The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Is Petrilli Right or Wrong?

Today I am posting a commentary by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, that appeared yesterday in our local newspaper, The Oregonian.  Shortly after reading it I wrote a “Letter to the Editor,” which I am also posting.  If you want to read more from me on the same topics Petrilli addresses, go back to the archives of this blog and read “Compatibility Based Classrooms” and “Double Header Today: Dealing with Kids Misbehavior.”

          Disruptive Students Hurt High Achievers Most

Low-income strivers — impoverished families who follow the rules and work hard to climb the ladder to the middle class — may be the most underserved population in America today.

In few realms is that more evident than education reform. For 20 years, national policies have focused largely on the lowest-performing students, often to the detriment of their higher-achieving, low-income peers. Recently, many cities — including Chicago, Philadelphia and Syracuse, New York — have made a goal of reducing the number of school suspensions and other tough-love approaches to school discipline, with little concern for the impact on the kids who come to school ready to follow the rules. These efforts have received vocal support from the federal Department of Education. Policymakers and educators say they are doing this in the name of equity. But when everyone in a school is harmed by some students’ unruly behavior, it’s a strange notion of fairness indeed.

Imagine that we wanted to prioritize the needs of low-income students who demonstrated the aptitude to achieve at high levels and a willingness to work hard — the kids with the best shot to use a solid education to put poverty behind. What might we do?

First, we would put in place “universal screening” tests to look for gifted students in early elementary schools. We would ask all schools, including those with a high percentage of poor students, to identify at least 10 percent of their students for special programs, and then allow these kids the opportunity to spend part of their day learning with other high-achieving peers, and to go faster or deeper into the curriculum. A recent study by David Card of the University of California at Berkeley and Laura Giuliano of the University of Miami demonstrated that this sort of approach is particularly effective for high-achieving, low-income students.

By middle school, we would embrace tracking so that poor, bright students had access to the same challenging courses that affluent high achievers regularly enjoy, and that are essential if young people are going to get on a trajectory for success in Advanced Placement classes in high school and at more selective colleges.

Finally, we would ensure that schools were safe and orderly places to be — balancing the educational needs of disruptive students with the equally valuable needs of their rule-abiding peers.

Yet in most cities we do very few of these things. This is in large part because many progressives are convinced that any sort of tracking is classist and racist, and amounts to giving up on certain kids, and they have worked to ban it. (Ironically, political leaders in the poorest neighborhoods themselves are asking for more schools for the gifted and talented.) Most accountability systems still work on getting low-performing students up to basic proficiency in reading and math, rather than pushing schools to help all students get as far as they can.

Meanwhile, discipline “reforms” are focused overwhelmingly on reducing punishments, often with little attention to the potential downside for learning in the classroom. Yet as common sense — and solid research — tells us, that downside is real. For instance, a study by the group Public Agenda found that 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents felt the “school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.” A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that when disruptive students from New Orleans landed in Houston schools after Katrina, they “increased native absenteeism and disciplinary problems.”

Frustrated that the traditional public schools aren’t willing to prioritize their children’s needs, many low-income strivers have turned to high-quality charter schools instead. But now those are under attack, too. In recent weeks, the “PBS Newshour” and “New York Times” had highly critical coverage of Success Academies, charter schools in New York City that have shown excellent results in improving student performance. The reports focused on the academies’ suspending students aggressively and removing those who are chronic disrupters. There were similar controversies over the relatively high rates of suspensions and expulsions at charters in Chicago and Washington in recent years.

The casual observer might wonder: What’s wrong with that approach? Why not ensure that schools are safe places to be? If the Success Academies and schools like it didn’t exist, many of those hard-working, high-achieving students would be in chaotic, low-performing public schools. Why don’t their needs count?

Our public schools are intended to help all students achieve their potential. By all means, we need to find ways to better serve disruptive students, who are often dealing with horrendous situations at home. (Often, specialized alternative schools are the best option.) Trying to boost the performance of the lowest-achieving kids is also the right thing to do; kids who grow up to be illiterate or innumerate have little hope for success in our knowledge economy.

But the bulk of the attention can’t go just to the toughest cases. Poor children who are ready to learn, follow the rules, and work hard deserve resources and opportunities to flourish. If the public school system is unwilling or unable to provide them, then charter schools should be allowed and encouraged to do so, even if that means cracking down on the students who ruin it for the rest.


To the Editor:

Michael Petrilli is wrong about so many things in his commentary that it would take me a full page in the Oregonian to name and counter all his errors. Over many years as an educator at all levels—including college– and as an elementary and middle school principal, I worked with students of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities and never had to use “tough love” to teach or manage their behavior.

To put my views as briefly as possible, students of all ages and backgrounds have feelings, desires, and views of themselves. As parents or educators it is our job to support the good things we see in them and to help them to overcome their weaknesses, fears and self-destructive behavior. There is no benefit for individuals or our society as a whole in having our schools separate kids into two groups: the winners and the losers, and then solidify those classifications for life through academic separation and harsh discipline.

Sincerely yours,

Joanne Yatvin




Turning Schools into Robot Factories

Yesterday I read commentary posted online by Education Week that focused on the fact that current federal and state policies were turning our schools into robot factories.  Unfortunately, I found it disappointing because it gave no examples of what was actually happening or suggestions of what could be done to turn things around.  However, it drove me back to an essay I wrote five years ago that was posted on Valerie Strauss’ blog, “The Answer Sheet.”  Given my vanity, I couldn’t resist showing my readers that I did a better job of explaining and illustrating one of the most serious problems in education today. Oh, and I must make it clear that I wrote that piece in early September, so that’s why it refers to the beginning of the school year.

As a regular reader of the newspaper comics, I am always impressed by how well their writers understand human feelings and behavior. Right about now I am struck by the number of comic strips that deal with the beginning of the school year and how uniform their messages are: children aren’t happy about going back to school. This is not good-natured humor. It reflects pretty accurately the feelings I hear expressed by my grandchildren and many other children I talk to.

Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak or move only after raising one’s hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder schoolwork increase, and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children.

As an educational researcher I have been visiting elementary classrooms regularly over the past several years and finding much fine teaching and learning that I could write about.  But recently, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum has become something teachers “deliver” like a pizza and students “swallow” whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks, play store, and express their feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited last year, children recited in chorus all the words on the pages of the little books they had been given without ever appearing to recognize that those words were part of a story.

In a first-grade classroom I watched children march in circles at mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus and to memorize the words “onomatopoeia” and “metaphor.”

In upper elementary grade classrooms I saw both English and math taught by formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful if ever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

I’ve also learned that many school districts have adopted summer homework policies, usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This past summer my grand-nephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther King, although he had not been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th grade.

With the advent of the Common Core Standards, created by “experts” who will never be tested on them, school life will grow even more onerous. In keeping with the Standards many school districts have moved algebra down to the 8th grade, and geometry, before a tenth grade elective, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valuable, they are scheduled to be taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them and not linked in any way to the interests of students.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were designed to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a country’s economic health and, perhaps, out of wounded pride our leaders appear determined to convert our once strong public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the youthful imagination and ambition that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.

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How Great Are Our Libraries

This past Sunday the New York Times had a big article on the popularity of “Story Time” for young children in New York City libraries.  The crowds of parents with toddlers in tow are so large that the libraries have started giving out tickets on a first-come-first-served basis, and many people are turned away because there is no room left.  Reading the article gave me great pleasure, not only because the youngsters attending were being exposed to good children’s literature, but also because it sounds like the librarians were doing it the right way, like good teachers.  The article is very long; so I won’t post it here, just give you the link, below.  My post is about my adventures in our school library when I was a child.,nyregion/long-line-at-the-library-its-story-time-again.html

I can’t claim that my elementary school classroom experiences, so many years ago, were valuable or even pleasant.  Teachers didn’t teach much in those days; mostly they gave instructions or lectured us on our behavior.  We spent the class time reading textbooks and answering questions at the ends of chapters or practicing rote math problems.  Yet, our weekly visits to the school library were very different; and once I joined the library helpers group in 4th grade they became the highlight of my school life, the only one I remember with explicitness and joy.

Our school librarian was Miss Lehlbach, a young woman, fresh out of college–although we didn’t know those facts at the time.  At our weekly library sessions she introduced us to books with fascinating stories and wonderful characters that we had never met before and would not have met on our own: Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Doolittle, and The Hobbit, etc.  When important  holidays came along she set up elaborate displays and allowed us to examine them closely.  I saw a Advent calendar there for the first time.  She also displayed news and artifacts about our armed forces then fighting in World War Two.  For the first time I saw the food boxes given to soldiers and their contents.

But, the best part of knowing Miss Lehlbach was being a member of her Library Helpers who checked out books after school and loaded the ones returned onto carts. (She wouldn’t allow us to reshelve books because if we misplaced one, it was as good as gone.)  And when it was time to close the library for the day, she would shut the door, pull down the shades, and start the fun.  Mostly she taught us humorous songs and recitations, but the best thing was the Elephant Dance, in which we climbed on chairs, danced over tables, and called on friends to join us. I still remember the dance steps and the song:

One elephant went out to play

All on a spider’s web one day

He thought it such enormous fun

That he called for another elephant to come

Because I grew to trust Miss Lehlbach, I often asked her to help me research topics I was interested in.  The only sources available in libraries at that time were reference books; the right ones were hard to identify, and it was even harder to search their contents. She also recommend books for me to read for pleasure. At first, she picked out my favorites—books about girls who were growing up to be strong and independent women.  But after a while she led me to a variety of classics I would never have chosen on my own, and they never disappointed me.

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that Miss Lehlbach started me on my educational journey.  My mother had read to me regularly before I entered school. But our home “library” was very limited in books for children.  It was the school library and the librarian’s introduction to all kinds of literature that opened the gates for me, and, very likely, for many others.  I can’t help wondering who-if anyone- is opening those gates for children today, when so many elementary schools have dismissed their librarians as an unnecessary expense and let their libraries languish, rarely visited and never supplied with new books.

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