The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Who Should Be Designing School Curricula?

Today’s post was written by Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator who speaks and writes about transforming our education system.  It was originally published in the Deseret News. I ‘d be interested in hearing what readers think about his idea of personalized curricula.

What would American culture be like if teachers had been respected and trusted enough to determine the learning needs of each student and help him or her develop unique talents and use them to benefit society?

— Albert Einstein

Ever since Einstein said these words many years ago, our country has had standardized education. Has our culture been harmed?

Roger Williams, in his book “You Are Extraordinary,” said this: “You are not built like anyone else. … If we are trying by education and training to make people uniform, we are failing dismally. Every person continues to carry with him a host of desires, tendencies and attitudes that are an outgrowth of his own inborn, highly distinctive makeup and unique development. Millions have been ruined psychologically because of a failure to recognize this fact.”

Perhaps the largest damage to our culture is the countless people who have died with their music still in them because they attended schools devoted to standardizing students. An eighth-grade boy in Farmington composed music for full orchestra, with 29 instruments — brass, woodwinds, percussion and strings — a piece that was so good it was chosen to be played at the State Music Educators Conference. Sadly, he did not go on to become another phenomenal composer like Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, because he had to spend so much time with higher math and other required subjects.

What would American culture be like if teachers had been respected and trusted enough to determine the learning needs of each student and help him or her develop unique talents and use them to benefit society? What would have happened if, instead of trying to make students fit a standardized curriculum, teachers had helped students magnify their positive differences?

We can get some answers from the only teachers who are now allowed to personalize education: athletics coaches and arts teachers. These teachers see benefit in letting students try out for positions on the athletic team or for a part in the school musical. Coaches understand why sprinters should not be required to throw the shot put, or weightlifters to high jump. Choir teachers understand why high tenors cannot sing the bass part.

We can learn from good coaches and arts teachers what it means to personalize education:

  • Teachers perform at a higher, professional level when they are free to determine the needs of each student and design curricula for them.
  • When students choose what they want to learn, with guidance from parents and teachers, they achieve at a much higher level — not at a standardized, predetermined level, but at an individual level.
  • Coaches and arts teachers know that assessment for uniform knowledge and behavior is inappropriate because all students are different.
  • Personalized education results in meaningful participation from parents, engaged students and high teacher morale.
  • Truancy, bullying, dropouts and school-induced suicides are virtually eliminated when each student is helped to excel in his or her unique talents.

The best thing that can now happen to our culture is to let all teachers perform as professionals, not as servants to an obsolete curriculum. Let teachers magnify student differences rather than uselessly trying to make students alike in knowledge and skills.

Now that the State Board of Education is looking for a new superintendent, we propose it find an extraordinary educator who can lead Utah to develop a personalized school system. Our great state should lead the nation in this imperative endeavor before more people are cheated from developing their full, individual potentials.



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The folks at the top Still Don’t Get it

I first decided to post an article from this past Sunday’s New York Times, written by Kate Taylor, beause I suspected that many of my readers don’t get the Times.  But what came to me as I read through the article a second time was something more important: the policy makers and experts making the decisions about the importance of testing, do not understand what those tests mean to students or what their scores really signify about today’s educational practices.  At the end of the article I will give my thoughts on the current situation.

WHEN the parents of more than 200,000 pupils in the third through eighth grades in New York chose to have their children sit out standardized tests last spring, major civil rights organizations were quick to condemn their decision, along with similar movements in Colorado, Washington and New Jersey.

Reliable testing results, they argued, broken down by race, income and disability status, were critical in holding schools accountable for providing equal education for all. By refusing to have their children participate, the parents were “inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child,” according to a statement by the groups.

Because the families opting out were disproportionately white and middle class, testing proponents dismissed them as coddled suburbanites, while insisting that urban parents, who had graver concerns about the quality of their children’s schools, were supportive of the tests. Earlier this year, proponents of testing began using the hashtag #OptOutSoWhite — a spin on the #OscarsSoWhite social-media campaign — to suggest that testing opposition was a form of white privilege.

Yet, as testing season unfolds this year, the debate is becoming murkier. More minority educators, parents and students are criticizing the tests, opening a rift with civil rights groups and black and Hispanic educators who support testing, like Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

Their complaints are wide-ranging. They argue that the focus on testing has forced struggling schools to cut back on enriching programs like field trips and arts education. Some view testing as part of a larger agenda, driven by test companies and opponents of teachers’ unions, that seeks to wring profits from education while closing public schools and replacing them with non-unionized charter schools. Others say that the tests are damaging to students’ self-esteem, because students interpret low scores as proof that they are inferior and destined to fail.

Some even suspect that part of the tests’ purpose is to identify future dropouts and criminals. There is a persistent myth that some states use reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they will need in the future. Although there is no evidence to support it, the rumor continues to be repeated, perhaps because it reflects a suspicion in some communities that the policy makers promoting the tests and the companies writing them don’t want to raise poor students up but instead keep them in their place.

While there is little evidence thus far of a major groundswell of nonwhite, urban students opting out of testing, the battle lines are clearly shifting.

On April 15, a group of racially mixed high school students in Baltimore walked out of school and rallied outside the district’s headquarters to protest their state exam, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The students expressed frustration over the underfunding of their schools and the lack of culturally relevant courses and said they did not want to take the tests until those problems were addressed.

A group of black parents in Philadelphia who planned to have their children opt out of the Pennsylvania state tests were featured recently on an education podcast called “Have You Heard.” They objected to the amount of money being made by the test-making companies and suggested that schools focused on testing were not cultivating students to be leaders.

“What we end up doing,” one mother said, “is creating a bunch of soldiers that, in order to pass, in order to get out of whatever their situation is, they will follow directions. And we will have a community of people that merely follow directions.”

Many educators and parents say the tests have forced schools with low scores to focus all their attention on basic reading and math skills, to the detriment of subjects like science and social studies, let alone art. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools were rated based on their test scores and those that did not improve could eventually be closed. (The reauthorized law passed last year gives states more leeway in rating schools and handling those that do not meet targets.)

Some also say the tests have led to excessive use of discipline.

“There are schools where you don’t get a class trip until after the test,” said José Luis Vilson, a middle schoolteacher in New York City and the author of “This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.”

“There are places where students just feel like it’s a jail,” he added. “Testing often exacerbates that, to the point that it doesn’t feel like you’re going to school to learn — you’re just going to take a test.”

In a rap video produced by the Baltimore Algebra Project, the youth advocacy group that organized the student protest this month, one singer lamented: “They really using this test to tell what I’m-a be/They probably want me in jail or probably in the streets.”

Pro-testing educators say they are listening closely to the calls by black and Hispanic parents and students for a richer educational experience, although some point out that the era before standardized testing was hardly better.

In a speech this month, Mr. King acknowledged that in many schools “the balance has shifted too much away from subjects outside of math and English — the subjects that can spark students’ passion and excitement about learning.”

As a counterexample, he pointed to Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of Washington’s public schools, who has made it a requirement that all second graders learn how to ride a bicycle.

Ms. Henderson, in an interview, said she believed that, in the transition to the Common Core learning standards, states and districts had not been “as aggressive as they need to be in terms of changing their curriculum and professionally developing teachers and principals to really understand how to teach differently.”

Her own district, she said, spent four years developing a curriculum in which students hone their reading and math skills while studying a wide variety of subjects, including science and social studies.

She added that it was the responsibility of state and district leaders to emphasize the importance of field trips and extracurricular activities and to tell principals that “holding kids back from those kinds of things doesn’t help them on the test.”

“I’ve had to at some points remind my principals that kids should have a well-rounded experience all throughout the year, and it’s not O.K. to say no field trips until after the test,” she added.

But she also said that doing away with the tests would be most damaging to black and Latino students and those with disabilities. “Before No Child Left Behind, there were lots of schools where parents thought their kids were going to great schools, but after you disaggregated the results, you figured out that black kids and Latino kids or special-ed kids were actually worse off” than similar students in less high-performing schools, she said. “We need to know that kind of information. I don’t ever want to go back to a time when we don’t know.”

Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, an organization that advocates for high academic achievement for poor and minority students, said she had watched the video produced by the Baltimore Algebra Project and been shaken by the students’ disappointment in their education and feelings of marginalization.

She said it was educators’ responsibility to speak to students about testing in a positive way. Ms. Brookins Santelises recalled an experience from when she was a middle schoolteacher, when she showed a student named Tabitha her test scores and explained to her that she was significantly below grade level in reading.

“She said to me, ‘Oh, my God, nobody told me I couldn’t read,’ ” Ms. Brookins Santelises recalled. “I watched how she started to internalize it, and I immediately said, ‘Wait a minute, hold up, this test is not Tabitha. But what this says is we’ve got some real work to do, and I am here to help you.’ ”

If students are being made to feel inferior, she said, it is because educators — from teachers to district officials — aren’t taking responsibility for their own failures and instead are sending low-income students the message that their poor performance is their fault.

She also urged minority students and parents to use the testing data to call out schools and districts that are not serving them well.

But some experts say that, because testing provides an incomplete picture of the problems at low-performing schools, it can lead to policies that worsen those problems rather than ameliorate them. Warren Simmons, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said test scores can’t offer policy makers much guidance in the absence of qualitative assessments — of the curriculum, of teacher training, of the support a school is receiving from the district and state.

“Student testing is like using a thermometer to try to diagnose what kind of cancer an individual has,” Mr. Simmons said.

He said he believed that was why there was growing testing fatigue in low-income communities. Test scores can reveal that something is wrong at a school, but not what is wrong or how it can be fixed.

“I think what people are understanding is we don’t need another round of tests to tell us that schools are struggling,” he said.

The views expressed in the last four paragraphs of the article come close to what I believe about high stakes testing. Although I have not interviewed any students recently, I have talked to parents and teachers.  What they see in many students are anger and distrust about testing. Only a very few students really care about getting  high scores. For most kids, a low score doesn’t affect their lives to any great extent: “So what if I didn’t get to go on a school field trip?”; “I don’t plan to go to college anyway”; “My teachers think  I’m stupid because I got a low test score the last time.  I’ll show them just how stupid I can be this time”.

Are schools and teachers responsible for such negative attitudes?  To a certain extent, yes.  But to a greater extent the testing mania and how it has deformed education is to blame. In the name of “school accountability” the policy makers have created a monster that does not tell them what they want to know, only how angry and disheartened most students are about the current shape of public education. But even now, after many years of declining test scores, they still don’t get the message!




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Are High School Requirments Really Fair to Students?

Today’s post is an extension of the one I wrote earlier this week. While thinking about all the things I studied at school—including college—that I never used and forgot later or even sooner, I’ve decided to advocate for changes in the high school curriculum. If you disagree with my argument let me know, but please think of what kids need today and in the future, not the past.

Still remembering all my “non-learning” experiences when I was a student I happened upon an article in the April 13 edition of “Education Week” that fired me up again. A study undertaken by The Education Trust reported: “Only 8 percent of high school graduates complete a curriculum that prepares them well for college and the workplace.” And it blamed schools for not guiding students through the process of selecting classes that would enable them to succeed in their chosen pathway.

The study also suggested that students’ low grades added to the problem. Any student who completes a program but has earned less than a 2.5 grade average is not likely to be accepted by a college or a place of training for a good career.

Nevertheless, I am not convinced that choosing the “wrong classes” or not enough of the right ones should make students failures. As I see things, the real problem is a dis-connect between the goals set by education policy makers and the pathways mandated for reaching them. At high schools in most states today, to be “college ready“ students must take four years of English; three years each of math, science, and social studies; and two years of a foreign language. In some states students preparing for careers after high school must follow the same path, while in others they take fewer years of math, science, and a foreign language, plus three one-year courses in a particular career field.

During the past century those pathways might have been reasonable because, for the most part, only the wealthy and brightest students went on to college, while the others took typing or mechanics classes or left school altogether without graduating. Today, however, there is a much wider range of professions available to college graduates, and more middle class and impoverished young people going on to college. The range of jobs that don’t require a college degree is also wider and more varied.

To serve the needs of all student I think high schools need to be more flexible, cutting back on the number and type of required courses and providing a wider range of electives for students to explore future career possibilities. I also think school districts should have more high schools that offer a particular type of career preparation.

Specifically, I would reduce the number of college prep courses required, so that students could explore more areas through electives. I would also not require so much math and science for all college-bound students, or the study of a foreign language for everyone.

For those students who want to be “career ready” upon graduation I see two good pathways: attending a high school that focuses on a particular type of training or trying out a range of courses at a general high school. Choosing a particular field of study at the beginning of high school is appropriate only for those students who have a clear idea of what they want to do in the future.

Furthermore, I see advantages in using middle school as the place for many students to find out what they want to do in the future. During those three years there should be time set aside to introduce students to college life and the realities of different types of jobs through videos, guest speakers, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and field trips. Remember that the students I have been talking about all this time are only 14 years old when they enter high school. Without some background knowledge, experience in the world, and the chance to explore alternative paths, they are not ready to make a firm decision about what they will do for the next four years of schooling or the rest of their lives.






What Do We Really Learn in School?

Today’s post is a reflection on my experience as a student and how it affected my teaching much later and my strongly held beliefs about education throughout my career and now in retirement.  Although I don’t mention the influence of my experience on my work as a principal, it was a strong factor.  For example, I would never buy workbooks for any of my classes.  When one teacher asked to order them, I told her that, unfortunately, there was no money for workbooks in our school budget.  That was true, not because the school district didn’t allow them, but because I hadn’t put any of our allotted funds in that account.

Even when I was a child in elementary grades I understood that not everything taught is also learned. Every Monday during that time we were presented with a list of spelling words that we were expected to memorize  quickly and were tested on at the end of the week. We accepted the challenge and the test without complaint. But after it was all over we joked that now we had to empty our minds of those words in order to prepare for next week’s list.

Spelling was not the only subject we treated with disrespect. In geography and history, for example, we made no serious effort to remember the facts after our tests. None of us really cared about which city was the capital of Spain or what were the names of the rivers that ran through that country. Although we could memorize those things temporarily if we had to, they did not stick with us. As for history, most of it did not seem meaningful in our young lives, especially the names of presidents other than Washington and Lincoln or the wars other than the American Revolution and the Civil War. I still don’t have the faintest idea what the French and Indian War was all about.

Things were different for us in Math and English because we had to use much of their basics that were taught over the long run in school and in our personal lives. But when it came to such things as grammar rules and diagraming sentences, we cleared our heads as soon as our teachers stopped teaching them. The rules of grammar were of no use in our writing or speaking. As for me, I learned whatever grammatical correctness I have through reading.

When I became a teacher I remembered many of my useless experiences as a student and tried not to repeat them in my teaching. What I wanted to do was to teach things that students would enjoy, remember, and use in their own lives. I believe that writing is meaningful for students if it focuses on things they enjoy or care about. (Please, no book reports or analyses of the themes of pieces of fiction!) Young children like to write fairy tales based on those they have heard or read. They also like to write their own versions of popular children’s books such as, “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Bad Day” or to turn some stories they’ve read into plays they will perform.

Older students want mostly to write something that will go beyond the teacher’s desk such as weekly parent news letters, articles for the school newspaper, feedback to their teacher on this week’s lessons, letters to the editor of the local newspaper, poems modeled on others they’ve read in class, and a book that is a collection of class writings to be placed in the school library. A popular topic for such a book is advice to younger students about how to make it through high school.

Reading books that reflect their own experience or hopes for the future are the ones most meaningful and remembered by students of all ages. For older students some great pieces of literature will work, such as “All quiet on the Western Front”, “A Death in the Family” and “The Poisonwood Bible” because they cover experiences and feelings they’ve also had. On the other hand, teachers should avoid those books, however classic, that bear no relation to the lives or dreams of young people. Please be wary of “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick” and most of Shakespeare’s plays, however. Most high schoolers are not ready to find themselves in those stories.

Teaching math in elementary and middle school was harder for me than teaching reading and writing because beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication and fractions, I had difficulty making math real and useful for students. What I tried to do as often as I could was to seek out real life problems, such as how long it would take to accumulate enough money to buy things students wanted or what was the distance between our school and places they wanted to go. As often as possible, I also encouraged students to bring in real math problems about things at home or in the neighborhood.

Although I had taken two years of algebra and one year of geometry in high school and a year of what I think was called Trigonometry in college, I was never able to teach any of those types of math or use them in my own life. In my opinion, any math beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and, sometimes, long division is useless for most adults in the real world. Moreover, I suspect that most young people use devices for doing even the simplest forms of math today.

The experiences I’ve recounted here produced my philosophy of what education should be and what “learning” really is. Many years ago I invented a homily to express my feelings about what true learning is and isn’t. Although that homily is still awkward in its structure, I cling to it and continually try to make it shorter and more understandable. Any help readers can give me would be greatly appreciated. Here it is: “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder; it is weaving your own web from the bits of meaning and usefulness you find on your journey through life.”

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Using Half-Time Teachers to Improve Teaching

While resting in an airport lounge yesterday I picked up a copy of The Denver Post and read an article about a teacher mentoring program in the city schools called “The Teacher Leadership and Collaboration Model“.  In its third year the program has 383 mentor teachers teaching their classes every morning, then leaving to work with 2,400 inexperienced or mediocre teachers in the afternoons.  (Six or more teachers per mentor). Half-time teachers have been hired to takeover the mentor teachers’ classrooms for the second half of the school day.  As far as I could see there is no contact between the morning and afternoon teachers or continuity of the mentors with particular teachers in need.  That article made me think of a similar program we created for different reasons in the Madison, Wisconsin elementary school where I was principal.  In today’s post I will explain the structure of our program then leave it to readers to compare its structure to the Denver program.

It all started with an unusual request from an excellent teacher at our school.  She asked to reduce her contract to half-time for the following year because she had two young children and wanted to be at home with them for part of the day.  I said “Yes” to her request because I wanted to help her, also because I knew she would lose her job entirely if I said “No,” and be unlikely to ever get it back again.

Over my years at that school, I said, “Yes” to three more teachers for various reasons, and was surprised and satisfied by the results.  The structure we decided upon was to have one teacher in the morning and one in the afternoon–much like in the Denver schools– but with a daily overlap during the school noon-hour.  In that time the two teachers were expected to meet, share plans, discuss student problems and make sure they were on the same track with rules, procedures, and discipline.  Before hiring a second teacher, the first one and I met with all candidates and made sure we had one who would work well in this demanding situation.

In the beginning of this two-teacher structure I saw it only as a concession to a teacher I respected and wanted to keep.  But that structure also turned out to be a benefit to several teachers, our students, and the school district.  In the first place all the teachers I hired as half-timers were either new to teaching or relatively inexperienced.  So the morning teachers became their mentors, not only through their daily noon hour meetings, but also at times when they volunteered their time to observe or co-teach.  In return, the afternooners often came in voluntarily during mornings to observe and assist their mentors.  In addition, they were usually available to be paid substitutes when the morning teachers had to be absent.  In all respects the two-teacher structure at our school created a productive partnership, not only in sharing time, but also in encouraging, tempering, and enriching each other’s work.  All subjects and each student received more attention than tey would have from having only one teacher.

The school district also benefitted from this structure in two ways.  Financially, it was better to have a lower paid teacher for half-days.  But more important, the district was also grooming beginning teachers to be effective full-timers later on at no extra cost.  Ultimately, because of our structure -which lasted several years, the district got extra teacher time, greater teacher dedication, and better teaching in return for allowing us some leeway in the usual employment system.











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