Ed Dept forms 9 centers for science, math teaching

Math student
A young student looks closely at a math exam during a summer school class at Brentano Academy in Chicago.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If Minnesota is going to gain ground in the global economy, it's going to take some hard work by the state's eighth graders.

According to Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota and author of a recent study on science education, it's all about algebra.

"In the top five performing states nationally on educational measures, 57 percent of the students take algebra in eighth grade," Jolly says. "In Minnesota, it's 27 percent. Algebra in 8th grade allows you to succeed in so much more."

"In the top five performing states nationally, 57 percent of the students take algebra in eighth grade. In Minnesota, it's 27 percent."

That's what Jolly told nearly 100 teachers and administrators who will attend new teacher training academies in the next two years.

The initial round of the project will focus on making science and math educators better teachers. The hope is that will make more eighth graders interested in things like algebra, science and engineering.

It's a $3 million pilot project funded by the state and the National Governor's Association.

The academies are part of the state's ongoing push for more teacher training, even after teachers have finished a standard course of graduate school.

The program will use existing curriculum and it doesn't involve more student testing.

Doug Wyffels teaches math, geometry and algebra in Mabel, in southeastern Minnesota. He thinks sharpening his teaching skills will be time well spent for his summer.

"It's now been 15 years, 20 years since I have been in college," Wyffels says. "So I need to be pulled forward, and what do I not know about? I need to be pulled into the next millenium, I suppose."

Even in tiny Mabel, with a population of just under 800, Wyffels says he can feel the competitive pressure of the global economy.

"I do feel the rest of the world is bypassing us," he says. "The world is changing so much, our needs are not the same as they were 20 years ago, and so our teaching standards needed to be changed."

How to do that, though, has sparked a political struggle in Minnesota.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty says a pay-for-performance plan called Q-Comp, will offer financial incentives for teachers to improve their skills. He's also pushing continuing education for mid and late career teachers, like the summer academies.

But the state's teachers union has been wary of the risks. Teachers fear they'll be penalized if they don't measure up and that the state's expectations will prove to be a constantly moving target.

Reforms like the state's Outcome Based Education program, the federal No Child Left Behind and Pawlenty's own Q-Comp pay program come and go with almost seasonal regularity.

But state school officials say the new teacher academies, funded by the Legislature last year, are a long-term project.

Education Commission Alice Seagren hopes about 300 teachers and administrators can winnow out the best ways to draw kids into math, stem the exodus of girls from the sciences and get students to see the real world uses for what they're learning.

Seagren says the program will teach those techniques to 3,000 additional teachers this year and next.

"This is not a fad," Seagren says. "If you look at top performing countries around the world, they have very strong professional development that is teaching teachers the latest and best kinds of instructional practices. That's been lacking in the nation and it's been lacking in Minnesota."

The academies will be held nine cities around the state this year and next including Thief River Falls, Mountain Iron, Fergus Falls, Staples, Marshall, St. Cloud, Rochester and Plymouth.