The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Thanksgiving in Philadelphia

Today’s post is my first one since November 18th, when I took off for visits to the Midwest and the east coast. It is about good news for public schools in Philadelphia that I found in the local newspaper, “The Philadelphia Inquirer.” If I had stayed at home for Thanksgiving I might never have known about it.

Readers not familiar with Philadelphia need to know that that this large, historic, bustling city also has high rates of poverty, gang violence, and crime. In addition, its public schools have been under-funded for years and many of the school buildings are in poor condition. In recent years charter schools have blossomed all over the city and several public schools have been closed.


Today, four days after Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the wisdom and dedication of Philadelphia’s leaders who have committed themselves to revitalizing the much neglected and scorned public schools. Unlike politicians in many other places they are not pushing for higher standards, more rigorous learning, and better test scores, but working to provide students in public schools with the services that will help them to live healthier, happier, and more rewarding lives.

Last Monday Darrell Clarke, the City Council President, announced that the city’s leaders were now “Speaking with one voice.” He promised that they would work together to ensure that the Philadelphia School District’s buildings would soon “be crowded with essentials for urban children and their families: social services, health care, and job training.”  He added that schools would soon have all the services already present in the city’s jails: “You can’t tell me that we can deliver these services in a prison and we can’t deliver them in schools.”

Standing with Clarke was Mayor-elect Jim Kenney. The two had just returned from a trip to Cincinnati where they visited the city’s newly created community schools dedicated to providing the full range of health services and learning supports for students and gathering places for their families and other involved citizens. In those schools they saw well-equipped dental clinics and eye centers where students could get not only eye examinations but also free glasses. They also saw attractive areas for community members and volunteer tutors to meet and plan activities. Mayor Kenny has pledged to create 25 community schools as well equipped as those in Cincinnati over the next four years, starting as soon as he takes office. He said, “ We can do this if we stop complaining about not being able to do it. If we can build two mega-facilities to house sports teams, we can take care of these kids.”

Clarke’s and Kenney’s announcements were met with approval by school leaders and the community activists attending. Otis Hackney, a current Philadelphia school principal and a past a community school leader, selected by Kenney to be the new Chief Education Officer beamed with enthusiasm. The only people who appeared unenthusiastic were the leaders of the city’s charter schools. Clearly, they were displeased about not being included in the proposed school improvements. As the mayor made clear, “This model can apply to any school, but we have a responsibility to take care of our public schools.”

All I can add to Clarke and Kenney’s statements is “Amen.”


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Visit Finland’s Schools for Thanksgiving

The first thing I want to say today is that my husband and I will be out of town from Nov. 19th until Nov. 28th. We are going to the NCTE convention in Minneapolis and from there to Philadelphia to spend thanksgiving with our children and other relatives. I will not post any commentaries during that time and, maybe, not until a few days after returning home. I sincerely hope that you all have a great Thanksgiving and are not upset about having nothing new to read on “The Treasure Hunter.” 

Now, about today. I am posting a piece about education in Finland that appeared a while ago on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Even if you read it there, I think it’s worth a second read to fix all the information about sane public education in your minds for further comparisons with our “deformed” system.

While our five-year-olds buckle down to show that they have mastered academic skills in math and reading, the children in kindergarten in Finland are playing.

When children play, Osei Ntiamoah continued, they’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. A recent research summary “The Power of Play” supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.

Osei Ntiamoah’s colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, Maarit Reinikka: “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’” The school’s kindergarten educators have their students engage in desk work—like handwriting—just one day a week. Reinikka, who directs several preschools in Kuopio, assured me that kindergartners throughout Finland—like the ones at Niirala Preschool—are rarely sitting down to complete traditional paper-and-pencil exercises….

This is scandalous! How can they expect to be global competitors when they don’t buckle down and learn to suffer through stultifying exercises?

And there’s no such thing as a typical day of kindergarten at the preschool, the teachers said. Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.

Once, Morning Circle—a communal time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop. “I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

With a determined expression reminiscent of the boys in the mud with their shovels, the young cashier stared at the price list. After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€. Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.

Throughout the morning I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form (like the boys building dams), while the other was more guided and pedagogical (like the girls selling ice cream).

In fact, Finland requires its kindergarten teachers to offer playful learning opportunities—including both kinds of play—to every kindergartner on a regular basis, according to Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education. What’s more, Holappa, who also leads the development of the country’s pre-primary core curriculum, said that play is being emphasized more than ever in latest version of that curriculum, which goes into effect in kindergartens next fall.

“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” she told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

Imagine that! Finland will surely lose the race to the top of global competition if they keep up this play methodology. They should do what we do: drum the kids into silence, require them to march and sit in rows, teach them to keep their eyes on the teachers at all times, and require that they are college-and-career-ready from day one!




Still Stranded in Jargon Land

A while ago I posted a piece on jargon explaining that there were different kinds, some honest and useful, others dishonest and harmful. Still, we must understand that jargon is put before us all the time by politicians, advertisers, and ideologues to serve their own purposes. For example, in reading the commentary by Michael Petrilli that I wrote about on November 9th I was struck by some of his jargon, and that moved me to write again about educational jargon today. However, not everything I mention below came from Petrilli; there are many others spitting out jargon today in an effort to persuade those people unfamiliar with the realities of education to get tougher on public schools and their teachers or to abandon public education altogether.

Let me begin with Petrilli’s jargon. He refers to the obedient kids in schools as the hard-working students, and the ones following the rules. Those who misbehave to any extent are the chronic disrupters who hurt the high achievers, the ones who comply with all rules and teacher demands. What Petrilli wants to do is to separate the disobedient students from the compliant ones by creating tracked classrooms or sending the latter to high quality charter schools, one of which he identifies as the Success Academies (their name is, in itself, jargon). He says,”If the Success Academies and schools like it (sic) didn’t exist, many of those hard-working, high-achieving students” the compliant ones, would be stuck in “chaotic, low-performing public schools“, high poverty schools.

Moving on from Petrilli’s jargon, I will list below just a few other pieces of jargon that I missed last time, followed by their true meanings. Mostly they come from private groups that support charter schools or policy makers and pundits who understand little about good teaching or real student learning.

Value-added assessments: Teachers should be judged in part by comparing students’ current test scores to those of the previous year. To what extent the teacher is responsible for the gains—or lack thereof—is debatable

Student Achievement: High stakes test scores are the only valid evidence of learning

The Common Core Standards are more rigorous than previous state standards  The CCSS are indeed more difficult than those of most states, but not necessarily more appropriate for the designated grade levels or more in line with college or workplace expectations.

NCLB waivers: The DOE has allowed some states to substitute their own plans for school improvement for the requirements of NCLB, as long as those plans are just as demanding or even more so.

Tough Love: Strict behavioral demands and harsh punishments for students who don’t don’t comply with schools’ or teachers’ expectations.

Data Driven Instruction: School officials using previous test scores and heaven-knows-what other numbers to decide what and how teachers should teach.

Accountability: Schools doing what the DOE and state legislatures want them to do.

Foolish Parents, lazy teachers, and  corrupt teachers unions:  Those who advocate for opting-out students from high stakes tests.

If you readers have noticed others in your states, please let me know and I will post them as an addendum.



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You Can’t Quantify Kids or Teachers

Although I have been determined to post today’s essay for a long time, I have also been nervous about how pompous it may sound to many readers.  What has moved me to take the risk is the continuing idiocy of evaluating teachers on students’ test scores, evenwhen they didn’t actually teach some of those students.  To me the basic principle of teacher evaluation today is utterly without validity because it is not possible for one person to control the behavior of another unless the first person is a master and the second is a slave.  Even that doesn’t work all the time.

Most of us, I think, can name the qualities that go into being a good cook, a good friend, or a good driver. But could we convert those qualities into quantities?  Would each quality have the same weight? And what if our two best friends had different qualities, that when tallied up showed a wide discrepancy?  What if one friend added up to a 95 and the other added up to 63?

All of this must seem hopelessly complicated and, very likely, inane. Who would want to measure one friend against another? But that is exactly the inanity going on in states and school districts bent on measuring the quality of students on their test scores.  Even worse than that is the practice of judging the quality of teachers by their students’ test scores so one teacher can be labeled “effective” and another “failing.”

To make matters worse, the people setting up the measurement formulas don’t seem to know what the qualities of a good teacher are. Most of them can name only the ability to generate high student test scores, while the rest go blank after adding the ability to manage classroom behavior.

Although I can’t resolve the numbers dilemma, I can, from my own  experience as a teacher and a principal, name a set of qualities that reflect my beliefs about teacher quality, and I want to do that here.  To me the most important one is the ability to inspire students to delve more deeply into the things taught in class, whether that is math, writing, science, or civility.

To help you get a fuller picture of my concept of teaching excellence, below is a list of  teacher qualities that I believe are important. They are what I looked for in my teachers when I was a principal.  Be warned, however, that they were never a “rubric” for me and should not be one for today’s principals or other evaluators.  They are ideals that very few of us can live up to all the time, the “A plusses” of performance.  And even if some teachers could do them all, every day over the years, an evaluator might not recognize them or give them the same value I do.

A good teacher

1.  Is aware, if the class size is reasonable, of each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses and home or community problems

2. Establishes a system of small group and independent learning that allows students to experience the roles of leader, follower, partner, and innovator

3. Plans lessons designed to cover the range of students’ instructional needs, connect to their interests, and strengthen their current knowledge and skills or move them into new territory

4. Adjusts lessons while teaching in response to students’ questions and actions

5. Makes an effort to include positive suggestions for improvement when critiquing student work

6. Demonstrates respect and trust for students and expects them to give the same back to her/him and their classmates

7. Discusses problems with behavior, attendance, or classwork with students privately, out of respect for their rights and dignity.

8. Develops professional relationships with fellow teachers inside the school or with teachers elsewhere

9. Develops good communication and partnership relationships with parents to serve the best interests of students

10. Continually works to improve and expand one’s own professional knowledge and skills.

Although I suspect that my list is still incomplete, it is long enough to convey my concept of good teaching and make clear why it can’t be measured or even perceived by evaluators who don’t know a teacher’s work firsthand through many classroom visits and observations of outside the classroom actions.

In any school the ideal evaluator is a good principal who has the time to visit classrooms regularly and observe teachers informally in many different situations.  As a result of  those efforts a good principal knows which teachers to move into positions of greater responsibility, which ones need help to improve, and those few who  are not suited to continue in this important profession.

I am well aware that throughout this essay I have been speaking of ideals, not reality.  Neither I or the teachers I supervised met all those ideals all the time.  But we tried, and we recognized many of our own weaknesses as individuals and as a group.  We did our best to respect, support, and forgive each other, knowing that– like our students– we were still learners.

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Some Police Officers Know How to Deal with Angry Kids

After the debacle in a South Carolina classroom a couple of weeks ago, it really cheered me up to read the article below in the Washington Post.  I hope it makes you smile too.

On Monday afternoon, D.C. police officers broke up two groups of fighting teenagers. A few minutes later, a female officer approached the lingering crowd and told the teens to disperse.

That’s when Aaliyah Taylor, a 17-year-old senior at Ballou High School, walked up to the officer and started playing “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” on her phone. Then she did the Nae Nae dance. The officer, according to Taylor, laughed and said she had far better dance moves than that.

What happened from there on the 200 block of K Street SW was  a rather imprssive dance-off between the police officer and the teen, and an example of positive community policing at a time when national attention is focused on discriminatory and abusive police tactics. The onlooking teens caught the dance battle on their cell phones while a song by rapper Dlow played in the background.

“Instead of us fighting, she tried to turn it around and make it something fun,” Taylor said. “I never expected cops to be that cool. There are some good cops.” Taylor said the officer told the group that if the teens won the dance-off, they could stay. If the officer won, they would have to leave.

The two danced for a few minutes face-to-face–stanky leg and all— and Taylor said the officer would have kept going, but she got tired. Both Taylor and the officer declared themselves the victors, hugged and everyone left the area. “I mostly hold my head down when I dance, so I didn’t really see her,” Taylor said. “But when I looked at the video after, I was like ‘Oh, she has some moves.’”

When reached by phone, the officer in the video said she did not want to be identified because she didn’t  want to make the story about her. “It’s kind of embarrassing that this became so big,” she said. “This is what we do everyday.” The officer has been with the force for about three years and recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Marinos Marinos, the secretary of the D.C. police union, said these sorts of personal interactions between officers and residents aren’t unusual — it’s just that most don’t make it to the Internet. “We are humans just like everyone else,” Marinos said. “Everyday we come in contact with thousands of citizens and almost all of them have positive outcomes.”

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier wrote in a statement. that “the viral video today of the First District Officer positively engaging with teens and diffusing the conflict yesterday in a manner that appropriately resolved the call is reflective of the many positive police-community interactions that take place daily in Washington, D.C.”

For Taylor, she said the dance-off marked her first positive interaction with police officers in her  neighborhood. She has six sisters and one brother and, according to Taylor, all have been arrested or detained for non-violent offenses like breaking curfew. Taylor, who said she’s never been arrested, recalls her siblings saying that the officers acted unnecessarily rude and rough during their arrests.

Those experiences, Taylor said, had shaped her perception of police officers. “I thought all cops were cruel because that’s how I saw them,” Taylor said. “I’ve now seen there are good cops out there.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated the officer’s dance moves on Twitter Wednesday, saying “DC has innovative ways” to keep the city safer and stronger.

As for the who actually had the better moves? Marinos said the officer had about 40 pounds of equipment and clothes on her, so it likely wasn’t even a fair competition.

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