The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What School Was Like in the “Good Old Days”

Recently there has been a lot of support for teacher collaboration as a way to develop better teaching and better teachers. Although I agree, I realize that it is not is not easy to make collaboration happen. Today’s teachers have more than enough work to do in their planning, teaching, and paperwork, plus adapting to new responsibilities fostered by changes in national policies. There is little or no time to meet with their colleagues or teachers from other schools. I believe that school administrators should be facilitators of teacher collaboration, by scheduling teachers at the same level to have common planning periods at least twice a week. But even they don’t have much freedom to enact change.

Back in the good old days, as the principal of two very different elementary schools in two states, I was able to construct daily schedules that gave same grade teachers common planning periods every day. Sometimes I would join teachers in their planning time, but mostly I left them on their own to solve classroom problems, write new units, and even create new ways to work with struggling students.

At times, and with parents’ permission, same grade teachers were also able to exchange students who were not fitting in well in their assigned classrooms, socially or academically. Two teachers might also switch classes occasionally, bringing the pleasure of novelty to students and themselves.

But the best result at both schools was improved teaching–especially by young teachers, less stress for all teachers, and the emergence of leadership through opportunities to create new classroom practices and explain to others how to use them.

The idea of joint planning times had come a few years earlier when I was the English Department Chair at a new high school. There, the principal gave us the freedom to set schedules for our teachers—within designated time blocks for each subject. Teachers at the same grade level met to plan almost every day, and sometimes met with teachers from other levels to assure coordination throughout their program.

Aside from teacher collaboration and growth, what I would like to see is teacher autonomy in all classrooms, plus teacher leadership throughout a school. What I never dreamed of when I set up grade level common planning time, was the emergence of leadership and creativity in so many teachers and their willingness to “donate” to the school without any pressure from me.

For instance, one teacher at my first school volunteered to create and run a school store during the noon hour. Using more of her own time she trained and supervised student store workers, and met with those who wanted help to plan for the products they would make and sell. Other teachers donated time for new projects over the years, especially our “Gifted Program”, which was also voluntary for students.

At my second school one teacher offered to manage a middle school “Jobs” program by interviewing and advising students who wanted to participate, keeping track of their work time, checking the quality and reliability of their performance, and planning end-of-the-year raffles held to reward students for the amount of time they worked. Another teacher volunteered to manage students in our “Adopt-a–Road” clean ups. But, perhaps the most active contributor was our school custodian who helped by supervising student workers and then created a school re-cycling program that won an award for us.

Unfortunately, my memory is not good enough to honor all the teachers and school workers who donated so much time and effort to making our schools better places to be, or the students who participated in activities whole-heartedly because they liked school. I  only wish that today’s schools had the freedom for teachers, staff members, students and principals to do what is needed to make education a great experience for everyone instead of the drudgery it has become under national and state control.



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Adjusting Schools to Blend With the Local Culture

Over the weekend I set out to clean up the face of my computer, which is a scramble of published essays, ones only partly written, and rough ideas of things to write about in the future.  Among them I found an essay that was unmarked and figured out that I had sent it somewhere for publication, but not posted it on my blog.  For that reason, I am posting it here today, hoping that even if you did read it somewhere else a year or so ago, it is still interesting to you.


A while ago a newspaper article I read about poor school attendance touched on a view of education very different from the one that predominates in government, business, and the media. While the Common Core Standards and the states that have signed on to them are calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and college or post-high school training for everyone, their message is falling on deaf ears in many places in the U.S. For lots of students and their parents, school is just not that important.

The town featured in the article is a small rural one in Oregon with a high rate of student absence that can’t be explained by illness or poverty.   Last year 40 per cent of first graders were chronically absent, and 70 per cent of highschoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials and teachers were questioned about the causes of those problems, they came up with some answers: family hunting trips, a scarcity of doctors, dentists and other medical services locally that made day-long trips elsewhere necessary. But the answer most often voiced was that the town’s population didn’t really value education.

In that place the majority of adults, who have no college education or not even a high school diploma, are working at jobs they like, earning adequate wages, and living lives that satisfy them and their families.  One mother who was questioned defended her son’s absence for a recent hunting trip by citing family values: “What they are getting out of that experience outweighs three days of school…The bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours”

To the teachers and school officials that response seemed more reasonable than many others they hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school. Those answers boil down to “So what?”

Without examining the student absentee situation in other places, I’m convinced that there are cultures of attitudes, customs, and beliefs everywhere that influence people’s behavior more strongly than any government message. Take a high poverty area in big city, for instance, where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they do not expect their children to live lives any different from theirs. On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on misbehaving or truant students. When a couple of kids in the neighborhood decide to take a day off, others think, “Why shouldn’t I join them? It’s a lot more fun than going to school.” Some parents may object, but their kids do it anyway. Other parents don’t know what’s going on; and still others figure it’s just normal kid behavior. That’s the culture of the community, and it’s hard to fight against it.

High poverty communities are not the only places where culture rules, however. There are towns and whole states that cling to the traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own physical environment. For most local people school is okay as long as it fits with their own values and customs.

For the present, I don’t see much of a chance of changing cultures. America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today. But I believe it is possible to make schools more attractive and relevant to local populations without diminishing quality. Almost always there is an overlap between a local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that, if emphasized, would lure students and their families back to school. Let me describe, briefly, some things that could be done within that overlap.

First, provide more high school electives, especially courses related to the jobs available, but also ones in the arts and crafts. At the same time, reconsider the widespread practice of requiring all high school students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language. For many young people such courses do not serve their current interests or their future aspirations.

Next, make community interests and activities part of the classroom curriculum. Young children can read or listen to the teacher read about local events, then discuss and write about them.  Older students can be encouraged to get involved with community service projects in their free time.

Building a school culture is also important. Students can tend a school vegetable garden, “Adopt a Road,” organize an in-school recycling system, or form a crew of “safety partners” to protect younger children from bullying and walk them to and from school.

A school culture can also provide a variety of after-school and evening programs for children and adults by using existing facilities for recreational activities such as swimming, table tennis, and Midnight Basketball. A schools can also encourage community groups to meet for anything that interests them, from break-dancing to Bible study.

In addition, a school library can be converted into community service wherever a public library is not readily accessible. Keep them open evenings and Saturdays, expand the range of books available, have librarians or trained assistants on hand, and schedule book readings and discussions for different ages and interests.

For some communities, like the one mentioned earlier, medical, dental and social services for children and adults inside a school would be  powerful draw-ins.

Finally, and most important, it would be wise to return school districts to local control. That means having a community school board to set student standards, determine the school calendar, select textbooks, and choose the type and frequency of testing. With a return to local control the state’s major role would be to provide a variety of choices and assistance as needed.

To some readers the changes I am proposing may look like nothing more than a return to a worn-out past. On the contrary, I am trying to open doors that have been closed by powerful national forces that misunderstand the differences in international test scores and the cultures that produce them.   Wounded pride, more than a concern for America’s place in the global economy, has brought a series of ineffective changes to K-12 education and produced a vast chasm between national policy and the needs of citizens. After some 20 years under a barrage of school “reforms,” we are left with nothing more than failed policies, stagnant test scores, a growing body of opt-out parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers everywhere, and a serious lack of high school graduates prepared for existing jobs. Ask yourselves, “Is this democracy; is this quality education?”




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The Difference Between a “Good School” and an “Effective School”

Today, in honor of the beginning of a new school year, I am posting a section of an article I wrote thirty one years ago as a review of the book “McDonogh 15; Becoming a School.” I have changed only a few words to bring them up to date.  I am posting such an old piece because I still believe that what I wrote back then is true.

Some schools are effective in raising student test scores; others help students develop good lives for themselves. What is the difference between them?

A good school mirrors the realities of life in an ordered, adult society.  It is rational and safe, a practice ground for the things people do in the outside world.  It focuses on learning that grows through use, such as communication, decision making, craftsmanship, and group interaction—-with or without more schooling.  It makes children think of themselves as mature people who find strength, nourishment, and joy in learning.

In contrast,  a school labeled as effective looks at learning in terms of test scores in a limited number of academic areas.  It does not take into consideration students’ ability to solve real problems, develop social skills, or master complex academic skills.  It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge, and it ignores student motivation.

When we hear of school where test scores are in the eighty-fifth-percentile, shouldn’t we ask what that school also does to prepare students to live the next 60 years of their lives?

A good school has a broad-based and realistic curriculum with subject matter chosen for its relevance to further education and jobs; but also family and community membership, and personal enrichment.  It uses teaching practices that simulate the ways adults operate in the outside world. Students are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and extend their skills. They initiate projects, make their own decisions, enjoy using their skills, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

An effective school asks for much less. Students who cover a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are  not initiators, builders, or seekers.  They are at best reactors.  The knowledge they dutifully acquire is not necessarily broad based or realistic.  It is taught because it is likely to appear on a test.

A school becomes a good school  because its teachers have made significant connections to the outside world. It creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of  social  responsibility. It operates as an organic entity–not as a machine–moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.

A good school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots deep into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun.  It makes  its own food; it heals its own wounds; and in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.


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The Sad State of New York’s Public Schools

Today’s post is a summary and critique of the educational mess in New York City, described in The New York Times by Kate Taylor. Read it and weep.

When I read the first few paragraphs of the NY Times article about the hundreds of New York City teachers who are being kept in an “Absent Teacher Reserve”, which means they are not working but still receiving salaries, I could not accept that practice as fair or practical. After all, some of those teachers have been in that classification for as long as five years although they were quite ready and willing to teach. Why weren’t those who were incompetent or had behaved badly fired? Why weren’t the teachers whose schools had been closed been offered jobs in other schools?

The major portion of the article attempts to explain the Reserve situation as reasonable and unavoidable, but I can’t accept its reasoning. Rather than describe the whole situation in detail, as the article does, I will try to summarize it as clearly as I can and then give my own opinion of what should be done.

Close to 35 percent of the Reserve teachers have been accused of criminal actions or inappropriate behavior in their classrooms, and another 12 percent are there because they received the lowest possible effectiveness ratings from their principals.  But as far as I could tell, the school district has made no attempts to file criminal charges against anyone, fire incompetents, or re-train struggling teachers.

Also in Reserve were a few teachers that some principals had refused to place in their schools, even though the district had hired them and they had worked in other schools where they had not been judged as  incompetent.

The practice of putting some teachers in Reserve has existed in New York City for a long time. But that group grew dramatically in 2005—when a deal was made between Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and the  N.Y. teachers’ union.  Bloomberg and his supporters wanted to close several schools that they deemed to be “failing schools”, while the union strongly fought against that action because they felt that many of the teachers who would lose their jobs were competent and hard-working. Finally, the conflict was resolved by placing some of the teachers in question in other schools, while  holding the rest in Reserve with full salaries. The only ways a teacher could get out of Reserve were to be offered a place in another school or to accept a “buyout” offer from the district.

After a while, the school district came up with a plan to bribe  principals to take teachers in Reserve by offering schools extra funding to pay their salaries. Unfortunately, very few principals took the offer.  After that plan failed, the district decided to place teachers in schools without principal approval.  That, too,  failed.

Over several years all solutions to the Reserve problem proved to be unsuccessful. On the first day of school in 2013 there were 1,957 teachers in Reserve, but the number did go down to 1,494 in 2016. The biggest obstacle seemed to be the unwillingness of principals’ to accept teachers they considered unqualified for the jobs that were open.

At present, things are not in good shape. There are a number of high poverty schools where test scores are still low; principals are being blamed and threatened, and teachers are unhappy.

To be honest, I don’t think I could clean up this mess in if I were given all the power in the world to do so. The bad decisions in New York have gone too far, and there are too many people to blame. I see the core problem as a huge and varied school district compelled to operate with a one-size-fits-all set of rules and expectations, and nobody very happy with the results. In my opinion the only possible solution is more independence for each school in determining its structure, teaching practices, and types of teachers; and increased funding for schools in high poverty areas.

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The Myth of “Our Failing Schools” and How to Destroy It

An interesting article on the public’s perception of the quality of our public schools appeared in The Atlantic on July 15, Why Americans Think So Poorly of the Country’s Schools, by Jack Schneider. I will summarize it today and add my opinions.

 As a long time reader of the Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, I am familiar with the results of its yearly poll reports on the public’s perception of our public schools. As long I can remember, most parents have given their children’s school an A or B rating. But when it comes to rating public schools in general, the responders are not so positive. Around 70 percent of them have consistently given those schools a C or D grade.

What’s going on here? According to Jack Schneider, a researcher at the College of the Holy Cross, the answer is simple: When evaluating their own children’s school, parents know a lot about what is happening there first hand . Most of them are pleased with their children’s experiences, and what they see or hear happening for other children. But when asked to evaluate the vast number of schools elsewhere, they only know what they read in the newspapers or hear on television. And  most of those sources report that our public schools are failing to teach students what they need to know to succeed in college or the workplace.

Schneider identifies the source of this belief as the “politics of education.” He says, “Beginning with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the leaders in Washington have argued with increasing regularity that our country’s schools are in crisis.” He adds that, “The failing-school narrative has been quite effective in generating political will for federal involvement in education.”  Unfortunately, that narrative is not an accurate description of any school; it is based only on a single piece of data: students’ test scores

Although the scores for their own school may also be low, parents get a much broader range of information about the progress of their children, which includes report cards, parent/teacher conferences, individual pieces of students’ work, and school events. They may also get monthly newsletters from the principal that highlight the good things happening at school. Even if their own child is not doing well academically or behaviorally, parents may very well be receiving information about the help he is getting and the progress he is making.

Although there doesn’t appear to be any change in the dominance of data in the news media, there is one thing in the new ESSA law that may give everyone a broader picture. In the plans for improving their schools all states are now required to report to the Department of Education on several other conditions beyond test scores, such as graduation rates, school attendance, and the numbers of students enrolled in advanced courses. The only trick in reporting all this information to the public is weaving it into a seamless report that will show the full quality of any school.

Unfortually, broader pictures would still not be enough to make all schools successful. High poverty schools need better financial support to keep class sizes small enough for all students to get attention to their needs and class behavior to be manageable. They also need sufficient funding to lure in high quality teachers and give them the school structures and extra time necessary to do a great job.

In addition, testing for all schools needs to be more reasonable than it is now. Instead of tests created to match the unrealistic expectations of the CCSS, every state should be able to get a test designed to fit its curriculum and the values of its people.

Right now it is not our public schools, but the federal government that is failing to educate our children well.  We must overhaul the system to allow,  support, and accurately report the greatness of which this country’s schools are fully capable.

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