The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Welcome to The Treasure Hunter, a blog by Joanne Yatvin

ButterflyJYThe purpose of this blog is to highlight the good things now happening or possible in public education.  Although I will write pieces as often as I can, I welcome contributions from others who are aware of positive happenings in schools  or have good ideas for change.  My hope is that this blog will become the loudest voice in support of our schools, teachers, and students.


An Old and Too Big Classroom Made Modern and Practical

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about insufficient school funding in a small New Jersey town. But, I wasn’t interested in writing about a situation so common these days. Instead, I was drawn to a large, detailed photo that accompanied the article. It presented some significant information about a particular school that I decided to write about today.

About 40 years ago, the town of Freehold, New Jersey built a small one room school to be used as a Montessori school for young children. Now the town is much larger  and needs to use the building as an elementary school for 500 students of all grades from 1-5. Unfortunately, however, the school district does not receive anywhere enough money to change the structure of the building into individual closed classrooms or to build a new traditional type of school.

What I found much more interesting than the article however, was the large photo that accompanied it. Very clearly, it showed not only the size of the building’s original single classroom, but also its current organization, contents and some of its students. To me the photo did not look staged; it seemed to show the school in its ordinary operations. What impressed me right away was the modernity and practicality of the room’s organization and contents– no traditional desks lined up in rows, no designated front or rear side to the room– that allowed students easy accessibility to what they needed. In addition, the room appeared to be well stocked with all kinds of learning materials, plus large worktables, and various pieces of technology. I could also see about 15 students there, all at work alone or with classmates at different places in the room. There were no teachers in sight. I have no idea why the room wasn’t full of them and students at the time.

To be honest, I admit that my opinion of the classroom as pictured was influenced by my experience in the other classrooms I once worked in or observed in my retirement. Everything looked so much more modern, useful, and well organized than anything I had ever known. And since the students did not look up at the camera or smile, I was convinced that they were not posing, but truly working as they appeared to be. I could imagine that it was a good place for kids to learn what they needed or most interested them.

If you’re wondering why I have spent so much attention and so many words to describing this scene, there are two reasons. First, it was clear that district or school officials had spent whatever funds they had wisely and made an inappropriate space as practical as possible. Second, you could see that students were using that space for work and were not confined to desks or distracted by other things going on nearby. Last, I saw in this classroom workplaces and learning materials that I consider up-to-date and appropriate for students’ deep learning. If a had a magic wand the only changes I‘d make would be more space within and between work areas and the use of some partitions to cut back on loud noise and visual distractions. Then I’d put all those good features into our present traditional schools.

P.S.  Look at the photo as indicated in two places above and let me know what you think.

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Why is Mathematics not Considered a Part of Our Lives?

Going through the most recent edition of Education Week I was drawn to an article that argued for the importance of math as well as reading in children’s homes. I write about that issue today because I agree basically, but I also see problems with making math a part of students’ lives.

In the elementary grades I did well in math but had no personal enthusiasm for it. In high school I took the three courses required: Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, but skipped Calculus. I didn’t even know what that title meant, and I was drawn instead to electives in literature and the arts. As a college freshman I took the one required math course, which I can no longer name or remember much about. I think the emphasis was on statistics.

Yet, in both my professional and personal life math has been a significant element. As a teacher I had to use math in tracking student attendance and calculating grades. I also had to figure out how to spend the money allotted to my classroom. Later, as a principal, I again had several calculations and spending decisions to make. I had to set times for music, art, and physical education, determine class sizes, and set teacher schedules. At the same time I was a wife and mother who had to make my spending fit the family income and set aside some funds for future needs.

In the ED Week article there is a strong argument for the importance of math learning for young children. First, the writer asserts that learning about numbers early in life helps students in their math classes, and, second, that such learning is a significant factor in ours personal lives from beginning to end.

The problem, as the writer sees it, is that most parents do not value mathematics or spend much time introducing it to their young children. In a survey of more than 2,500 parents both math and science were ranked lower in importance than reading. In addition, a large number of parents agreed with the statement “Skills in math are mostly useful for those that have careers related to math, so average Americans do not have much need for math skills.” As the result of such beliefs and the failure of parents to introduce math to their children, most students later see no connection between what is taught in math classes and their personal needs. Like me, they comply with their teachers’ requests and prepare for classroom tests, but never think of math as a part of their lives

Where the writer of this article and I part ways is on the role of math teachers. She does not mention that they have an obligation to make the connection between math skills and every day life, and most teachers seem to feel the same way. What I remember, and still see in math classrooms, are methods and facts taught for their own sake without any indication of their value outside of school. For example, a classroom exercise or homework assignment is likely to be a work sheet full of problems to be solved without any hint about their real world usefulness. Even when math problems are presented in written form describing a realistic situation, they rarely connect to students’ needs or interests, or require them to work things out physically. For example, students may be given distance and time problems on a worksheet, but never asked to actually try out two routes to a place near their homes, measure the distances, and compare the times consumed. They may also be given problems about the costs of items people typically purchase, but are rarely asked to predict how much money they will need to buy the things they want and figure out how they can economize.

I could name many other real life situations appropriate for students of different ages to work on as homework or classroom exercises that I have never read about or witnessed. If all math classes included such assignments, students and their parents might have a greater appreciation of mathematics as an important skill and its significance in their lives .

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Good News From a Connecticut School District

As I sat before my computer yesterday I had no idea what I would write about. Then, suddenly, a source that I sometimes use sent me to an article about a school district that has moved to teacher autonomy and leadership with many positive results:  Meriden Public Schools: Courageous Leadership and Innovation in Action. Below is the basic information, but I suggest that you to go to the source and read the whole article if you want to know about specific examples of school changes.

Under the leadership of its superintendent, Mark Benigni, the Meriden Public Schools district in Connecticut began to move toward a significant change in 2010. That change was to give voice and power to the district’s teachers, which began with dedicated time every day for them to meet with each other and talk about the changes they’d like to make in their classrooms. Right away teachers began to suggest new ways of doing things across the school district, and the superintendent began to put resources into activating those suggestions.

His first actions were investing in new professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators, moving to a student-centered teaching approach, and purchasing new technology aimed at serving individual student needs.

Today the 8000-student school district is humming with innovations and positive results. Suspensions are down 86 percent and expulsions 95 percent. In 2016 the district’s students produced the highest test scores in its’ history. Teachers say that the changes in teaching they’ve made have increased student engagement and successful learning considerably.

More significant than the physical changes in classroom practices and the improved student achievements, however, are the views teachers have of themselves. Now, they exude pride and confidence full time. They take on new responsibilities without being asked to do so, are eager to try out new teaching methods, and view all their students as potential “winners.” Being a teacher in the Meriden district has become a badge of honor, and being a student in a Meridian school is viewed by outsiders as a pinnacle of good fortune.

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Opinions of Charter Schools from Those who Know Education

Sunday in the Letters section of the New York Times the only letters published  disagreed with a recent opinion piece by David Leonhardt that supported charter schools. Because I found the arguments in the letters persuasive, I will offer a quote from each one of them as today’s post and briefly mention the backgrounds of their writers.

Those who wish to read the original Leonhardt essay or the full letters that appeared in dissent can find them at these links.

From a retired science teacher:

Although charters often use a lottery system, many do not accept special needs students on the grounds that they cannot meet those need. In addition, charter schools such as the Success Academy network in New York City expel students whose behavior does not meet school standards that have been shown to be punitive, harsh, and controlling.

From a former New York State deputy commissioner of education:

David Leonhardt provides some pretty thin evidence in support of charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools and vouchers. It is true that charters have proven to be effective when states have implemented clear education standards for them. But there are for too many states where the oversight is lacking, including Michigan, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos led efforts to opposing stronger requirements.

From a current public school teacher:

Charter operators benefit from a populace that has a weak and confused understanding of public institutions and the public good. Calling a charter school a public school is like calling a defense contractor a public institution because it consumes public funds.

From the executive director of Class Size Matters:

David Leonhardt ignores the fact that very few charters enroll and retain equal numbers of at-risk students as traditional public schools—children with serious disabilities, those who receive free lunch, and/or recent immigrants and English- language learners.

From a retired teacher:

While charter schools are given much freedom in regard to curriculum design and innovation, traditional schools are run in a top-down manner, with teachers being given less and less opportunity to design curriculum or innovate. By the time I retired, I no longer felt like a professional expert in my field. I was simply handed a boatload of curriculum and told to stick to the calendar.

Although I have never observed in a charter school, everything I have read about them bothers me. The processes of selection and retention of students seem unfair, the teaching practices wrong for real learning, and the discipline very harsh.  My greatest concern, however, is the huge drain on the funds that should be going to public schools. Basically, the ways charter schools are founded and sustained look like a swindle, aimed at enriching private owners and operators and, ultimately, destroying public education.

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Suggestions for School Survival in Hard Times

As I promised, today I will suggest the things that can be removed from school budgets and explain my reasoning. Although I did some research I could find only the costs of one item: commercial tests, and they varied. The costs of other common school items depend on the number of students at a school and in each classroom, and the structure of school services.

 As I read the news about public schools everywhere, I saw that the funds provided by states and the federal government are decreasing year by year while requirements are expanding. In addition, many school buildings are deteriorating physically, and there is no money at the district levels to restore them. As a result, many communities are asking citizens to vote for higher taxes.* Is that the only solution?

In my view a better remedy is for states to allow schools to reduce or remove some of the things they have provided until now. From my own experience as an educator for 45 years and my awareness of today’s school operations, I will identify a number of items that I think can be reduced or eliminated without harm to students or teachers or put an additional burden upon parents.

My strongest feeling is that all commercial student testing should be eliminated. The only purpose it has served over the past 15 years is to show that many students are not improving their test scores enough to please government entities, critics, or citizens unfamiliar with the current situation of public schools. At the same time many parents, teachers, and involved citizens believe that those tests are not a fair measure of students’ abilities or teachers’ teaching. In my opinion it would be better for teachers to work together to design, execute, and score tests for their students. In that way students would be tested on what they had actually been taught, not the unrealistic expectations of the Common Core State Standards.

I also think that state and district efforts to improve teaching or introduce new programs by sending trainers to schools should be eliminated. Research shows little or no positive effects from these efforts. My own experience convinced me that positive changes almost always come from within a school when teachers believe they will be improvements.

At the elementary school level commercial workbooks and many textbooks should be eliminated. Materials created by teachers are far better for introducing skills and information to students and also providing them with the necessary practice. In addition, experienced teachers are the ones best qualified to know what supports students need for successful learning. My own teaching experience convinced me that copies of paperback fiction and non-fiction books are far better tools—and much cheaper ones– for teaching reading than textbooks. As a school principal I learned that most teachers are capable of teaching phonics, spelling and grammar without textbooks.

At the middle and high school levels—where I also taught–workbooks should be eliminated, and purchasing new textbooks should be limited to the times when current materials are no longer accurate or in decent condition. As far as possible, textbooks should be used in classrooms, not carried around the school building all day or assigned for homework. For teaching English, fiction and non-fiction are better choices than textbooks  which focus too much on technicalities and too little on interesting, well-crafted material.

School libraries at all grade levels should be the major sources of supplementary materials for classroom units. Librarians who consult with teachers are the experts in choosing what is of high quality and relevant for student learning.

As far as possible, all schools should become “community schools” linked to accessible and affordable health, recreation, and social services. For far too long schools have been the sole providers of all services outside the classroom.

School principals and district leaders should not race to purchase commercial programs for new ideas such as “personalized  learning” or teacher re-training.  The best approach is to designate a small group of experienced teachers and school administrators to examine new resources and determine their usefulness.

If a school’s budget becomes so stressed that the basic needs of students, teachers, other staff members, and building conditions cannot be properly maintained, the principal and district officials should consider making cuts in extra-curricular activities. Unquestionably, high school sports, music and drama performances, event uniforms, and popularity contests as they now exist are expensive. Since these are areas about which I am not experienced, I will not suggest any specific cuts; but I think that school leaders should consider reducing or eliminating those that are not absolutely necessary in times of inadequate funding.

Obviously, everything I have suggested above has grown from my own experiences as a teacher,  principal,  school district supervisor, and in retirement, a frequent observer in many schools. Others may have had different experiences or feel that I am no longer in touch with reality. In either case I welcome the views of those who disagree with me.  But I hope that anyone who does will also suggest ways for our public schools to do a good job with their current funding allocations.


*At present, Portland Oregon is asking citizens to approve issuing $790,000,000 in bonds to “improve health and safety, modernize and repair schools, and build education facilities.” If the measure passes property taxes will be increased.

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