The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

“Money Can’t Buy You Love”–or Good Schools

In several of my past posts I have said that the biggest problem in education today is top-down decision making. It attempts to control all aspects of teaching and learning, but in the end makes everything worse. Today I will give one example of failed action by the federal Department of Education and then try to explain what’s wrong and what’s right for our schools.

According to an article in the Washington Post published a little more than  a week ago:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door

 With the scarce information in the article I can’t begin to understand why the grants produced so little positive change in the schools that participated. I can only say that this information, the low graduation rates across the country, the stagnant student test scores, and the increasing numbers of teachers leaving their profession persuade me that the educational decisions and actions from above are almost always wrong and should be stopped now and forever.

My view, born from my own experiences as a school principal and an observer in many other schools, and supported by what I have read over the years; is that school improvement happens only when schools run themselves. A good principal, working with teachers, students, and parents can choose and make the changes needed in a particular school. Only then can all teachers teach well and all students learn to the best of their ability.

I could go on and give many examples, but I’ve already done that in many of the pieces I’ve written over the past year and a half. My purpose in this blog is to exalt the “treasure” in good educational practice and expose the errors, foolishness, and evil in top-down decision making.

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“Oh Brave New World” that Has Such Schools in It

Yesterday I read an article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “The Upside, and the Downside, of  Working ‘as Fast as You Want and as Slow as you Need’ ” by Karen Hannigan Machado that was about a new and innovative school that is meeting the needs and interests of today’s students in smart ways. Since the article described  several structures and actions that support student learning and prepare students for life after high schools, I am pleased to write about it in today’s post. However, I must caution readers about the incompleteness of some explanations in the text and the possibility of exaggeration because the author of the piece is also the school principal.

 In 1982, the time when school districts were just beginning to move away from the concept of vocational schools, The Manchester School of Technology (MST) was founded. Its purpose was to be a career and technology center for students who wanted a strong educational background, but were not necessarily aiming at college.

But now times are changing, and MST is offering a program that includes both academic learning and career preparation. The first two years are dedicated solely to traditional academic classes, while the last two years combine academics and career preparation by having some classes that include both and an extended school day.

The school uses a project–based model to give all students rich educational experiences in which they rely on technology for information rather than textbooks. It also uses a competency-based model to assess student progress and to award credits in the areas where they have performed successfully. In addition, the school gives students opportunities to participate in internships, early college classes, and dual high school enrollment.

Another characteristic of MST is the integration of various skills in single classes. For example, in a humanities class, students have lessons on civil rights while reading literature focused on the same topic. As a result, they are able to earn credits in English and social studies at the same time. When classes are integrated students may earn more than one credit for completion and meet some graduation requirements at the same time. Thus, they can move faster than students in an ordinary high school and also take advantage of career opportunities at the same time.

When MST teachers find patterns of student weaknesses, new courses, often with teachers from different areas, are created. For example, in the past year a team-taught course was originated that integrates physical science with algebra.

Over the summer months students are able to complete their work on a particular competency by enrolling in a “Competency Recovery Program.” During the school year there is a “Learning Lab” where they can also finish class requirements.

MST celebrated its first graduating class in 2016. Out of the 50 students who graduated, two of them had completed their work in three years.  Along with a diploma, graduating students received a competency-based transcript.

During the past year the school earned a “Nellie Mae” grant that gave it $25,000 to spend on a workshop, substitute teachers, and stipends to teachers who were working together to create new classes or add new dimensions to existing classes.

As the school principal, Karen Hanniga Machado noted,“blazing a trial often means that you are creating the wheel and often using trial and error. The main objective is to always keep the students’ best interests at heart.”

Although I could not fully understand all the dimensions of the current school operations as described in the article, I was very impressed by the willingness of the administrators and teachers to try new ways to facilitate student learning. I also felt that there was evidence of students responding well to the school structure and the multiple opportunities to learn and demonstrate new abilities. I suspect that MST will continue to change and expand over time, and ultimately prove itself to be a model for many other high schools across the country.

To my mind the most important thing that schools such as MST are doing is to respond to the changes in science, technology, industrial operations, and the nature of our society. With so many American leaders stubbornly hanging on to the old ways, it gives us hope when a few schools are willing and able to meet the world as it is or may soon become.

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The Trouble with “Personalized Learning” Programs is that They Aren’t Personal

Over the past several months I have been reading articles to help me understand just what Personalized Learning really is and how it is being implemented in schools across the country. Today I feel confident enough to attempt to explain those things and give my opinions.

In addition, you may want to re-read a piece I wrote earlier:”My Reaction to the Concept of Personalized Learning“, posted on October 29th, 2016.  You can also find it in “The Treasure Hunter” archives.

Like many other educators I feel that calling some new commercial programs for students “Personalized Learning” is a misleading term. All of the programs I have read about are pieces of technology that claim to be appropriate for students of different abilities, goals, or interests. However, none of them is truly personal because students cannot choose what they will study or how; nor are they empowered to refuse a teacher’s choice of a topic or a program.

With most of the programs the teacher’s main role is to determine which piece of technology each student should be using; also when and how. In addition, a teacher is expected to give students advice or assistance with a program as they work through it. However, at least one program I read about is quite different, expecting teachers to interview all their students at the beginning of the school year and create records of their academic strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and goals. Using this information the teacher decides which level of the program is right for each student, and all of them get to work on their own, although the teacher stands ready to advise any one who is struggling or has questions. About every two weeks the teacher holds a conference with each student to assess his or her progress and provide guidance for moving on. With this type of program the teacher acts as a consultant and counselor, and, apparently does none of the whole class teaching that has been the tradition for so long.

In still another type of program all students work with their assigned programs at the same time for  90 minutes a day. When they are finished, each one fills out an “exit slip”, which is a brief quiz on their understanding of what they had been working on. Their answers to that quiz are evaluated and then the teacher decides what each student should work on the next day.

The reality I see in these programs is that they are far from being personal. The concepts of what various students need and want to learn were originally determined by publishing company workers  far removed reality and committed to creating programs that will fit a type of student, not an individual. Although I do not doubt the knowledge or skills of the producers, I believe that inevitably their products are “One size fits many.”

Several experts agree and have spoken out for changes in the programs’ names or  different types of programs. They have no problem with the wide use of technology in the classroom, but they believe it should be used differently for real learning. Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan is one of those experts who has spoken out against the existing programs and suggested what true personalized learning should be: “They are nothing more than tailoring the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience.”

Of course I agree. Although my years as a teacher and a school principal are long past, I st understand that education is, and rightly should be, influenced by changes in the world and its inhabitants.  Although programs labeled “Personalized Learning” aren’t the answer we have been waiting for, the real one may be just around the corner.



Education Makes Contact With the New World

As you know it’s very rare that I find news about something good happening in public education. But yesterday I read an article about a project in my home town, Portland, called PLACE, which stands for People Leading Across City Environments. That project is so far in line with my own beliefs about education that I couldn’t believe I had never heard about it before.

I will describe the program below and give my opinions about it afterward, as usual.

For the first time many Portland young people who are high school students are participating in real world learning experiences as the result of a youth-leadership program called PLACE. The program was instituted at Catlin Gabel School, a private school, but later made available to young people from all schools for a modest fee. So far students from two dozen public and private schools have joined the program and participated in projects on everything from eliminating food insecurity to improving neighborhood walkability.

Since it was created in 2010, PLACE has been using teaching methods that are very different from the norm. Its emphasis is on project-based, interdisciplinary, and inquiry-driven learning for diverse groups of students. Through it they learn research and community-engagement skills that ordinarily are taught only in college courses. As a result students produce professional quality reports that have been submitted to various public organizations and accepted as accurate and  useful.

Originally, PLACE was a summer program for Catlin Gabel students only, but now it offers urban study classes during the regular school year for high school students from around the city. It has also trained some young people to lead community forums and to write publishable articles about community change.

Recently, PLACE moved its official site from Catlin Gabel to a storefront building in a socially and economically mixed urban neighborhood. In addition to joining the PLACE program, students may come to the site for after-school tutoring, help in writing college applications, and writers’ workshop.

In addition to its Portland activities, PLACE programs are beginning to spread to other cities across the country, attempting to bring more authentic learning and deeper engagement to more students. Already there are active programs in Washington, DC, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Atlanta, Georgia. Although most of those programs are sponsored by private schools they are open to students across their communities, just as they are in Portland.

According to students who have participated in PLACE, the skills learned are powerful and practical. Not only do they help with later college courses, they also teach skills useful in a range of jobs in the real world.

Another significant feature of the PLACE program is its emphasis on bringing together students from various schools and different socio-academic backgrounds. For all students this new approach to learning provides benefits well beyond more customary classes. One of the early joiners says, “PLACE” has morphed me into a different person. Before this, I didn’t know how I could engage with my community. This project taught me how to reach out, how to organize. It taught me actual skills I will need in life—how to conduct myself in an interview, how to present myself to people who have the power and ability to make something happen. Nothing in [regular] school is this engaging.”

I have to say that everything I read in this article pleased me. My only suggestion is that PLACE be moved into public schools where it would be more accessible to all students. I’m not sure why that hasn’t yet happened already and why I’ve heard nothing about it before. The skeptic in me suspects it is because a traditional program would have to be removed in order for PLACE to be brought in. Also, PLACE would soon be in such demand that other courses would have to be eliminated, too. Those things would be a harsh blow to all the education “experts” who claim that algebra, chemistry, and a foreign language are absolutely necessary to prepare all students for “college and the workplace”  They would have to admit that they were wrong and that the 21st century calls for new ideas and new practices in our schools.

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Sweet Little ESSA Is No More Friendly Than Mean Old NCLB

With the weather still so awful here in Portland I finally got around to reading some things I had ignored because of the challenges they presented. One of them was a booklet produced by Education Week explaining the intricacies of ESSA. Until now my general understanding has been that ESSA is an improvement on NCLB because it returns many decisions about what schools should be doing to the states. What I did not realize before was that state and local accountability are increasing under ESSA and the penalties are just as bad as those  under NCLB.

In returning the authority for educational decisions to the states under ESSA the federal government has also assigned several new responsibilities. Once the new law is put into practice each state will be required to write its own school improvement plans, set into motion systems for monitoring the operations of all schools, design new report cards, select or create new student tests, and design a new teacher evaluation system. In addition, they will be expected to provide assistance to any school– or all schools– showing poor student performance.

Rather than trying to explain all the new state responsibilities in my own words, I will quote one section of the Education Week  booklet verbatim. (It is more lucid than I could be.)


States must continue to submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of education, as they did under No Child Left Behind. These new ESSA plans will start in the 2017-18 school year. The names of peer reviewers have to be made public, and a state can get a hearing if the department rejects its plan.


States can pick their own goals, both a big long-term goal and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address students’ proficiency on tests, English language proficiency, and graduation rates.

Goals have to set an expectation for closing the achievement and graduation gaps for “subgroups” of students, including English language learners, those in special education, and those in poverty.


States need to incorporate a total of five types of indicate of school performance into their accountability systems, four of them specifically linked to academics, plus at least one that reflects school quality or student success


New under ESSA, this indicator of school quality aims to get at factors that may not be captured by the typical test and metric-driven measures of school performance. Possibilities include student engagement, educator engagement access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety, or whatever else the state thinks makes sense. This factor will apply for schools at all levels—elementary, middle, and high schools.


In addition to the school quality indicator, the lineup for elementary and middle schools must include students’ proficiency on state tests and English-language proficiency, plus some other academic factor that can be broken out by student group, such as growth on stet tests.


In addition to the school quality indicator, high schools will be judged by basically the same set of indicators as elementary and middle schools, except that graduation rates will have to be part of the mix. Graduation rates could take the place of one academic indicator.


States have to incorporate participation rates on state tests into their accountability systems. (Schools with less than 95 percent participation are supposed to have that included.) But the participation rate is a stand-alone factor, not a separate indicator on its own.


It will be up to the states to decide how much the individual indicators will count, although the academic factors (tests, graduation rates, and so on) will have to count “much” more as a group than the indicators that get at students’ opportunity learn and postsecondary readiness.


States must identify and intervene in schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent of performers. These schools have to be identified at least once every three years.

States have to identify and intervene in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less.

States, with districts, have to identify schools where groups of students are struggling.


For the bottom 5 percent of schools and for high schools with high dropout rates, districts will work with teachers and other staff members to come up with an evidence-based plan for improvement. States will monitor the turnaround efforts.

If a school continues to founder, the state will be required to step in with its own plan after more than four years. The state could take control of the school, fire the principal, turn the school into a charter, or do something else entirely.

Districts could also allow for public school choice that enables students to transfer out of seriously low-performing schools, but they have to give priority to the students who need it most.

In a school where specific groups of students are struggling, the school must come up with an evidence-based plan to help the particular group of students falling behind, such as students of different races or those in special education. If the school continues to fall short, the district must step in, though there’s no specified timeline. States and districts can also come up with a “comprehensive improvement plan” in schools where certain groups are chronically underperforming despite local interventions.

States can set aside up to 7 percent of all their federal Title I money for school improvement, up from 4 percent in the previous version of the law.


States still have to test students in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 on once in high school, and break down the resulting data for whole schools, plus for different subgroups of students. ESSA maintains the federal requirement for 95 percent student participation in tests.

States are prohibited from combining different sets of students into so-called “super subgroups” for accountability purposes.

Up to seven states can apply to try out local tests for a limited time, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Districts can use nationally recognized tests at the high school level, with state permission, such as the SAT or ACT.

States can create their own testing opt-out laws, and states decide what should happen in schools that miss targets.


Well, that’s it folks! The Feds have managed to take all the things they wished for under NCLB and make them state responsibilities under ESSA.  Notice, also, that they are promising to take revenge on schools where parents opt-out too many students from testing.

To me it looks like nothing will be better for states or schools under ESSA than it was before. And the assumption that our schools are far worse and our students far less competent than those in other countries still prevails among policy makers. They can’t admit—even to themselves—that their real goal is to have our international test scores be higher than Singapore’s the next time around.

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