The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Some Good News for the New Year

Today’s post will be my last one for 2015.  We are going on vacation with our youngest son and his family in a warm and sunny climate–Maui.  Along with my bathing suit and a sexy dress I am taking the past three issues of Education Week, which I haven’t had time to read, confident that I will find some things I can write about in 2016.  But in the meantime I am posting a bit of good news about Professor Gay Ivey at the University of Wisconsin, the same place where I did my graduate work  and strengthened my faith in the wisdom of teachers and the abilities of children.

Although the article I am quoting from focuses on Ivey’s election to the Reading Hall of Fame and her role at the U.W, I was much more impressed by her teaching experiences and her reading philosiphy because they are a lot like mine. So, I trimmed the article down to highlight only those things.

UW-Madison’s Gay Ivey had an amusing initial reaction in November upon learning she had been elected to the Reading Hall of Fame:I didn’t think I was old enough,”

The Reading Hall of Fame was established in 1973 in an effort to contribute, from the collective experiences of its members, to the improvement of reading instruction. To be elected to the Hall, one must have spent at least 25 years actively involved in reading work and be widely known and respected by his or her peers in the field.

Ivey has spent the past 25 years trying to better understand students’ motivations for reading –- and what happens when their reading is feeding their interests and curiosities. She started her career in education as a middle school reading specialist in Albemarle County, Virginia.

“What has driven all of my research is my initial experiences as a classroom teacher,” Ivey says of those early years working in her home state of Virginia.  “I wouldn’t have paid attention to what I now believe truly matters in reading without those wonderful experiences teaching kids from really interesting communities and with really interesting lives that enriched my own life and way of looking at the world.”

While many scholars today are examining how to better motivate children to read, Ivey explains that is not her area of scholarly focus.  Instead, she is taking a closer look at the benefits students receive when following their own passions and reading for their own purposes. To examine this topic, Ivey has spent the past six years studying English classrooms in which teachers prioritize engaged reading, instead of specific, assigned readings.

“I’m studying what happens in those classes with individual kids, and between kids, that shapes instruction in those classrooms and the goals of instruction,” says Ivey.

When students are exploring their own reasons for reading and are really engaged with a text, Ivey explains, there are numerous consequences. Reading engagement is linked not only with developing competence as a reader but it also has intellectual, social and emotional consequences, she says.

“It’s not the volume of reading that matters most, but the quality of those engaged reading experiences,” says Ivey.  “I’m less interested in finding ways to produce higher test scores and more interested in studying engaged reading and its relationship to the development of the whole person. I’m studying reading as a tool for helping students make sense of their lives and each other and the world.”

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A Taste of New Year’s Whine

In August, after more than three years of writing pieces for Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss’ blogs I decided to start my own.  Both those smart and dedicated bloggers had shifted their focus from essays about education to news events, almost all of them bad news about what was happening in public education.  As a career-long educator, who in her dotage still supports teachers and public schools, I wanted to write about the positive aspects of education in the past, present, and future.  And for four months now, that’s what I’ve tried to do.

As a result, I’ve gathered a decent number of faithful followers and others who read my blog only occasionally.  No worries readers, unless you send me a comment I don’t know who you are or how often you read my blog.  But I still need your help.

In case you don’t know, writing is difficult and time consuming.  From the beginning I pledged myself to posting three pieces a week and have been faithful to that pledge most of the time. I sit down to work every morning, including Sunday, trying to generate new ideas or writing whatever I’ve decided on.  Some days, because of other obligations I don’t get very far; on other days I scrap what I’ve already written because I don’t like it.  In desperation, I’ve also gone back to essays I wrote many years ago, revising them a little and hoping that most of my readers don’t remember them or were too young to read when they were first published.

Anyway, you get the picture. Your help could be in the form of essays you’ve written, descriptions of what is happening in the schools near you, references to articles in the newspapers you read, or just suggestions of topics that need to be addressed.  As far as possible, your contributions should be about the positive happenings in education. But I know, that like me, you are going to have trouble finding good news.

For now, let’s raise our glasses and salute the New Year, hoping that it will produce some educational “treasure” for all us tireless hunters and that many new hunters will join us.









The New Law is Better but Not Good Enough

Today’s post is a response to the law just passed by Congress to replace No child Left Behind (NCLB). The New York Times published a piece by David L. Kirp describing that law yesterday, which I found clear and accurate. So, if you can go to that article (link), I suggest that you read it first for a more complete description of the law than I can give here. Then read my analysis and my concerns.

The major changes in the Every Student Succeeds (ESSA) law are the shift from Federal control to state control and the removal of the rewards and punishments for schools that were used by the the Department of Education to ensure compliance.  Yearly student tests will continue, but they will be chosen or designed by the states. In addition, the effectiveness of schools will be judged on more evidence than just test scores. Finally, actions to improve the performance of students in high poverty schools will be the central  focus of states for the next several years.  Although these changes promise better days for our public schools in the future, I still see much to be concerned about.

First and foremost, the beliefs that have dominated American education over the past twenty-some years still hold sway among decision makers and the public at large. Those beliefs were first voiced in a 1983 report by a commission created by President Ronald Reagan, titled, “A Nation at Risk.” Its central theme was that the United States’ educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce. On the opening page the report declared, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” And it continued with a frightening possibility: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Like its predecessor, ESSA will operate on the same beliefs about our system of public education, and for that reason states will be inclined to identify the same goals and use similar strategies to reach them.  We are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful. Nor, are we done with top-down decision making on what, when, and how our students should learn, in disregard of teachers’ knowledge and experience.  Many state legislatures–and their constituents–will continue to believe that charter schools, on the whole, are better than public schools and move to increase them.  And some of those states will continue to offer vouchers to a few students to attend private or religious schools in the belief that they are throwing life preservers to drowning children.

Can these aberrations be stopped?  The only way I see is for parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools.  If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.


Trust Fair Test’s Recommendations

I have been familiar with the goals of the organization Fair Test and  the work of its leader, Monty Neil, for the past several years. Because I trust them both, and because I believe it is imperative for informed educators and supporters of public education to continue their activities, I am re-posting Fair Test’s recommendations as they appeared in Diane Ravitch’s blog today.

FairTest has posted a list of recommendations for next steps in the fight against the misuse and overuse of standardized tests.

The long-awaited demise of the despised and failed No Child Left Behind is gladdening, but it doesn’t end the fight against the misuse of high-stakes tests. Some states may decide to continue NCLB-ing their students and teachers because bad habits are hard to break.

FairTest recommends:

Congress will likely soon pass and President Obama sign the “Every Student Achieves Act” (ESSA). This bill is the latest version of the long-standing Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaces the universally despised “No Child Left Behind.” The new law presents both opportunities and dangers for the testing resistance and reform movement.

How can the movement use the opportunities, counter the risks, and win greater assessment reform victories? The first task is to continue to build resistance to high-stakes standardized exams in every state in the nation, especially by expanding the already large numbers of test refusals. Next is to transform this movement strength into concrete victories by winning state legislation and local regulations to cut back testing, end high stakes, and implement high-quality assessments.

ESSA pushes decision-making power about most aspects of accountability from federal education officials to the states and localities. It will take strong and savvy organizing to win needed changes. Here are some ways activists can bring positive change and avoid the law’s dangers.

Push for far fewer state and local tests:

Movement activists should organize to win these goals:

– No state standardized tests beyond those mandated by ESSA.

– No standardized local interim, benchmark, predictive, formative, or other such tests, including those embedded in commercial on-line curricula.

– A ban on standardized testing in pre-K through grade 3.

– Transparency in the number, and uses of tests, and time spent on test preparation

While ESSA mandates 17 tests (grades 3-8 in reading and math, plus three grades for science), states and districts require many more. A recent study shows the average public school student takes 112. With fewer federal accountability mandates, states and districts will be under less pressure to test incessantly. ESSA also contains funding for states and districts to evaluate and reduce their testing programs.

Organize to end your state or district’s high-stakes testing mandates:

– End state requirements that students pass standardized exams to graduate or be promoted to the next grade, as many states already are. These are not required by federal law or regulations.

– End requirements to judge educators by student standardized exam scores. ESSA eliminated any federal mandate for test-based teacher evaluation. Now activists must incorporate this change locally by preventing states from deciding to perpetuate these dangerous policies.

– Fight for tests to be no more than 51% of the weight in your state’s formula for ranking schools (the minimum percentage allowed under ESSA). Ensure that other indicators are educationally sound, and that states provide assistance (including additional funding), not punishment, to schools identified as “low performers.” ESSA does require states to rank all schools and act to improve the lowest performing, but the types of interventions are no longer specified in federal law.

Win better assessment:

Push to have your state become one of the seven that will be allowed to completely overhaul their testing systems under ESSA pilot programs. Ensure that the overhaul includes primarily locally-based, teacher-controlled assessments, such as projects and portfolios. The New York Performance Standards Consortium is currently the best U.S. example of educator-controlled performance assessments.

Get your state to pass an opt-out law:

In 2015, a few more states, including Oregon [link to statute] passed laws recognizing the right of parents to hold their children out of standardized testing, while similar opt-out bills advanced in one or both houses of several other legislatures. ESSA recognizes that families can refuse testing if a state has an opt-out law. The new law does mandate 95% test participation, but leaves it up to the states to decide what to do if a school or district does not reach that threshold. At a minimum, activists should organize to block moves to punish students who opt out or schools and districts with low participation rates.

Use elections to raise issues:

Use the 2016 election cycle to hold incumbents and challengers accountable for implementing assessment reform. Groups with appropriate tax status should consider endorsing/opposing candidates based on their positions on testing. Activists, including tax-exempt groups, can use questionnaires, candidate forums, bird-dogging, and letters to the editor to force candidates to take clear positions.

Recognize and Block ESSA’s Dangers:

ESSA allows states to use federal assessment funding to revise their testing programs modestly, such as by adding tasks, portfolios and formative assessments. However, these tools are generally intended to be incorporated into standardized tests, as with the PARCC and SBAC Common Core exams. Performance assessments cannot fulfill their promise if they become mere adjuncts to current state exams. Similarly, a provision allowing districts to use a college admission test such as the ACT or SAT as the required high school exam must be treated with caution; those tests are no better educationally than existing state tests, and they have not been validated to assess high school academic performance.

Corporations such as Pearson and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are promoting a dangerous version of “performance assessments.” They have perverted ideas developed by progressive educators, and the language used to describe them, such as “performance tasks” and “embedded” and “formative” assessments, to promote centrally controlled, largely on-line testing and instruction. The movement must strenuously resist these maneuvers, not by abandoning the fight for high-quality assessments or the labels we use for them, but by distinguishing educationally helpful from harmful practices.

The Next Reauthorization: ESSA is due to be reviewed by Congress in 2020. It is not too early to think about what kind of federal law can be won as the movement builds more clout and wins more victories at the state and local level.

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What the Dickens is the Common Core Doing?

Since Charles Dickens receives much attention at this time of year with his beloved story, “A Christmas Carol,” I am posting  an essay today that I wrote a while ago about his novel, “Hard Times.” In that novel I found a wonderful satire on the foolish and harmful educational practices of his time that closely resemble the practices today. Read about them and laugh–or weep.

Did you know that Charles Dickens denounced the Common Core Standards more than 150 years ago and didn’t think much of the value of teacher education either? In his 1854 novel, “Hard Times,” Dickens devotes the first two chapters to satirizing education in the grade schools of his era, and it looks a lot like the teaching recommended for our schools today.

Right away, Dickens introduces Thomas Gradgrind, owner of a small school in an English industrial town, who makes clear to his companions, the school master and an unamed visitor, what he thinks education should be: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Next, the three men enter a classroom, and lessons begin with Gradgrind in charge. He looks around the room and points to a young girl: “Girl number twenty,” he calls out. She stands up and gives her name: “Sissy Jupe, sir.”

“Sissy is not a name,” charges Gradgrind.“Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.”

After learning that Sissy’s father performs with horses at the local circus, Gradgrind demands of her, “Give me your definition of a horse.” When Sissy doesn’t answer, he turns to a boy named Bitzer and repeats the order.

Bitzer recites,“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now,”gloats Gradgrind,”girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

Later, while lecturing the class on the foolishness of using representations of horses and flowers as home decorations, Gradgrind calls on Sissy again, asking her why she would have such pictures on carpets where people would step on them. Sissy, no longer tongue-tied, replies,“It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy….”

“But you mustn’t fancy,”cries Gradgrind. “That’s it! You are never to fancy”

Having humiliated Sissy once again, Gradgrind turns the lesson over to M’Choakumchild, who, Dickens tells us, has been thoroughly trained to be a teacher: “Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy,  geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the end of his ten chilled fingers ……He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”

Dickens then ends the chapter with a metaphorical musing that compares M’Choakumchild’s teaching to Morgiana the slave girl’s actions in the ancient story,“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”: “Say, good M’choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim and distort him?”

Today we educators might say,”Common Core originators and supporters, do you trully believe that with your continual emphasis on close reading and text analysis, without giving students any access to background knowledge, that you will curb only their imagination and curiosity–or perhaps fully destroy their interest in reading and persuade them that education is just a waste of their time?”














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