The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

After Criticism the DOE Modifies its Process

Today, an article in “Education Week”, entitled “Trump Ed. Dept. Changes Process for ESSA Feedback” by Alyson Klein, told of the reactions to the DOE’s criticism of states’s ESSA plans.  Although I don’t have much to say about the changes, I think it is important to inform readers about what has happened.

As you already know, ESSA plans from nine states were harshly criticized by the DOE. What I learned today was that several state officials and members of Congress quickly chastised the DOE for its harshness, accusing it of “nit-picking”.

As a result, the DOE, quickly moved to make changes in their Feedback process. Instead of sending written critiques to states right off the bat, it will first hold two hour phone discussions with state representatives over anything they find disturbing or inadequate in their plans.  If disagreements are resolved through those discussions, no mention of the original problems will be appear in the final written feedback that follows .

The DOE also made the following public quote to reassure state representatives and the public of their commitment to cooperation and fairness:

“The department is committed to working with states to help ensure their plans align with the statutory requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Part of that commitment, in addition to the required peer reviews, is maintaining an open dialogue with state leaders. That feedback is intended to provide an informal opportunity to address any potential concerns prior to plans being submitted to Secretary DeVos for review. Secretary DeVos looks forward to reviewing plans and approving every plan that complies with the law.”

My reactions to these events are mixed. I was pleased to see state representatives and Congress members stand up for respectful treatment of all state plans, and also to see the DOE’s quick change in its way of conveying disapproval or confusion about state submissions. But, in its public statement I still sense the DOE’s resistance to state proposals that would modify some of the harsh school practices of the past several years. It looks like states will still not be able to make their schools places where students want to be.

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Another Disappointment from the Department of Education

Today’s post was driven by an article that appeared in “The New York Times” earlier this month: “DeVos’s Hard Line on New Education Law Surprises States” by Erica L. Green. At this point it is hard for me to believe that public education will improve under ESSA, the new federal law.

Over the past six months I have written twice about ESSA (Every Students Succeeds Act) that has supplanted NCLB (No Child Left Behind). The first time I was disappointed by the law’s emphasis on “tightening the screws” on students and teachers rather than making education more meaningful and appealing for both groups. The second time, I was irritated by the large amount of data that was being required, much of it unrelated to student success. Now, as the final blow (?) the Department of Education’s has sent strongly critical feedback to several states that submitted their ESSA plans early. The most shocking criticism was given to the state of Delaware, telling it that its student achievement goals were not sufficiently “ambitious.”

As you read ESSA the message that comes through is that the control of education should be returned to the states because those who are closest to the schools, students, and the culture of a place are best equipped to understand its needs and how to meet them. How can people removed from all the realities of a state know  the proper goals for its schools? Yet, that is exactly what DeVos and her staff members appear to be doing. Their excuse is that they are bound to a strict interpretation of existing national statutes, rather than the total freedom implied by ESSA.

The feedback given to five other states: Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon and Tennessee did not include any demands for more ambitious goals, but it did criticize them on other grounds. For instance, Tennessee was told that it had neglected to identify languages other than English spoken by many students p because it considers itself “an English-only state.” And Connecticut was criticized for choosing  its own system of measuring academic performance instead of the “proficiency” measurements required by law.

To many state leaders the criticism already given to a few states makes clear that they will not be allowed the freedom promised by ESSA, and I agree. The Department of Education and its supporters in Congress still believe that our system of education is far inferior to those in foreign countries. What they want retained in our schools are the impossible demands of “A Nation at Risk”, the “Common Core State Standards”, and NCLB. I can’t help wondering, as the old song asks, “When will they Ever Learn?”

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Let’s Have Teachers ‘Re-Invent the Wheel’

Today’s post is an essay I wrote in 1990 that was originally published in Education Week.  I repeat it now because I think my argument is more valid than ever.  Incidentally, this is the last of old material on this blog for the time being.  Starting next week I hope to begin writing new stuff again.


As a young teacher, I served from time to time on committees charged with writing curricula and selecting new materials for teaching language arts and reading. Often, during committee deliberations, someone would come up with an idea that involved having teachers produce their own classroom strategies and activities. There was something very appealing about many of these ideas–at least to me–and we would spend a lot of time exploring their possibilities.

Invariably, however, some old hand on the committee would haul us up short and remind us that Faraway Publishers had already produced the kinds of materials we needed and that Next Door School District had already developed an efficient method for teaching what we wanted to teach.

“Let’s not re-invent the wheel,” Old Hand would say, and we wild-eyed visionaries, sobered at last, would agree. We stopped talking, adopted the publisher’s materials, accepted the other district’s method, and went our separate ways.

Nowadays, I am not so compliant. Maybe that’s because I have become an old hand myself and an administrator to boot. But I prefer to think it is because I have learned something along the way: You have to re-invent the wheel, whether you want to or not, because nobody else’s wheels will work on your wagon.

I recount this personal reflection now because it bears on a key issue in education today: Should we use “top-down” or “bottom-up” models for improving our schools? Which way works better for school districts, particularly large and troubled ones where a few people at the top are bright, capable, dedicated, aware of the newest research and theory, and well paid; and the masses at the bottom may not be any of those things?

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it be better–no, the only way–to give those folks at the bottom a well constructed wheel, teach them how to use it, and make them accountable? Of course, some clods would never catch on but, at the very least, every teacher would be using a proper wheel, so the kids would be sure to get some benefit.

My answer to the question is swift and unequivocal: No, dammit! For three good reasons. The first has to do with the so-called “Hawthorne effect” that all those bright, well paid types may have heard about in graduate school but, in my opinion, didn’t quite understand. In that famous experiment in a large manufacturing plant, dimming the lights so it was harder for workers to see was found to increase production.

Many graduate students (and unfortunately, some of their professors) think that the Hawthorne anomaly illustrates the fact that human subjects who know they are part of a scientific experiment may sabotage the study in their eagerness to make it succeed. What it really shows is that, when people believe they are important in a project, anything works, and, conversely, when they don’t believe they are important, nothing works.

The second reason for championing greater creativity for all is that, through the process of inventing, people learn to understand what their inventions can and cannot do. They learn how to fine-tune them for optimum performance, and, maybe, figure out what changes are needed to produce even better models in the future. In short, they acquire the intimate knowledge of object, system, and use that makes an invention truly their own.

The third reason is simply that a big part of teaching is inventing. Good teachers invent successfully all day long, every day. They invent better ways to explain lessons, to entice reluctant learners, to bring unruly classes under control, and to fire children’s imaginations. When teachers won’t or can’t invent, believe me, the kids will–100 ways to shoot their teachers down. If we want good teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, we’ve got to let all teachers learn their craft.

But given the structure of schools and school districts we now have, changing to an inventing mode is extremely difficult. The model of school operation in use for more than 50 years rests firmly on premises of industrial efficiency, institutional uniformity, whole-into-parts logic, and worker obedience that are completely antithetical to the concept of invention. That model never takes into account the fact that the people who make up the mass of the school pyramid have professional and personal needs that–however we try to suppress or sublimate them–will screw up efficiency and logic every time.

Ultimately, the only way to improve American education is to let schools be small, self-governing, self-renewing communities where everyone counts and everyone cares. Yet the people who have the power to make that happen–legislatures, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards–will not. Convinced that they are the only intelligent, competent, and caring people around, they fear those barbarians in the classroom, teachers and children, who, if allowed, would dissipate all our public treasure of time and money hacking away at rough stone wheels as our nation sank into chaos.

They are, of course, dead wrong. But even if they were right, those rough stone wheels, forged by people who needed to use them, would roll and carry the load of learning, while the smooth round ones sent down from the central office would languish in classroom cupboards.






What the Dickens is Wrong With Our Schools Today?

Today I am re-posting  an essay  that I wrote two years ago based on the novel, “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens.  In that novel I found a wonderful satire on the foolish and harmful educational practices of his time that closely resemble those used in schools today. Read about them and laugh–or weep.

Did you know that Charles Dickens denounced the Common Core Standards more than 150 years ago and didn’t think much of the value of teacher education either? In his 1854 novel, “Hard Times,” Dickens devotes the first two chapters to satirizing education in the grade schools of his era, which looks a lot like the teaching recommended for our schools today.

Right at the beginning of the chapter, Dickens introduces Thomas Gradgrind, owner of a small school in an English industrial town, who makes clear to his companions, the school master, and an unamed visitor, what he thinks education should be: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Next, the three men enter a classroom, and lessons begin with Gradgrind in charge. He looks around the room and points to a young girl: “Girl number twenty,” he calls out. She stands up and gives her name: “Sissy Jupe, sir.”

“Sissy is not a name,” charges Gradgrind.“Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.”

After learning that Sissy’s father performs with horses at the local circus, Gradgrind demands of her, “Give me your definition of a horse.” When Sissy doesn’t answer, he turns to a boy named Bitzer and repeats the order.

Bitzer recites,“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now,”gloats Gradgrind,”girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

Later, while lecturing the class on the foolishness of using representations of horses and flowers as home decorations, Gradgrind calls on Sissy again, asking her why she would have such pictures on carpets where people would step on them. Sissy, no longer tongue-tied, replies,“It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy….”

“But you mustn’t fancy,”cries Gradgrind. “That’s it! You are never to fancy”

Having humiliated Sissy once again, Gradgrind turns the lesson over to M’Choakumchild, who, Dickens tells us, has been thoroughly trained to be a teacher: “Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy,  geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the end of his ten chilled fingers ……He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”

Dickens then ends the chapter with a metaphorical musing that compares M’Choakumchild’s teaching to Morgiana the slave girl’s actions in the ancient story,“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”: “Say, good M’choakumchild. When, from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim and distort him?”

Today we educators might say,”Common Core originators and supporters, do you trully believe that with your continual emphasis on close reading and text analysis, without giving students any access to background knowledge, that you will only cut their imagination and curiosity–or perhaps, fully destroy their interest in reading and persuade them that education is just a waste of their time?”










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Although Times are changing, the CCSS are Still with Us

Today I chose to post an essay I wrote 3 years ago. It appeared then in Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post, not my blog. I believe it still has relevance today because the federal Department of Education is rejecting the ESSA plans of several states for not being demanding enough. In my view today’s FDE—like its predecessor—is asking far too much from schools and students at all levels. The Common Core State Standards, are just one example of the inappropriate expectations for teachers and students in this era of high-pressure in public education.

P.S.  Family members are visiting this week, so I won’t be able to write anything new. I hope that the older pieces I have chosen to post instead will be worth your time and interest.

Many things that are commonplace activities for adults — driving, voting, and paying taxes, for example — are not appropriate for children. I count the Common Core Standards, proposed for all our country’s public schools, among them.

Over my more than 50 years in public education I’ve come to know young children pretty well, and I am sure that 8-9 years olds are not ready to “describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect,” as decreed by one of the standards for third-grade readers of informational text.

In addition to the English Language Arts (ELA) standard quoted above, here are two others from the same category, the first for 6-7 year olds and the second for 10-11 year olds:

Gr. 1: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text.

Gr. 5: Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent

Reading through the whole list of ELA standards several times, I marked 18 others in reading, writing, speaking or language that I consider inappropriate for elementary level students because of the emphasis on skills or knowledge that children have not yet developed. I will not quote any of them here, but I urge interested readers to read the Standards and see how many they think are beyond the range of elementary level students.

What went wrong with the crafting of these standards intended for children of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels?

The project began in 2009 under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief School Officers. Standards development teams were assembled to write the standards for K-12 mathematics and English language arts.

According to an introduction piece, the standards were developed, “in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” But in looking through the names, titles and institutions of the fifty people who made up the ELA development team, I was able to identify only one current elementary teacher. All the rest, were college/university professors, state or school district administrators, or representatives of private educational companies

In reality, then, these standards were written by highly educated adults who do not teach children at present and, possibly, never did. Unconnected to the scientific research on children’s intellectual and emotional development and the everyday realities of children’s needs, interests and behavior, those writers relied only the folklore of academia, fantasizing not only what children should be expected to know and do, but also what adults need to function in actual colleges and workplaces.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. Forty-five states plus the District of Columbia have already signed on to the Common Core Standards (according to the Standards website), commercial publishers are racing to produce materials aligned with them, school districts are re-writing their curricula, testing companies are creating new tests to measure students competence, and teacher training specialists are offering standards workshops. Even some of the teachers who have lived through No Child Left Behind are resigned to this new swing of the pendulum and changing their classroom practices. The only hope for America’s children and its public schools is that parents and teachers will raise their voices for reason, wisdom, and quality education.

Already there are stirrings as local and national protest groups, are gaining members daily, and signs that teachers’ professional organizations that have been reluctant to take a stand on political issues are changing their ways. For example, at the recent annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, its Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that opposes high stakes testing, teacher evaluation by student test scores, and mandated standards. The same resolution also called on NCTE to support the inclusion of teachers in all future efforts to develop curriculum, instruction, student assessments and standards.

Like the protesters of the “Occupy” movements, informed citizens, skilled teachers, and responsible professional organizations must rise up to protect our children, our heritage, and our democracy. Let’s give even those children who can’t identify a “dangling participle” a chance to make it through elementary school.







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