The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Bumpy Road for Poor Children

Today I write as a career-long educator, a researcher, and a frequent visitor to all kinds of schools in the U.S. and some foreign countries.  

I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a great smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?   Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support they are given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them potholes are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while roadblocks are the school practices that do not serve their needs, aptitudes, or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are others just as dangerous and less visible. Significant research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in welfare families lagged far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that the children in poor families heard almost 1,500 words less per hour than their wealthier counterparts, and were rarely engaged in conversation with their family members. As a result, many of them entered school at a great disadvantage, which proved to be a big pothole in learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority when you’re working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, another big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are more potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring kids in the neighborhood and hope that one day they will be like them.   Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in their streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

The adults in charge of running high poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose remedies that turn out to be “roadblocks” instead. The general strategy of school reformers today is to work at changing students from the outside-in by prohibiting the behaviors they consider dysfunctional and replacing them with a narrow set of “right ways” to learn and behave and a body of “good for everybody” lessons.

We see this approach in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where individual desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases contain only the prescribed textbooks. In those classrooms teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and demanding “all eyes on me.” We see it also in teaching methods that present only facts and algorithms, define learning as memorization, and ask questions that have only one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please the test scorers.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be another roadblock. Although those programs are good in theory, for the children involved they are disruptions to the continuity and consistency they need. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be seeing up to a hundred students a day, they miss the work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support of the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many of today’s education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that efforts of some non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to do what I can through writing about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggesting more effective and humane ways to educate all our children.



Wide-eyed in Jargonland

Not because I am lazy, but because I am not finding anything new and interesting to write about in the usual sources, I am repeating a piece I wrote several years ago.  I found it in my personal archives, but I have no idea where–or even if– it was published. I hope readers enjoy the irony and recognize the truth in various pieces of jargon.

Way back when I was a college student, one of my professors warned the class to avoid using jargon in our papers. By jargon he meant big words of indeterminate meaning. Ever since then I’ve tried to follow his advice in my own writing and to be aware of jargon in the writing of others. But I’ve also come to recognize that there are different kinds of jargon and at least one of them is justifiable. That jargon is a type of “shorthand” used in the technical literature of specialized fields to refer to complicated ideas or processes that the readers are already familiar with. By using jargon the writers avoid giving long and unnecessary explanations.

But what about other kinds of jargon? Well, some kinds may not carry much meaning, but they do serve the writers’ purposes. Take, for instance, the stock phrases used in formal or ritualistic communications, such as letters of application or notes of condolence. “Yours truly,” or “May you be comforted” don’t really say anything, but they do convey the message that the writer knows the rules and cares enough to use them.

And, of course the whole field of advertising is riddled with jargon intended to impress people with the superiority of various products, while not promising anything so specific that it could trigger a lawsuit. We constantly hear or read such terms as, “amazing,” “easy to use,” and “ long-lasting.” This jargon often ensnares the gullible among us and even, sometimes, experienced consumers like me.

In addition, there is the jargon used in discussing politics and public issues. That kind of jargon is not meaningless; it deliberately implies one thing while actually referring to something very different. In a presidential race, for example, we may hear one side call its candidate a “job creator” because he headed a business for several years. From the other side we may hear that its candidate wants tax cuts for the “middle class”. But what that term really means is people earning less than $250,000 a year, including the working poor. It is used to appeal to people who want to believe they are part of a noble and hard-working layer of society.

Apart from politics, the most contentious public issue today is education. It is a polarized field, where all kinds of governmental bodies, organizations, think tanks, and citizen groups hold strong views about how schools should change or be managed, and whether or not it would be better to privatize them altogether. At the same time, most ordinary people have little knowledge about the realities of education, basing their opinions on personal experience, their worldviews, and what their leaders tell them. Thus, the flow of jargon is plentiful and forceful, seeking to turn the tide of public opinion irrevocably in one direction or the other.

As a long-time educator I can’t keep away from reading and listening to the various arguments about education and noticing the jargon.  When I find some bit that seems especially misleading, I want to point it out to others and explain what it really means. But there is a problem here: I am a partisan, on the side of public schools, career teachers, and progressive education. Although I know that they all have flaws, I still believe they are better intentioned and more often right than the groups that oppose them. So, perhaps it is not surprising that I find very little jargon in their arguments. That means that almost all the examples of misleading jargon I can point to come from the other side. Nevertheless, I will take the leap into Jargonland below and hope that readers will see merit in my choices and truth in my definitions.

School Reform Plans: Untested notions for improving public education, many of which have been tried before with negligible results

School Reformers: People with impressive titles who have had little or no practical experience in public schools.

Value-added: The positive difference between this year’s test scores and last year’s, now considered by many states and school districts to be an accurate indicator of teacher performance

Rigorous: Difficult, boring, and probably inappropriate for the students’ grade level

A Research-based Program: A commercial product that bears some resemblance to an educational practice found effective by researchers; in some cases by only one researcher who may also be the author or publisher of the program

.Student Achievement: Better test scores that may have nothing to do with real learning

Team of Experts: Group of college professors, think tank members, and/or private sector consultants who have never taught children or spent time observing in classrooms; no practicing teachers are included.

Failing School: A school where one or more student sub-groups didn’t make AYP on tests, attributed to the principal and teachers who didn’t do their jobs properly.

Charter Schools: Semi-private schools supported by public funds, and selected by some parents because they appear more elegant and exclusive than public schools.

No Excuses Schools: Places where teachers and students do what they’re told or get kicked out.

Merit Pay: Extra money given to teachers for raising students’ test scores. No better teaching required.

Carrots and Sticks: Rewards and punishments—mostly punishments–intended to motivate schools to produce higher student test scores

Accountability: A government invented system that asks a great deal from public schools and gives little in return; it does not apply to charter schools.

Data: Plentiful numbers that give very little, or meaningless, information to schools or the public or teachers

I could go on pointing out more examples of jargon in education, but I think there are enough here to reinforce the idea of “Reader beware!” I also suspect I’ve supplied enough fodder for those readers who disagree with me to present new arguments. If so, in the spirit of an Olympic year, “Let the games begin!”













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A New time for “Catchers in the Rye”

If you were a regular reader of my blog two years ago you read this pieces back then.  I am repeating it today because I believe it is still relevant–but also because I have an old friend visiting this week and no time to write anything new

 Today’s post is something I wrote long ago–1994 to be exact.  It came to my mind again because an old friend referred to it.  I have changed a few words to modernize the piece, and I want young readers to know that “The Catcher in the Rye” was a top best seller in its time and often taught in high school English classes.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye“, the catcher metaphor struck me as silly, a clumsy device invented to justify a meaningless book title. Would any real teenager see himself — as the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, does–as a rescuer of children, and why were children in need of rescue anyway?

Although I am still cynical about Salinger’s creative motivation, I find the “catcher” image far more poignant and real in today’s world. In contrast to the world of Holden Caulfield’s rye field near the cliff, our world today has so many children who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Statistics don’t tell the story of many children’s tragic lives, but we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning.

Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, teachers must be today’s catchers in the rye.

I have lost faith in any and all large-scale solutions to educational problems. They just put more paperwork, regulations, and job titles between children and the help they need. Where schools are failing, it is not because they don’t have enough programs and consultants, but because they have lost the human touch. Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can’t benefit from higher standards, instructional technology, or remedial programs; they need caring adults to pull them out of the muck and set them on solid ground–one at a time. Only then can each child, in his or her own way, begin the adventure of learning.

I have no magic formula for child catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. It probably doesn’t matter if the means are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough, as long as at least one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child. I do believe, however, that there are some conditions that are essential for child-catching to work. The framework of operation must be small, physically close, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. We need small schools or schools that are divided into small community units; classroom time, space, and organization that allow personal relationships to flourish; legitimacy for play and conversation in school; authority in the hands of front-line practitioners; and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.

Within such a framework, teachers are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each child as an individual and see most of the things that are happening to him or her. Kids hang around and tell them what they cannot see. Teachers also find time to talk to each other about classroom problems and to work with their classes to make changes in rules or processes without having to implement any special programs or bring in any outside consultants.

Although permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick, dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wart theory of education”. In essence, that theory asserts that children’s problems are like warts: If you can destroy just a few of them, the rest will get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of poverty, family dysfunction, bad learning habits, and social ineptitude may shake them off in the space of a few weeks when a caring teacher takes time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one small skill.

I have seen schools that do an impressive job of rescuing large numbers of children over time. Ironically, they are not the same schools that produce the highest test scores, send the most students on to college, or attract the attention of the media.  Mostly, such schools don’t even worry about whether the data on achievement and behavior makes them look good. Catching children is its own reward when you’re out there in the rye. 








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Has High-Stakes Testing Run Its Course?

As Many readers already know, I am not a fan of high stakes testing.  I have never believed that “one size fits all” or that there is a fixed time schedule for all students to learn particular skills and information.  Two articles published in The Oregonian, our local newspaper, last week made me think that the high stakes tests given all around the country are on their way out.  I hope so.

In the eyes of outsiders far removed from the daily operations of public schools, it is easy to conclude that students’ test scores reveal the quality of education in states, school districts, and individual schools. According to an article in our local newspaper, The Oregonian, students’ scores around the state declined markedly from last year, which had also shown a decline. It was seen as a shocking event suggesting that public education is on its way out.

A few days later a follow-up from the paper’s Editorial Board took a different point of view, blaming parents for opting-out their children from the test and thereby causing most of the scores to be from children of low income families.  If all parents would act responsibly and insist that their lazy children  take the tests, our schools would look much better.

From my perspective, however, there are four other possible explanations for why students’ scores have shown a steady decline over the past few years:

  1. More and more teachers are concentrating their instruction on what they see as appropriate for the ages, needs and interests of their students rather than the demands of the “Common Core State Standards”, which were developed by non-educators.
  2. A one- size-fits all test cannot be appropriate for students country-wide when it is clear that local cultures, school practices, and student interests differ widely from place to place.
  3. Many students become bored, resentful, or frantic during a several hour test that demands constant attention and effort.
  4. In general, students do not care about doing well on tests that do not affect their class grades, promotions, or high school graduation.

I suspect that all these reasons are operating to some extent in Oregon and other states. But the one that appears to be most active here and now is the one named by the Editorial Board, but for better reasons.  Parents who read newspapers, listen to political commentators, and are also active in their children’s schools are well aware of the problems created by high stakes testing, and they don’t like them.  They resent the heavy-hand of school control by the federal government, the continual pressure on their children to meet standards that are inappropriate for their age level and– maybe—also meaningless, the year-long practice sessions preparing students for the  tests, the length and difficulty of the actual tests, and the pressure on teachers to teach specific skills and information in a certain way.

For many years all public schools—except charters– have been required to give the tests, in order to receive federal funding for various programs such as free lunches for children from low-income families. But all the hard work of teachers and students, all the test preparation, the public embarrassment, and even the closing of schools have not made a difference. Perhaps it’s time to return control of schools to their communities, to let parents and other citizens shape the nature of schooling, and to give students a strong voice in what is important for them to learn and when.


Allons Enfants de la Patrie*

Today’s post speaks for itself–in English.  I would appreciate any positive or negative comments from readers.

*Arise, Children of our Country

During the last quarter of the 20th century some powerful American politicians decided that human learning was a fixed process in which all healthy young people could and should acquire a specific body of knowledge, information, and skills over a fixed period of time. With that belief, the low scores of American students on international tests were a hard pill for politicians to swallow. They concluded that those scores were the fault of our schools and their teachers, also parents who were shirking their responsibility to demand the best from their children. American students of all social backgrounds were growing up lazy, ignorant, and unprepared to be the competent adult workers, leaders, creators, and patriots they were meant to be.

Although there is no research evidence to confirm such beliefs about American students’ laziness or the ineffectiveness of our schools, public education has operated on those assumptions continually through the actions of Congress, the Department of Education, and state legislatures. Those bodies have also used public humiliation and punishment of students, teachers, school principals, unions and—indirectly—parents to prevent any resistance from gaining ground.

Thus far, all efforts to reverse the current concept of education and create a humane and reasonable foundation for our public schools have failed. Recently, we believed that the new federal law, ESSA, would return authority to states and their communities, but that belief was crushed by the Department of Education with its rejection of any state plans aimed to serve students’ needs and interests rather than raise test scores and improve graduation rates.

From my perspective, as the mother of four children who were public school students in far better times, and also as a teacher and school principal back then; there is only one possible solution.  We must have a widespread public rebellion against the current system. Parents should refuse to have their children participate in high stakes testing and demand age-apropriate standards for all grades. Communities need to re-shape their public schools to fit the needs of their students; and state officials must fight any moves by the Federal government to punish  schools for non compliance.

We have wasted more than twenty years trying out the beliefs and programs ordered by  powerful, but know-nothing politicians.  For the sake of our children and our country we must take back public education and allow it to grow naturally through wisdom and humanity.



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