating enough people around the country to make a decision to join us with their own resources, expertise and local knowledge. We can work together to reach this goal."

Although there is still a long way to go, there is no debate over how important this effort is.

— Pat Wingert
Scientific American





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