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.


All That Glitters in The New York Times is Not Gold

A little over a week ago I read an editorial in the New York Times entitled “Help Teachers Before they Get to Class” that really offended me; not only because I thought it was inaccurate, but also because it relied so much on questionable sources. As usual, I will describe the article and then give my opinions.

The editorial begins by declaring that “The countries that have eclipsed the United States in educational achievement have far more effective systems for training teachers.” Then, it goes on to claim that “Teachers colleges in the United States have resisted proposals for raising entry standards” and that teacher training here is “abysmal.”

In addition, using a single study done by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the editorial blames teachers colleges for “training people in subject areas where no new teachers are needed, while ignoring areas where there is a teacher shortage, like math, science and special education” and for not placing student teachers in schools in high-poverty areas.

Next, the editorial identifies and praises what the Department of Education (DOE) has recently done to determine the quality of teacher education programs in each state, make that information available to the public, and force states to provide resources that will help low performing programs improve. This federal body has produced a set of rules that includes gathering information about the performance of new teachers and their students, and connecting it to the programs where teachers were trained. Based on that information, each training program will be rated as “effective,” “at-risk”, or “low-performing”, and those ratings will be reported to the public and the DOE. Finally, states will be required to “provide technical assistance to any program rated as “low performing.”

In the view expressed by the editorial: “The new rules represent a necessary first step in broader reforms of teacher preparation. Eventually, for example, schools of education will have to become more rigorous and selective if the country is to get the caliber of teaching that it clearly needs.”

In my own view there are several holes in this editorial’s arguments about teacher education programs, and even more booby traps in the ODE’s plan for filling those holes. First of all there are many reasonable explanations for why America’s international test scores are not as high as we would like them to be. Mainly, those explanations have to do with the size of a country, the economic levels of the students who attend school and take the test, and the wealth and health of the couuntry’s citizenry as a whole. As all of us who read about education well know, Finland is usually at the top of the heap because it has advantages in all those areas.

A bigger problem with the editorial is its failure to report the credentials of the NCTQ and the weaknesses of it survey. It is a private adequacy group founded by Thomas E. Fordham Institute. In 2013 this group sent our forms to 1,130 000 teacher preparation programs in which they were to provide information about their textbooks, syllabi, graduate surveys, and admissions requirements. Only 114 replied fully to the request, and 700 others declined the request altogether. After examining the returned forms the NCTQ rated only 10 percent of the programs that responded as adequate, based on its own criteria. Representatives of NCTQ never visited any of those programs to verify the completeness or accuracy reported in the forms.

Worst of all are the rules created by the DOE because they put a large burden upon states and individual schools to obtain several types of information about novice teachers and where they received their training, and to report it without any assistance in terms of personnel or funding. In my mind these rules not only create a lot of extra work for school principals, but also a muddle for a state in matching poor performers to programs, at least some of which exist in other states.

After reading this editorial, a description of the NCTQ study, and the DOE rules I felt that if the federal government really cared about the quality of American schools, it  should have undertaken the tasks of examining the high scoring programs  in other countries and the teacher preparation programs in this country itself. Although those two tasks would be monumental in size and complexity, their results would have been tremendously important. Handing them off to an organization of dubious credentials and state departments of education was a serious neglect of responsibility.

Over all, I feel that in publishing this editorial the New York Times fell to a new low of accuracy and fairness.

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Another Educator Likes a New Type of High School

Today’s post is a response by Don Bellairs, an experienced and talented teacher, to my piece posted six days ago. Both of us were intrigued by the description of a new type of high school that gives students in danger of failing in regular schools a fresh start with a forward-thinking curriculum, hands-on-learning, and personal attention.

Wooden High School’s project-based learning curriculum is not really new, but it is important…and should not be limited to kids who can’t jump through the typical curriculum hoops. Schools like Wooden are given some freedom and enough personnel to show kids individual attention…but all kids need that. All kids should be getting some personal guidance and feedback while creating projects in groups, where they constantly practice by choosing leaders, collecting data, planning, procuring supplies, and achieving a goal!

In ordinary high schools we are punishing many of the students who are capable of self-teaching; who can read chapters and answer questions about subject matter, but who aren’t much involved in the regular curriculum. We are also labeling those kids as “unsuccessful” or even “not too bright.” Unfortunately, giving personal attention is easier for teachers with kids who dress well, smell good and whose parents know people on the School board.

On the other hand, schools like Wooden are given some freedom and enough personnel to show students individual attention.   All kids are getting personal guidance and feedback while creating projects in groups, where they constantly practice by choosing leaders, collecting data, planning, procuring supplies, and achieving a goal!

A good team of teachers can build a nice holistic unit on raising a calf. Kids can write and do research, accumulate data, solve problems, practice math and algebra, work within a team toward a measurable goal…and have a pretty good relationship with a cute animal.

Lesson plans that assign projects and require teams of students to work beyond self-interest to reach a measurable goal are in the future, but should be in more of today’s schools.Wooden has a good start, and if its leaders can retain funding, it will probably benefit from consistent upward tweaks to its academic offerings. If the staff is committed, they could create a workable model for all high schools to imitate.

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Shouldn’t Schools Provide Some Good News for Working Parents?

This morning I received an article from a friend that was posted at a source that is new to me: “Think Progress”.  Although,  I cannot vouch for the accuracy or neutrality of this source, the article seemed reasonable to me. So I will summarize it here and add my own criticisms and suggestions.

The title of the article was,“Our Outdated School Schedules Are Hurting Working Parents.” Although I haven’t heard that assertion before, it seems accurate, and I have to agree that the days when schools are closed or when children are sent home early create problems for many families.

Back in the 19th century and for about half of the 20th century almost all married woman stayed at home while their husbands went out to work. Although it was not always easy to take care of sick children or to pick them up at school, most mothers accepted those tasks as their responsibility and did not complain. They also accepted keeping their children at home on holidays or on days when the schools were closed for other reasons. But things have changed considerably since then. Not only are many more mothers at work themselves, but also schools are closed more often during the traditional “school year.”

The article asserts that the women and families most affected adversely by no-school days are “single parents, low-income parents, parents of color, and part-time workers.” Members of those groups are less able to afford outside day care for their children or at–home caregivers. Often, they resort to getting a friend or neighbor to“look in”on their children or leaving them unsupervised completely for several hours.

At least one organization, the Center for American Progress (CAP) takes this situation seriously, believing that schools must adjust their schedules to better meet parents’ needs. Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy for CAP and one of the authors of a new report, says, “We need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives. I think requiring longer school days requires an injection of resources and creative thinking about how you set up your schools.”

In its report CAP offers several suggestions for changing the ways school schedules work. Those suggestions are listed below:

States could raise the minimum length of a school day to eight hours, which would push schools toward a typical work schedule.

Districts could use the assistance of AmeriCorps members, college students, and community members to help run programs during school closings and to monitor students when parents are at work.

Schools could limit days off to major holidays, look to major employers when deciding whether to close schools for inclement weather, and create school health policies that better recognize parents’ busy schedules.

Administrators could accommodate parents’ work schedules when deciding when to schedule parent-teacher conferences and consider alternatives to in-person meetings, such as chatting through Skype.

Schools could look at more efficient ways to conduct teacher professional development, such as having teacher development run throughout the school day through teacher collaboration and individualized coaching, so the school wouldn’t have to close for the day.

Schools could identify alternatives to a tiered busing schedule, such as a dual-route system, so that students can get to school at the same time.

On the whole, I find these suggestions impractical because they involve school districts and groups of outsiders not likely to commit themselves to changing their operations to suit the needs of parents. Below I offer my own suggestions that I think are more practical, even though they would they would be likely to increase the costs of school operations considerably.

Elementary schools should shift to a nine-hour day (8 A.M. to 5 P.M.) with breakfast at 8 A.M and classes beginning at 9 AM, with a one hour break for lunch and recess, and after school activities for those students whose parents request it.

Middle schools should have an 8 A.M to 4 P.M schedule that would also include an hour for breakfast and another hour for lunch and recess. A 4 P.M. dismissal time assumes that students of this age are mature enough to manage their lives for an hour after school without supervision.

High school schedules should stay as they are because of sports and other after school activities now available. I assume that students who do not participate in such activities are old enough to be at home by themselves or to join friends after school.

Parent teacher conferences and professional development sessions should be held in the evenings or on Saturdays, with teachers compensated for the extra time.

On holidays when businesses are not likely to be closed, elementary and middle schools that close should provide a full day of activities and busing for students whose parents request it. Parents should pay a low fee for this service.

I fully understand that implementing my suggestions would require more school funding for trained para-professionals to manage after school and holiday programs at elementary schools and middle schools. At the same time such programs could be designed to employ young people who want to become teachers and provide them with college scholarships rather than salaries.  This could be a win-win situation for parents, prospective teachers and schools.

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Good News About a New Type of High School

Maybe not everyone would agree, but I think that today’s post is good news about education. It’s the summary of an article from the Los Angeles Times that describes a new kind of school at which students who‘ve had difficulties at regular high schools can earn credits to graduate on time and prepare for further education and careers.

John R. Wooden High School is a continuation school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, devoted to students who have been enrolled at other schools but were in danger of not graduating. Instead of taking Chemistry or Biology, Wooden’s students take Environmental Studies or Plant and Soil Science, both of which include hands-on experiences along with academic classes. Also, while the ordinary high schools in the district turn to online credit recovery courses to allow more students to graduate on time, Wooden’s students take the credit courses they need on campus. The school’s philosophy is that many students who have been doing poorly at regular high schools can learn effectively with personal attentions and classes that involve hands-on activities.

In a significant move toward the future, California and several other states have adopted Next Generation Science Standards that focus on making connections between science courses and including scientific investigation as part of each course. Although the state’s primary goal for the new standards is to attract students in populations that are currently under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math careers, and to prepare them for those fields; it also serves students who have not been successful in regular high schools.

Many of the classes at Wooden are held outside part of the time, with students taking care of animals at a farm or attending to plants in an organic garden. As students work, teachers move among them to supervise their activities. They also hold conversations with students, providing technical information to go along with the practical experiences underway.

One concern that educational leaders have expressed about such schools as Wooden is whether they are rigorous enough to prepare students for college. The school offers  courses in Animal Behavior, Plant and Soil Science, and Environmental Studies. All of them meet the requirements for admission to California State University, but only the Plant and Soil Science course is acceptable at the University of California. Students who need additional courses for admission to that university or other more demanding schools, can take them at a community college after graduating from Wooden.

Although academic qualifications are important for students, there are certainly other benefits from schools such as this one. In meeting with students, reporters have observed their positive attitudes toward the work they are doing in and out of classrooms, their good attendance records, and their positive plans for the future.

My reaction to the information in this article is that schools such as Wooden are a significant step toward the changes that are needed in all high schools; first in providing the kinds of learning experiences that serve currently un-motivated students, and second in introducing courses that are more up-to-date than the traditional ones. For some time I have been thinking that the existing high school curriculum needs to change to meet the needs of our world today and tomorrow. When I get my suggestions for that change as complete and realistic as possible, I plan to share them here before enlightening the rest of the world.



Dealing with “Crime and Punishment” in Today’s Schools

Now that most readers have recovered from reading my piece about corporal punishment, which is still legal in schools in 21 states, I will recount some other practices for punishing kids’ misbehavior that can be just as damaging. Those practices, created under the concept of “Zero tolerance” can be anything from after school detention to removal of student privileges or even long term suspension. The punishment for an action that includes breaking the law may also include criminal charges.

On the other side of the coin, I will describe a very different school practice called “Restorative Justice,” which seeks to replace student punishment with explanation, remorse and repair from an offender, and understanding and forgiveness from those who were harmed.

My sources of information are two recent articles from the New York Times, one published on September 9th of this year and the other on October 2nd. Although those articles focus on happenings in New York City schools, similar things may also be occurring in other cities and rural areas around the country.

The October 2nd article describes some of the severe punishments given to children for different types of offenses. The first example given is about a 15-year-old boy in Brooklyn who brought a loaded gun to school in his backpack early in this school year. For that action he was taken by police to their headquarters. Almost immediately, the city’s Department of Education issued a statement declaring “there is zero tolerance for weapons of any kind in schools”. Under that concept three million school children are now suspended from school around the country every year, and several thousand are arrested and charged with criminal actions.

Over the past 30 years “Zero Tolerance” has become the norm for public schools, including charters; at times punishing children for minor transgressions. For example, a 12 year old girl was arrested for doodling on her desk with a green marker and an autistic boy for kicking a trash can. Even though youth violence has declined sharply from its peak in the 1990s, Zero Tolerance practices continue in many schools. Some critics have referred to them as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Recently, however, attitudes toward severe punishment have begun to shift. Many schools all over the country are trying new approaches to resolve behavior problems. One practice that has drawn attention is “talking through” offenses with students rather than administering severe punishments. At a high school in Houston, Texas, the principal Bertie Simmons required two students who had forged a permission slip to write a paper about what they had done rather than being suspended. Mr. Simons said, “If you just treat people with kindness, it’s far better than being so punitive.“

Even New York City with 1.1 million students has moved away from harsh discipline. In the second half of 2015 suspensions went down by one third from the same period in the previous year. In addition, Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested removing metal detectors from school buildings because many students feel they are “intrusive and denigrating.” Although that is not likely to happen, many school administrators are exploring tactics that will encourage better student behavior and eliminate the need for strong disciplinary actions.

The September 9th article focused on a particular strategy, called “Restorative Justice” that is being tried by schools in many different places. Specifically, it attempts to strengthen the connections between students and teachers by having them get together after a conflict has taken place and everyone has had time to cool down. The student offender and the offended teacher, student, or school official meet in a quiet place with a moderator and, perhaps, others who were present when the situation took place. They all sit in a circle and listen to each other in turn explain how a particular negative incident affected each of them.

The strategy aims to build basic human values such as community, empathy and responsibility. It attempts to strengthen the personal connections between offending students and their victims through personal discussions under safe and orderly conditions.  The hoped for goal is having the participants agree on reasonable consequences and better behavior in the future.

Although apologies are not demanded, they often emerge spontaneously; not only from students, but also from teachers or principals who now feel they over-reacted to the situation. A problem is not necessarily resolved in such a meeting, but it does seem to favorably affect future behavior on both sides because the people involved now understand each other better.

Unfortunately, the introduction of “Restorative Justice” does not run smoothly in many cases. Often, student misbehavior is so widespread and has been going on for so long, that teachers won’t consider any action that is not a form of punishment. Yet Schools using this strategy have experienced significant positive results: lowered suspension rates, higher graduation rates, and improved school atmospheres. In New York, for example, the Education Department is training its own faculty, and the Schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña supports the strategy for all schools. Interest in using the practice has also spread to other cities, such as Denver, and Oakland, and San Francisco.

From my perspective, it looks like “Restorative Justice” requires a lot of time and a lot of training for both students and teachers. As the article reported, many teachers have chosen to transfer out of schools where it was being introduced. Clearly, the old ways of student behavior, teacher response, and school practices are firmly embedded in most schools. Teaching everyone on both sides to think and behave in more cooperative and empathetic ways is not a quick or easy task either. It can be done, but it is going to take time, less pressure on teachers to be “all things to all people”, and strong efforts to make all students believe that they are partners in the process of education, rather than its victims.

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