The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Horses and Children Like Water that Tastes Good

on April 11, 2017

Last week and a few times over the past two years I have written about good things happening in our public schools. Today I want to examine the forces that have prevented many schools from being successful and those that enabled others  to succeed.


When my sister was a child she was a very picky eater. My mother’s response to her refusal to eat all the food on her plate was to order her to remain at the table until her food was gone. As I remember things, my sister often cried; at other times she put her head down on the table and pretended to be asleep. Although my mother continued to insist on my sister eating everything, her strategies almost always failed. Ultimately she would give up and release my sister since it was almost bedtime anyway.

Just as my mother never learned how to solve the food refusal problem, similar scenarios exist in many of our public schools today. There, students are held to unrealistic grade level standards, strict grading of their performance, strong discipline, long and difficult work assignments, and continual testing. At some schools they are also urged to develop “grit”,“mindfulness”, and “growth mindset”.

As yet, those practices haven’t succeeded in changing the performance of most students. At countless schools test scores remain flat, absenteeism is rampant, and too many students are leaving high school without graduating. In their efforts to change such disappointing results, state departments have tried several tactics such as sending in experts to retrain teachers, replacing school principals and teachers, and, ultimately, closing down “failing schools”. So far none of those actions seem to work, and a lot of school funds have gone down the drain.

Strangely enough legislators at all levels and school district officials seem to be as clueless as my mother. They’ve never learned the secrets of student success. Only a few schools and school districts, such as the ones I have written about, have figured out how to solve the “stubborn horse” dilemma that exists in human beings as well as animals. They came to realize that “when the water tastes good, the horse will drink it.”

What does “good water “ taste like in a school? Appealing courses, meaningful work assignments, student collaboration, reasonable expectations for student progress and behavior, supportive teachers and principals, extra curricular activities available for everyone, and all the other structures and actions that make school meaningful and rewarding. Or, as I have said many times before, schools that emphasize vigor rather than rigor.

Tell me, is there any way we can change the destructive beliefs and practices that are destroying our public schools and dragging down so many children with them?

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