The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Hope You Have a Happy Holiday Season; Me Too

Dear Readers,

I wish you all happy times throughout this holiday season and the year ahead. Writing this blog and receiving your comments has been a rewarding experience for me, and I hope to continue. However, through the coming week I may not have time to write anything, and you may not have the time to read anyway. Also, I will be on vacation in a warm place with part of my family from January 1st to the 8th. So you will be able to take a break from reading my information, opinions, and rants for an extra week.

God bless you all and the children you love,

Joanne

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A Rant from Joanne

I am sorry to have to say it, but the formalizing of students’ thinking and behavior is a waste of time and just plain silly. What I am referring to specifically is the teaching of grit, mindfulness, and resilience and the move to “personalized learning” which have become so popular recently. All human beings, including young children, choose how they think and behave and what they learn. We adults influence their decisions by our actions, but we cannot control them or teach them directly. If we want to kids to like being in school, value the required schoolwork, and be interested in the contents of the curriculum, we’ve got to make all those things meaningful and useful in their eyes. And, we have to recognize that much of what is taught in school now is mastered only temporarily, not for the long run.

Let’s consider for a minute our own school “learning.” Can we still speak or read the foreign language we studied in high school or college? Can we use algebra to solve complex problems? Do we remember why the War of 1812 was fought and against which foes? What place became our 49th state?  Just what are a gerund, a transitive verb, and a reflexive pronoun? *

The lasting things that can be learned or solidified in school are honesty, cooperation, respect for others, self control, self-respect, curiosity, patience, persistence and a deep interest in certain skills, arts, and sources of knowledge. Those are the things that good teachers and the other good members of a school staff practice regularly, and by doing so, teach students.

We have a big problem in this country because the officials advocating for strict and traditional public education do not realize how shallow and ephemeral much of it is — even for the Japanese students who score so well on international tests. Over the past twenty or so years what we have heard from the decision makers at the national and state level and the critics is that the standards for American students must be raised. Why? They say, “So we can compete with other countries.” Unfortunately, they don’t mean we should be giving health care to everyone and free college to all students.

In this blog I have written as often as possible about the good things I see or hear about in schools, and I wish every day that I was aware of more. What I recognize is that most of my readers are realists who know the difference between fads and pipe dreams and the lasting things that can be learned in schools.

*Don’t feel bad; I had to look up most of those things, too.

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Parents’ Opinions on Three Types of Schools

Since I retired before the rise of charter schools I know only what I read about them in the media, and none of it is good. Even those articles that praise charters contain information that bothers me, such as harsh discipline and one size-fits-all instruction. Of course, I realize that I am biased by my long-time connection with public schools, where I sometimes saw weaknesses, but more often good teaching and student learning.

Anyway, today’s essay summarizes a report on parents’ opinions about their schools—public, private, and charter–which appeared in” Education Next” a few days ago. The report was written by Samuel Barrows, Paul Peterson and Martin R. West. It includes the results of two national surveys, which were quite similar.


 Although the number of charter schools is still smaller than the number of public schools in the United states, serving about 6 percent of the country’s students, it is growing rapidly and appears to be very popular among parents whose children are enrolled in charters and those who hope to get them accepted the next time around. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than a million students are on charter school waiting lists.

In order to better understand the popularity of charters, two researchers for Ed Next carried out a survey of a nationally representative sample of parents whose children are in public, private, or charter schools to determine their views of the quality of education they are receiving. Afterward, those researchers compared their results with a previous survey.

The Ed Next survey focused on five important school characteristics: teacher quality, discipline, expectations for achievement, safety, and instruction in character and values. In addition, it asked about three other school characteristics: ethnic and racial diversity, the quality of facilities, and the convenience of location. As expected, the parents of children in charter schools were more satisfied in all areas than parents of children in public schools. However, at the same time private school parents were the most satisfied.

Few parents at any of the three types of schools acknowledged any serious problems at their own children’s school. Also, the problems most often identified by parents of students at each type of school were quite different.Charter parents named the lack of extracurricular activities, while public school and private school parents named student misbehavior. On the other hand, parents of students in all three types of schools reported satisfactory communications with school staff members.

In studying the parent surveys for more information, the researchers attempted to find out if the degree of variation in parents’ experiences was greater in one type of school than in the others. On four items—school discipline, expectations for student achievement, school building and facilities, and the racial and ethnic diversity among students, they found no significant difference across school types. However, they did find that private and charter parents were more often satisfied with their schools than  public school parents.

At this point  I will quote in full two  statements made by the researchers in their “Conclusions” section because they make important points about the nature of their results and the likely consequences.

None of these results can necessarily be interpreted as identifying the actual characteristics of schools. Parents’ perceptions may be distorted by a lack of knowledge about what really goes on at a school or by an understandable tendency to view life at their own children’s schools through rose-tinted glasses. Nor can the results be interpreted as causal. We do not have experimental evidence as to the impact of attending schools in one sector rather than another. Parents have exercised choice in selecting a charter or private-sector school rather than a district school, making it impossible to say whether parental perceptions of the school are caused by actual school characteristics in each sector or some other factor.

Charter parents’ greater satisfaction with their schools as compared to district parents, and their perceptions of fewer problems and more communication, have important implications for their school choices and, perhaps, their political behavior. If the number of charter schools continues to increase, the parents who use these schools may form a growing constituency in support of the charter-school option.

In my opinion the first statement sums up very well what the survey actually shows: opinion not reality. And I am very glad that the researchers included it, even though I would have made a harsher judgment: popularity does not equal excellence

Again, I applaud the researchers’ acuity in the second statement. I think they are correct about the growth of charter schools in the future unless some miracle occurs, in which the national and state governments get off the backs of public schools and also fund them adequately.

Finally, I wish to applaud the researchers for creating an excellent survey and closely examining its various results. It is far more nuanced and carefully explained than any others I’ve read recently.

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The PISA Test Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story About American Education

Earlier this month the results of the most recent PISA test, which is given every three years to students in 69 countries across the world, were released.  As usual, the scores of American students were in the middle of the pack. Also, as usual, American government officials and education experts were disturbed by our low ranking and attributed it mainly to the ineffectiveness of our schools and their teachers.

Before we agree or disagree with that judgment I think we need to know more about the test, the students who take it, and the cultures of the countries involved.  Here are some facts:

The PISA tests reading, mathematics and science, but puts its main focus on one of them each time it is given. In 2015 the focus was on science.

The PISA does not test the specific information or skills that may have been taught in regular classrooms, but instead asks students to solve problems, identify unusual patterns, and write strong arguments.

The school systems, specific schools, and individual students to be tested are randomly selected by the PISA Governing Board.

The students to be tested must be 15 years old; their grade level does not matter.

As written, a PISA test would take several hours to complete, but each student is given a shorter, randomly assigned version of the test to be completed in two hours.

After completing the test students must answer a questionnaire about their family and community backgrounds, learning habits, and school experiences

PISA gives a score for each subject tested; a country’s score is the average of all student scores in that country

For the 2015 PISA the highest scoring countries and places with separate education systems were Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, Finland, Macao, Canada, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China, in that order.

The United States ranked number 28 out of 69 countries and education systems that participated.

Although I, too, would have liked the United States to score higher than it did, I think there are reasons besides the ones commonly assumed by the critics. For instance, when we look at the highest scoring places most of them are not only countries or cities where education is highly prized in the culture, but also ones where many children living in poverty get little or no schooling, and thus, never participate in a PISA test. In contrast, young people in some of the highest scoring places are likely to have long school hours, plus extra school classes in the evening.

Looking at the whole picture, I believe that cultural differences are a strong factor in determining the PISA results. For instance, in most countries doing well or poorly on the Pisa or on another school test determines a student’s future. Those who do well go on to a college preparatory high school; those who don’t have a choice between a technical school or ending their education altogether.

Personally, our family lived through the cultural differences in educational opportunities in one European country in the 1970s. Because my husband had received an award, our family went to live in a Belgium scientific center for one year. There our oldest son was enrolled at a nearby school for 9th grade, where classes were taught in Flemish, French, German, or Italian. We selected French because he had begun to study it in the U.S.; but it was still very difficult for him to learn everything taught in that language.

Near the end of the school year all students in his class had to take a test that decided  their future. As we expected, our son did not do well on the test; but when we went back to the U.S. the following year that didn’t matter at all. He was placed in a 10th grade class at our local high school, graduated two years later, and was accepted at a good university. His friends in Belgium were not so fortunate. After doing poorly on the test most of them had to settle for a technical school, while a few sought jobs instead.

According to others who are more familiar with foreign countries than I am, there are many other cultural differences besides educational success that affect a nation’s functioning, such as whether or not people have the power to speak their opinions, follow their chosen religion, move from one place to another, or have a hand in making governmental decisions.

In her book, “Reign of Error” Diane Ravitch refers to one researcher, Keith Baker, who studied what has happened in the 12 countries that participated in the first International Mathematics Test, given in 1964. The most important thing he found was that there was no relationship between a nation’s test scores and its economic productivity. When it came to creativity he discovered that the U.S. had more patents per million people than any other nation. What Baker sees as the deciding element in American culture is “spirit.” In short, he alleges that succeeding in school is not what makes Americans successful, but inquisitiveness, imagination, and persistence.

Unfortunately, those qualities cannot be measured in a test, but they can be observed and valued in any classroom.  Perhaps our government officials–local, state,and national– and education experts should visit schools once in a while rather than only examining  data.

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Let’s Hear Students’Voices!

 

Dear Readers,

Today I am reposting a piece I wrote four months ago for two reasons: 1. I fell yesterday and injured my hand badly enough that it hurts to write; 2. I have not yet received  any of the writing contributions I begged for back then.  If you feel sorry for me or guilting about not responding to my request the first time, do it now!

P. S. I expect to recover fully within three or four days.  Your contributions will help to speed the process.


After calling for the voices of students on this blog a few days ago, I have given more thought about how to keep everyone safe. Even though I would like teachers to encourage students to write about school experiences and their ideas for change, I now think it would be best for them to do their writing outside of school. I also think students should sign only their first names on any pieces they submit. I do not want them or their teachers to risk being questioned or punished for something they sent to me. In addition, I assure all contributors that I will not share any information about them unless they specifically say it’s okay to do so.

As for how to submit a piece of writing,  post it in the space labeled “Comments” at the bottom of this page. Only I will see what is written there. Please keep them short.

P.S. Parents and teachers are also encouraged to write about students’ experiences.

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To get writers started, here are some of the topics I’d like to hear their opinions about, but they may certainly write to me about anything that concerns them.

What do you think about homework assignments? Are there too many at once, too difficult, a waste of time, or helpful to your learning?

Is bullying rampant at your school? What could teachers, administrators, or you and your friends do to reduce the problem or stop it altogether?

What are your feelings about“high stakes”testing? Were the tests you’ve taken too long, too difficult, or some of the questions unreasonable? Did you give  your best efforts  on such a test or just the bare minimum?

If you were the principal of your school, what would be the first changes you would make and why did you choose them?

 

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