The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Can This Be True? Free College for Everyone

I really didn’t expect to find much about schools at this time of year when students, teachers, and administrators are finally taking a breath of fresh air and thinking only of peace and quiet for a while.  But, then an article in our local newspaper, The Oregonian, told about the success of a free community college opportunity program in Tennessee, and I wanted to cheer. It certainly looks like that program is already successful and that the one in Oregon, just beginning, will also be a success.  

A state run program called The “Tennessee Promise” has just completed its first year of operation  with 16,291 students enrolled in tuition-free community colleges or technical schools.  Much of the money for such schooling has been available in federal scholarships for several years, but most students and their families did not know about it, and the government applications were very difficult to fill out. In this system all students are informed about the program early in their high school careers and given instructions and assistance in filling out the application form.  Students  who receive a federal scholarship then get additional funding from local sources and the state itself.  Although the price of comunity college in Tennessee is $4000, students and their families pay nothing.

In the coming school year all of the 2,291 students at Nashville’s largest high school will apply for the program.  According to a student counselor at that school, the Promise program is”just part of the culture now.”

Having passed a law creating a similar program, the “Oregon Promise,” a second state will begin its program this fall.  Already 8,500 students have applied to state community colleges there.  In many ways the Oregon program echoes that of Tennessee, but there are a few differences.

Both programs keep state costs down by being the last contributor.  Only after federal Pell Grants and other  financial aid sources have been used does the state contribute.  However, Tenessee has backed its program with $360 million from lottery revenues, while the Oregon legislature has approved only $10 million for this year with no promise of future funding.

Oregon also requires a higher grade-point average for students to enroll and remain in the program than Tennesee, and its students may attend school only half-time, while Tennesee requires full time attendence. In addition, Oregon’s students get $1000 from the state whether or not they receive a federal grant. Finally, undocumented Oregon residents also qualify for the state grants.

What excites me, first of all, is that ten other states are interested in the program and closely following the progress in Tennessee and Oregon. In addition, President Obama has  proposed a national program based on Tennessee’s structure.  But beyond those possibilities I see opportunities  for a positive change in the behaviors and attitudes of high school students.  Knowing that the “Promise” is there for them if they work hard and get decent grades in high school may motivate many young people who had no hope of college or technical school before.  I expect to see a big uptick in attendance, enthusiasm, and effort in high schools in the two states already committed to the “Promise” and the same in other states that later join them.








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Summer Vacation in the “Good Old Days”

Well, here it is, time for me to write and I don’t have anything new to say.  I have hashed over my concerns, beliefs, and new ideas often enough and recently enough to bore readers to tears. There is nothing new in public education, and I don’t write about charter schools unless they are being closed down.  In Oregon, at least, school is over for the summer with nothing new in sight. So, what if I meander for a while about the summer vacations I had in Newark New Jersey as a child?

The “summer vacation” was what July and August were called when I was a kid. And it was just that. School didn’t close until the last days of June, but after that we were truly free. Maybe a few chores around the house, but the rest of the time we made our own choices. Roaming the neighborhood on our bikes was the first choice,  pick-up games of softball or soccer came second, and the third was  joining in summer activities at our local elementary school. I remember taking a weaving class where we made placemats by weaving colored twine on a wooden frame.  The city swimming pools were also open every day and free to children, even the one in nearby Olympic Park until 1 P.M.  So were the public libraries.  At Arts HIgh School dowtown there were free art classes and at the Newark Museum there were activities that led to a dramatic performance.  For a nickel a ride we could take a bus to places too far away to bike to

During the time of World War II most families had Victory Gardens. We kids watered the plants, weeded the gardens and then picked the ripe vegetables. We also took over the fire hoses some of our fathers had as community watchmen to use for water fights. The hoses were connected to tall, closed water buckets rather than faucets, so we had to fill those buckets with water and someone had to keep pumping to make the hoses work. Once, when I was the pumper, I kept my eyes closed while pumping away hard. I didn’t realize until I was out of water that the other kids had aimed the hose at me the whole time.

Another thing most of us did was to collect old newspapers, rubber and metal we could turn in at a local gas station as part of the recycling movement. I would go from door to door on our streetand collect whatever our neighbors had to give. We were paid ten cents a pound and the same amount for used kitchen oil and fat at the local grocery store.

In the evenings we kept the lights low in our houses and the window shades down.  It was the job of the watchmen to walk around the neighborhood and make sure all the houses were relatively dark. We kids sat in the living room with our parents and listened to the radio.  Of course there was news about was going on at the  war front, but there were also music, mystery, action, and comedy shows.

With all those things going on I still found plenty of time to read, especially on hot afternoons. We had plenty of books at home.  When I was quite young my parents had bought a set of children’s books from a door-to- door salesman named “Journeys Through Bookland”. The set had ten books, the first one with poems and fairy tales, and the later ones with pieces of literature  and non fiction.  We also had a full set of “The Book of Knowledge” that my grandfather had given us. Finally, there was some adult literature that I sampled as I grew older. I remember specifically a collection of short stories by Guy de Mau Passant and the modern novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

As you might suspect those summer vacations went quickly and happily. Our schools didn’t give us any assignments to do over the summer or expect anything new from us when school began in the fall beyond writing  an essay on “My Summer Vacation”.  And there was no required summer school for those who hadn’t done well during the school year.  Still most of us learned a lot by exploring the world around us and living through personal experiences that couldn’t be taught at school.



We Construct and Control Our Own Learning. Teachers Just Assist Us

Today I am re-posting an article about Jerome Bruner, a famous cognitive psychologist who died a few weeks ago.  Bruner was instrumental in devising and disseminating a new theory of learning.  The article was written by Jonathan Zimmerman, published in “The Atlantic,” and sent to me by my friend, Don Bellairs. 

As  a graduate student I read Bruner’s most famous book, ” The Process of Education” and bought into his theory of learning completely.  Later I created a saying that I have repeated in this blog and anywhere else educators might read it.  Here it is once again (with a few words changed in my quest for greater clarity): “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder; but weaving your own web from the pieces of meaning and usefulness you find along your way.”

 A few years ago, Jerome Bruner visited a graduate seminar I teach at New York University about educational research and politics. I told Jerry that I agreed with almost everything he wrote about education, but I feared that most Americans didn’t. What if it turned out that the country didn’t want what he was selling?

“Well,” Jerry grinned, “then you’ve got the makings of a great story.”

Bruner’s own astonishing story came to an end on Monday, when he died at the age of 100. Born to Polish immigrants, he was blind until surgery restored his vision at the age of two. He spent his life studying human perception, and the ways the stories we tell about the world influence how we think and learn about. Along the way, he helped revolutionize American psychology. When Bruner went to graduate school at Harvard University in the 1930s, most psychological research examined the behavior that people exhibited in the face of external pressures and stimuli. But that model didn’t take account of our individual minds, which filter and interpret everything we experience.

Bruner resolved to study what he called “cognitive psychology”—how people think and reason, not just how they react and respond. For education, especially, the implications were enormous. Bruner found that even very young children constructed their own knowledge—that is, they made sense of new information based on prior experience and understanding. The job of the teacher was to help students build upon what they already knew.

So it didn’t make sense to fill children with facts, which they would forget as soon as the test was over. The goal was to help them recognize relationships between facts. You didn’t have to be a physicist or a historian to understand gravity or the Civil War. But you did need a teacher who could help you think like a physicist or a historian, ordering and analyzing information just like they did.

A half-century after Bruner laid out these ideas in his magnum opus, The Process of Education; they have become the accepted “best practice” in American schools. But few teachers and students actually practice them. There’s an enormous gap between the story the United States tells about education and the way it actually does happen.

The first reason has to do with the preparation of America’s teaching force. To instruct children in the manner that Bruner imagined, you need to have a deep knowledge of the subject that you teach. I’m a professor of education at a major research university, but I couldn’t teach middle-school biology. I could make the kids memorize the parts of an atom or a cell, but that wouldn’t help them understand how biology “works”: how it asks questions, frames theories, and collects evidence.

And here’s the truly depressing fact: Many of the country’s teachers don’t have that kind of knowledge, either. Although most states now require future teachers to major in the subject they will instruct, they don’t demand that they exhibit a true mastery of it. Drawn overwhelmingly from the middle-to-low achievement range of their college cohorts, many of America’s teachers simply lack the strong disciplinary background to induct kids into a discipline.

Meanwhile, teachers who do possess such expertise are hamstrung by the beast of “accountability.” Since Congress passed the landmark No Child Left Behind law in 2001, federal and state rules have tied school funding—and, in some places, teacher salaries—to students’ performance on standardized tests. Especially in poorer communities, the result has been the antithesis of what Bruner imagined: a joyless pedagogy of rote memorization, preparing kids for the next high-stakes test.

Finally, it’s simply not clear that American citizens—you know, the people who elect school boards and pay taxes—want the type of instruction that Bruner did. He learned that the hard way when he developed a federally funded curriculum in the late 1960s called Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), which used examples from different times and places to ask basic questions about human behavior and morality.

But some of the curriculum’s content—especially its description of the Netsilik Eskimos, who practiced infanticide and euthanasia—caught the eye of conservatives, who wanted their children to be taught a single moral code. Congress eventually defunded MACOS, which reminds us about the dangers of encouraging kids to think for themselves. They might end up disagreeing with their parents, and a lot of Americans—maybe, most of them—don’t want that.

Later in his career, Bruner turned to the question of culture and education: how different societies influence human growth and development. My fear is that American culture doesn’t really accept the story that Bruner told about teaching. But I’ll always be grateful to him for telling it, over and over again, in the hope that the nation might one day learn it by heart.


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How Important is Homework to Learning?

My feelings about homework have been strongly affected by the school experiences of my own children and my granddaughter.  My four kids, who completed their education in the past century, almost never complained about homework or needed any help with their assignments. They also had plenty of time left to read books of their own choice and participate in after school sports.  On the other hand, my only granddaughter, who was as capable as her parents and uncles, went to high school early in this century and stayed up past midnight almost every night doing homework. When I went to the school to talk about the problem, I was told that the school was high-achieving and naturally expected much from all its students.  I transferred her out to a more progressive thinking school the following week.

As an elementary grade teacher the only homework I gave was reading. Later, when I became a principal, my teachers decided—unanimously—to do the same. They designated time amounts for each grade and asked parents to monitor them, without being too strict or reporting back to teachers. High school is a different world, however. There, students move through five or more classes per day, and each class is barely long enough for instruction, discussion, and a bit of practice. There is rarely time for adding on reading or writing. To make the situation more of a problem teachers do not know when their colleagues are giving difficult and lengthy homework assignments.

To form our own opinions let’s look at the research and then the unscientific results of interviews that I did with teachers. The research is decisive about which students benefit most from doing homework.  Middle school and high school students gain some benefit, but not elementary students.  Researchers don’t say why this is true.  At the same time researchers suspect that assigning large amounts of homework on a consistent basis adversely affects student performance. According to some of them, the amount of homework students have to do should be guided by the “ten-minute rule” which means that the total homework time for each grade should be no longer than ten times the grade level, figured in minutes. In other words, sixth grade teachers should assign no more than sixty minutes of homework. Unfortunately, however, this rule doesn’t help much because students vary widely in how long it takes them to complete the same piece of work.

In addition, some researchers have looked at the benefits of stressing a particular type of homework, but they have not been able to give definitive answers. The problem is that the types of reading or writing assignments vary in their difficulty. Reading a news paper report on election results may take only five minutes and be clear to all students, while reading an opinion piece on what should be done about the religious conflicts in Middle East countries may demand more time and thought.

Through conversations with several experienced teachers whose wisdom I respect, I learned that most of them favor reading for homework, either in a familiar textbook or a piece of literature introduced and begun in class. Their second choice was math problems also introduced and practiced in class. Answering questions about material read and/or discussed in class was not at all popular. Most of the teachers I talked to felt that such tasks were boring for students and did not improve their learning. When it came to having students do writing for homework there were differences of opinion. Elementary grade teachers were skeptical about giving students such assignments because they felt that young children need help throughout the process, and that parents should not be the ones to give it. In contrast, middle and high school teachers felt that some types of writing make good homework assignments, as long as there was preparation in the classroom beforehand.

Although teacher preferences may appear to leave homework questions still open, I saw a few restrictions coming through clearly. Teachers believe that they should stay away from assigning unfamiliar tasks or formats as homework because students tend to forget teachers’ instructions and become frustrated or rely on their parents for guidance. Teachers also try to avoid long-term projects to be done at home because student work outside the classroom cannot be monitored or guided by teachers.

In their interviews some teachers also mentioned one type of homework they liked that I did not ask about: interviewing parents or other adults about topics being studied at school. Although students needed help in the classroom beforehand in selecting and framing questions, most of them seemed strongly motivated to find out what their parents, siblings, friends, or strangers had to say. They wrote down answers or recorded them on cell phones and, once back in the classroom, classified them, counted them, and determined percentages. Teachers said that this type of homework almost always led to good discussions and writing about the results.

Although some of the problems in education today, such as swamping kids with too much homework or bewildering them with unfamiliar assignments, have not been answered by research or the teachers I interviewed, I hope they have stirred readers to think more about them. The demands now put upon teachers and students are greater than ever before, and can’t be met by longer school days or years or more work at home. What do you see as better ways to educate all our children?



Why Not Let Teachers Rather than Publishers and Experts Teach Reading?

Having dutifully waited a week for The Oregonian to publish my letter criticizing a new decision in the Portland (OR) public schools on how to teach reading, it appears that the only topic worthy of attention is the argument about teaching climate change.  For that reason I am posting the major parts of the original newspaper article, leaving out only the opinions of various consultants and school district employees, and my letter in response.  

Unfortunately, I had to be more brief than I wanted to be because of word limits specified by the newspaper. What I would have liked to add was that in both elementary schools where I was principal we used no commercial reading programs or work sheets.  Our teachers knew how to teach reading from their own training and experience, and  they used only high quality literature that they believed was developmentally appropriate and appealing for their students.  In addition to group reading assignments and discussions, students were expected to read books of their own choice in their down time at school and for homework.  

During the 12 years of my tenure at a high poverty school in Oregon the state authorized a 3rd to 5th grade progress test in reading and math for all schools.  A report in The Oregonian noted: ” Only one school in the region, Cottrell GradeSchool  (our school) showed high gains in both math and reading.” At another time when both math and reading tests were given, the newspaper observed  that” Fifth-grade students in the tiny Cottrell School District scored highest in math tests among 44 elementary schools in North Clacamas and East Multnomah counties.” and “Cottrell, along with Damascus and West Orient tied for second place in reading.”


Portland Public Schools, searching for a new way to teach young students to read and write after years of struggle, has decided to go it alone.

At the strong urging of teachers and other educators who’ve sampled various reading series, Oregon’s largest district on Tuesday rejected offerings from every major publisher. Instead, it decided to buy six components from five companies and combine them into a unique reading and writing curriculum of its own.

Beaverton schools have already made a similar shift and will add the same main reading program that Portland picked, Units of Study in Reading, to all 33 of its elementary and K-8 schools this summer.

Portland picked teachers from about three dozen schools who tried the six components it plans to adopt, plus a seventh program it didn’t pick up, for much of this winter and spring. District officials measured some of the results, but so far have declined to release the findings.

Mainstream reading programs, which contain scripted lessons designed to teach phonics, fluent reading, accuracy, comprehension and vocabulary, are called comprehensive core reading programs. Research into how young readers learn, along with a big nudge from the federal No Child Left Behind law, enshrined them as standard in nearly all U.S. schools over the past decade and half.

But after Portland Public Schools’ current reading series, Scott Foresman’s Reading Street, didn’t pan out well, district officials were open to novel options. A district selection committee eventually suggested forgoing any mainstream reading series until at least 2023.

In 2014, the last year Oregon’s old state tests were given, 27 percent of the district’s third-graders failed the reading exam. In 2015, using the more challenging Smarter Balanced tests, 43 percent of Portland third-graders, including about 70 percent of blacks and Latinos, fell short of the national proficiency standard

This fall, the new approach will be fully implemented in all Beaverton elementary schools and in 10 of Portland’s 56 elementary and K-8 schools. Portland plans to provide the new materials to its remaining 46 schools over the next two years.

Both districts plan to rely heavily on teachers’ judgment to interpret test results and customize lessons, small group work and independent assignments to match the needs of individual readers, said Portland’s Martin and Beaverton’s Nicole Will, administrator for elementary curriculum, instruction and assessment

Both Portland and Beaverton plan three full days of training in August for K-5 teachers in schools adopting the new programs. The districts also plan to offer whole and partial days of training during the year. Portland will also pay eight full-time coaches for the 10 schools that get the books this year: Arleta, Bridger, Forest Park, Grout, Laurelhurst, Lewis, Sitton, Vernon, Vestal and Whitman.

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools were still tied to commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several programs to create a new program. By this time experienced educators and their superiors should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

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