I am a former resident of Waseca, Minn., and was intrigued by the March 22 editorial (“Ask railroads to do their part for safety”), which mentioned comments by state Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, and others who wondered what was in it for the railroads. The issue has nothing to do with what is in it for the railroads; it’s about the public’s safety, and it’s ironic that Petersburg should be the one making such a query.

In September 1959, there was a car-train accident in Waseca that killed a mother, her six children, plus an unborn child on their way to school at Sacred Heart. The crash was attributed to a defective crossing arm; if it had it been working, those eight souls would have been alive.

It’s also ironic that the representative has a large family, for if he were to take the short drive to Calvary Cemetery south of town and observe the headstone for the Zimmerman family, it may just jolt him into realizing the public’s safety comes above the profits of a corporation.

I write this because in that cemetery plot lay an aunt and seven cousins I never had the chance to meet. That, and the fact that Petersburg represents a community that had the deadliest car-train accident in Minnesota history.

Tom Jes, Plymouth

TEACHER SENIORITY

Seriously? 18 percent in poll would downplay quality?

A March 22 article (“68 percent put teacher quality over seniority”) said that most Minnesotans believe that performance should be the deciding factor in making decisions about which teachers to retain during a layoff. One way to look at this is that it’s great that a strong majority favors this sensible position. Another viewpoint is that it is disturbing that 18 percent of those polled would think that seniority should be more important than performance (with the remainder not sure). Who would have such an opinion — elderly teachers?

The job of schools is to teach students. If some teachers must be laid off, school districts must retain the teachers who are most effective at doing that job.

James Brandt, New Brighton

• • •

When asking whether performance or seniority should be the deciding factor in teacher layoffs, a natural follow-up question should be: “How would you suggest that performance be measured?”

For example, which of these teachers is the better performer?

A) The one who spends little time preparing lessons but is the successful coach of two sports teams, or the one who has stellar lessons but is not involved in any extracurricular activities?

B) The one all the kids love but who doesn’t produce strong test results, or the one the kids dislike but who does produce strong test results?

C) The one who teaches all honors classes to great success, or the one who does an admirable job teaching the most struggling students even though many of them still fail to reach “proficiency”?

These are not easy questions to answer. It does seem clear, however, that basing layoffs on performance (however it is defined) would not solve all of the world’s problems.

Sean Foley, Richfield

• • •

The results of the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll about teacher layoff decisions are not surprising, given that a simplistic question asked how people felt about a complex issue. The timing of legislative proposals to revise seniority rules is premature. The teacher development and evaluation system that will be used to rank teachers hasn’t even had a full year since statewide implementation in September. It was never intended to be a ranking system, but one that informs teachers’ practice and promotes continuous improvement. We do not yet know if this is an effective, objective system, or if it will be reasonably sustainable.

Aside from that, my gravest concern is that if legislative proposals become law, they will forever alter the culture of teaching and learning in every school, in every district across the state. The beauty of teaching, as it exists today, is that it is a collaborative enterprise. Teachers work together, share ideas and strategies, and solve problems as a community. Behind every inexperienced teacher is a cadre of experienced professionals who willingly and graciously provide resources, tips for success and encouragement. If the proposals become law, and less-experienced teachers can replace more-experienced teachers, I fear that collaboration will die, and new teachers will struggle alone in their classrooms. We should be doing more, not less, to encourage new teachers to stay in the field.

Ann Berne-Rannow, Eden Prairie

‘MEGASCHOOLS’

Student-body size seems to be driven by the wrong motivations

The March 22 article “Debating the rise of megaschools” like Wayzata suggested several benefits that flow from the large numbers. As a graduate of a very small high school class, I might suggest some important things that are lost in schools with more than a thousand kids in a graduating class. First, not being able to meet, much less get to know, three-fourths of one’s graduating class leads to exclusive social cliques, which diminishes the benefits of diversity and hinders the development of “school spirit.” Second, the percentage of kids that get to experience varsity sports becomes incredibly small. Would these megaschools ever consider fielding three equally balanced hockey teams to give three times as many student athletes a varsity experience, or is the winning of state championships by a select few students really what is driving the expansion of the megaschools?

Robert Owens, St. Louis Park

• • •

The story cites a supporter of so-called “megaschools” who isn’t worried if that means there is more competition for a spot on a varsity sports team or a part in the school musical. He says: “Let the cream rise to the top,” arguing that “if you’re a student who is going to get lost, you can get lost in a class of 10.”

This genuinely uninformed opinion misses a few points, most notably the research showing that students perform far better in small classes compared with large ones. But the supporter misses a more basic point. Educating our children shouldn’t be about creating a stage where the cream rises to the top. Instead it should be about education. And education is all about opportunities, especially the opportunity to learn and grow.

(I think it is interesting, too, that the supporter calls out sports and theater. What about rising to the top in academics? School is still about learning in the classroom, right?)

Schools should be designed to serve children who are developing different abilities at different levels. Larger schools inherently limit opportunities for more students to “rise to the top,” and it isn’t just about sports and theater. Arguments like the supporter’s put extracurricular priorities — although I’ll bet it has a lot to do about money, too — ahead of what is practical for educating children regardless of their abilities and needs.

W. Shane Schmidt, Minneapolis