The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Compatibility Based Classrooms

Sorry, faithful readers, but today’s post is a repeat of one I wrote for Valerie Strauss’ blog, “The Answer Sheet” in 2013.  I post it today–with some minor changes– because the topic is still an issue and I feel strongly about it.

Over the many years I served as an elementary school principal my relationships with parents were good.  I was available, I listened, and when complaints or suggestions were reasonable, I acted.  But there was one area where I stubbornly held the line against the wishes of parents, and that was the placement of students.  I made clear early on that I would not honor requests for children to be placed with a particular teacher, nor would I form ability-based classrooms.  My position was not a matter of showing who was “boss,” but of my unshakable conviction that mixed ability classrooms are the best places for children to learn and live, and that teachers know which students should be together in a classroom and which should not.

Although I understand that many elementary schools are moving to ability-based classrooms in the belief that they will do a better job of teaching what students are expected to know and do under the Common Core State Standards, I still think they are a big mistake.

Teaching to the presumed ability level of a whole class never works as well as hoped because students still have significant differences in work habits, paces of learning, interests, and outside of school experiences.  But there is another, more significant factor: the effects on students in the low level classes.  Those kids know who they are, why they are there, and resent it.  Other kids know, too.  In the end, low-level classes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Everybody thinks I’m dumb, so I’ll show them just how dumb I can be!”

Don’t mixed classrooms have the same problems, you may wonder? Not if they’re structured like a symphony orchestra or a professional sports team to form a supportive and harmonious whole where each member plays his own role.  Instead of spending time and effort creating ability-based classrooms, schools could do better by letting this year’s teachers who know their students place them in classes for the following year where their abilities, interests, and personalities are complemented by those of their classmates.

That is what we did in both schools where I was principal, and it worked out just fine.  At the end of each school year we asked parents who were concerned about their children’s placements for the following year to fill out a form that described their child’s school needs–especially those we might not be aware of.  Surprisingly, we always got only a few  responses; most parents trusted us to make good decisions for their kids.

I must add that we also had mixed grade classrooms at all levels.*  We started that practice because the numbers of students that came to us at each grade were often wildly different.  We could see no value in having a class of  30 third graders and a class of 20 4th graders.  It seemed  far better to have two  grade 3/4 classrooms with reasonable numbers and flexible teaching practices that included whole class lessons sometimes, but at other times small group lessons or students working with partners.

When the brightest kids, the most outgoing, the shy ones, and the strugglers work together in a classroom, there are not only 25 partners and 25 social equals, but also 25 strong learners.

*Not exactly true.  Only at the second school where I was principal, were we able to create a K-1 class, ant it was  near the end of my tenure.  It worked out better than expected for a number of reasons, but I’ll have to save that explanation for a future post.

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A Ray of Sunshine in California

My post today was taken from Diane Ravitch’s blog, which I read every day.  It’s a good place to find out what’s going on in the world of education. But I often leave it  depressed because so much of what she posts is bad news for all of us who care about public education. That’s not Diane’s fault; she is just being honest with her readers.  And, every once in a while there is a bit of good news that makes me hopeful. So I feel justified in repeating it here–slightly edited for coherence.

California has established a new agency to help and monitor struggling schools, and it will be led by a veteran educator, Carl Cohn.  I know him; he is the paradigm of a sensible and wise leader. He opposes punitive measures. He understands that what matters most is capacity-building and that requires collaboration and trust.

In a recent interview Cohn said:

“I think this is a dramatic departure from the past. Most of those other efforts were driven by state capitols and the federal government, but this is a major departure. The reason that I’m involved is that it is an opportunity to prove that the state of California has it right to emphasize teaching and learning and support for schools as opposed to embarrassing and punishing and shaming, which is what some have been all about since No Child Left Behind.

“This isn’t a new version of previous CDE [California Department of Education] efforts at intervention. It’s a completely new philosophy and execution independent of the state bureaucracy. It’s designed to listen to people in the field and to bring them together around improvement. It also draws heavily on the principle of subsidiarity where those at the local level actually know better how to rescue kids that we care about. So, I see this as a fundamental departure from what we’ve done in the past.

“Question: How does that look different on the ground? I’ve got the 30,000 foot view.

“Sure, I think as opposed to a lot of dictates and mandates coming from Sacramento, we start with the idea of collaboration, which is very different from what we’ve seen in the past. We start with best practice that is developed and honed at the local level. The idea is a powerful one in that you actually spend time in these places that have been labeled as failing, and you build their capacity.

“In the past, it was a lot of one-off luminaries coming in and regaling people with their skill set, how to reach poor kids, how to reach ELs. In stark contrast, this is about embedding people in schools so that once you leave after an extensive period of time, the locals have the capacity to better serve kids who are poor, kids who are in foster care, kids who are learning English, kids who have special needs. Very different on the ground than what we have seen in the past.”

P.S. Diane and I are with you, Carl!

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When the Water Tastes Good, the Horse Will Drink it!

It’s been 15 years since I was a school principal, and I realize that things have changed a lot since then.  But I still believe that it’s possible to involve students so deeply that they believe “This is my school, and I am an important person here.” I wrote the piece below as an Op-Ed for our local newspaper a few years after I had retired, and it received many positive comments.

Reading the articles in our local newspaper about the epidemic of student absenteeism in Oregon schools, especially at the middle school level, and the strategies being used to combat it, I couldn’t help thinking of the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Nor could I help adding my own saying, “When the water tastes good, the horse will drink it.”

As the principal of two small rural schools–one elementary and one middle– from 1988 to 2000, I remember clearly that student absences were not a problem for us. I have no way of substantiating that claim now except by referring skeptics to teachers who worked with me at the time. But I can substantiate with data I still have that our test scores in reading and math were strong, even exceptional, when we looked at student growth from third grade to fifth grade and then, from fifth grade to eighth grade.

Our attendance area included not only stable middle class families, but also residents of a trailer park, and some families living in broken down shacks or crowded into small houses with relatives. Over time poverty grew, and eventually approximately 50 percent of our students were on free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches.

The teachers and I were never big on punishing kids or hounding parents about absences or misbehavior. Instead, we pursued a number of measures to make school a desirable place for students to be. Although I cannot detail all of them here, I can provide a list and describe the most powerful motivator for our middle school students: No. 10 below.

  1. Small class sizes
  2. Trained instructional aides in every classroom for at least two hours everyday
  3. Middle school sports teams that welcomed all comers and found ways to let everyone play some time in a game
  4. Integration of special education students into regular classrooms full time with assistance from a special education teacher or a trained aide
  5. Teacher collaboration facilitated by common planning time for teachers of the same grade level during the school day
  6. Drama and music events that that found room for all students who wanted to participate
  7. An emphasis on building community in every classroom
  8. School  projects, such as “Adopt a road,” recycling classroom and lunchroom debris, and planting and caring for flower gardens and a  vegetable garden
  9. Discipline focused on having students repair any damage they had done and change their negative behavior to positive actions, rather than on punishment.
  10. A middle school “Jobs” program that provided work and tangible rewards for about 50  students.

This program allowed students to work 20 minutes a day before or after school, during the noon hour, or in study hall time. If a regular worker was absent, a substitute did the job. We paid workers with “points” that could be used to bid on desirable items at a special end of the year auction. The more points a student earned, the better were his or her chances of winning a valuable item. Yet, all items were desirable, down to bags of candy. We financed the program by soliciting donations from local businesses and using about 1500 dollars of school funds.

Becoming a worker or a substitute included submitting a written application, providing references, and being interviewed by the teacher in charge of the program. Once a student was hired, he or she was required to sign in and out of work every day, and satisfy a teacher supervisor with regular and timely attendance and quality work. Some typicle jobs were serving food or cleaning up in the lunchroom, setting up and taking down gym class equipment, cleaning up trash in the playground after school, checking out books in the school library, delivering mail or supplies to classrooms, and collecting and sorting classroom debris for recycling.

I recognize that not all schools can do the same things we did. Our small size, rural location and constituency made certain activities possible and manageable. Still, the heart of the matter was devoting our thinking, actions, and resources toward making our school a place where students wanted to be and were looked upon as contributing members of the school community. In addition to improving student attendance our plans also improved behavior. Many times I heard one kid say to another something like, “Don’t throw that candy wrapper on the floor; I have to clean it up!” And the other kid would apologize and pick up the wrapper.


Once Again, Madness Marks the Day

On Friday I declared that I would not post anything today unless I found an article about Arnie Duncan that recounted the damage he has done to public education.  But since a national disaster took place in my home state that day, I can’t ignore one writer’s reaction to similar disasters that have happened in the recent past.  Not only our schools, but also our entire society is threatened by gun madness.

This article was written by Tim Kreider and appeared in a magazine titled,”The Week” some months ago after a mass shooting in California.  My grandson, Jeremy Yatvin, referred me to it.

I started writing this essay last week, about the next mass shooting. It hadn’t happened yet, but we all knew it was going to. We didn’t know then whether it would be in a school or a workplace,   a mall or a theater or a military base, in Maryland or Idaho, Chicago or some small town we’d never heard of before, suddenly elevated to infamy. We didn’t know the killer’s name or how many people would die. But we did know some things for certain.

We knew there would be grief: genuine on the part of relatives and friends, professionally simulated by media personalities, journalists, politicians, spokespeople, and pundits. There would be anguished calls to understand how this could have happened. The question “Why?” would be posed. There would be outraged calls for gun control by liberals, and pro forma calls for better monitoring of the mentally ill by gun lobbyists. The Culture of Violence would be decried. The word “tragedy” would be used, and the word “senseless” and, within minutes, “politicize,” and, after a few days, the phrase “come together as a community,” and the word “healing” Ultimately, nothing at all would be done and we’d forget all about it again, until the next one.

I didn’t write fast enough. The next mass shooting has already happened. Over the holiday weekend, some guy went on a petulant killing spree in California, killing a half dozen people, three by stabbing and three with guns, because girls didn’t like him. A senseless tragedy that will all too soon be politicized. I personally deplore the culture of violence that leads to such acts. We cannot help, at such a time, but wonder Why. But I, like you, have faith that Santa Barbara will soon come together as a community and begin the process of healing.

Look, we’ve collectively decided, as a country, that the occasional massacre is okay with us. It’s the price we’re willing to pay for our precious Second Amendment freedoms. We’re content to forfeit the lives of a few dozen schoolkids a year as long as we get to keep our guns. The people have spoken, in a cheering civics-class example of democracy in action.

It’s hard to imagine what ghastly catastrophe could possibly change America’s minds about guns if the little bloody bookbags of Newtown did not. After that atrocity, it seemed as if we would finally enact some obvious, long-overdue half-measures. But perfectly reasonable, moderate legislation expanding background checks and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines was summarily killed in the Senate for no reason other than that a sufficient number of United States senators are owned by the NRA. It made our official position as a nation nakedly explicit: We don’t care about any number of murdered children, no matter how many, or how young. We want our guns.

I realize we are not all equally complicit in this indifference; there’s a spectrum of culpability. I don’t even bother to hold the NRA or the politicians they own accountable for the deaths they allow, any more than I blame deer ticks or herpes for doing their jobs. Gun lobbyists are just engines of greed, businesslike and efficient as HIV. Politicians will do whatever will get them re-elected. And gun owners are simply frightened; anyone who buys a handgun is, self-evidently, afraid of something. Plenty of them are decent, fun, likable, kindhearted people, but fear can make normal people behave vilely. And as an electoral bloc they’ve made the calculation that placating their own imaginary terrors is more important than the lives of what will probably, after all, be some stranger’s kids. And luckily kids don’t get to vote.

The coalition of Greed and Fear seems invincible. No appeals to reason or decency can affect either of those factions; it’s like arguing with addicts or bacilli. They will never modify their position because their position isn’t rational — it’s driven by deep feelings of impotence and fear they can’t even admit to, and funded by cemeteries full of money. If gun laws are ever going to change in this country, it’ll have to be because people like me, people who care, except not quite enough, quit their bitter impotent griping and actually do something about it. We care in the way that carnivores care about the screaming in slaughterhouses or that pro-war voters care about families accidentally blown apart in Iraq. Which is to say, sorta — just not enough to change our minds or habits or do anything hard or inconvenient.

An annoying thing about living in a republic is that you can’t feel completely blameless for the ruinous state of your nation. But the happy loophole is that responsibility for decision-making is so broadly diffused across millions of your fellow citizens that you can always tell yourself that you did what you could but the Other Guys steamrolled you so it’s all their fault. My own contribution toward ending gun violence so far has been to feel sick with rage and loathing toward the NRA. Occasionally I’ll draw a mean cartoon about it. It’s easy and fun to mock gun fanatics, because they’re so selfish and scared and weak and mean. It’s also pointless, an exercise in frustration and helplessness. Seeing the NRA repeatedly defeat any gun legislation, brutally effective as the Soviets crushing an uprising, has incrementally demoralized me and given me an excuse to give up. As Ernesto Cortes Jr. wrote: “powerlessness also corrupts.”

So how about let’s actually do something for once? Write your senators or congressman, your state representatives, your governor. Become a single-issue voter. I’m sorry to say it, but the most effective thing you can do is probably to send a check to a gun-control lobby group, since it should be clear by now that the only voice that matters in American governance is that of money. We need to buy up and bully some senators of our own. Why not do it right now? Because it’s too late for the victims in California, but we don’t know when the next mass shooting might happen; I haven’t seen the news yet today, so for all I know it already happened this morning. If not, it’ll happen next week, or two or six months from now. But we do know it’s going to happen. Some parents out there reading this and shaking their heads in vague sorrow are already doomed to unimaginable grief.

If we’re not going to do anything again, I’d just like to make one request: given that we’ve all agreed, if only by our passive acquiescence, not to keep this from happening, can we please quit pretending to care? Let’s just skip the histrionics this time: no pro forma shock, condolence photo ops, somber speeches, flags at half-mast, meaningless noises from liberals about legislation, meaningless counter-noises from the NRA about armed guards in elementary schools. Why bother going through the motions of soul-searching when we know very well there’s nothing to search? If we can’t be brave we might at least be honest: when we see the familiar helicopter shots of ambulances outside a school, the clusters of classmates hugging, the sobbing parents being led away, the makeshift shrines of candles and plush toys, instead of looking stricken or covering our mouths or saying “Oh my God” or “How horrible,” let’s just all look each other in the eye and say: “Shit happens.”

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Wide-Eyed in Jargon Land

Here’s a little humor–or, perhaps, truth–that will have to last you readers through the weekend.   Tomorrow I’ll be spending almost all day at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English annual conference, and on Sunday I’ll probably be too worn out to write.  My only hope is that I find a news article about Arne Duncan’s retirement that  is truthful about his incompetence.  If I do, I will re-post it here on Sunday.

Way back when I was a college student, one of my professors warned the class to avoid using jargon in our papers. By jargon he meant big words of indeterminate meaning. Ever since then I’ve tried to follow his advice in my own writing and to be aware of jargon in the writing of others. But I’ve also come to recognize that there are different kinds of jargon and at least one of them is justifiable. That jargon is a “shorthand” used in the technical literature of specialized fields to refer to complicated entities or processes that readers are already familiar with. By using jargon the writers avoid giving long and unnecessary explanations.

But what about other kinds of jargon? Well, some kinds may not carry much meaning, but they do serve the writers’ purposes. Take, for instance, the stock phrases used in formal or ritualistic communications, such as letters of application or notes of condolence. “Yours truly,” and “May you be comforted” don’t really say anything, but they do convey the message that the writer knows the rules and cares enough to write.

And, of course the whole field of advertising is riddled with jargon intended to impress people about the superiority of various products, while not promising anything so specific that it could trigger a lawsuit. We constantly hear or read such words as, “amazing,” “easy to use,” and “ long-lasting.” This jargon often ensnares the gullible among us and even, sometimes, experienced consumers like me.

In addition, there is the jargon used in discussing politics and public issues. That kind of jargon is not meaningless; it deliberately implies one thing while referring to something very different. In the up-coming presidential race, for example, we may hear one candidate call himself a “job creator” because he headed a business for several years.  But, in fact his business closed some American companies and sent jobs overseas.  From the other side we hear that a candidate wants tax cuts for the “middle class,” but what that term really means is people earning less than $1,000,000 a year, including the working poor. The candidate uses it to appeal to all those people who want to believe they are part of that noble and hard-working layer of society.

Apart from politics, the most contentious public issue today is education. It is a polarized field, where all kinds of governmental bodies, organizations, think tanks, and citizen groups hold strong views about how schools should change or be managed. At the same time, most ordinary people have little knowledge about the realities of education, basing their opinions on personal experience, their worldviews, and what their leaders tell them. Thus, the flow of jargon is plentiful and forceful, seeking to turn the tide of public opinion in one direction or the other.

As a career-long educator I can’t keep away from reading and listening to the various arguments about education and noticing the jargon.   When I find some bit that seems especially misleading, I want to point it out to others and explain what it really means. But there is a problem here: I am a partisan, on the side of public schools,  teachers, kids, and progressive education. Although I know that they all have flaws, I still believe they are better intentioned and more often right than the groups that oppose them. So, perhaps it is not surprising that I find very little jargon in their arguments. That means that almost all the examples of misleading jargon I can point to come from the other side. Nevertheless, I will take the leap into “Jargonland” below and hope that readers will see merit in my choices and truth in my definitions.

School Reform Plans: Untested notions for improving public education, many of which have been tried before with negligible results.

School Reformers: People with impressive titles who have had little or no practical experience in schools.

Rigorous: Difficult, boring, and probably inappropriate for the students’ grade level

Research-based program: A commercial product that bears some resemblance to an educational practice found effective by researchers; in some cases by only one researcher who may also be the author or publisher of the program

Whole child education: Let the kids have music, art, and recess regularly and be allowed to talk and move around in the classroom once in a while.

Student achievement: Test scores only; may have nothing to do with real learning

Team of experts: Group of college professors, think tank members, and/or private sector consultants who have never taught children or spent time observing in classrooms; no practicing teachers are included.

Failing school: School where one or more student sub-groups didn’t make AYP on standardized tests, for which the principal and teachers are to be blamed.

Charter Schools: Semi-private schools supported by public funds and chosen by parents who think they are more elegant and exclusive than public schools. They also make their operators rich.

No Excuses Schools: Places where teachers and students do what they’re told or get kicked out.

Merit Pay: Extra money given to teachers for raising test scores. No better teaching required.

Carrots and Sticks: Rewards and punishments—mostly punishments–intended to motivate schools to produce higher student test scores.

Accountability: A government invented system that asks a great deal from public schools and gives little in return. It does not apply to charter schools.

Data: Plentiful numbers that give very little useful information to schools, teachers, or parents.

NCLB waivers: The DOE gives a state relief from the unreasonable requirements of NCLB in return for a promise to meet its own impossible goals.

I could go on pointing out more examples of misleading jargon in education, but I think there are enough here to reinforce the idea of “Reader Beware!” I also suspect I’ve supplied enough fodder for readers who agree with me to present new examples and those who disagree to tell me why I’m wrong.

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