The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Horses and Children Like Water that Tastes Good

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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More Good News About Schools from Tulsa Oklahoma

An article that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times describes the extent of school reform achieved in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The major changes were serving the needs and interests of students and parents.  

The Union Public Schools district in Tulsa has managed to create a variety of appealing schools and family services in a short period of time. Beginning in 2004, the district began to convert its traditional schools into community schools that serve students and parents exceptionally well, especially those living in poverty. To accommodate community needs schools now open early so parents can drop off their children on their way to work, and they also stay open late in the afternoon so parents can pick them up on their way home. Several schools also operate during the summer for the same reasons. In addition, school services assist parents who are seeking jobs, provide clothing, food, furniture and bikes, to needy families, and help teenage mothers to stay in school by providing day care for their young children.

To give students the full range of educational opportunities all schools offer art, music, and science classes, along with personal tutoring, if needed. After school activities at most schools include choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a vegetable garden, and a place for students to work on a school newspaper.

One of the newest changes in the district is a strong emphasis on science and math in selected schools. The curriculum in those schools features hands-on activities in those areas that are both practical and creative. As the former Tulsa school superintendent, Cathy Burden, said, “Focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids” In those new STEM classes students create games, build both practical and imaginative objects, and produce algorithms for their creations so that others can make them, too.

All these school changes have paid off dramatically. Attendance and test scores have risen, and school suspensions have dropped. Also, the high school graduation rate rose to 89 percent in 2016, which was up 15 points from what it was in 2007. The one unfortunate piece of data mentioned is the low pay for teachers: less than $50,000 for experienced teachers with high degrees.

In reading about the district’s funding I found myself incredulous. How could a school district do so much with so little money, which amounts to only $7,605 a year for each student? Perhaps, the unreasonably low teacher salaries are making it possible. If so, that bothers me.

On the other hand, I am very pleased by the school services and curriculum changes that have been made and their effects on students. Because the author of the article, David L Kirp, professor at the University of California and respected researcher and author, spent time visiting several of the district’s schools and talked to students, I accept his views of the successes in this school district.

From my perspective as a retired school district superintendent, principal, and teacher, the creation of community schools, the extra services to parents and students, and the emphasis on appealing school programs seem beneficial to all students and desirable for any school district.  The only obstacles I see are insufficient budgets in most states and too much decision making from the top down.

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Students Create and Run a Program to Help Immigrants Become Citizens

Sadly, it’s a rare time when I find out about something positive happening in America’s schools. So what a thrill it was to read an article in The Oregonian about high school students running a successful program to help immigrants obtain American citizenship. Here’s the story below.

While reading our local newspaper yesterday I found a brief article about groups of students from Portland’s Lincoln High School who have been running a non-profit program since 2009 to help immigrants qualify for American citizenship.

The students who operate this program are members of the school’s award winning “Constitution Team”.  Danny Cohen, a student, has become the executive director of the program.  Since anyone who has competed in the formal contest may not do that again, those young people who worked so hard to learn about our federal government have found a new way to use their knowledge and skills to teach others the basics of our national system

Recently, the Lincoln team also won a $49,970 grant from the State Farm Insurance Company, which has enabled them to advertise their program and attract more enrollees, award modest scholarships to help pay the naturalization fees, buy iPads for student practice, and provide a number of pre-recorded lessons.

At this time about 60 Lincoln students teach classes held in public libraries around Portland. According to the feedback the group has been getting, their work is much admired and many adults in the community would like to get involved, too.

Unfortunately, the article gives no information about how many immigrants have enrolled in the past or currently, or how successful their training has been for them. Nevertheless, I am strongly impressed by the existence of the program itself and can imagine its positive effects for the enrollees and their teachers.

As I have argued before, very important elements of the education process are students’ opportunities to try out their skills and knowledge in real world experiences. Those things should be available for all students throughout their school experience, but in today’s schools they may not be happening at all. There is altogether too much emphasis on student demonstrations of learning through classroom assignments, written work, and tests; and no time or enthusiasm for real world experiences. To make things worse, most of the after school activities for elementary level kids and jobs for high school students no longer exist.

What I would like to see are real world activities for all students at all grade levels. Many different kinds of original speaking, writing, designing, dramatizing, interviewing, investigating, building, and researching can begin in the classroom, and the resulting products can be moved outward to reach parents, friends, and strangers.  Instant success would not always be the result, but that is how young people learn to operate in the adult world.

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