The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Let’s Look Again at School Budgeting

Recently, I‘ve read several articles about how tight school budgets are in many states, including, Oregon, my home state. Since I was a school principal from 1974 to 2000, in two different states, I think I know quite a bit about school budgets and how to manipulate them in order to make them— morally and legally —  serve well a school and its students. Although I can’t include descriptions of everything I did with budgets over so many years, what I wish to emphasize is the independence I had to budget for the things we needed, rather than following the preferences of superiors and state officials.

P.S Because my husband will be having surgery this Friday, I will not be able to post anything here for the rest of the week and, perhaps, the beginning of next week.

 My first experience in manipulating a school budget came when I was the English department chair at a Wisconsin high school. Our district had adopted a new set of high school English textbooks, but they were not what our teachers wanted. They felt that their students would be better served by choosing and reading good modern fiction books available in paperback. So, I ignored the recommendation to buy new textbooks and put our allotted funds into the category of “Additional classroom Literature.” Our request was approved and we got the literature we wanted instead of the textbooks. As a result we had several years of eager student reading and lively discussions. Since we still had old English textbooks on hand, we were also were able to use them when students needed to read poetry, essays, or short stories

Later, as an elementary principal in the same school district, I was able to avoid purchasing reading textbooks and workbooks, and instead to get a variety of high quality children’s literature. In addition, because most of the paperbacks purchased wore well over time, we were able buy more new titles in the following years and to discard the few old books that had not been popular. We also had enough money left  to buy newspaper and magazine subscriptions for all classrooms.

When I moved to Oregon I obtained a job as the superintendent/principal of a small rural school district that had only one elementary school and one middle school. There, I had considerable freedom to manipulate our school budget. At that time the overall amount allocated to our schools was decided by our school board and voted on by the community; so I was careful to explain each year what we were purchasing and why. It was very important to maintain the community’s respect and trust for our use of their money.

Our patterns of purchasing materials in Oregon were very similar to those in Wisconsin. Teachers at all levels wanted modern literature for students of different ages and abilities, not commercial textbooks or workbooks. Wherever possible, they also wanted some literature that fitted in with our curricula in history and geography.

As for math, when I came there teachers were used to producing their own student materials to supplement old textbooks.To bring them up to date in the field, I provided a week-long summer seminar that covered new ideas and processes in mathematics. Afterward, we bought some new math textbooks for teachers only.

Because we did not spend money on student textbooks or workbooks our school budget had considerable slack in it for us to spend on extras that would make our classrooms more appealing and useful to students, such as an aquarium and floor cushions.

Only once did I have a problem with budgeting. That year we received a small government grant that I planned to use to buy student reward items for our end of the year school auction; and I reported my intentions to the department that gave us the grant. I believed that my intentions were legitimate because the students who would receive the new items had learned important skills and behaviors in their school jobs that would serve them in the future.

Shortly after submitting my report however, I was visited by two state representatives who told me in no uncertain terms that I could not spend the grant money as I intended. It was meant for educational materials that would remain in the school for all student to use, not given over to particular students. If we did not plan to use the grant funds properly we would have to return them to the state.

At first I argued for the legitimacy of my actions; the items to be purchased would certainly benefit the students who received them. But I lost that argument and finally agreed to move the grant funds into our library account and use it to buy books and other library materials that would serve all students. At the same time, however, I moved a similar amount from our regular library funding into the account for our school auction. In the end our revised budget was approved and we were able to keep our grant and use it properly.

Although I am aware that school funding is tighter today than it was back then, and that school principals do not have as much leeway as I had, I can’t help wondering if schools couldn’t find more slack by reconsidering how they spend their allocated funds. Could they not cut back in areas that eat up tons of money and provide so little benefit, such as student workbooks, or figure out better ways to distribute what students truly need, by housing such things as reference materials in the library rather than in each classroom?

Beyond those changes, couldn’t states cut back on such things as the length and frequency of student tests, the number of supervisors and coaches assigned to monitoring school operations, or the emphasis on collecting all kinds of data?

I am also concerned about the costs of “personalized learning”, which involves having much more technology in every classroom and many types of programs to fit the needs of different students, plus the re-training of teachers to be mentors of students and data managers. Is this concept really a step foreword in helping students learn better or merely another pipe dream?

Finally, I wonder if the basics of teaching and learning have really changed as much in the past 20 years as many policy makers contend. Although I don’t question the value of having various forms of technology or the reality of the increase in our ability  to communicate, I believe that the basics of human learning are eternal and that students respond best to teachers who are well educated and sincerely dedicated to their intellectual, moral, and social development.

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How Students Learn About the “World of Work”

Today’s post refers to an article sent to me by my granddaughter, Sarah. It appeared in “The Huffington Post” in 2014, describing a proposal in Congress that students on the federal school lunch program should ”pay’’ for their lunches by being required to work at cleaning up the cafeteria after the lunch hour. Although a few legislators agreed with this proposal, it was opposed by the majority and never came up for a vote.

Like most of those legislators, I think the proposal was a terrible idea. No child should be  forced to work and publically humiliated for being poor and receiving assistance from the federal government. However, I believe that there are good ways for students to serve their schools, learn important skills, and be rewarded for their efforts. Let me tell you what happened at our middle school in the small Oregon school district where I was the superintendent/ principal for 12 years.

In the beginning we created a handful of cafeteria jobs for special needs students and paid them the legal minimum wage for part time workers. When other students found out about those jobs and the workers’ salaries, many of them wanted jobs, too, and let me know about it. Although I thought that having more students work around the school in there free time was a good idea, there was no way we could pay them all. So, I appointed a committee of teachers and parents to look into the situation and see what we could do to employ and benefit students without bankrupting the school.

The solution the committee came up with was to create jobs for more students to assist teachers and other staff members. They would work for no more than 30 minutes a day over the noon hour, during a study period, or before or after school. Workers would be trained and supervised by the staff member they were assisting. Instead of a salary they would be given a number of “points“ for their  work that could be “spent” for special school events or recreational activities in the outside community, or saved for bidding on desirable items at an end-of-the-year school auction. In order to provide the auction items members of our committee agreed to solicits local businesses for contributions in the form of items or money. In addition, I agreed to set aside $1500 from our school budget to buy whatever else was needed for the school auction to make sure that all workers were fairly compensated for the points they had earned.

Although the planning process and its execution were somewhat complicated, our school staff got right down to work on it, identifying the situations they needed help with and agreeing to train and supervise workers assigned to them. One teacher who volunteered to manage the program was given a free period everyday to do so. She interviewed all applicants, assigned regular workers and substitutes to jobs, kept track of the points students earned, and counseled those who were having problems.

Student applicants had to fill out a job application, gather recommendations, and be interviewed. To verify the time they had worked and to have their points recorded, students had to check-in and check-out formally at the school office.

By the middle of the first school year, it was clear that our program was working even better than we had anticipated. Many students applied for jobs, about 35 were hired, plus a few substitutes. Right from the beginning workers were prompt and reliable, performed well, and appeared to enjoy their jobs. Staff members, especially our custodian and cafeteria workers, were very pleased with their helpers. The only serious problem we had was that more students wanted to work than the number of jobs avalable. We fixed that problem by limiting the length of jobs to one semester, and then opening them to new applicants.

To our surprise, there were some unanticipated positive outcomes. Most workers saved their points for the end of the year auction rather than spending them on mid-year events. In addition, school attendance and behavior of some workers improved markedly. Plus, many workers publicaly expressed pride and responsibility for maintaining the appearance and condition of what they referred to as “our school.” At times, some of them would even rebuke other students for such things as dropping scraps on the floor or not clearing their desks at the end of the day.

Our Jobs program continued successfully for the next five years.  We lost it because the state decided that districts without a high school had to merge with larger districts where there was one.  We also lost our middle school and several teachers. However, the teacher who had been in charge  of the program volunteered to move to our elementary school where she adapted the program she had managed to the needs and competencies of younger children.

As I reflect on the program we created and maintained successfully for very little money or extra work, I think a similar program would be workable and successful in other middle schools.  It would also provide learning of important skills for many of those students who wanted such an experience.  On the other hand, however, a school’s size could make the program impractical. A large middle school would find it very difficult to create and maintain. Yet, there is also a possible solution: creating two–or even three–schools within a single building.  I have advocated that earlier in other posts and may describe it more fully in the future.

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A Summary of “The Manufactured Crisis”

In today’s post I will summarize, as best I can, what is probably the most important information in the book, “The Manufactured Crisis” (TMC) by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, that repudiates the assertions about the failure of American education in “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR).

 In the preface of TMC the authors explain their reasons for writing this book:

“In 1983 the Reagan White House began to make sweeping claims attacking the conduct and achievement of America’s public schools—claims that were contradicted by evidence we knew about. We thought at first this might have been a mistake, but these and related hostile and untrue claims were soon to be repeated by many leaders of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The claims were also embraced in many documents issued by industrialists and business leaders and were endlessly repeated and embroidered on by the press. And, as time passed even leading members of the education community—including a number of people whom we knew personally—began to state these lies as facts.”

Immediately afterward  the authors begin to offer evidence to refute the most significant ANAR charge which was: “Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.” They turn first to the student scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) between 1963 and 1975. Although the aggregate scores for those years did decrease markedly, the numbers and qualifications of the students taking the SAT were changing at the same time. Earlier, the applicants were mostly students with strong high school records, applying to the most highly respected colleges or universities. Later on, a larger proportion of students taking the SAT were those with mediocre high school records, hoping only to qualify for some kind of higher education.

To make the authors’ conclusion absolutely clear I offer their final statement about the changes in SAT scores:

“So, although critics have trumpeted the alarming news that aggregate national SAT scores fell during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this decline indicates nothing about the performance of American schools. Rather, it signals that students from a broader range of backgrounds were getting interested in college, which should have been cause for celebration, not alarm.”

From there Berliner and Biddle go on to discuss another test, the American College Testing Program (ACT) that many high school seniors took instead of the SAT. Several education critics have claimed that this test demonstrated a serious decline in student performance, resulting from the inadequacy of their high school education.  But the TMC authors disagree, refusing to give any credibility to those test scores because their content was changed from year to year in order to connect with the changes in schools’ curricula. Their conclusion is that “the average ACT test scores for any given year should not be compared with those of other years because the tests they came from were measuring somewhat different things,”

The next test that the authors examine is The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the “The nation’s report card.” That test was—and is still—given to randomly selected national samples of students of different ages  to measure their competency in math, science, reading, writing, geography, and computer skills. According to the authors,“In general, the NAEP tests have shown very little change over the past two decades… the average NAEP scores earned by students across the nation in reading and mathematics for various years between the early 1970s and late 1980s have hardly changed during that period.” They also report that the “NAEP data indicated that white students have recently held their own in mathematics and that black and Hispanic students have gained significantly.”

Although Berliner and Biddle also look at the data from other tests less widely taken by high school students, they find no evidence that their competence declined over the years cited by ANAR or in those years that followed.

Finally, to consolidate their conclusion that there had been no decline in the performance of students who had gone through the public school system, the authors  look at graduating college students who wanted to go on to professional training schools. To do so they examined the results of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admissions Test, (GMAT), the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). In all of them they found that the test results improved or stayed stable over time

As I read the fully detailed reports on all these tests of student performance, I could not think of any other reliable source of information that might have been investigated. But even if one or two sources showing contrary evidence were overlooked, that would not be enough to persuade me that American education was failing back then or is doing so now.

Frankly, I cannot understand what motivated the production of “A Nation at Risk” and why so many politicians, citizens, and the national press accepted its claims so readily for so long without any evidence. More puzzling to me, however, is why  “No Child Left Behind” was passed by Congress years later and why the”Every Student Succeeds Act” was passed in 2015 after the clear and unquestionable failure of NCLB. My greatest concerns, however, are what comes next in the undeniable political efforts to destroy public education and what we, as citizens who believe that it is essential in a democracy, can do to save it.

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We Are “A Nation at Risk” Again; This Time From a Different Threat

As many of you well know, two days ago I made the mistake of publishing the rough beginning of an essay I never finished. Today, I finally finished that essay, edited it, and now post it here.

Right after hearing that Vice President Mike Pence had broken the tie in the voting for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education I went to my bookshelves and took out two books that I hadn’t looked at in years. One was “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR), by a committee appointed by the Department of education in 1983; the other was “The Manufactured Crisis” (TMC)  a book by college professors, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, published in 1995.  Because both books are old stuff, many of us have forgotten their importance and the rest of us are too young to know anything about them. Today I will summarize and comment on ANAR, but keep my report on TMC for another day.

“A Nation at Risk,” published in 1983, is in the form of a letter meant to arouse the public to the terrible conditions of America’s public schools at that time and the negative consequences lying ahead. Rather than describe all the claims and remedies suggested in it, I will quote the major allegations in the order in which they appear. I decided to do things that way because my own words cannot  convey the strong negative tone of the original presentation. Here goes.

“We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops.”

“If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all.”

“Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life.”

“The educational dimensions of the risk before us have been amply documented in testimony received by the Commission. For example:

International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.

About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.

Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.

Over half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school.

The College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.

College Board achievement tests also reveal consistent declines in recent years in such subjects as physics and English.

Both the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement on the SATs (i.e., those with scores of 650 or higher) have also dramatically declined.

Many 17-year-olds do not possess the “higher order” intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.

There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.

Between 1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics courses taught in those institutions.

Average tested achievement of students graduating from college is also lower.

Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation.

These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating rapidly.”

“We are confident that America can address this risk. If the tasks we set forth are initiated now and our recommendations are fully realized over the next several years, we can expect reform of our Nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.”

“It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.”

“These raw materials, combined with the unparalleled array of educational organizations in America, offer us the possibility to create a Learning Society, in which public, private, and parochial schools; colleges and universities; vocational and technical schools and institutes; libraries; science centers, museums, and other cultural institutions; and corporate training and retraining programs offer opportunities and choices for all to learn throughout life.”

“And perhaps most important, citizens know and believe that the meaning of America to the rest of the world must be something better than it seems to many today. Americans like to think of this Nation as the preeminent country for generating the great ideas and material benefits for all mankind. The citizen is dismayed at a steady 15-year decline in industrial productivity, as one great American industry after another falls to world competition. The citizen wants the country to act on the belief, expressed in our hearings and by the large majority in the Gallup Poll, that education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda. “

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Dear Readers,

I sincerely regret the fragment of a blog post that came to you today. I was certainly not ready to send out anything, and hitting the”publish” button was a careless mistake.. Tomorrow I will complete the piece I started and send it out to you.


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