The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Is Home Schooling the Answer?

My son, Alan, has been a big help to me ever since I started this blog.  After getting me through the technical stuff he moved on to alerting me about worthwhile articles on education.  Early this morning, he sent me one about home schooling from the New York Times, on line, which I wouldn’t have seen until tomorrow when it appears in print.

The Times article focuses on Rachel Papo, a professional photographer who is married and has young children of her own.  She and her family moved from New York City to a rural New York town in 2010.  There she had a first hand experience with home-schooled children, their parents, the environment, and the children’s daily activities.  They opened her mind and made her a believer. Below, in today’s post, I will quote sections of the article that focus on what Papo saw and her reactions, leaving out other information about Papo, and adding some of my own experiences as a school principal with home schooled children and their parents.

A few years ago in a cafe they frequented, Rachel Papo and her husband met a waitress and her 5-year-old daughter, True. “The child was vibrant, extremely special,” Papo remembers.  She was quite impressed and asked the mother about her child.

“She told me she’s homeschooled,” Papo said, meaning that True didn’t attend a traditional school, but instead, learned at home. “I literally didn’t know it existed. When I heard about it, I thought it was really strange, a really odd thing.  How can these kids be normal if they’re not part of the mainstream?” I wondered

On their first visit to their home, True changed Papo’s mind.

“I went to her home and there was a whole world there for me to photograph,” said Papo.  “She was incredible. She showed me everything in her house, everything around her house. I was running around after her. She had so much energy and life to her.”

Papo came to learn that many people choose homeschooling for religious reasons. But among those she met, people’s reasons were entirely their own.

“Each one was completely different than the other, and each had different reasons and approaches,” she said. “A lot were extremely educated. Some are certified teachers; some are world travelers. The children were really pretty remarkable.”

Some of the children kept a schedule, but some were more flexible. Some worked on the family farm, some studied in groups with other home schoolers. Many spent their days out in nature, learning about trees, plants and animals, or designed a curriculum around their own interests.

Her mind opened as she met more home-schooled children and learned how full and deliberate their days could be. While the days sometimes moved slower, every moment was a chance to learn — whether they were feeding ducks, baking cookies or reading books.


Clearly Papo’s experience as she describes it does not cover the wide differences in home-schooling in America.  It shows one environment and its culture in which a particular group of parents and children are thriving.  It is not, in my opinion, typical.

Over several years as an elementary school principal I met only a few children who had been home schooled and their parents. Although I was never invited to observe the home-schooling those children experienced, I did see some of the results and got information from the children and their parents about how it was conducted.

My school in Wisconsin was in an upper middle class section of Madison, the state capital. During my 13 years there only one child left to be home-schooled, and that was because her mother felt she was too young to go on to middle school.  Instead, the mother planned a year of cultural experiences at home, around the city, and in other states. The next year the girl started middle school, and from what I heard, was doing quite well.

Later, I became the principal of a school in a rural area of Oregon where some people traveled to work in a city, others farmed or worked for local businesses, some were retired, and a few were unemployed.  Along with mostly substantial well-kept houses there was a trailer park and patches of old, decaying buildings.  During my tenure only two children left to be home schooled–both for religious reasons– but I was told that there were some others in the community who had left earlier or never attended our school and were being home-schooled.  Eventually, two of those children who had been home-schooled did enroll in our school and remained with us until they graduated.

From the parents of the returning children I heard the same story with only small variations: they couldn’t manage the job of teaching and their children weren’t learning or behaving well at home.  When those kids came to us they were behind both academically and socially.  Our teachers had to work with them as if they were handicapped. But in fact their only true handicaps were the lack of school and social experience.

Another boy’s situation stands out in my memory.  For two years in a row he started school with us, stayed a few weeks, and then his mother pulled him out to be home-schooled.  At first I didn’t understand what was going on, but then one of the teachers explained it to me.  All home-schooled kids in Oregon had to take the same yearly tests as the ones studying at school.  And, if they did not do well on the test, they were required to re-enroll in school.  But since there was no rule that they had to stay, this boy’s mother had kept him in school for only a short time  each year and then pulled him out again.  He was never with us long enough for us to get to know him, his educational needs, or his learning progress.

What I hope readers have seen in this comparison between Rachel Papo’s view of home schooling and mine is that it all depends on the parents’ knowledge, skills, and behavior and the local culture.  Home-schooling works when the people and the place are the right fit. It fails miserably when one or both are not.



















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What Makes Teaching Memorable?

Today’s post, first published a couple of weeks ago in the “Deseret News,” was written by Lynn Stoddard, a longtime educator and author of the book, “Educating for Human Greatness.”  As I read it, I could not help recalling my own experiences throughout my education years.  My system for getting good grades was to memorize the information provided in teachers’ lessons and textbooks and then to clear it out of my mind after any test or written paper, so I could prepare for the next onslaught of facts that did not have any usefulness or appeal for me.  Only when I read a piece of fiction or a poem that moved me did I find it worthwhile and easy to remember.  I’d be very pleased to hear from readers who strongly agree or disagree with Stoddard or me.

Memorable teaching, in its purest form, may be the act of stimulating and enlarging something we were all born with — curiosity.

“People cannot learn by having information pressed into their brains. Knowledge has to be pulled into the brain, not pushed in. First, one must create a state of mind that craves knowledge, interest and wonder. You can teach only by creating an urge to know.”

The author of these words, Victor Weisskopf, was a world-renowned Jewish scientist who escaped from Nazi Germany and helped develop the atomic bomb. He was known as a “memorable teacher.” He encouraged his physics students to ask questions by saying, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Weisskopf taught that it is by the use of questions that students pull information into their brains. He taught by creating an “urge to know.”

What is the difference between information that is pressed into a student’s brain and information that is pulled in? Is there a difference between required learning and self-chosen learning? Plato said, “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”

This is reinforced by Christ’s words in the Bible, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” We can interpret “ask,” “seek” and “knock” as ascending levels of the “urge to know.”

What happens if students are taught math and reading before they have a desire to know? It should be called “child abuse” for the damage it does. According to research done by Peter Gray of Boston College and others, too-early academic training results in long-term intellectual and psychological damage.

Early failure experiences result in young children hating school and losing confidence in their ability to learn, a precursor for many to later drop out and become burdens to society — in and out of prison. Schools that are based on pressing a standardized curriculum into students’ minds may also be the cause of bullying.

In later school years, required, assigned learning becomes shallow and temporary as students learn information to pass tests and discard it soon thereafter. It is becoming more and more evident that self-chosen knowledge, the kind that is “pulled in,” is the only kind that is deep and enduring.

Ever since the federal government started to take over public education and impose a curriculum, like Common Core, to be pressed into students’ heads, it has become increasingly difficult for teachers to cultivate an “urge to know” and encourage students to ask questions. Memorable teaching, the kind that makes a positive difference in people’s lives, has been getting less and less. (How many of your teachers do you fondly remember?)

If you are a concerned parent, legislator, school board member, teacher, administrator or student, ask for your freedom, as specified by the 10th Amendment, to develop a local school system that encourages and supports teachers to be the great, memorable people they want to be. With the recent abolishment of No Child Left Behind and removal of many tight government controls you can now innovate more openly. You can also work at transforming yourself into a great teacher, holding up examples like Weisskopf, Albert Einstein or Christ, the most memorable of them all. In so doing, you will make a difference in the lives of others and become memorable to them.




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How should Teachers Be Evlauated?

Today’s post is old stuff, but worth re-considering.  In 2012 I was invited by the New York Times to write a letter about evaluating teachers.  How could I turn that invitation down?  Below is the letter I wrote, the responses from readers, and my response to them. (I removed the responders’ names because I do not have their permission.) I think all these opinions are worth looking at four years later because of what has happened since then with so many states using student test scores as part of teachers’ evaluations.  I’d like to hear what readers think about the current situation where they live and what changes should be made.

 Sunday Dialogue: How to Rate Teachers

To the Editor:

Over the past year states have scrambled to rewrite their teacher evaluation procedures to satisfy federal demands. Because the main thrust of the new procedures is to remove ineffective teachers and, perhaps, reward superior ones, their key element is “value added” test scores — measuring how much students’ scores have improved.

But they are also stuffed with multiple observations, often by different observers, long lists of criteria and lengthy written reviews. So freighted, they are not only unfair but also unworkable. There must be a better way.

What schools need are not only simpler and more flexible plans, but also evaluators with enough time and the expertise to do the job. At the elementary level, finding them should be relatively easy: appoint good principals and free them from bus duty and never-ending out-of-school meetings. In high schools, where principals have large numbers of teachers and numerous subject areas under their supervision, the evaluators should be department heads.

As for the evaluation process itself, it needs to be yearlong, with evaluators working alongside teachers and observing many different lessons. Thus, they will see what good teachers do: grading papers at lunchtime, coming in early to tutor a struggling student, staying late to meet with a worried parent, inspiring students to learn more than required.

Primarily, however, states would do well to abandon their obsession with student test scores. As many critics have observed, too many factors beyond a teacher’s control influence those numbers. But an even bigger problem is teaching to the test. With so much weight given to the scores in new evaluations, only a few brave teachers will be able to resist concentrating on tests. As a result, real student learning will decline sharply, along with good teaching.

 Portland, Ore., March 13, 2012

The writer is a retired teacher an elementary school principal and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Readers React

I suppose I’m one of the “brave” teachers Ms. Yatvin described, those who aren’t swayed to teach to a standardized test. My goal has always been to challenge my students, no matter their level, and I have been rewarded with the best reading scores in my school for the past three years. So it should probably not come as a surprise that I think testing or some other sort of independent measure of the students’ abilities should be a component of teacher evaluations, an opinion that puts me in the minority of my profession.

However, should test scores be a majority of the evaluation? Absolutely not. There are too many factors outside of the teacher’s skills that contribute to a child’s performance on that one test on that one day. There should be multiple observations, as Ms. Yatvin advocated, but I have another idea: What about the opinion of next year’s teacher? Were the students adequately prepared for his or her class? Did they come in with the base of knowledge that was expected of them?


Evaluation is not a spreadsheet. It is a conversation. The point is not to stamp a teacher with a number. You can never bully a teacher into caring for children.

We need to promote collaboration, not competition. Teachers should be constantly given feedback by their colleagues, students and administrators.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” explains the “10,000-hour rule,” claiming that the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Likewise, teachers don’t reach their peak until several years on the job.

Parents are putting their greatest treasure in the hands of teachers for 180 days a year. Let’s start treating teachers as nation-builders.


Oh pshaw, here we go again, another educator decrying objective student testing in favor of subjective “evaluations” by school leaders and peers. And then these educators lament the imprecise and subjective nature of the evaluations.

The only way to properly measure teacher success is by student progress. Don’t we measure the success of car salesmen by how many cars they sell? Or physicians by the number of correct diagnoses and successful procedures? Why should teachers be any different?

And let’s label the criticism of “teaching to the test” as the smokescreen that it is. After all, how better to measure math skills than by doing math problems and having them reviewed by teachers? And how better to measure reading comprehension than by reading and asking students to explain what they have read?


Like so many other observers of the problem, Ms. Yatvin ignores the best source of information about teacher effectiveness — students. In all my years of teaching English and writing I have never seen better judges of teachers.

My experience with student evaluations — most, admittedly, poorly designed — defies the reflexive charge that teachers can buy good reports by being entertaining or easy graders. Young people can see through such ruses and are, as a group, embarrassingly honest.

In my opinion, hacking into the hallway grapevine would be more effective than “value added” testing plus administrator visits.


While there is much discussion about whether and how to evaluate teachers, perhaps we need to broaden the discussion to evaluating parents. I’m sure there are many teachers who would like to comment on whether the parents are fulfilling their responsibility to get the kids to school on time, well rested and ready to learn; to teach their children to be respectful of the teachers and other students; to ensure that their children are doing their homework to the best of their ability; to take an active interest in their child’s performance and behavior at school; and accept their share of the responsibility to educate their children and prepare them to be contributing members of society.

We expect so much from our teachers and too often underreward the good ones who put their heart and soul into their jobs against difficult odds. It’s time that the parental role becomes more prominent in our discussions about improving education.


I agree with much of Ms. Yatvin’s premise, but would add that the evaluators have to know what they are looking for. I have worked with school systems to help bring a modified corporate approach to teacher performance management and evaluation. This starts with a consistently applied and clearly defined set of standards for a “good” teacher. This will lessen the reliance on test scores, which are acknowledged to be a flawed indicator of a teacher’s expertise. It will also reduce the likelihood that evaluators will judge a teacher by “gut feeling” when they can point to an accepted and vetted set of parameters.

Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.” We need to provide evaluators with a roadmap to evaluate teacher performance accurately. Only then can we undertake the important job of improving teacher performance.


It takes a skilled and intelligent administrator to perceive that a variety of teaching styles can be effective. To rate teachers in a cookie-cutter way removes the joy and excitement of creativity from a teacher’s approach.

No student has ever thanked me for helping him or her to achieve good standardized test scores. Instead, students say I made learning fun, or taught them to love learning.


Ms. Yatvin’s suggestions for teacher evaluation are excellent. But why are The Times and many others, including federal bureaucrats, suddenly so interested in teacher evaluation?

It is because of the belief that poor teaching is the reason that American schools are failing. The perception that our schools are failing, however, is based on American students’ international test scores. Rarely mentioned is the finding that middle-class American students in well-funded schools score at the top of the world on these tests. Our overall scores are unspectacular because we have one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty among all industrialized countries. The problem is thus not teacher quality. The problem is poverty — poor diet, poor health care and little access to books. Quality teaching has little effect when students are hungry, sick and have nothing to read.

Let’s improve teacher evaluation, but there is no evidence that there is a teaching crisis in the United States.


.Politicians and the public would do well to heed the warning that concludes Ms. Yatvin’s insightful letter. The more we rely on test scores to evaluate teachers, the less students will actually learn.

Teachers who are creative feel stultified by test prep. The inordinate time teachers must spend to make sure their students do well on the all-important test takes away from a rich, balanced curriculum.

Students who are poor test-takers but have the potential to succeed in higher education and job training are demoralized by the emphasis on standardized tests. Our brightest students get the message that if you can write in a formulaic manner and ace a test, you have fulfilled an important goal.

I can’t tell you how many times my students have asked, “Is this going to be on the test?”

As a longtime high school English teacher, I lament that the profession I love and have devoted my life to has come to this. If I must be judged on scores, and not on my ability to inspire students to love learning, to love literature and learn about life from it, and to find their writer’s voice, it’s a sad day for all of us.

The Writer Responds

In reading these letters from across the country, I appreciate the differences in the writers’ views on teacher evaluation. Yet I suspect that we are all influenced by our own experiences. Perhaps in some cases the writers’ students come from strong home backgrounds while in others they are handicapped by poverty.

As a principal I worked first at a school in a wealthy community with highly educated families, and later at one in a rural area where many students lived in rundown houses or a trailer park. Because test scores for the first school had always been high and remained so, the teachers and I were reluctant to take credit. But in the second, where we saw strong gains from lower to higher grades, we felt that our teaching made the difference.

At both schools I evaluated teachers by working closely with them throughout the year and seeing their strengths and weaknesses. Neither they nor I panicked when an occasional lesson fell flat. I hesitate to support the preset standards for evaluation that *****advocates. Like ******, the high school student, I believe, “Evaluation is not a spreadsheet. It is a conversation.”

Since retiring, I have been supervising student teachers and doing observational research in a number of schools. Although I still see much excellent teaching and students who are lapping up learning, I also notice deterioration in teacher confidence and student enthusiasm, which I attribute to too much testing and teachers’ feeling that they are no longer in charge of their classrooms.

Joanne Yatvin







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Teach More, Test Less and Empower Teachers and Students

Today’s post was written by Dr. Sam Bommarito who, over a 43 year career as a teacher, taught every grade from kindergarten to graduate school.  Now retired,  he is involved in a volunteer reading project at a private school in which he tutors students from grades 3-5.

 Teach More:

Over my career I’ve found that following a Reading/Writing workshop format helps me to maximize my use of teaching time. I am using mini lessons that are short and focused. In my project I also use strategies from two commercial programs that help me to teach and keep track of students’ progress

 Test Less:

One way to test less is to build ongoing assessment into your teaching, expanding the time between sumative assessments. The leveled books in the on-line library I use include well-written fiction and non-fiction. Each book comes with questions based on the Common Core Standards, which are automatically scored by the program I use and are accessible to the teacher.

My students’ time is spent reading books not answering questions. They pick their own books at the levels determined by their scores. Later, I get detailed information that allows me to discern student performance patterns in comprehension. I can also access recordings that my students make of their oral reading

Empower Teachers and Students!:

My belief that teachers should be empowered is research based. That classic research found that no one method of teaching beginning reading works best, and that teachers accounted for more of the variance in reading performance than methods. That is why I shy away from “teacher proof” methods and materials and look for resources that serve as tools for teachers. Such resources give teachers a choice in how to use them in the most effective way. For my project I’ve looked for materials that empower me as a teacher to help my students become better readers.

As students read within my project, one of the things I’ll ask them to do is to pick a favorite book from the on-line library. They will record and re-record their reading of that book (or selected pages from it) until they are satisfied that they are reading like a story teller. Only then will they send their recordings to me.

I am also doing weekly face-to-face workshop conferences with each child. One unique thing is that in addition to the regular weekly conferences, I am able to do cyber conferences. The recorded messages I send are especially useful in promoting prosody and helping students with sound/symbol difficulties. Parents at home often listen in to my comments and over time learn to help their children become problem solvers in both word recognition and comprehension. My simple advice to parents is: don’t give your children answers; help them work out the answers for themselves.


Mark Twain once said: “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” I’m trying to help my students want to read by allowing for self-selection, placing them at their instructional level, having them move up as soon as they are ready, helping them problem solve their own comprehension questions, and encouraging their classroom teachers to promote wide reading outside of the cyber books. My practices encourage and facilitate their reading.

In sum, I hope I am teaching students how to read by focusing on how to think and problem solve for themselves. That is what I’ve always thought reading teachers should be doing. That is what I hope I am doing in my retirement years.





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Learning to Sing and Read are Natural Human Developments

Today I am writing about the science of reading—a subject in which I have little formal traing. This topic came to mind a few days ago while I was listening to the radio in my car. Since then I have not been able to get it out of my mind. But the main reason I am writing about it  is to stir the opinions of my readers, many of whom know more about reading science than I do. Here goes.

The radio station I ordinarily listen to plays “popular” music, which   means music that was played a lot 20, 30, or even more years ago. Much of it I listened to at the time and still associate with events in my life. The first song that caught my attention that day was “Both Sides Now,” written and sung by Joni Mitchell. I remember hearing it and liking it when it was popular, but I never learned the words and I am certain I never tried to sing it. Yet after Joni was finished, I began humming the melody, and it felt just right all the way through. Suddenly, the questioning part of me took over. How was I able to do that?  Music was not a strength of mine. I did not take any music classes past elementary school, never sang publically or played an instrument. Yet I’m pretty sure I got the pattern of that song’s music right. And I have had similar experiences with other songs. Why? How?

My limited knowledge of music and its science has taught me this. Music has deliberate patterns from the simplest children’s songs to symphonies, and human beings who like to listen to music can remember the patterns of many pieces they’ve heard and hum or sing them without any practice. So, even though I know that oral and visual memory are controlled by different parts of the brain, I believe that natural human development has included progress in both areas over time. In short, I believe that basic reading and writing are naturally developed abilities just like musical replication and speech. Although interest and practice of any skill improves its performance, those things are not crucial to basic development. As we have all observed, babies learn to speak without any instruction, and young children sing songs and scribble images they call writing.  Moreover, many 3 and 4 year olds mimic the process of reading the books that have been read to them with some accuracy. Why should the next step in human development not be learning to read without instruction?

As I mentioned in my introduction to this piece, I am not  familiar with any research that would support or my beliefs.  It was my own learning and teaching experiences that persuaded me. I learned to recognize some words by sight before any schooling and learned to read in first grade through recognition of words the teacher had introduced–plus being able to guess which word would come next–without any instruction in phonics. Early in my career I taught reading in the primary grades with materials that did not include  phonics, and, as I remember, all my students learned to read. Finally, my much later experience as a member of the National Reading Panel persuaded me that the inclusion of phonemic awareness and phonics as core components of successful reading instruction was based on weak statistics and other panel members’ biases.  Please, readers, tell me if and why I’m wrong.

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