The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Make Over a School

Early in my time as a school principal my teachers saw me as someone who might be willing to make changes in that school in order to have things better for everyone.


While going through my pile of records recently, I found an old newspaper article about the Oregon school where I was principal for twelve years. As I read it I remembered many of the programs that my teachers and I were able to carry out when we were awarded a state grant. Today, I will try to describe those programs and their results, hoping that our story will make readers aware of some of the good things schools were allowed to do back in the good old days if their teachers were creative and willing to work hard. Ours were, and they made our school a great place for students, teachers and me, when I was principal.

At the beginning, our school was not a winner. When I came there it was the only school in a small country town of farmers, old folks, and workers with minimal jobs. The school consisted of two small and plain buildings on opposite sides of a dirt road; one an elementary school and the other a middle school with only about three hundred students altogether, and no fancy accoutrements inside or out.

When our state gave us the freedom and funding to make changes in our school, the first thing we did was to adopt a road that ran past usl. It had very few houses, and not many cars drove bye. But for some reason it was a popular place for people to throw trash on the road and into the adjoining bushes.

Our school got involved when one of our teachers expressed his determination to clean up the road. First, he contacted the local police department to officially mark the road as our domain. Next, he nailed up a sign on a tree to make our authority clear to everyone who went by; and then he obtained tools and outfits for students to wear for protection when they were working on the road. Finally, he selected a group of older students to carry out the first road cleanup during the afternoon school time. While they were working, younger students, some teachers, and I watched and cheered them on. The road cleanup job was repeated three or four times a year, and was continued in the following years by new workers.

The next school change that I got involved with was suggested by one of our middle school teachers. Although students at that level had a daily study period for homework or reading, most of them fooled around instead. The teacher thought it would be much better for them to use their time doing real jobs for the school and earning rewards for their work. When I saw what the kids were doing during “study time”, I agreed with her completely. It would be much better for children to be active and learning new skills than to play silly games. Besides, several other teachers and school workers had good ideas about what those kids could learn to do, how they could be supervised, and also be rewarded for their work.

The new “Jobs” program we started turned out to be great for the students involved and our school as a whole. Also, a teacher and some school workers were eager to instruct the kids and supervise them. For example, one job was helping the gym teacher clear up the gymnasium at the end of school days by cleaning up the room and putting away all the equipment that had been used. Other jobs were such things as emptying trash cans in classrooms and halls at the end of the day, delivering work materials to where they were needed, posting student art work in the hallways, and even wiping clean the glass doors that lead to the outside. All of the supervision was handled by teachers or school workers in their free time.

The last student activities I remember were serving food in the school lunchroom and collecting used school materials that could be re-sold to a company instead of being thrown away as garbage. Not only did our school receive a good amount of money for those items, it also paid less for having our garbage picked up.

Nevertheless, that was not the last activity for teachers and me. Our school, like other small ones often had a couple of over-crowded classrooms that didn’t work well for student behavior or learning, and were also hard on teachers. To make matters worse a particular class could continue to be overcrowded from year to year unless a few students moved away.

Since we couldn’t know ahead how many children would arrive for each classroom, we decided to have two classrooms for each grade level. Such an action would enable us to keep class sizes reasonable by putting students of similar abilities in the same classroom, and separating students who did not get along well with each other.

When I started to write about all the changes we made in our school I didn’t realize how much their was to say. The events I’ve tried to describe represent 12 years of teachers and me working together and supported by parents. We didn’t regret any of it. After so many yeas, we are still proud of all we accomplished.

Over a few more years the school worked as we had planned. Because of our actions we often got visitors from other schools and newspaper reporters. Things were great for several years, but unfortunately the state administration decided to merge its small country schools with larger ones in towns nearby. We argued against that action as long as we could, but finally we lost. Our school was taken over by a larger school in a nearby city, and many of the things we did were quickly changed. I waited for a short time, then resigned my job and retired.

Today I am leaving Portland for Philadelphia, and my computer will not follow for at least a month. Even then it will need to be “revived”by an expert. My plan is to start writing again as soon as I can, but I think that will be at least June.

Best wishes to you all,



A New Beginning

Although it may not please all readers I must tell you the truth. Right now I am in the process of moving out of my home in Oregon and moving to Philadelphia. PA. Leaving a home that I have lived in, and loved, for thirty years is not easy, but I will spare you the details. Still, I must let you know what is happening to my blog as a result of my moving. I am working every day to clear out my currant house and pack the things I want to take with me.  

As a result, I have very little time now to do anything else, including writing this blog. But in order to keep your attention– and my own sanity–I plan to post things that I wrote and were published before this blog existed. Since I suspect that most of you did not run into them, — or have forgotten them,– I plan to post several here–starting today–and continuing until I am able to write pieces and post them in my new home. I hope that’ll be no more than one month in the future. Start counting!

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do? The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than forty years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called, in a reference to Greek mythology and G Bernard Shaw’s famous play, the “Pygmalion Effect”: the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book, “Pygmalian in the Classroom”, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions. 

High expectations is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results. 

The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administrated a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance. 

In reality, those students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvement in learning and behavior for most of the students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen; no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters–but not their other students–were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified children.

Now, more than 40 years later, the reality of the “Pygmalion effect” stands unrefuted by further research, while it is supported by considerable evidence from classrooms where poor and minority children have made great strides in their learning because their teachers believed they would. It is also supported by countless stories of successful people who were struggling in school and life until some adult–a teacher, a boss, a family friend–saw something special in them and encouraged them to make the most of it.

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