The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

At last I found a newspaper article I can respond to today. Although I’ve been writing regularly over the past few months the topics I have covered have been nothing new. My problem has been that I couldn’t find anything new about education, only the same old complaints about low test scores. But a few days ago I stumbled upon an interesting article involving education that I wanted to write about. It told the story of an area in our country where many teachers have left their schools in order to get better paying jobs in businesses.

Recently several southern states have suffered a severe shortage of high school science teachers who left for better paying jobs. In Arizona for instance, there were 7,000 school vacancies because teachers’ salaries were significantly lower than what they could get in various science and technical industries.

In order to fill the open teaching jobs many schools have sought teachers from other countries. And for this year, at least, they have been very successful in securing well-trained foreign teachers who are satisfied with the low salaries American schools offer because they were better than what they would earn at home. Even though many of their families would be left behind for a long time, it still seemed to be better for them to work at jobs in the U.S. than in their home countries.

Unfortunately for us, however, our education problems are not solved. For one thing, not all the new teachers have standard teaching certificates or speak English well enough to communicate effectively with our students. But even more significant is the fact that our federal laws do not allow them to stay indefinitely or become citizens. After two or five years, at the most, their credentials will expire and they will have to leave this country. Also. many of those workers who can stay legally prefer to go home and be with their families once more.

As I see the situation, the scarcity of American teachers in certain areas has not been solved. In fact it has only been delayed, and is likely to increase and spread as time goes on. Eventually, our country will see a significant scarcity of all kinds of teachers in all areas because we pay them inadequately and treat them badly. My intention is to describe and explain those educational problems I am aware of in my next article because it is too large and complicated to explain here and now. Hang in there! I promise to describe and explain my views next time.

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Catchers in the Rye

Because school started last month I expected to be able to write about current happenings– good or bad– in in our schools. But I’ve had no luck so far. Nothing of the kind is appearing in the newspapers or other sources I read. Like you readers I want to know about education today, and I strongly resent being held in the dark. Because I believe that public education is a basic component in our country I must continue to write about it even though the newspapers seem to consider it an issue of the past. For that reason I am posting a piece today that I wrote and published in 1994, long before I had begun writing this blog . I have chosen to post it here today because I believe it is as significant now as it was back then, 25 years ago.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye”, it struck me as a clumsy story written to justify a meaningless title. Would any real teenager see himself as the rescuer of endangered children, as the boy in that book does?

Today, even though I am still cynical of Salinger’s novel, I find his catcher image poignant and real. There are so many children in this country who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Even though statistics don’t tell the story of children’s tragic lives, we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning. Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, we must be today’s catcher in the rye.

I have no magic formula for child-catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. Probably it doesn’t even matter if our ways are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough; as long as one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child.

I do believe, however, that there are conditions that are are essential for child-catching to succeed. The framework of operation must be small, physically close to children, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. To succeed we need small schools or ones divided into small community units; reasonable classroom time and space, personal relationships, and classroom legitimacy for play and conversation. Also, authority should be in the hands of front-line practitioners, and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.

Within such a framework educators are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each one as an individual and become aware of what is happening to him. They also find time to teach children about the world, and without having to”implement” or “assess” any current practices make exceptions to rules, change foolish ones, and act differently from past mistakes. Ultimately, when the behavior of children or bureaucrats becomes intolerable, teachers may even stamp their feet and shout, “This has got to stop!”

Although a legal permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick and dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wort theory” of education. In essence it states that children’s problems are like warts: if you can destroy just a few of them, the rest may get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of family dysfunction, bad learning habits, or social ineptitude may shake them off in a few weeks when a caring teacher takes the time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one new skill. In essence what I am saying here is that good teachers are the people who must decide and act on what is best for their students, not experts who are far away, bound by countless rules, and have no personal understanding of an individual’s problem.

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Learning to Read

Today I want to teach everyone some simple facts about about learning to read. These days teaching phonics to children is very popular, but it isn’t the best way for students to learn new words. Here’s why.

In order to be able to read anything you must first be able to speak lots of words and know what they mean. Just sounding out such words as “Germaine” or “indiscrete” wouldn’t be enough. You would have to know their meanings beforehand.

Sentences that give you a hint about the meaning of a new word help you to read with understanding and identify the word. Here’s one example with three new words! “Although my friend made a serious offense by selling cocaine, he shouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life in purgatory.”

When young children are read to regularly they rarely have any trouble learning to read at school. Learning comes quickly when a child is able to see and hear the words his parent is reading to him.

Learning to read by teaching phonics is difficult because you need to the know the sounds of all letters and their variations.   For example the ordinary sound of  the letter C is “ca”, but it could also be “ch”, “ic” or “k”.

I’m having trouble with this computer and may have to have it fixed or buy a new one. If you don’t get any messages from me by next week, send pennies!


How Can We Know What a Good School Is Today?

Every morning I look to see how many people are reading my post from the previous day and also which pieces I wrote in the past are still popular. Amazingly, the consistent winner over a long time has been “What Is the difference between a good School and an effective school”, which I posted some years ago. Not only does that surprises me, it also shames me because what I said then has no relevance today, and I have failed to update it.

The reason I no longer express my opinions about school quality is that I’m retired, and no longer have a chance to visit and observe in school classrooms. The only opinions I’m now aware of are those in newspapers, and they vary widely. I can’t stop wondering if that is because schools also vary widely or because those who express their opinions are not qualified to make valid judgments.

At this point, I feel that the best thing I can do is to ask the opinions of my faithful readers. If you have had any recent experience with a school, or if you know someone who has, tell us what you know. For instance are the school classes of a decent size; are homework assignments reasonable; is their good student behavior; does the principal do a good job; are parents’ opinions or requests taken seriously; and most important of all, are your kids learning and liking to be in school?

If you, like me, are no longer involved with a school, but know someone who is, please give him or her my message. We all need to know the truth about school operations today and not just swallow what the bosses tell us. All the kids now in school are our children or grandchildren who deserve high quality education, fair treatment, and our support.

I want to hear your experiences and opinions, and I will post them here!

P.S. If you are interested, the article I wrote earlier was published on August 26, 2017 and you should still be able to find it on this blog.

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Although I wrote this several years ago, I think now is a good time to post it again. As we begin a new school year we should remind ourselves of the invisible problems that many children bring to school.


I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a new smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?  Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them  “potholes” are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while “roadblocks” are the school practices that don’t serve their needs or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, the lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are other potholes just as dangerous and less visible. For example, research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in poor families lag far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that children of poor families heard almost 1,500 words fewer per hour than children of wealthier ones, and rarely engaged in conversations with family members. As a result, many of them enter school disadvantaged, which proves to be a big pothole of learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority for adults who are working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, one more big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are new potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring, kids in the neighborhood, and hope that one day they will actually be them. Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may instead become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in the streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

Those people in charge of running high-poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose “remedies” that turn out to be “roadblocks”. For example the usual strategy today is to work at changing students from the outside-in. So they prohibit behaviors considered dysfunctional, and replace them with a set of “right ways” to learn and behave, plus a body of “good for everybody” lessons. However, children may not respond positively.

We see such approaches in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases hold only the prescribed textbooks. There teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and ordering “all eyes on me.” We also see it in teaching methods that feature only facts and algorithms, consider learning to be only memorization, and ask questions that have just one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much the practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please those who score them.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be just another roadblock. Although they are good in theory, they turn out to be disruptions to the continuity and consistency students needed. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be meeting with up to a hundred students a day, they miss the regular work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support from the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but, also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that the efforts of many non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to write about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggest, if I can, more effective and humane ways to educate all children.

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