The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

It May Be Time to Damn VAM

When I read the Bloomberg View article Don’t Grade Teachers With a Bad Algorithm”, by Cathy O’Neil, a few months ago, it didn’t seem urgent enough to report to readers right away. Now that schools are closed for the summer, however, we may have the time to find out if the VAM algorithm is still used in our state to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and to do something about it.

How should teacher performance be evaluated? As a principal for 25 years, I did that job by observing teachers over time in different situations. Besides observing in classrooms, I often participated in curriculum planning meetings or sat in on a conference with a student and a parent. I also looked for teacher leadership, innovation, and willingness to go the extra mile. In short, I knew my teachers well and could help them when needed. They also helped me to be a better principal.

On the other hand, I did not use students’ test scores as a factor in judging teacher competence. I realized that there were too many personal problems that might affect students’ test performance, such as being bullied, having health issues, or dealing with trouble at home.

Under the rule of NCLB teacher evaluations using the “Value Added Model” known as VAM, were dominant throughout the country.  It was applied to students’ test scores to measure their growth by the difference between how well a class of students was predicted to perform and how well they actually performed.

The problem with VAM is that it was designed in the 1980s to evaluate the growth of agricultural crops, not human growth. Yet, all too often when test scores in classrooms varied widely from year to year, teachers have been held accountable. Many of them who had been judged effective over time were punished because of one year’s low VAM score for their students.

As might be expected, teachers in various places protested their poor ratings and the punishments that followed. Some were angry enough about their unfair treatment to start lawsuits against their school districts, and a few won them. In New York State, for example, a judge determined that the VAM system was “arbitrary and capricious.” and decided in favor of the teacher who had filed the suit. In Houston, Texas a group of teachers who had suffered various punishments for low VAM scores won a similar suit.

Those successful lawsuits and the many continuing complaints from teachers in other places have already convinced policy makers to remove the federal funding incentives from ESSA that supported VAM. It’s hard to believe that many states will continue to use that flawed measurement tool as the right way to judge teacher performance. But then, the reason why it has stayed with us so long is that school principals have not been doing their job.


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Today’s Schools Are Mostly Robot Factories

Today’s post is the revision of a piece I wrote a few years ago that was first published in Education Week.  I decided to repeat it here because what I wrote then is even more true and dangerous now.  I hope readers will appreciate it and continue to fight for the return of schools that serve the needs of students rather than the vanity of politicians.

As a retired teacher, school principal, and educational researcher, I have been visiting a lot of classrooms recently, and, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I knew have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curricula have become something teachers “deliver” like a pizza and students swallow whole, whether or not they like the ingredients.

Kindergartens that used to be places where children learned social behavior, sang songs, built cities with blocks, played store, and expressed their feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited, children recited all the words in their little primers without recognizing that they were telling a story.

In a first-grade classroom I watched children march around the room at mid-morning because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to memorize such words as “onomatopoeia” and “metaphor” even though they were unlikely to use them until many years later.

In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by formulae. Students were also given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order, and to begin their own essays with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful only when you need to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies requiring students to read a prescribed list of books and write reports about them. This past summer my grandnephew, who was entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther King, although he had not been taught anything about that particular writing form or that great man in 8th grade.

It is clear to me that under the rule of the Common Core Standards, created by non teaching “experts”, who will never be tested on them, school life has become more onerous and less appealing for all students.

In many schools algebra has been moved down to the 8th grade, and geometry, always a tenth grade elective in the past, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valid, they are now being taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were chosen to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a country’s greatness and, perhaps, out of wounded pride; our government leaders appear determined to convert our once great public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the creativity and perseverance that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.

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Another City Tries Community Schools

What a surprise! An article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times,  Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity, was strongly reminiscent of the story I wrote about earlier this week. Dallas,Texas, like Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been losing middle class families and their children to the more prosperous white suburbs, and the school district is using innovative actions to win those families back. Their tactics are somewhat different from what was done in Grand Rapids and, so far, not as successful.

The problem in Dallas, unlike the one in Grand Rapids, is more about color than poverty. The families that have been moving out of the city or enrolling their children in private or charter schools are overwhelmingly white, while most of the ones left in the public schools are black or Hispanic.

Although the district’s desire is to have a good balance of students of color in every school, they cannot legally control school enrollments by race. However, what they can do is try to create a balance of students from different economic levels, which, at the same time, may also result in a better racial balance. Having  an economic and  racial  balance in a school usually leads to better learning for everyone. As the school district’s superintendent Michael Hinojosa says, “When you have a mix of kids, the affluent kids don’t suffer and the children of intergenerational poverty do better.”

In order to achieve its goal of an economic balance in its schools the district has been trying to make a number of neighborhood schools more appealing to wealthier families by installing new programs. Like the schools in Cedar Rapids, they attract students by having themes that are exciting to parents and students, such as music, drama, or bilingualism.

The most popular new school is the “Solar Preparatory School for Girls”, which specializes in sciences and arts. It has become so desirable to wealthy parents that the district has had to save a certain number of seats for students who live in low-income neighborhoods.

One thing that has helped the school plan to succeed is that the region is in a financial boom period which has drawn more white and well educated parents to the city. This year 1,705 new students applied for the 613 seats available in the transformational schools. For the next school year there are already 255 applicants who are now in private schools, charter schools, or living outside the district.

Clearly, the Dallas plan has been aided by its improved economy. But if it hopes to make more of its schools multi-racial it will have to do more. Right now a third of its black and Hispanic students are still at schools that are 90 percent nonwhite. One thing the school district could do is to create more new schools in the kinds of non-education places that Cedar Rapids has chosen. With more white  and wealthy families moving back to the city, those would be exciting opportunities for their children to engage in project learning and get a start in career areas that they and their parents value highly.

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Welcome To a City with a New Brand of Community Schools

As readers of this blog and other sites about education, you have certainly heard about community schools. But what that term means in specific places is not always the same. Today’s post, taken from “When Your School is a Museum” by Beth Hawkins and published in Edutopia gives a detailed description of Grand Rapids, Michigan’s version of community schools and why they were created in the first place.

By the end of the last century the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan had become an undesirable place to live, especially for families with school age children. The city was shabby in many places and the public schools were run down and  uninspiring.  Between 1997 and 2015 many of those families left the city or placed their children in charter schools. The total school district enrollment dropped by 12,000 students, 35 public schools were closed, and 600 teachers were laid off. In the eyes of the school district’s superintendent, Teresa Neal, that decline in school population meant it was time to take some drastic actions that would bring students back to the city’s public schools because they were much different—and better—than before.

Working with the city’s School Board, parents, and community groups, Neal developed a plan to make the city’s schools far more attractive and better functioning. What she believed had to be done was to close several of the oldest and  most shabby schools, improve the physical conditions in mediocre school buildings, and create several specialized schools in appealing and easy to reach places around the city.

The city’s mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, supported Neal completely. She declared that “We want families to move here and to live here and stay here, and that’s pretty hard to do without a strong school system.”

The first new schools created were the Museum school and the Center for Economicology.* In the beginning those schools had only 7th grade classes, but they would add one grade each year until they were complete high schools.  Since then, 15 more theme schools have opened; one of them is in the city zoo and another in a nature center. The other theme schools are traditional in their placement and building structure, but unique in their themes, the classes offered, and the emphasis on project learning.

During the first few years of operation these new schools have brought in hundreds of new students, and the total district enrollment has risen to 16, 840. In addition, there has been a 50 percent increase in the district’s graduation rates, especially among black and Latino students.

In 2016 the city’s experiment in theme schools with multiple places for special studies  earned them a coveted $10 million grant  from XQ: The Super Schools Project, one of 10 awards made to unique schools and  forward moving districts around the nation .

In reading this article I was impressed by the willingness of the school administration and city government to make drastic changes in the nature of their schools and the variety of learning opportunities. They recognized the conditions that had driven families away from the city and moved quickly and strongly to make schools more unusual, appealing, and effective.

Although the article did not tell me enough about the various school themes and how students were able to move from one educational site to another, I was impressed with the system’s willingness to have students use so many of the city’s facilities for educational experiences.

Clearly, the officials of Grand Rapids were smart and daring in their efforts to revive their city and serve the families who chose to live there.  The city’s concept of community schools is quite different from those common in other places, but they represent  a new way to improve education in public schools and give students a wide range of meaningful learning experiences.

*That word means the study of economics


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One Way to Cure Math Anxiety

Today’s post recounts information from two articles in the May 17th edition of Education Week: “How Much Math Anxiety Is Too Much?” and “Do Digital Games Improve Children’s Math Skills?”, plus my letter in reply, which was published on June 7th. Read the whole story below.

Ironically, Education Week posted an article about a serious school problem and another one that suggested a solution to that problem in the same issue, with the second article right above the first.

The problem article started off by describing the severe anxiety of Levi Vaughn, a 5 year-old kindergartner, who fell apart openly whenever math was being taught in his classroom, and his mother’s distress about those actions. Most of the rest of the article was about research studies on math anxiety for people of all ages; but I didn’t feel that any of them suggested an explanation of Levi’s anxiety or a solution to the anxiety problems other students might have.

Instead, what his mother said led me in a different direction altogether: there was something very wrong with the way math was being taught at her child’s classroom. She explained that “His math papers get pulled out and he’s in full-blown crisis mode.” Math papers in kindergarten? Does that mean that young children are being taught to add and subtract numbers formally that, as yet, have no meaning for them? If so, I’m amazed that all the other kids in the class aren’t also having anxiety fits.

Right after reading that article I moved on to the other one on the page where there was a very different picture of math instruction and student responses. It told the story of 5th graders who were spending a lot of class time playing math games. Those games covered a wide level of difficulty from single digit addition to multiplication and division by percentages, and weak students were deliberately matched with strong ones. In the beginning, the strong players always won the games, but soon the weak players began to win some of the time.

According to the teacher, what was happening was that the weaker students were learning how to solve various types of math problems by observing and remembering what their opponents did. In addition they were enjoying their games. A further benefit was that the games provided continual positive or corrective feedback to individual students that the teachers did not have time to give.

From my perspective, such classroom math games, when carefully chosen and assigned to the right students, are a powerful way to avoid or cure math anxiety. If that strategy and other positive ones can become regular practices in teaching math, there will be little or no need for more research on math anxiety.

Here’s my letter to Education Week.

To the editor:

  Although math anxiety is a sad and significant barrior to student learning, it is not an unsolvable problem. Ironically, an article published in the same issue of   Education Week suggests a good solution: math games.

 Working with numbers, just for the fun of it, develops student’s skills and makes them feel comfortable with various operations. If kindergartners who suffer from severe math anxiety were given simple games with numbers appropriate for their age group—between zero and ten—instead of math problems on paper, many young children might start their schooling with the conviction that math is, and will continue to be, fun.

       Joanne Yatvin

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