The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Good News From Portland’s Schools

My long holiday weekend included many pleasant events including reading an article in The Oregonian: Early Learning Program Reaps Lasting Benefits that reported positive results from a five-year study of a special program for young children who would begin kindergarten the following school year.

Not only did a three-week kindergarten-prep program show positive results for children about to enter kindergarten in Portland, Oregon, it is quite inexpensive compared to year long pre-school classes dealing with the same issues. The program, available at a dozen of the district’s high-poverty schools, focuses on children whose primary language is not English, and is held during the summer months. Parents pay nothing and the school district spends about $1300 per school.

The program, launched in 2010, introduces children and their parents to the schools that will become their home base for the next six years of elementary education, and is led by teachers from that base. In addition, the program includes twice-a-week school meetings for parents that focus on the ways they can support their children’s learning from then on.

The major thrust of the program is to make children familiar and relaxed with school rules, routines, and expectations and parents feel at home with their child’s school. As the program manager, Nancy Hauth said about the effects on children, “this program just overall reduces the stress because they get to practice what they’re going to experience in the Fall.” She also acknowledged a powerful effect on participating parents: “What the program is doing is creating parent leaders.”

In addition to the good feelings expressed by children, parents, and the participating teachers, the research done by the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research over a 5 year period found lasting positive impacts for 450 participating children, which included better school attendance rates and higher literacy skills that continued through later grades.

I view this program as a win-win deal for children, participating parents, the school; and the school district. When I was a principal I saw what a difference opening opportunities for parents’ involvement made for them and us.  We worked together, and they helped us by being our advisers, critics, defenders, workers, and truth-tellers. I wish that kind of relationship for all parents and their schools.

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Is More Money for High Poverty Schools  Worth Fighting For?

Today’s post is based on an article in the New York Times, It Turns Out Spending More Probably Does Improve Education, by Kevin Carey and Elizabeth A. Harris, which has been sitting on my computer screen for several months. Nevertheless, with state school budgets for next year now being determined and Betsy DeVos the head of the Department of Education, I think it gives timely information to consider and, perhaps, to act on.

For many years politicians have been almost unanimous in believing that spending more money doesn’t help public schools to do a better job of educating their students. As a result, many of them don’t have any qualms about reducing the funds for their state’s schools while claiming that they are just being realistic in tough times. As citizens we should question whether they are doing the right thing or  acting on ignorance and prejudice against our public schools.

One fact we should know about is an important change in school funding practices that began in 1990 and still continues in several states. Up until that time almost all states followed the process of funding school districts equally, and that practice was supported by courts dealing with lawsuits against state actions. Then, for some reason, courts started to think about adequacy for high poverty schools and began to change their decisions, awarding higher funding to districts that had large numbers of low-income schools with most students living in poverty, and some others that needed extra school services. As a result, the schools that received extra funding started to show better results in terms of student grades and graduation rates

The differences in school funding since that time have made it possible for researchers to do comparative studies and report the results. According to one done by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and published last July, spending more money on high poverty schools has had a strong positive effect on students. In addition, another study done by researchers at the University of California was published around the same time by the Quarterly Journal of Economics. (QJE). It also reported positive outcomes in high poverty schools that received greater funding.

NBER’s research examined student test scores in 26 states that more generously funded high poverty schools, and compared them to students’ scores in 23 states that have stayed with equal funding for all schools. The scores looked at were the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, (NAEP), which is given to randomly selected students in schools throughout the country. Not only did the researchers look at students’ test scores but also at their race, income and school district. In addition, they went back over a long period of time, which enabled them to compare students’ scores in poor and wealthy districts before and after the changes in school spending. What they found was a consistent pattern of academic improvement in the schools that had received additional funding. Those changes bought at least twice as much achievement per dollar as previous projects that had decreased class sizes in the early grades

Although the QJE study looked at far different data than the NBER study, it also  showed positive results for better funding for high poverty schools. Rather than  looking at current test scores, those researchers focused on the long term results of extra funding.  They looked at how many years of schooling students had completed and the employment outcomes for about 1500 students, finding that a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending for poor children matched a rise in their adult wages , which were almost 10 percent higher than before.

According to the chief researcher, of the QJE study, C Kirabo Jackson, “The notion that spending doesn’t matter is just not true. We found that exposure to higher levels of public K-12 spending when you’re in school has a pretty large beneficial effect on the adult outcomes of kids, and that those effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.”

Although the power of extra funding to high poverty schools has been ratified by only two research projects, it fits with my experience and prejudices. I can’t tell from the article how schools used their additional funds, but I suspect that they made possible a more relaxed and positive school atmosphere for students and teachers. What I would like to see is new research done in schools receiving extra funding today that would include classroom observations, interviews with students and teachers, and records of how the additional money was spent. Such studies would verify-or refute- the existing studies and give reasons for higher funding where it is  needed.  It would certainly please me to read about the success of better funded schools than “our failing public schools” so often mentioned in news articles and politicians’ rants.

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An Old and Too Big Classroom Made Modern and Practical

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about insufficient school funding in a small New Jersey town. But, I wasn’t interested in writing about a situation so common these days. Instead, I was drawn to a large, detailed photo that accompanied the article. It presented some significant information about a particular school that I decided to write about today.

About 40 years ago, the town of Freehold, New Jersey built a small one room school to be used as a Montessori school for young children. Now the town is much larger  and needs to use the building as an elementary school for 500 students of all grades from 1-5. Unfortunately, however, the school district does not receive anywhere enough money to change the structure of the building into individual closed classrooms or to build a new traditional type of school.

What I found much more interesting than the article however, was the large photo that accompanied it. Very clearly, it showed not only the size of the building’s original single classroom, but also its current organization, contents and some of its students. To me the photo did not look staged; it seemed to show the school in its ordinary operations. What impressed me right away was the modernity and practicality of the room’s organization and contents– no traditional desks lined up in rows, no designated front or rear side to the room– that allowed students easy accessibility to what they needed. In addition, the room appeared to be well stocked with all kinds of learning materials, plus large worktables, and various pieces of technology. I could also see about 15 students there, all at work alone or with classmates at different places in the room. There were no teachers in sight. I have no idea why the room wasn’t full of them and students at the time.

To be honest, I admit that my opinion of the classroom as pictured was influenced by my experience in the other classrooms I once worked in or observed in my retirement. Everything looked so much more modern, useful, and well organized than anything I had ever known. And since the students did not look up at the camera or smile, I was convinced that they were not posing, but truly working as they appeared to be. I could imagine that it was a good place for kids to learn what they needed or most interested them.

If you’re wondering why I have spent so much attention and so many words to describing this scene, there are two reasons. First, it was clear that district or school officials had spent whatever funds they had wisely and made an inappropriate space as practical as possible. Second, you could see that students were using that space for work and were not confined to desks or distracted by other things going on nearby. Last, I saw in this classroom workplaces and learning materials that I consider up-to-date and appropriate for students’ deep learning. If a had a magic wand the only changes I‘d make would be more space within and between work areas and the use of some partitions to cut back on loud noise and visual distractions. Then I’d put all those good features into our present traditional schools.

P.S.  Look at the photo as indicated in two places above and let me know what you think.

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Why is Mathematics not Considered a Part of Our Lives?

Going through the most recent edition of Education Week I was drawn to an article that argued for the importance of math as well as reading in children’s homes. I write about that issue today because I agree basically, but I also see problems with making math a part of students’ lives.

In the elementary grades I did well in math but had no personal enthusiasm for it. In high school I took the three courses required: Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, but skipped Calculus. I didn’t even know what that title meant, and I was drawn instead to electives in literature and the arts. As a college freshman I took the one required math course, which I can no longer name or remember much about. I think the emphasis was on statistics.

Yet, in both my professional and personal life math has been a significant element. As a teacher I had to use math in tracking student attendance and calculating grades. I also had to figure out how to spend the money allotted to my classroom. Later, as a principal, I again had several calculations and spending decisions to make. I had to set times for music, art, and physical education, determine class sizes, and set teacher schedules. At the same time I was a wife and mother who had to make my spending fit the family income and set aside some funds for future needs.

In the ED Week article there is a strong argument for the importance of math learning for young children. First, the writer asserts that learning about numbers early in life helps students in their math classes, and, second, that such learning is a significant factor in ours personal lives from beginning to end.

The problem, as the writer sees it, is that most parents do not value mathematics or spend much time introducing it to their young children. In a survey of more than 2,500 parents both math and science were ranked lower in importance than reading. In addition, a large number of parents agreed with the statement “Skills in math are mostly useful for those that have careers related to math, so average Americans do not have much need for math skills.” As the result of such beliefs and the failure of parents to introduce math to their children, most students later see no connection between what is taught in math classes and their personal needs. Like me, they comply with their teachers’ requests and prepare for classroom tests, but never think of math as a part of their lives

Where the writer of this article and I part ways is on the role of math teachers. She does not mention that they have an obligation to make the connection between math skills and every day life, and most teachers seem to feel the same way. What I remember, and still see in math classrooms, are methods and facts taught for their own sake without any indication of their value outside of school. For example, a classroom exercise or homework assignment is likely to be a work sheet full of problems to be solved without any hint about their real world usefulness. Even when math problems are presented in written form describing a realistic situation, they rarely connect to students’ needs or interests, or require them to work things out physically. For example, students may be given distance and time problems on a worksheet, but never asked to actually try out two routes to a place near their homes, measure the distances, and compare the times consumed. They may also be given problems about the costs of items people typically purchase, but are rarely asked to predict how much money they will need to buy the things they want and figure out how they can economize.

I could name many other real life situations appropriate for students of different ages to work on as homework or classroom exercises that I have never read about or witnessed. If all math classes included such assignments, students and their parents might have a greater appreciation of mathematics as an important skill and its significance in their lives .

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Good News From a Connecticut School District

As I sat before my computer yesterday I had no idea what I would write about. Then, suddenly, a source that I sometimes use sent me to an article about a school district that has moved to teacher autonomy and leadership with many positive results:  Meriden Public Schools: Courageous Leadership and Innovation in Action. Below is the basic information, but I suggest that you to go to the source and read the whole article if you want to know about specific examples of school changes.

Under the leadership of its superintendent, Mark Benigni, the Meriden Public Schools district in Connecticut began to move toward a significant change in 2010. That change was to give voice and power to the district’s teachers, which began with dedicated time every day for them to meet with each other and talk about the changes they’d like to make in their classrooms. Right away teachers began to suggest new ways of doing things across the school district, and the superintendent began to put resources into activating those suggestions.

His first actions were investing in new professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators, moving to a student-centered teaching approach, and purchasing new technology aimed at serving individual student needs.

Today the 8000-student school district is humming with innovations and positive results. Suspensions are down 86 percent and expulsions 95 percent. In 2016 the district’s students produced the highest test scores in its’ history. Teachers say that the changes in teaching they’ve made have increased student engagement and successful learning considerably.

More significant than the physical changes in classroom practices and the improved student achievements, however, are the views teachers have of themselves. Now, they exude pride and confidence full time. They take on new responsibilities without being asked to do so, are eager to try out new teaching methods, and view all their students as potential “winners.” Being a teacher in the Meriden district has become a badge of honor, and being a student in a Meridian school is viewed by outsiders as a pinnacle of good fortune.

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