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.


Let’s Have Teachers ‘Re-Invent the Wheel’

Today’s post is an essay I wrote in 1990 that was originally published in Education Week.  I repeat it now because I think my argument is more valid than ever.  Incidentally, this is the last of old material on this blog for the time being.  Starting next week I hope to begin writing new stuff again.


As a young teacher, I served from time to time on committees charged with writing curricula and selecting new materials for teaching language arts and reading. Often, during committee deliberations, someone would come up with an idea that involved having teachers produce their own classroom strategies and activities. There was something very appealing about many of these ideas–at least to me–and we would spend a lot of time exploring their possibilities.

Invariably, however, some old hand on the committee would haul us up short and remind us that Faraway Publishers had already produced the kinds of materials we needed and that Next Door School District had already developed an efficient method for teaching what we wanted to teach.

“Let’s not re-invent the wheel,” Old Hand would say, and we wild-eyed visionaries, sobered at last, would agree. We stopped talking, adopted the publisher’s materials, accepted the other district’s method, and went our separate ways.

Nowadays, I am not so compliant. Maybe that’s because I have become an old hand myself and an administrator to boot. But I prefer to think it is because I have learned something along the way: You have to re-invent the wheel, whether you want to or not, because nobody else’s wheels will work on your wagon.

I recount this personal reflection now because it bears on a key issue in education today: Should we use “top-down” or “bottom-up” models for improving our schools? Which way works better for school districts, particularly large and troubled ones where a few people at the top are bright, capable, dedicated, aware of the newest research and theory, and well paid; and the masses at the bottom may not be any of those things?

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it be better–no, the only way–to give those folks at the bottom a well constructed wheel, teach them how to use it, and make them accountable? Of course, some clods would never catch on but, at the very least, every teacher would be using a proper wheel, so the kids would be sure to get some benefit.

My answer to the question is swift and unequivocal: No, dammit! For three good reasons. The first has to do with the so-called “Hawthorne effect” that all those bright, well paid types may have heard about in graduate school but, in my opinion, didn’t quite understand. In that famous experiment in a large manufacturing plant, dimming the lights so it was harder for workers to see was found to increase production.

Many graduate students (and unfortunately, some of their professors) think that the Hawthorne anomaly illustrates the fact that human subjects who know they are part of a scientific experiment may sabotage the study in their eagerness to make it succeed. What it really shows is that, when people believe they are important in a project, anything works, and, conversely, when they don’t believe they are important, nothing works.

The second reason for championing greater creativity for all is that, through the process of inventing, people learn to understand what their inventions can and cannot do. They learn how to fine-tune them for optimum performance, and, maybe, figure out what changes are needed to produce even better models in the future. In short, they acquire the intimate knowledge of object, system, and use that makes an invention truly their own.

The third reason is simply that a big part of teaching is inventing. Good teachers invent successfully all day long, every day. They invent better ways to explain lessons, to entice reluctant learners, to bring unruly classes under control, and to fire children’s imaginations. When teachers won’t or can’t invent, believe me, the kids will–100 ways to shoot their teachers down. If we want good teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, we’ve got to let all teachers learn their craft.

But given the structure of schools and school districts we now have, changing to an inventing mode is extremely difficult. The model of school operation in use for more than 50 years rests firmly on premises of industrial efficiency, institutional uniformity, whole-into-parts logic, and worker obedience that are completely antithetical to the concept of invention. That model never takes into account the fact that the people who make up the mass of the school pyramid have professional and personal needs that–however we try to suppress or sublimate them–will screw up efficiency and logic every time.

Ultimately, the only way to improve American education is to let schools be small, self-governing, self-renewing communities where everyone counts and everyone cares. Yet the people who have the power to make that happen–legislatures, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards–will not. Convinced that they are the only intelligent, competent, and caring people around, they fear those barbarians in the classroom, teachers and children, who, if allowed, would dissipate all our public treasure of time and money hacking away at rough stone wheels as our nation sank into chaos.

They are, of course, dead wrong. But even if they were right, those rough stone wheels, forged by people who needed to use them, would roll and carry the load of learning, while the smooth round ones sent down from the central office would languish in classroom cupboards.






What the Dickens is Wrong With Our Schools Today?

Today I am re-posting  an essay  that I wrote two years ago based on the novel, “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens.  In that novel I found a wonderful satire on the foolish and harmful educational practices of his time that closely resemble those used in schools today. Read about them and laugh–or weep.

Did you know that Charles Dickens denounced the Common Core Standards more than 150 years ago and didn’t think much of the value of teacher education either? In his 1854 novel, “Hard Times,” Dickens devotes the first two chapters to satirizing education in the grade schools of his era, which looks a lot like the teaching recommended for our schools today.

Right at the beginning of the chapter, Dickens introduces Thomas Gradgrind, owner of a small school in an English industrial town, who makes clear to his companions, the school master, and an unamed visitor, what he thinks education should be: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Next, the three men enter a classroom, and lessons begin with Gradgrind in charge. He looks around the room and points to a young girl: “Girl number twenty,” he calls out. She stands up and gives her name: “Sissy Jupe, sir.”

“Sissy is not a name,” charges Gradgrind.“Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.”

After learning that Sissy’s father performs with horses at the local circus, Gradgrind demands of her, “Give me your definition of a horse.” When Sissy doesn’t answer, he turns to a boy named Bitzer and repeats the order.

Bitzer recites,“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now,”gloats Gradgrind,”girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

Later, while lecturing the class on the foolishness of using representations of horses and flowers as home decorations, Gradgrind calls on Sissy again, asking her why she would have such pictures on carpets where people would step on them. Sissy, no longer tongue-tied, replies,“It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy….”

“But you mustn’t fancy,”cries Gradgrind. “That’s it! You are never to fancy”

Having humiliated Sissy once again, Gradgrind turns the lesson over to M’Choakumchild, who, Dickens tells us, has been thoroughly trained to be a teacher: “Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy,  geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the end of his ten chilled fingers ……He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”

Dickens then ends the chapter with a metaphorical musing that compares M’Choakumchild’s teaching to Morgiana the slave girl’s actions in the ancient story,“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”: “Say, good M’choakumchild. When, from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim and distort him?”

Today we educators might say,”Common Core originators and supporters, do you trully believe that with your continual emphasis on close reading and text analysis, without giving students any access to background knowledge, that you will only cut their imagination and curiosity–or perhaps, fully destroy their interest in reading and persuade them that education is just a waste of their time?”










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Although Times are changing, the CCSS are Still with Us

Today I chose to post an essay I wrote 3 years ago. It appeared then in Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post, not my blog. I believe it still has relevance today because the federal Department of Education is rejecting the ESSA plans of several states for not being demanding enough. In my view today’s FDE—like its predecessor—is asking far too much from schools and students at all levels. The Common Core State Standards, are just one example of the inappropriate expectations for teachers and students in this era of high-pressure in public education.

P.S.  Family members are visiting this week, so I won’t be able to write anything new. I hope that the older pieces I have chosen to post instead will be worth your time and interest.

Many things that are commonplace activities for adults — driving, voting, and paying taxes, for example — are not appropriate for children. I count the Common Core Standards, proposed for all our country’s public schools, among them.

Over my more than 50 years in public education I’ve come to know young children pretty well, and I am sure that 8-9 years olds are not ready to “describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect,” as decreed by one of the standards for third-grade readers of informational text.

In addition to the English Language Arts (ELA) standard quoted above, here are two others from the same category, the first for 6-7 year olds and the second for 10-11 year olds:

Gr. 1: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text.

Gr. 5: Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent

Reading through the whole list of ELA standards several times, I marked 18 others in reading, writing, speaking or language that I consider inappropriate for elementary level students because of the emphasis on skills or knowledge that children have not yet developed. I will not quote any of them here, but I urge interested readers to read the Standards and see how many they think are beyond the range of elementary level students.

What went wrong with the crafting of these standards intended for children of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels?

The project began in 2009 under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief School Officers. Standards development teams were assembled to write the standards for K-12 mathematics and English language arts.

According to an introduction piece, the standards were developed, “in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” But in looking through the names, titles and institutions of the fifty people who made up the ELA development team, I was able to identify only one current elementary teacher. All the rest, were college/university professors, state or school district administrators, or representatives of private educational companies

In reality, then, these standards were written by highly educated adults who do not teach children at present and, possibly, never did. Unconnected to the scientific research on children’s intellectual and emotional development and the everyday realities of children’s needs, interests and behavior, those writers relied only the folklore of academia, fantasizing not only what children should be expected to know and do, but also what adults need to function in actual colleges and workplaces.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. Forty-five states plus the District of Columbia have already signed on to the Common Core Standards (according to the Standards website), commercial publishers are racing to produce materials aligned with them, school districts are re-writing their curricula, testing companies are creating new tests to measure students competence, and teacher training specialists are offering standards workshops. Even some of the teachers who have lived through No Child Left Behind are resigned to this new swing of the pendulum and changing their classroom practices. The only hope for America’s children and its public schools is that parents and teachers will raise their voices for reason, wisdom, and quality education.

Already there are stirrings as local and national protest groups, are gaining members daily, and signs that teachers’ professional organizations that have been reluctant to take a stand on political issues are changing their ways. For example, at the recent annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, its Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that opposes high stakes testing, teacher evaluation by student test scores, and mandated standards. The same resolution also called on NCTE to support the inclusion of teachers in all future efforts to develop curriculum, instruction, student assessments and standards.

Like the protesters of the “Occupy” movements, informed citizens, skilled teachers, and responsible professional organizations must rise up to protect our children, our heritage, and our democracy. Let’s give even those children who can’t identify a “dangling participle” a chance to make it through elementary school.







More Reasons Why Algebra Should Not be Required

As you can see at the bottom of Monday’s post, it received three positive comments.  One of them, contributed by Doug Garnett, included a reference to an article on the same topic as the one I reported on: “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Andrew Hacker, published in “The New York Times”in 2012.  Because that article was stronger and better written than the one I referred to,   I will post some quotes from it here that may send you back to the original so you can read everything Hacker has to say.

I want to end on a positive note. Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic. But for most adults, it is more feared or revered than understood. It’s clear that requiring algebra for everyone has not increased our appreciation of a calling someone once called “the poetry of the universe.” (How many college graduates remember what Fermat’s dilemma was all about?)

Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

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What if Algebra is Not Your Friend?

Last week I stumbled upon an article in the Los Angeles Times, by Rosanna Xia and Teresa Watanabe that I see as the beginning of reasonable thinking in higher education. It was about requiring Intermediate Algebra for all students who intend to go on to college. Before reading the article, I challenge all college graduates to work on the problem presented at the beginning of the article, and if they solve it, to let me know.

 Currently, educators in California are debating what to do about intermediate algebra, now not required in high schools, but still a pre-requisite for entrance to a four-year college. The problem is that 3 out of 4 community college students don’t pass the exam that determines their competence in algebra and thus must take 1, 2, or even 3 courses in remedial math in order to move on to the next level in their program. Many of them feel that being expected to pass a higher math course than what was required in high school is unreasonable and irrelevant to their college and career interests, so they drop out of community college without receiving an associate degree.

Among university professors there is much disagreement about what should be required. Some think that students should be able to substitute other courses such as computer science or data analysis for intermediate algebra, if their intended university major is not in any type of science. One significant university, Cal State, appears open to the idea of replacing the algebra requirement with other high quality courses that are more compatible with students’ career aims. But others still feel that the substitute courses are not rigorous enough and that intermediate algebra is essential for moving on into “higher paying science, engineering, and math careers.”

A few schools, such as Pierce College and College of the Canyons have moved on to using courses in statistics and data analysis instead of requiring more algebra. They report that students find those courses”more engaging—and more immediately useful in following political polls, analyzing sports data or understanding research methodology.”

As someone who completed the three required math courses in high school and another one* in college, but did not go on to any science or math career, I side with Cal State and the other two colleges. I never found that I needed algebra in my career or my private life, and I soon forgot how to use it. Consequently, I feel strongly that only one basic course should be required in high school and for college acceptance, in order to give those students who love math and want to make it part of their lives the opportunity to reach that goal.

*I can’t remember the name of the college course or what it involved.


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