The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Getting Things Right in Oregon’s High Schools


When I opened our local newspaper, The Oregonian, yesterday I was thrilled that at last there was some good news for me to write about. I was especially pleased because the news was about Oregon’s public high schools, which  I feel close to because I taught some of their teachers, and also  because those schools have had a bad reputation for a long time. I will give you the details below.

Over the past several years Oregon’s high school graduation rates have been the third worst in the nation. But in 2017 those schools produced their biggest improvement since the measurement system began eight years ago. In addition, they are doing a far better job of helping Latino, high poverty, and special education students to graduate on time.

Although last year’s graduation rate of 77 percent  is only one point higher than that of the previous year, there is considerable evidence that schools are moving in the right direction. The State Schools officer, Colt Gill, declared that “Oregon schools have made impressive strides at making instruction far more culturally relevant for students of color, tracking students’ individual progress, and honoring bilingual students for their skill.’’

Many of the educators from the schools and districts that achieved high graduation rates are eager to talk about their role in helping students succeed. One school in a rural area had top graduation rates, even though one third of its students were from low-income homes. Another school, where 25 percent of the students are Latino and 50 percent are from low-income families, produced a graduation rate of 92 percent that was better than the rates of schools with much wealthier student populations.

In addition several high schools have adopted a number of programs aimed at catching students before they get into serious trouble. For example, one school gives individualized support to those kids who are showing signs of problems at home, slipping in their school attendance, or not caring much about their classroom performance. Detailed records of those students’ progress are kept in the school office and given close attention by the principal. As one said, “We chase kids down and we let them know we really believe in them.”

Students with disabilities have also received increased attention and assistance. As a result, their graduation rates have risen markedly. One high school assigned a special education teacher to work with regular teachers in all the important classes that have a number of special education students. As a result, 81 percent of those students earned diplomas on time last year. Four other high schools that also had large numbers of disabled students were only slightly behind in their graduation rates.

Although Oregon still has a way to go to match the graduation rates of such states  as Iowa and New Jersey, that are currently graduating 90 percent of their students on time, it is on the right track and determined to get even better results each year from now on.

What impressed me most about the actions of Oregon’s high schools was their emphasis on giving understanding and support to students who needed them instead of threats or punishment.  In every other article I’ve read about efforts to improve student behavior in low performing schools, the actions of school leaders were always some form of tightening the screws on students and teachers. Oregon’s school leaders have taken the high road in choosing to improve the lives of students, and in so doing improved their reputation and their own lives.


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 The Other Purpose of Education

Again, this past week I found nothing in my regular sources to write about. Not only have the questions of what to do with immigrants who came as children and whether or not to build a wall taken over our newspapers and television talk shows. They have also aroused in us powerless citizens the question of “why can’t our powerful and experienced leaders get along?”

Far too many politicians and ordinary citizens have forgotten that the purpose of American education is as much to support a democratic society, as it is to make students “college and career ready.” They have also forgotten that the proof of the pudding is not how well our students’ test scores compare with those of other countries but the proportion of American citizens who are leading intelligent, productive, and caring lives.

Ideally, civic learning begins and continues for children at home, mostly by watching, listening, and imitating what good parents do. But not all homes are wise and harmonious, and even the best ones cannot offer the full range of experiences that civic maturity requires.

Traditionally, schools were expected to reinforce civic actions as children grew older, such as developing friendships with students of different backgrounds and taking responsibility for their own behavior. But now the pressure to raise test scores and increase graduation rates has forced most schools to abandon those responsibilities. In enacting harsh discipline policies and expecting academic achievement beyond what is normal, the demands for better test scores have all but wiped out the opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn the basics of good citizenship. In addition, schools have been forced to reduce or eliminate recesses, and cut back on classes such as art, music, and physical education, where students are most likely to interact positively.

Although teachers do not have the power to change the school curricula or the emphasis on testing, they can eliminate some of the harsh practices that have come with them.  Teachers may still set up processes in the classroom that allow students to have power and work together, such as selecting books to read, planning projects, and developing classroom rules. When students feel that “this is our classroom” rather than the teacher’s personal domain, they will learn how to be responsible citizens in their own school community.

At the school-wide level it is up to administrators to establish policies that respect students’ rights and personal dignity, even when they have broken the rules. One common practice should be giving students a fair hearing before setting any punishment. That means a private meeting with the adults involved after everyone’s temper has cooled. In really serious matters, a hearing before a committee made up of the principal, a few teachers, and one or two community members is the best choice. As for consequences, schools should reconsider suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses by older students and any errors  by young children.

The next step in civic education is having students share decision making with adults in ways that are age-appropriate.  For instance, elementary grade students can work with teachers to choose new playground games and set the rules of participation, while high school students should serve on groups that make decisions about what is best for them, such as curriculum committees and even the local School Board.

In their free time students of all ages should be encouraged to join with adults on local projects such as planting a community garden, adopting a road, or building a playground in a neighborhood that has none.

Once more, I remind you that giving all this attention to student citizenship is not an unreasonable expectation. Until high stakes testing took over our schools, demanding that every school day and every bit of student and teacher effort be dedicated to raising test scores, public support for character building in schools was common. But now, the legislators concerned about school “accountability” have no interest in how students treat each other or how schools treat their students.

Concern for the growth of responsibility and humanity in our children should never be out of style.









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Still Waiting for the People Who Run Our Schools To Get Smart

Over the past week I struggled to find something worth writing about. There was nothing about education in the sources I usually search . Fortunately, however, this week “The New York Times” came up with two articles that were not related, but gave me the opportunity once again to complain about how little the people running our schools—public and private–know about teaching and learning.

The first article was at the top of the “Times” opinion page and promised a lot with its title: “Some Bright Hopes for New York’s Schools”. Eagerly I began to read it—and found nothing there to give anyone hope. All the article offered was a list of possible candidates to succeed the current schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, who is retiring.

Even before naming and describing the list of candidates, the writer of the article persuaded me that there was not much hope of positive changes:

“The Mayor has described his mission over the next four years as promoting equity and excellence, but those goals remain largely out of reach, even as test scores have inched up. In fact, the city needs to move urgently on three fronts: ending profound racial segregation; closing failing schools while opening better ones; and finding more effective ways to train good teachers, retain the best teachers and move the worst ones out of the system.”

After reading that opinion of what needs to be done to improve the city’s schools, I didn’t bother to read the list of six candidates or descriptions of their experience and  strengths. No one, despite having a wealth of experience and skills, is going to be able to do what the Mayor or the writer of this article want. But even if someone could, it would not make New York’s schools what they should be.

What any school district leader must understand and work with are the strengths, needs, and culture of each school. One school may need a lot of physical improvements, another a different type of curriculum; still another smaller class sizes, extra health services, more recreational activities for students, and a close relationship with students’ families. But what is most important for any school are teachers who are smart, have similar teaching styles, and want to work together.

The current weakness of New York schools is not untrained or incompetent teachers, as the writer sees them, but ones who have not been allowed to work together and with their principal to create a system that fits the backgrounds of the school’s students and serves their needs.

The second article, “Can a ‘No Excuses’ Charter Teach Students to Think for Themselves?” was also about making changes in schools, but this time it was a group of charter schools named “Achievement First.” It had come to the attention of the school’s leaders that fewer than a third of their high school graduates were earning college degrees. Although the graduates had no trouble being accepted at colleges because of their high-test scores and good grades, soon many of them were dropping out. Apparently, they couldn’t handle the independent decisions and responsibilities expected of college students.

After recognizing this problem, the leaders of “Achievment First” schools decided to design a new school model that would maintain the current practices of having strict rules and high expectations, while encouraging student independence and a sense of personal identity. The new model they decided on in 2016 is called “Greenfield” and is being tried out in several charter schools across the country. What it uses are short-time programs outside the regular classroom that focus on students setting goals for themselves, using online teaching tools, or being allowed to have “expeditions,” which are two week long, three hour courses that students are allowed to choose for themselves three times a year.

After two years of this experiment using the new model there is little data to suggest whether or not it is working. Nevertheless the leaders feel confident about their progress and plan to open more Greenfield schools.

While I think “Achievement First” schools are making some progress with their new programs, they are only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the regular year long courses that are still highly structured and firmly disciplined. In those classes students never get to express their opinions or create anything of their own. I would not be surprised if the high college drop out rates persist. I also suspect that those few students who do finish college will not be fit for jobs that demand creativity and persistence.

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What is “True Grit”?

Today’s post is a repeat of something I wrote and published more than a year ago. I am posting it again because I just ditched the one I had been working on since yesterday. I didn’t like it, and I don’t have the energy to start something new right now. I hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Topping the national news several months ago was the story of the escape of two dangerous criminals from a high security prison in New York State. They had spent long months in preparation, persuaded some prison employees to help them, dug a route to the outside from their cell, worked late at night to avoid attracting notice and, when their preparations were finally complete, went through rehearsals before actually carrying out their plan. A few days later they were recaptured far from the prison site in a place where they had had no opportunity to plan or practice any further escape.

What interested me most about this story was that those men who had wasted so many years of their lives in criminal activities were able to plan so well, work so hard and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They developed a lot of “grit” when the stakes were high enough.

Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested for a minor crime and  given a long term sentence in a chain-gang type prison.  Because he is smarter, more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is singled out by guards for repeated punishments and humiliation. Yet, he persists, even to the point of taking his own life when the final choice is between that and going back to the  prison life he had before. At the end of the movie Luke is gone, but his lessons of “grit” inspire other prison inmates to stand up for themselves against prison unfairnes and cruelty. The ultimate message is one of hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately because the idea of teaching students how to develop it has become a controversial topic in the news and a practice in some schools. The focus started a few years when psychology professor, Angela Duckworth reported on her study of the attitudes and behavior of successful students and determined that grit was their key characteristic, more important than native ability. As a result, many educational leaders have begun to advocate for making the teaching of grit part of the regular school curriculum and some schools, especially charters, have bought into the practice.

It should not surprise my readers to hear that I strongly disagree with the belief and the practice. You can’t teach poor kids, middle class kids, or rich kids to work hard and long on things they don’t care about just because the school thinks they are important. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor expert teachers can change that reality.

On the other hand, as a teacher and principal–and later as a researcher in high poverty schools– I saw many ordinary kids develop grit because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers made instruction interesting and offered students opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And, if those kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and they knew that completing it would bring them them the power and self-esteem they had enjoyed before.

In today’s classrooms where reaching standards is the mandated goal, teachers can still help students to develop grit. Their style of teaching and their assignments will either encourage or discourage students to reach for new goals. Who cares about analyzing the structure of a short story”? But after reading and discussing a few stories, students might like the idea of  writing their own stories. Completing math worksheets is the epitome of boring school work, but figuring out a monthly budget for you own allowance or designing a scale model for your ideal bedroom is a pleasurable activity. The power to develop grit lies within all of us.  All we need are the conditions that motivate and assist us.



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Is Depression What Students Learn at School?

Since writing about the dark feelings expressed by many young people a few days ago I have been thinking about how I would present my own view about what is hurting them most and what should be done about it. To a great extent what I write today will repeat some things I’ve written before. That’s because bad practices continue in public education in new forms and with more complicated excuses for their failure.

In reading a recent article in The Oregonian I was not persuaded that the extreme depression of many teenage students was solely the result of family poverty and/or the harshness of much social media. As a retired educator who continues to follow what has been happening in public education over the past several years, I believe that the federal takeover of our schools has done nothing more than create a nightmare for students, parents, teachers, principals, and state education authorities. And, as one might expect, it is the students who are most severely frightened and damaged.

In a nutshell, what has happened is that many powerful politicians, believing that international test scores scores revealed the weakness of American public schools, persuaded their comrades that the federal government should take over public education and make it a more demanding for students and teachers.

Ironically, as school expectations and practices have changed over the past several years, they haven’t succeeded in raising test scores, lowering student absenteeism, or improving graduation rates.  The only numbers that have increased are early teacher retirements and student drop-outs.

There have also been many negative effects for students at the same time. In general, schools are places where kids are pushed relentlessly to raise their test scores and castigated for not learning things quickly enough and to a higher level. The only things some schools have been able to do to help students survive is to come up with special programs aimed at making them more resistant to failure and more persistent in their efforts to improve. As I see them, those programs are merely band-aids slapped onto serious wounds.

In writing this piece I recognize that I have been more harsh about today’s public education than usual.  I think that is because I am truly frightened about the terrible feelings some students expressed, and I suspect that others also had such feelings but didn’t want to let anyone know.  If that is what schools are doing to students, it must stop here and now!








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