The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Give Me Your Opinion

Why, you may wonder, am I posting two days in a row.  Because something interesting happened today and I want your opinions.  Below are two letters published in the Sunday “Oregonian”, presented here in the same order as in the newspaper. Both refer to an article published last Tuesday and that I wrote about here on Wednesday.

The article about Oregon City High school was the best description of a successful school I’ve ever seen.  Instead of just heralding the school’s high 2016 graduation rate, the article described at length the principal’s and teachers’ recent efforts to motivate and support all students.  It also included several student quotes showing their appreciation of teachers’ efforts and their new positive feelings about school.  In covering both the teachers’ and the students’ views, the article did an excellent job of helping readers to understand how a school’s actions can make a big difference in student performance.

For far too long, media all over the U.S. have fed the public a story about our failing schools, highlighting their low test scores and graduation rates without looking into why those things were happening or how they might be changed. I applaud Betsy Hammond and The Oregonian/Oregon Live for showing us how at least one school has found its way to producing student success.

Joanne Yatvin


Regarding the article about the principal addressing the staff at Oregon City High School where the staff were told that they had “given” over 1000 F’s (“Oregon school school success story; How Oregon City High got 94 percent of students to graduation),” January 31).  I would prefer to think that over 1000 students earned failing marks.  After teaching for more than 30 years, I can tell you that pressure by parents, counselors, and administration for teachers to pass students or to give them  A’s is plentiful. Just showing up to class is no reason to pass.  Did the student actually learn something?

David Fletcher


Why Can’t ESSA Mean What it Says?

There was icy weather in Portland again yesterday, so I got around to reading the January 18 issue of Education Week more thoroughly than I did the first time. One long and complicated article about ESSA giving states the freedom to set their own goals irritated me rather than giving me hope. Below I will describe what ESSA requires and explain why I disapprove.

Under ESSA, the law that supplanted NCLB, each state must set its own school improvement goals and a timeline for reaching them. The areas to be covered are students’ academic achievement, graduation rates, and English language proficiency. But a state may add others, such as student attendance rates.

What bothers me is the law’s focus on student improvement rather than school improvement. It suggests that schools should tighten the screws on students and teachers, just as was done under NCLB. But since those tactics failed, I wonder why states shouldn’t be allowed to try a different approach, such as changing some of the courses offered and the treatment of students. A couple of pieces I’ve posted recently were about schools that did those things, and as a result also made progress in the areas ESSA now calls for.

In case you don’t remember, I will list below several of the school changes I’ve suggested in the past that I’d like states to be able to enact.

Smaller high schools that would help to build a sense of community

         Smaller class sizes so that teachers would get to know each student well

         Less frequent testing at the elementary level; say, only grades 3 and 5

 Teacher groups selecting instructional materials and  student


         Reduction in the number and types of required high school courses

         More high school electives that appeal to the interests of students

         A system for high school students to make-up credits in order to graduate

         on time

         A de-emphasis on using data to judge the quality of student performance

         Grading systems, at all levels, that encourage students rather than

         persuading  many  of them that they are failures

In offering these suggestions, I’m not saying that school administrators, teachers and students should get a free ride, but that everyone would do better if schools were set up for meaningful learning rather than drudgery and failure.  I wonder if there is any hope that we can persuade Betsy DeVos and her staff of that.

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Hurray for Another Good School!

This morning I read an article in our local paper, the Oregonian, that made my day—and perhaps a whole week. The article, by Betsy Hammond, described what Oregon City High School has been doing to achieve a 94% graduate rate in 2016.

 Oregon City is a suburban, middle class town with approximately 35,000 people. Its basic industries are manufacturing and technology. Its local high school, with a little more than 2000 students, has always done well on test scores and graduation rates. But last year’s graduation rates make it outstanding, especially because Oregon as a whole is plagued by low rates.

In 2012 the school’s graduation rate was 86%, which was considered acceptable. But in 2016 the rate had risen to 94%, while the state rate was 75%. What happened?

In brief, the teachers had changed their attitudes and behavior toward students, and the school structure had developed some new practices that made it a more helpful and productive place for everyone.

According to the Oregonian article, everything started when the principal,Tom Lovell, told the faculty in a meeting that they had given 2,033 “F” grades to students the previous year. That worked out to be almost one “F” for every student.

After mulling over that shocking fact, the school staff dedicated itself to becoming a place where all students would succeed in their classes and graduate on time. The basic changes made were individual attention for struggling students, a school food pantry, free mental health therapy, and a credit catch-up program. Although all these changes have been beneficial to various students, the most significant change was creating a climate that provides teacher respect and friendliness to all students and personal attention to those who are not doing well in one or more classes or seem not very interested in school.

What have teachers done, specifically? Several began to donate some of their personal time to tutoring students who needed help, while others made it a point to check-in regularly and hold conversations with students who were overly quiet and seemed mentally or emotionally somewhere else. All teachers started working to make their classrooms more informal and friendly.

The most significant school action, however, was to create a credit recovery program led by a math teacher and an English teacher. Those teachers meet with a small group of students daily to help them complete and get credit for courses they failed to finish the previous year. One important daily event in the classroom is a talk circle where students share their successes, hopes and current challenges and get advice from their classmates. While most of the teaching focuses on math or English, there are also some computerized lessons in other areas. On the classroom wall is a list of the courses students have completed and earned credit for over the current term.

Throughout the news article there were several positive statements from students about the help they’ve received and the goodness of certain teachers. The implication seemed to be that this was true of all teachers.

As I have said in earlier posts, the strength of a school is not its academic rigor but its willingness to be human and to treat young people gently and with understanding. I also appreciate this school’s rising graduation rate and efforts to increase it even more. Still, there is one thing missing or not mentioned: student participation in running their school. I strongly believe that students should be included in school decision making, such as writing the rules of behavior, serving on committees to select new courses and extra-curricular activities, formulating a dress code, etc. They should also have roles in  non-academic areas such as running a school store, working in the school lunchroom or school garden, producing a school newspaper, or assisting other students who are having attendance problems or being bullied.

The point I have been trying to make over time is that a good school not only educates its students well, it also involves them in activities that make them feel they have an important role in serving the school and their classmates.

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