The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

THE BUMPY ROAD FOR POOR CHILDREN


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.

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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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When I was a Principal in Madison Wisconsin


Although I was a principal in Wisconsin before becoming one in Oregon, I didn’t plan to write about my experience there until yesterday. Because several readers had responded to the description of our Oregon program, I decided to add the story of our earlier program, which was a school store conceived and managed by a classroom teacher. I think readers will appreciate all the hard work she and the students did and and the strong lasting results.

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When I had been the principal at the elementary school in Madison Wisconsin for about a year, one of our teachers came to me with an idea for creating a special student program: a school store. When she described her plans to me I loved them. They sounded like they would be easy too carry out, benefit many students, and not cost the school any extra funds. Her plan was to use an empty first floor classroom that would be open only one day a week during the noon hour, and sell student made products to other students and teachers. I also agreed to free her from some of her regular responsibilities and allow her to use that new time creating and managing the store. Her job would be to advise and assist students who wanted to make and sell products, and also to supervise the store operations.

The first part of the teacher’s new job was to advertise the store’s opening and the opportunities for students who wanted to create items for the store and work there. Next, she would advise those who were interested about the practicality of the things they were planing to make and the prices they should charge for them. Right away many students from all grade levels responded, appearing eager to make products and set their prices at home, then sell what they made in the new store.

Happily, during the store’s opening months many of the most desirable items were produced and sold. The most popular ones were greeting cards, sculptured jewelry, constructed games, embroidered handkerchiefs, and small rocks with pictures painted on them.

As time went by, the gift makers and the items they produced changed, but the store continued to be popular. The workers never tired of producing desirable products, and the shoppers never tired of buying them. Because the most popular items continued to be decorative rather than useful ones, sales of woven bracelets always exceeded the sales of workbook covers.

After some years as the school’s principal, I left there to move to Oregon wit, where my husband and I had been offered new jobs. Nevertheless, I continued to communicate with the teachers in Portland who told me about their work, school events and the activities of the school store. Although the school workers and the teacher who led them changed over time, the store continued to operate successfully for several years afterward.

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When I Was a Principle in Portland Oregon


When I was a school principal my greatest pleasure was helping teachers implement their ideas for school improvement. The first suggestion I remember receiving came from a teacher who wanted to create a school store in an empty classroom. It would be a place where children could sell items they had made to other students and their teachers.

Her plan was that the store would open for business only one day a week during the noon hour. Students would line up in the hallway outside until there was room enough for them to enter the shop and look around inside.

The new store had two tables displaying the products students had made. One student guided the students who wanted to shop, and another one stood ready to take money for the items selected. In addition, the teacher who created the store was on hand to assist if any problems occurred.

All the items for sale had been created by students at home and approved by their teachers at school. The most popular ones turned out to be greeting cards, wooden games, decorative magnets, sculptured jewelry, embroidered handkerchiefs, and painted stones because most shoppers were more interested in decorative items than useful ones.

When the store closed for the day, the workers and the teacher counted the money received, and brought it to the school office. Later those funds were given to the students who made the items sold. There were small differences in how much students received, based on the size and quality of their products.

A good school project like this one is a positive addition to any school and should be allowed. Although strong classroom teaching is the most important element of a school, an additional program outside the classroom that is fun– and educational– is also of great value.

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When I was a school principal my greatest pleasure was helping teachers implement their ideas for school improvement. The first suggestion I remember receiving came from a teacher who wanted to create a school store in an empty classroom. It would be a place where children could sell items they had made to other students and their teachers.

The plan was that the store would open for business only one day a week during the noon hour. Students would line up in the hallway outside until there was room enough for them to enter the shop and look around inside.

The new store had two tables displaying the products students had made. One student guided the students who wanted to shop, and another one stood ready to take money for the items selected. In addition, the teacher who created the store was on hand to assist if any problems occurred.

All the items for sale had been created by various students at home and approved by their teachers at school. The most popular ones turned out to be greeting cards, wooden games, decorative magnets, sculptured jewelry, embroidered handkerchiefs, and painted stones because most shoppers were more interested in decorative items than useful ones.

When the store closed for the day, the workers and the teacher counted the money received, and brought it to the school office. Later those funds were given to the students who made the items sold. There were small differences in how much students received, based on the size and quality of their products.

A good school project is a positive addition to any school and should be allowed. Although good classroom teaching is the most important element of a school, an additional program outside the classroom that is fun– and educational– is also of great value.

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My Views of Education in Various Countries


Although I have finished reading all the articles I could find about the quality of education in different countries and the test scores that resulted, I am not persuaded that the those factors truly define the range and quality of what students do. In today’s post I will do my best to describe what I learned about education in different countries through reading and personal experience.


My problems in reading descriptions of education in foreign countries were that they described very little about school quality, teaching practices, students school records, or family wealth, but claimed superiority solely on test scores. In addition, there were very few descriptions of the differences between schools in the most successful countries and those in poor countries. Instead, all the countries listed claimed education supremacy over the United States solely on the basis of their higher test scores over a long period of time.

Since I had considerable experience in American schools, and also time visiting schools in foreign countries, I wound up my study of school quality by reading material written by writers who suggested strong reasons why our test scores have always been lower than those of European countries. They asserted that a country’s scores are more controlled by students’ wealth, physical conditions, and social skills, than the quality of teaching or students’ ability to learn.

As a result of my personal experience in several different countries I came away with information about teaching practices that were not covered in any of the articles I read. My largest and most helpful experiences were in Belgium, where my family and I lived for a year and my three older children attended a local school. At that school, for instance, some of the teachers appeared to be very helpful, while others seemed harsh and unyielding. For example, my oldest son’s ninth grade teacher refused to give him any help in understanding his mathematics assignments, nor would he allow his classmates to translate into English any teacher instructions that he could not understand. The teacher claimed that such actions would distract other students.

Normally at that school students were expected to learn quickly and correctly without any help from their teachers, and their promotion to the following grade was not certain for anyone. In fact, several of my son’s friends decided not to seek any further schooling after the ninth grade because they didn’t believe they would be accepted. Instead they planned to seek jobs in their home area. theres was not an unusual decision since most Belgian children did not go on to college.

More significant than my personal experiences, however, were my visits to European high schools during my year in Belgium. My main task was to study the teaching of English by visiting as many high schools as possible in Belgium, Germany and “The Netherlands” (Holland), because they were within driving distance. Over the next three months I was able to make all the school visits I had planned for and to record as much information as possible about the student learning I had witnessed.

Interestingly, my opinions of the teaching I saw were not strongly positive. Although students in all the schools were polite and attentive, and appeared to be taking down the information given by their teachers, they rarely had opportunities to ask questions or demonstrate what they had learned. Basically, they read teacher selected English literature silently in the classroom and then did their best to answer questions about what they had read. However, because of classroom time limits, only a few students got the opportunity to speak. Their performances were brief and shallow. In addition, I saw very few examples of class-wide language practice or deep learning. The only school I visited where students seemed to be strongly involved in practicing their understanding and speaking of English, was a Belgian trade high school where I watched one teacher and her students for almost an hour. Over that time the teacher displayed and named many small objects and asked questions about them in English. Then several students had the opportunity to reply fully in the same language.

At this point, I must add that later I also visited schools in a few other countries: England, France, and Israel. In those countries I was able to have long classroom visits and form some opinions about the teaching and learning I witnessed. Interestingly, all the schools were similar. Teachers talked much of the time, while students listened and wrote down what their teachers had said. Then, some students were called on to answer questions to prove they had read and remembered assigned material.

In addition to descriptions of my observations in foreign countries, I want to offer my opinions about American education over the time that I worked in my own country. As a teacher I taught almost all grades from 1 through 12 at schools in three states, and later, I worked for several years as a principal in two elementary schools in different states.

All the schools I taught at were similar in their physical structures, academic programs, teaching practices, parent backgrounds, and student performances. (I never worked in a rundown public school or a private school.) Rarely did I have any students who did not speak English.

After retiring, I worked at a state university for three years. Although I taught a couple of classes there, my main job was to observe the performances of students who were training to become teachers. I watched students teach for the first time, coached them to do better the next time, watched a second performance, and then filed a full a report to the university. After retiring from that job, I chose to spend some time observing in local elementary schools with good reputations. At a few of them I was fortunate to observe principals who were deeply involved in giving attention and care to their teachers and students. They were also creative and careful planners. My strong opinion now is that the success or failure of any American school hangs on the quality of its principal rather than the training of teachers, but I realize that I am biased by my own experience as a principal.

After giving you so much information about my long and varied education experiences and my personal opinions of the schools I visited or worked in, I will now turn to what I believe are the major factors in determining the validity of American students’ test scores.

Although parents’ wealth and education have effects on children’s school performance, more powerful are their native language, personal values, and the social behavior in the community where they now live. In short, children follow the actions of their friends and family members. Specifically, if any of those groups regularly speak a foreign language, their children will do the same at home, in their neighborhood, and at school. Consequently, many of them do not learn enough English or score well on regular or international tests. In addition, some children don’t care much about such things. They don’t expect to go on to college. Although family wealth, parent education, and home practices have effects on children’s school performance, their personal experiences begin to shape them as they grow older and move outside their home area.

For most children who came to America with their families the new life at home was pleasant and peaceful. But things were very different at school or around the school’s outside. Consequently, many of them did not learn enough English to succeed in the classroom or on the international tests. In addition, they didn’t expect to go on to college. Thier personal lives were more important.

My final opinion about the differences between European and American test scores is that they are the products of students’ experience, not their intelligence or ability to learn.

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