The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Question of Student Retention

Today and tomorrow I will post a two-parter on holding kids back.  The first one is an article I came accross a few days ago that was posted by Rush Walsh on his blogin 2014.  The second is my own account of what we did at our school in Oregon when the question of holding back a particular student came before us.

P.S.  Walsh’s essay refers to the work of David Berliner and Gene Glass, both of whom I admire.  If you live in the Portland area be aware that those researchers will be speaking on March 31 at 7 P.M. at Concordia University.  I will certainly attend, and you should, too.


So what happens if students don’t score in the proficient or better range in the upcoming tests aligned with the Common Core? In many states, either by law or by policy, students will be retained in their current grade. Retention in third grade is the law in Florida and Arizona when children are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. In New York City parents are told that “students with the lowest 10 percent of raw (total) scores on the State tests were recommended… for retention and summer school.  Many other states are considering such policies.

Retaining students in their grade, whether driven by standardized test scores, poor grades or misbehavior, has long been popular in American education. Even among teachers and administrators, retention is often seen as a way either well-meaningly to give a child “the gift of a year” to grow or more punitively as a way to threaten and cajole miscreants.

Retaining a child in a grade is a momentous decision in the life of that child and that family. Parents, full of hope and dreams for their child, may find their view of the child as a learner permanently altered. It very likely will negatively impact the way the child views himself or herself as a learner. Given the high stakes, educators better be sure they get the decision right when they decide to retain.

Does retention work? While there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children some time, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, take on this issue. Here is what they have to say on the topic:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

 Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is a greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

So, if not retention, what? Social promotion, the promoting of students to the next grade even though they did not meet the standards of the previous grade, is widely derided by people in and out of the public education field, perhaps justly so. There is something about social promotion that smacks of educators abandoning their responsibility. Fortunately, this is not an either or situation. Instead of retention, what struggling students need is attention.

It costs, on average, about 11,000 dollars to retain a child (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention. With this money schools need to give students the attention they need, in the form of programs that Berliner and Glass, among others, have found to be effective. Individual tutoring, summer programs and early intervention programs, such as Reading Recovery, have been shown to be effective ways to provide struggling students with the attention needed to “catch-up.” For high-poverty areas, the money could also be better spent on early childhood programs, wrap around health programs and smaller class sizes.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. Educators would do better to attend to their struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.






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Change the School; Change the World

Today’s post was written by Don Bellairs, a regular reader and commentator of this blog.  I think he has some interesting and and practical ideas.  What do you think?

We aren’t doing a good job with our high schools.  We aren’t getting kids to come to school regularly. We aren’t getting all kids to graduate, and—when we do—many aren’t ready for college. We are trying to do too much and we need to dramatically cut down.

The act of improving education is an endless, Sisyphean task. We will always experience success and failure as we work to fulfill our constitutional obligation to provide free public education and to treat individuals as equals. But a crucial first step at this moment in our crisis is obvious: Think Occam’s razor. Think Thoreau’s “simplicity.”  Consider any of a thousand other examples in philosophy and common sense that admonish us to do less so that we may do better. American high schools today—different from one another in so many ways—share a common affliction: Like many of the pie-eyed, ambitious teens they serve, high schools try to do too many things at once. School employees—including teachers who have too much on their plates–choose to do first those things that are the most pressing. The unintended consequences are often neglect of the most needy students.

Relocating programs and activities that are not essential–not eliminating them—wouldn’t cost us a penny and would help us address the many problems we face in our public high schools. Certainly there are good arguments for continuing extracurricular programs that are ingrained in a school’s culture. But, if those programs are doing what they are supposed to be doing for high school kids, let’s make them part of the regular curriculum and available to all students. Technological advances and changes in our culture and in our understanding of learning processes now provide opportunities to modify a system of education that is not performing well, revealing opportunities not available until now. Our education systems would operate far more fairly and more efficiently—and more kids would complete our K-12 preparation programs with measurable skills— when schools do less and do it better.

We can gradually outsource the big-budget sports programs; Nike and Under Armour should pay for them anyway—they’re making all the money.  We would be amazed at how easily the Rotary Club can sponsor local sports teams, maintaining fields, hiring and supervising coaches—-they do it now for Little League.  Extracurriculars that serve a limited set of children should be incrementally reassigned to Parks and Recreation departments, churches, civic institutions, and private sector sponsors.

A school’s mission is further compromised by a flock of business people who descend on the upperclassmen with advertisements in many schools every September and don’t let up until June. I served as Activities Director at Oregon’s largest high school and was amazed by the marketing assault I experienced. We were charged ten grand to for them to decorate the cafeteria for a Friday night dance! Two grand for the DJ!  We had to charge $25 per person for attendance. That may not shock people but it should. Fortunately, I was able to change the process for our spring formal—we had in-house decorating done by the Drama Club and charged $10 admission. I came away with an awareness that, despite all the really good stuff we provide for high school kids,  too much of it wastes school money that could be better spent elsewhere.

What I suggest may be blasphemy to many in public education. Cutting football and band? No, not really cutting.  More like finding a new home. Granted, some of the best teachers I have worked with were coaches, drama teachers and band teachers. They were great teachers who did high-visibility work. Their ability to get children working together to achieve measurable goals is on public display so they have to be good. The problem for them: It is too easy to become exclusive when you are winning state championships…and those exclusive programs are what we should be trying to eliminate form public education.

For schools to enfranchise all students, we must learn to display the abilities of teachers who are able to get all kids to work well together, not just a select few. Concurrently, we must acknowledge that large the extra-curricular programs, regardless of how sacred and beloved, often serve an elite fraction of the school population. They operate outside mainstream supervision and often tend to outlive their usefulness after sucking up a lot of the school’s supply of oxygen…to the detriment of the greater good. School administrators I have known have spent too much energy on dance teams and ineligible football players. Youth football, big bands, even dance teams can and should exist, but we must find a way for them to operate outside the domain of the public school. Algebra teachers do not need to compete with jayvee coaches for kids’ attention or respect. They have a hard enough job already.

We can make choices when we design future schools. We can have a few students performing in expensive, state-of-the-art theaters or we can put a large number of kids on raised platforms in the front of every classroom and light them with clamp lights. When we  let both groups perform,  we will be nurturing exactly the same skills. We can re-enfranchise students by providing the same opportunities for everybody. Art classes, sports activities, drama and music do not have to go away—they can and should become integral parts of daily classes so that they serve all kids. Affluent parents who want their kids to participate on dance teams should enroll them in after-school programs instead. They should not expect other students watch the dance team perform at four consecutive assemblies. Those programs can be provided by other sources, without involving the taxpayers and public educators.

The system must evolve. We now know much more about the brain than in the past.  Our understanding of human development is far more profound. We have existing resources to change high schools to models of efficiency and equity without spending a lot of money. Ultimately, we can design functional, wide-open 24-hour sites for community schools that can be easily monitored and maintained. Then, professional journals that now discuss how to improve school statistics would instead be discussing how to make the experience more meaningful for all kids. As we redefine our high schools’ missions, we must glean what is most valuable from the many extracurricular activities that now exist and cast off what is elitist.

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Measurement Doesn’t Work for Doctors or Teachers

Most of today’s post is an op-ed written by Dr.Robert M. Wachter, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in the New York Times on January 16, 2016. The reason it has taken me so long to post it here is that Wachter described a better way to evaluate physicians, but stopped short of suggesting how teachers can be more fairly evaluated.  Although I had planned to fill in that missing part from the time I first read the piece, I haven’t gotten around to  it until now.

Two of our most vital industries, health care and education, have become increasingly subjected to metrics and measurements. Of course, we need to hold professionals accountable. But the focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.

Through the 20th century, we adopted a hands-off approach, assuming that the pros knew best. Most experts believed that the ideal “products”— healthy patients and well-educated kids — were too strongly influenced by uncontrollable variables (the sickness of the patient, the intellectual capacity of the student) and were too complex to be judged by the measures we use for other industries.

By the early 2000s, as evidence mounted that both fields were producing mediocre outcomes at unsustainable costs, the pressure for measurement became irresistible. In health care, we saw hundreds of thousands of deaths from medical errors, poor coordination of care and backbreaking costs. In education, it became clear that our schools were lagging behind those in other countries.

So in came the consultants and out came the yardsticks. In health care, we applied metrics to outcomes and processes. Did the doctor document that she gave the patient a flu shot? That she counseled the patient about smoking? In education, of course, the preoccupation became student test scores.

All of this began innocently enough. But the measurement fad has spun out of control. There are so many different hospital ratings that more than 1,600 medical centers can now lay claim to being included on a “top 100,” “honor roll,” grade “A” or “best” hospitals list. Burnout rates for doctors top 50 percent, far higher than other professions. A 2013 study found that the electronic health record was a dominant culprit. Another 2013 study found that emergency room doctors clicked a mouse 4,000 times during a 10-hour shift. The computer systems have become the dark force behind quality measures.

Education is experiencing its own version of measurement fatigue. Educators complain that the focus on student test performance comes at the expense of learning. Art, music and physical education have withered, because, really, why bother if they’re not on the test?

At first, the pushback from doctors and teachers was dismissed as whining from entitled and entrenched guilds spoiled by generations of unfettered autonomy. It was natural, went the thinking, that these professionals would resist the scrutiny and discipline of performance assessment. Of course, this interpretation was partly right.

But the objections became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to “look good,” had led them to turn away from the essence of their work. In medicine, doctors no longer made eye contact with patients as they clicked away. In education, even parents who favored more testing around Common Core standards worried about the damaging influence of all the exams.

Even some of the measurement behemoths are now voicing second thoughts. Last fall, the Joint Commission, the major accreditor of American hospitals, announced that it was suspending its annual rating of hospitals. At the same time, alarmed by the amount of time that testing robbed from instruction, the Obama administration called for new limits on student testing. Last week, Andy Slavitt, Medicare’s acting administrator, announced the end of a program that tied Medicare payments to a long list of measures related to the use of electronic health records. “We have to get the hearts and minds of physicians back,” said Mr. Slavitt. “I think we’ve lost them.”

Thoughtful and limited assessment can be effective in motivating improvements and innovations, and in weeding out the rare but disproportionately destructive bad apples.

But in creating a measurement and accountability system, we need to tone down the fervor and think harder about the unanticipated consequences.

Measurement cannot go away, but it needs to be scaled back and allowed to mature.          We need more targeted measures, ones that have been vetted to ensure that they really matter. In medicine, for example, measuring the rates of certain hospital-acquired infections has led to a greater emphasis on prevention and has most likely saved lives.     On the other hand, measuring whether doctors documented that they provided discharge instructions to heart failure or asthma patients at the end of their hospital stay sounds good, but turns out to be an exercise in futile box-checking, and should be jettisoned.

We also need more research on quality measurement and comparing different patient populations. The only way to understand whether a high mortality rate, or dropout rate, represents poor performance is to adequately appreciate all of the factors that contribute to these outcomes — physical and mental, social and environmental — and adjust for them. It’s like adjusting for the degree of difficulty when judging an Olympic diver. We’re getting better at this, but we’re not good enough.

Most important, we need to fully appreciate the burden that measurement places on professionals, and minimize it. In health care, some of this will come through advances in natural language processing, which may ultimately allow us to assess the quality of care by having computers “read” the doctor’s note, obviating the need for all the box-checking. In both fields, simulation, video review and peer coaching hold promise.

Whatever we do, we have to ask our clinicians and teachers whether measurement is working, and truly listen when they tell us that it isn’t. Today, that is precisely what they’re saying.

Avedis Donabedian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was a towering figure in the field of quality measurement. He developed what is known as Donabedian’s triad, which states that quality can be measured by looking at outcomes (how the subjects fared), processes (what was done) and structures (how the work was organized). In 2000, shortly before he died, he was asked about his view of quality. What this hard-nosed scientist answered is shocking at first, then somehow seems obvious.

“The secret of quality is love,” he said.

Our businesslike efforts to measure and improve quality are now blocking the altruism, indeed the love, that motivates people to enter the helping professions. While we’re figuring out how to get better, we need to tread more lightly in assessing the work of the professionals who practice in our most human and sacred fields.


In education the “secret of quality” is also love.  When teachers not only care about their own performance but also about their students’ engagement with learning, the quality of education soars. Great teachers do not spend a lot of time delivering lectures, setting student goals, or handing out worksheets. Instead they open the doors to fascinating topics, invite their students to walk through those doors, and offer themselves as guides.  It doesn’t matter whether a topic is in English, history, science, or math as long as there is space within it for students to get an understanding of the whole and then find their greatest interest in a particular part of it.  Ultimately, students should work in small groups or with a partner to produce something of value: a chart, a demonstration, artwork, or a written essay to be shared with the rest of the class and perhaps others outside the classroom.

Although not all teachers– especially those new to the profession–will be able to carry out the processes and achieve the results described, the signs of progress will be apparent to any observer.  Certainly, principals are the ones best qualified and most available to observe classrooms at the most crucial points of student learning and over time. But parents should be encouraged to visit their children’s classrooms too.  Great teaching can’t be faked, and anyone –however inexperienced– will know it when they see it.



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Catcher in the Rye Time is Back Again

Today’s post is something I wrote long ago–1994 to be exact.  It came to my mind again because an old friend referred to it.  I have changed a few words to modernize the piece, and I want young readers to know that “The Catcher in the Rye” was a top best seller in its time and often taught in high school English classes.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye“, the catcher metaphor struck me as silly, a clumsy device invented to justify a meaningless book title. Would any real teenager see himself — as the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, does–as a rescuer of children, and why were children in need of rescue anyway?

Although I am still cynical about Salinger’s creative motivation, I find the “catcher” image far more poignant and real in today’s world. In contrast to the world of Holden Caulfield’s rye field near the cliff, our world today has so many children who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Statistics don’t tell the story of many children’s tragic lives, but we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning.

Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, teachers must be today’s catchers in the rye.

I have lost faith in any and all large-scale solutions to educational problems. They just put more paperwork, regulations, and job titles between children and the help they need. Where schools are failing, it is not because they don’t have enough programs and consultants, but because they have lost the human touch. Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can’t benefit from higher standards, instructional technology, or remedial programs; they need caring adults to pull them out of the muck and set them on solid ground–one at a time. Only then can each child, in his or her own way, begin the adventure of learning.

I have no magic formula for child catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. It probably doesn’t matter if the means are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough, as long as at least one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child. I do believe, however, that there are some conditions that are essential for child-catching to work. The framework of operation must be small, physically close, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. We need small schools or schools that are divided into small community units; classroom time, space, and organization that allow personal relationships to flourish; legitimacy for play and conversation in school; authority in the hands of front-line practitioners; and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.

Within such a framework, teachers are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each child as an individual and see most of the things that are happening to him or her. Kids hang around and tell them what they cannot see. Teachers also find time to talk to each other about classroom problems and to work with their classes to make changes in rules or processes without having to implement any special programs or bring in any outside consultants.

Although permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick, dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wart theory of education”. In essence, that theory asserts that children’s problems are like warts: If you can destroy just a few of them, the rest will get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of poverty, family dysfunction, bad learning habits, and social ineptitude may shake them off in the space of a few weeks when a caring teacher takes time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one small skill.

I have seen schools that do an impressive job of rescuing large numbers of children over time. Ironically, they are not the same schools that produce the highest test scores, send the most students on to college, or attract the attention of the media.  Mostly, such schools don’t even worry about whether the data on achievement and behavior makes them look good. Catching children is its own reward when you’re out there in the rye. 







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Teaching for Life

One thing I have been advocating for a long time is learning for real life. In my opinion too much of what is taught in schools from kindergarten through college has little or no use in the world where we live full-time and have continuing needs to operate successfully.  Today’s post refers to two articles I have read recently.  The first one, “States Move to Issue High School Diplomas Retroactively” appeared in Education Week on January 26th, and the other, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” was published in the New York Times on February 28th.

Apparently, the popular saying “Use it or lose it” has been around all over the world for centuries.  We know, and our ancestors knew, that knowledge and work skills not used regularly soon slip away from our grasp and are difficult to re-capture.  That’s why long before written language was available to the masses, it was common for ordinary people to chant or sing pieces that represented the basic principles and beliefs of their culture.

Although educators today accept the truth of the “Use it” saying as much as tennis players and linguists do, we have failed to honor it in our schools.  The grand assumption among educational policy makers is that a good education is the accumulation of a vast store of information and skills in order to cover all the possibilities of future lives. That’s why all students are required to study math and American history well into high school and most of them must also study a foreign language. The sad, but inevitable, result is that few of us remember much that was taught later on in our lives unless we need to use it regularly.

In an article I read recently the author, Mathew Andrew Hacker, argues that high school and college math courses for the majority of students should be more practical, teaching the kind of math we all need in our everyday lives. He says, “Ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language.  Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.”  To make his point he describes the elitism of the math courses he has seen being taught in high schools and community colleges today; they are still focusing on the math used only by mathematicians, architects, and scientists.

Hacker goes on to describe how he teaches math at Queens College in New York, which he recommends for the mass of students not aiming for technical careers.  When he gives a few examples of the problems he presents to his students, even I was able to solve them and appreciate their usefulness for ordinary citizens in their everyday lives. He ends his article by explaining why our schools should be teaching differently because traditional mathematics does not line up with real world needs.  For example, the “base 10” emphasized in all areas of mathematics does not fit with the way we measure time in seconds, minutes, hours and weeks, and thus makes it very difficult for us to figure out percentages of time, a common need in our lives.

I agree with Hacker completely. If mathematics were taught as an every-day skill through K-12–and in college for those not majoring in it–I believe that almost everyone would remember and use it effectively in their adult lives. And that belief drives me further to think about the content of other classes in the regular education sequence that does not stay with us very long or serve us well.  Those classes that stand out in my mind are American history and Science. I did well in both as a student but forgot almost everything soon afterward. I can’t remember the names or accomplishments of most of the American presidents before my time, what the French and Indian War was all about, or which elements the symbols in the Periodic Table stand for.  Can you?  Fortunately, I can still do everyday math–much of it in my head–but I can no longer solve any algebra or geometry problems in the ways I was taught. If such skills and knowledge are so quickly lost by most of us, is it not time to re-think and re-construct the K-12 curriculum? Make it real; make it relevant; make it memorable.





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