The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Parents as School Partners in D.C.

Today’s post is a recent article from the Boston Globe, written by Michael Levenson and sent to me by Nancy Belkov, an outstanding educator and a faithful reader of this blog.  Although I was  pleased to read about this school’s efforts to involve parents in their children’s education, I would have been more pleased if they were also included in school decision making. In my opinion informing parents about their children’s education is not enough; they should also be partners in making decisions about what their education should be.

WASHINGTON — At Beers Elementary School, the PTA hosts a daddy-daughter dance, a fish fry, and an art auction to raise money.

But this school’s efforts to involve parents start even before the first day of classes, when teachers visit parents at home and build a rapport by asking about their hopes and dreams for their children.

Then, three times a year, teachers host group meetings with parents to explain precisely what their children will learn over the next several months and hand out educational games and activities that reinforce those lessons at home. Throughout the year, teachers e-mail and text parents tidbits of good news — when their child finishes a book or project — so they don’t hear from school only when their children misbehave.

The program is part of a radical shift in the way some schools are thinking about parent involvement. Rather than encourage parents to attend bake sales and spaghetti dinners — which have long been the domain of middle-class families and have no direct link to academic achievement — these schools are effectively training parents of all backgrounds to become informed and confident tutors at home.

Boston, which also struggles to get parents more involved in its schools, has focused more on encouraging mothers and fathers to become active in shaping school policy and also offers free classes in child development, advocacy, and parenting skills.

In Washington, the effort was spurred by a growing body of evidence showing that when teachers and parents trust one another and work together, students tend to earn higher grades and test scores, have fewer absences, and exhibit better social skills.

To build that kind of collaboration, however, schools like Beers, which is predominantly African-American and low-income, must break down deep-seated layers of mistrust between parents and teachers and administrators. That begins with shattering the assumption that parents who don’t attend school functions like PTA meetings simply don’t care about their children’s education.

“Our public school system is one that has not been a welcoming place for decades and decades and decades to people living in poverty, people of color, and people who don’t ‘speak teacher,’ so we start with an assumption that parents love their children and want what’s best for their children,” said Vincent Baxter, deputy chief of family engagement in the Washington public schools.

Rather than wait for parents to show up to a traditional parent-teacher conference, focused solely on a 15-minute review of the child’s report card, “It is our role to take three steps forward to start a relationship,” Baxter said.

The team approach, which has been adopted by 23 Washington elementary schools, is beginning to draw national notice. A study of the program by Johns Hopkins University found that students whose parents participated had 24 percent fewer absences and were more likely to read at or above grade level.

In another study of 71 high-poverty schools by the US Department of Education, students made 40 to 50 percent greater gains in math and reading between the third and fifth grades when their teachers met with their parents face to face, gave the parents materials to use at home, and called them routinely.

Parents at Beers say they’re not surprised by the findings.

They say they now know how to help their children learn, without resorting to yelling at them to do their homework. No longer do they have to ask the eternal question: what did you do in school today? They already know.

“It teaches you exactly what you need to know to help your child,” said Dorothy Jackson, a grandmother who attended one of the recent meetings to review the first-grade curriculum at Beers. “It’s hands-on, and includes the parents a lot more.”

And she said her granddaughter, 6-year-old Shayla Garcia, enjoys practicing her reading and math skills at home.

“She has the family doing the games,” Jackson said. “She includes everybody.”

Emily McNally, a first-grade teacher at Beers, said the meetings work because they show parents exactly what their children need to learn to improve their math and reading scores over the next several months.

It “gives us a chance to say, this is what this looks like in practice,” McNally said. “This is what your child can actually do, and this is a sample of what we want them to be able to do the next time we come back and meet. So I think it makes expectations a lot clearer for parents.”

On a recent Wednesday night, 17 parents sat in their children’s first-grade classroom, hunched over child-size tables. Each parent received a folder with the child’s tests scores, as well as three Ziploc bags with math and reading games that the teachers had designed. Sodas and cookies were passed around.

McNally broke the ice by asking the parents to make animal noises and then to tell another parent what their favorite memory was from school, what their child does that makes them smile, and what area they want their child to improve in during the rest of first grade.

“Make your animal noise, and have that conversation,” McNally said. “We’ll talk for two minutes.”

After the mooing and talking had subsided, McNally projected a slide that showed how the class as a whole had progressed on its test scores since the beginning of the year. She thanked the parents for helping their children improve.

Then she and another first-grade teacher, Karen Faulk, explained the upcoming lessons and the games designed to reinforce them. One game involved cutting up and reciting Shel Silverstein poems, to help children learn to read with expression and follow punctuation.

Another was designed to help children practice word problems in math and a third challenged them to find the main point of a story — not just that it was about “frogs,” for example.

“Ask them to explain more about what they read,” McNally told the parents. “It’s not just the topic, but what did you learn here? What was the most important topic?”

Keisha Smith said she was eager to play the game with her daughter, Kiri, 7.

“It gives you questions and things I would have never thought of doing,” she said. “I’m going to really need to be on top of her to push her and ask her, ‘Well, what about those frogs?’”

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A Hopeful View of American Education

While not exactly “Good News” about public education, today’s post, written by Jeff Bryant, is a clear and comprehensive summary of “Hope for the Future.”  When I read it on a Salon website, I felt better; I think you will, too.

P.S. I left in the keys to Bryant’s sources by marking them in blue.

2015 will forever be remembered as the year the political establishment was shaken by the populist-driven presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But it should also be remembered as the year another established order was forever altered by change, dissent, and revelations of its corruption.

For years, an out-of-touch establishment has dominated education policy too. A well-funded elite has labeled public education as generally a failed enterprise and insisted that only a regime of standardized testing and charter schools can make schools and educators more “accountable.” Politicians and pundits across the political spectrum have adopted this narrative of “reform” and now easily slip into the rhetoric that supports it without hesitation.

But in 2013 a grassroots rebellion growing out of inner city neighborhoods from Newark to Chicago and suburban boroughs from Long Island to Denver began to counter the education aristocracy and tell an alternative tale about schools.

The education counter narrative is that public schools are not as much the perpetrators of failure as they are victims of resource deprivation, inequity in the system, and undermining forces driven by corruption and greed. In other words, it wasn’t schools that need to be made more accountable; it was the failed leadership of those in the business and government establishment that needed more accountability.

The uprising has been steadily growing into an Education Spring unifying diverse factions across the nation in efforts to reverse education policy mandates and bolster public schools instead of punishing them and closing them down.

2015 became the year the uprising reached a level where it forever transformed the hegemonic control the reformers have had on education policy.

Most prominently, No Child Left Behind, the federal law that’s been driving education policy since 2001, was replaced with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that reverses many of the edicts of NCLB or leaves them up in the air for states and courts to decide.

Organizations and individuals connected to wealthy donors to the Democratic Party were appalled, but the truth is out, and skepticism about education policy prescriptions touted as necessary “reforms” to the system has now left the fringe and become mainstream.

The bigger, more important story emerging from 2015 is that the American public is increasingly at odds with a reform movement that seeks to remake schools into an image promoted by wealthy private foundations, influential think tanks, and well-financed political operations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The evidence against the education establishment’s case piled up as the year rolled out, and the narrative of public education policy will never be the same.

Blows To The Testocracy

Take the issue of standardized testing. The idea that school improvement should be about enforcing uniform measures of test score outcomes across the nation had a particularly bad year in 2015.

As Seattle classroom teacher and public school activist Jesse Hagopian explains in an article for the National Education Association, standardized tests became the focal point of widespread scorn and dissent.

Over 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams. Also, numerous states ended high school graduation tests, and dozens of universities and colleges reduced or eliminated test requirements for their admissions process.

The backlash to standardized testing prompted changes in federal policy as well, including the revision of NCLB. As Hagopian writes, “ESSA deposes one of the cruelest aspects of the test-and-punish policy under NCLB: the so-called ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ annual test score improvement requirement that labeled nearly every American school failing.”

Also, as Hagopian notes, President Obama, acknowledging the growing resistance to testing, “announced in October that ‘unnecessary testing’ is ‘consuming too much instructional time.’ This announcement came as a surprise given Obama’s support for policies like Race to the Top that contributed to the proliferation of high-stakes testing. The reversal of rhetoric was a result of the mass opt-out movement and will surely embolden authentic-assessment activists in the coming year.”

“Pressure from parents, students, teachers, school officials, and community leaders began turning the tide against standardized exam overuse and misuse during the 2014-2015 school year,” declares a report from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (

FairTest’s report highlights “assessment reform victories” in numerous states where officials suspended or significantly revised testing policies and created “alternative systems of assessment and accountability” that “deemphasize standardized tests.”

Think Progress, the action center of the left-leaning Beltway think tank, the Center for American Progress, reports on the overturn of the testocracy too in its review of “these education protests got results in 2015.”

Noting the growing opt-out movement in Colorado, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Wisconsin, the Think Progress writer highlights New York in particular, “where 20 percent of students opted out of tests in 2015. The number of New York students opting out quadrupled from [2014].”

Of course, in states and districts where test-based teacher evaluations are already established in the policy landscape, teachers will likely feel the effects of these systems for some time. So the fight over teacher evaluations will go state by state in the years ahead.

But as new reports continue to call these flawed and unfair evaluations into question, there will be more examples of these systems being overturned.

Using test scores to evaluate teachers – one of the pillars of the reform movement – is not the only policy idea going out of favor. Using the scores to evaluate the viability of local schools is running into more opposition as well

This core philosophy makes infinite sense to folks with backgrounds in law, business management, finance, or economics but tends to rub educators and parents the wrong way because of its failure to acknowledge teaching and learning are primarily relationship-driven endeavors and not technical pursuits.

To teachers, it makes about as much sense to base their actions exclusively on a data set or a marketing principle as it would be for husbands and wives to conduct their marriages on that basis or for parents to raise their children that way. Sure, knowing some objective “things” about how students are doing is important, but there’s way more important stuff to attend to.

And parents will grow ever more skeptical of the false promise of “school choice” because it doesn’t deliver what they really want: the guarantee of good neighborhood schools that are free and equitable to all children.

But too few reformers get this. Instead, what we can expect in 2016 is the current education establishment to use the considerable financial resources at its disposal to mount yet more marketing and public relations efforts, while the pushback from grassroots public education advocates will grow even stronger, and political leaders will be increasingly pressured to decide where they stand.




Good News from Philadelphia!

Today’s post, about the move to open large numbers of community schools in Philadelphia was written by Julia Terruso and published in “Philly.Com.” It is the most positive report of any city’s actions for its public schools that I’ve read in years.  Up until now the city and the state have under-funded  the city’s schools and been blind  to their physical decay and educational decline.  Out of desperation many parents have chosen charter schools or private schools for their children.  Now, with a new mayor in charge, there is imagination, action, and hope.  The only thing I can add to the situation is that Philadelphians should buy more sugary drinks.

Mayor Kenney’s administration will select from five to seven schools this summer to become community schools, with the city and private sector providing health, social, emotional, and after-school services.

Kenney wants to establish 25 such schools citywide in the next four years. They would be funded with $40 million, paid for by Kenney’s proposed sugary-drinks tax as well as contributions from nonprofits and the business community.

Schools would not be selected until after City Council approves a budget by June 30, said Susan Gobreski, Kenney’s director for community schools.

“I’m very confident we’re going to be looking at a developing community-schools program in the fall,” Gobreski said in a briefing about the plan with reporters Monday. She said the mayor’s full agenda – which includes pre-K and rec center upgrades in addition to community schools – will benefit every child in the city, and “I think there’s a lot of support for it.”

Starting this month, Kenney’s staff will meet with community members, service providers, and the School District to determine what criteria should go into picking the first schools – all traditional public schools, not charters.

Gobreski said in coming years the city might consider charter schools.

By September, each of the selected schools will have a full-time coordinator, paid by the city, to help beef up services and bring in partners.

Gobreski said the city is still developing its parameters, but will look for schools in high-poverty areas with principals willing to make changes. Both high schools and elementary schools will be considered.

So far, 43 of the district’s approximately 200 schools have expressed interest in the plan, said Karen Lynch, chief of student support services at the district.

Lynch noted some schools already have strong partnerships with the community and with the city. Currently, 100 schools have therapeutic services.

A formal application process will be announced in late spring or early summer.

Holly Gonzalez, the city’s deputy community schools director, outlined myriad programs she has seen implemented in community schools in other cities.

Some schools have dental and asthma screenings and immunization support, she said. Others partner with the Department of Recreation or Police Athletic Leagues to implement physical activities. “There’s a lot around wellness,” Gonzalez said. “Muffins with Mom, doughnuts with Dad, group yoga, all fused into the school day to create a more caring environment.”

Gonzalez has also seen programs where retirees are put into schools to help with literacy initiatives, and partnerships with universities to provide tutors or club mentors.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke and the teachers union have already voiced approval for the initiative, which has seen some success in cities like Cincinnati.

Gobreski said this is the right time for the initiative.

“The politics of disruption have not worked,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to figure out how to avoid spending a lot of time and money to actually meet the needs of children.”






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Extra! Extra! Read All About it

If you are wondering why I am posting so many essays that I wrote in the past, it’s because I’m not finding much good news about today’s education.  If  readers are aware of good things happening in schools in their area, they should let me know. They don’t have to write a full essay, only send me the basic facts.  Please help me and everyone else who cares about our public schools by sending me “good news” when you find it.

This intro leads me into explaining today’s post. It is an essay I wrote that appeared  in Education Week on-line in late August of 2015.  Because that was a busy time for teachers and parents, I don’t think it got much attention.

In the classrooms I have visited recently, there has been a lack of attention to the everyday uses of reading, writing, and speaking that could motivate students to work long and hard on assignments. What I see are mostly formal exercises in text analysis, vocabulary development, and essay structure that have no relation to young people’s interests or their need to communicate with people besides the teacher. I believe that, in addition to preparing students for “college and the workplace,” schools should provide classroom activities that focus students on their role as active participants in the world outside of school and prepare them to become informed and caring citizens.

To better serve students, teachers need to explore a variety of ways to develop their skills and increase their knowledge. One such move would be to bring newspapers back into the classroom and include them in the array of materials used to teach important information and skills. Newspapers can be a strong motivator for students to connect with the world today. Not only could they email friends and family members alerting them to important news stories, they could also write articles about the news for the school newspaper, or letters to the editor of the original newspaper.

Although most schools cannot afford a copy of a newspaper for each student in these tight-budget times, they could buy digital subscriptions for teachers. Or, better yet, digital subscriptions to two different newspapers, so that students could compare their coverage of the same topic. As long as copyright laws are followed, a teacher may make a printed copy for each student. If enough computers are available in a classroom, students can also read articles in other news sources regularly or search  a newspaper’s archives to find a window into history.

What should a teacher focus on? Much depends on the grade level, but why not start with articles on topics of local concern, such as the need for road and bridge repair, the low wages of fast-food workers, or the lagging graduation rates in our public schools? Any of those topics might stir a lively class discussion and move students to write letters to state politicians, their own school board, or the editor of the local newspaper. Some students might even produce op-eds and submit them to the newspaper for publication.

Still, there is much more than news in a newspaper that would be of value to students of different ages, abilities, and interests: advice about driving, health, fashion, movies, or sports; weather reports, political cartoons, and even word and number puzzles. Teachers might also find math problems worth working on in articles about family incomes, water shortages, temperature changes, or voting trends.

Personally, my favorite part of the newspaper has long been the daily comics. Although some comic strips are still written for children, most are clearly aimed at mature readers. I find political commentary, wordplay, and observations of human behavior in the comics that help me look at the world through a clearer lens—or laugh at myself. I also see sophisticated vocabulary that would benefit many students.

In addition, as a longtime newspaper addict, I’ve become a more discriminating reader. I use headlines and introductory paragraphs to decide whether or not I want to spend my time reading a complete article. I also tend to skim pieces of minor interest, but I read closely when something promises to better inform me, confirm my biases, or incite my anger. As a result of my reading, I often wind up writing a letter to the editor or supporting a worthwhile cause. Shouldn’t students also learn to make the same kinds of decisions and take similar actions?

With the Common Core State Standards’ strong emphasis on a balance of nonfiction and fiction texts, close reading, analytical and critical writing, and text comparisons, schools have been driven to use many materials that have little appeal to students of any age and few connections to their lives or real-world issues. By bringing newspapers into the mix of classroom materials, schools could move students closer to meeting the language arts standards while enhancing their personal interest in reading, writing, critical thinking, and meaningful action.



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Retaining a Perspective on Retention

Today I am posting the second part of my argument about retention with a true story that I was involved in when I was a principal in rural Oregon. I assure you that I have not distorted the  facts in any way.  However, I must explain that we were a small school district with only two schools.  Our teachers and I knew each other and most students very well.  And, as the sole administrator for both schools I had the power and the funds to make adjustments in students’ programs without asking permission from our School Board.

In the schools where I am principal the decision to retain children in the curret grade is made by the Teacher Assistance Team (TAT). But in Tommy’s case, the TAT could not make a decision.

Tommy came to us in mid-year as a 5th grader from a city school where he had been in a self-contained class for emotionally disturbed children. Previously, he had spent four years at a residential treatment center where he both lived and went to school. When his mother regained custody and Tommy was allowed to live at home, she wanted him in a regular classroom in a public school. We had one week to get ready before Tommy’s arrival.

After reading Tommy’s thick file, we were all frightened. Especially concerned was his new classroom teacher, who already had 27 kids, some with their own problems. But we made a plan, hired an aide, cleared a storeroom as a “quiet place,” for Tommy when he got out of hand and waited for him to make his entrance.

Tommy was never as bad as advertised. He was a smart kid who may have realized that here was a chance at normalcy that hadn’t been offered to him before and was not likely to come again. Sure, his attention wandered—along with his feet—in the classroom, and he did get into some arguments on the playground, but after a few weeks we realized that he did not need the aide or the “quiet place.” Academically, Tommy made progress. By the end of the school year, he was almost up to grade level in reading and language arts and about a year behind in math. Should we promote him?

Actually, the question never hinged on academics. Our curriculum, teaching methods, and classroom structures were flexible enough to accommodate students with deficiencies far more serious than Tommy’s. The TAT was concerned about whether Tommy’s level of social and emotional maturity would allow him to make a satisfactory adjustment to the demands of middle school.

In the middle school building he would have to get himself from room to room on time, adapt to the personalities and styles of several different teachers, go without morning and afternoon recesses, and be in charge of his own assignments. Although he had formed a strong bond with his 5th grade teacher, he was not close close to his classmates. His playground companions were two and three years younger than he, and they would be staying behind at the elementary school. Wouldn’t it be better for Tommy to spend another year in an environment that had proved beneficial for him? Maybe.

On the other side of the coin was the fact that using the definitions provided by state and federal laws for the education of handicapped children, we could provide an “appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” by sending him on to middle school. Tommy would be academically grouped with other regular students in his grade. An aide would be available to help him get to classes on time and to get his assignments straight. Teachers were willing to modify their expectations and methods to suit his needs.

After talking through all the arguments, the TAT and the Middle School Council were still undecided. It was not just a matter of divided opinion; individuals in both groups leaned one way, then the other, and then back again. Finally, we decided that the critical issue was Tommy’s view of what was happening. With a child who had already been so battered by circumstances, would retention be seen as the ultimate blow, just another minor setback, a welcome opportunity to stay in a safe place, or a non-event? To find out, we set a conference for Tommy and his family with the school counselor who had been working with him and had gained his trust.

Surprisingly, the conference was a short one. As the counselor reported it to me afterward, mother and stepfather were sure what was best and got right to the point: Tommy should stay in 5th grade because he wasn’t ready for 6th. Both of them had been held back in grade school, and they believed it hadn’t done them any harm. Tommy was equally sure: he wanted to go on to middle school with “his” class.

The counselor pointed out to Tommy that he had had some problems in staying on task and getting along with other people. Tommy acknowledged that this was true, but he was ready to try harder. He did not argue with his mother or stepfather; he understood that the deal was between him and the school. The counselor did not argue either. Was there anything else that Tommy would like him to tell the principal before she made her decision? “Yes,” said Tommy, “Tell her `please’ and `thank you.’ ” End of conference. End of dilemma.

Tommy started 6th grade that September with support systems in place. He had a good year in both learning and social matters. In fact, his English teacher gave him the lead role in a school performance because he was self-confident and a good singer. Three years later he graduated from our middle school and went on to a high school in the neighhboring district. Unfortunately, we did not track his performance through those grades, but we did hear that he graduated on time.

Although I am aware of the emotional impact of this little drama—which is all true except for Tommy’s name—that is not why I tell it. Through Tommy’s story I hope to suggest the complex dimensions of all promotion/retention decisions and make clear that each child’s case deserves to be decided on its own merits. I also want to show that retention is not, as most adults believe, simply a matter of giving a slow learner more time to succeed or a recalcitrant one a taste of the real world. To a child, retention is an earthshaking event that shouts to him and everyone in his world that he is not an adequate human being. When a school chooses to retain a child, it should do so not only with fear and trembling, but also with a plan to make things better the second time around so that the terrible verdict it has rendered can be reversed.


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