The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Another City Tries Community Schools

What a surprise! An article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times,  Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity, was strongly reminiscent of the story I wrote about earlier this week. Dallas,Texas, like Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been losing middle class families and their children to the more prosperous white suburbs, and the school district is using innovative actions to win those families back. Their tactics are somewhat different from what was done in Grand Rapids and, so far, not as successful.

The problem in Dallas, unlike the one in Grand Rapids, is more about color than poverty. The families that have been moving out of the city or enrolling their children in private or charter schools are overwhelmingly white, while most of the ones left in the public schools are black or Hispanic.

Although the district’s desire is to have a good balance of students of color in every school, they cannot legally control school enrollments by race. However, what they can do is try to create a balance of students from different economic levels, which, at the same time, may also result in a better racial balance. Having  an economic and  racial  balance in a school usually leads to better learning for everyone. As the school district’s superintendent Michael Hinojosa says, “When you have a mix of kids, the affluent kids don’t suffer and the children of intergenerational poverty do better.”

In order to achieve its goal of an economic balance in its schools the district has been trying to make a number of neighborhood schools more appealing to wealthier families by installing new programs. Like the schools in Cedar Rapids, they attract students by having themes that are exciting to parents and students, such as music, drama, or bilingualism.

The most popular new school is the “Solar Preparatory School for Girls”, which specializes in sciences and arts. It has become so desirable to wealthy parents that the district has had to save a certain number of seats for students who live in low-income neighborhoods.

One thing that has helped the school plan to succeed is that the region is in a financial boom period which has drawn more white and well educated parents to the city. This year 1,705 new students applied for the 613 seats available in the transformational schools. For the next school year there are already 255 applicants who are now in private schools, charter schools, or living outside the district.

Clearly, the Dallas plan has been aided by its improved economy. But if it hopes to make more of its schools multi-racial it will have to do more. Right now a third of its black and Hispanic students are still at schools that are 90 percent nonwhite. One thing the school district could do is to create more new schools in the kinds of non-education places that Cedar Rapids has chosen. With more white  and wealthy families moving back to the city, those would be exciting opportunities for their children to engage in project learning and get a start in career areas that they and their parents value highly.

Leave a comment »

Welcome To a City with a New Brand of Community Schools

As readers of this blog and other sites about education, you have certainly heard about community schools. But what that term means in specific places is not always the same. Today’s post, taken from “When Your School is a Museum” by Beth Hawkins and published in Edutopia gives a detailed description of Grand Rapids, Michigan’s version of community schools and why they were created in the first place.

By the end of the last century the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan had become an undesirable place to live, especially for families with school age children. The city was shabby in many places and the public schools were run down and  uninspiring.  Between 1997 and 2015 many of those families left the city or placed their children in charter schools. The total school district enrollment dropped by 12,000 students, 35 public schools were closed, and 600 teachers were laid off. In the eyes of the school district’s superintendent, Teresa Neal, that decline in school population meant it was time to take some drastic actions that would bring students back to the city’s public schools because they were much different—and better—than before.

Working with the city’s School Board, parents, and community groups, Neal developed a plan to make the city’s schools far more attractive and better functioning. What she believed had to be done was to close several of the oldest and  most shabby schools, improve the physical conditions in mediocre school buildings, and create several specialized schools in appealing and easy to reach places around the city.

The city’s mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, supported Neal completely. She declared that “We want families to move here and to live here and stay here, and that’s pretty hard to do without a strong school system.”

The first new schools created were the Museum school and the Center for Economicology.* In the beginning those schools had only 7th grade classes, but they would add one grade each year until they were complete high schools.  Since then, 15 more theme schools have opened; one of them is in the city zoo and another in a nature center. The other theme schools are traditional in their placement and building structure, but unique in their themes, the classes offered, and the emphasis on project learning.

During the first few years of operation these new schools have brought in hundreds of new students, and the total district enrollment has risen to 16, 840. In addition, there has been a 50 percent increase in the district’s graduation rates, especially among black and Latino students.

In 2016 the city’s experiment in theme schools with multiple places for special studies  earned them a coveted $10 million grant  from XQ: The Super Schools Project, one of 10 awards made to unique schools and  forward moving districts around the nation .

In reading this article I was impressed by the willingness of the school administration and city government to make drastic changes in the nature of their schools and the variety of learning opportunities. They recognized the conditions that had driven families away from the city and moved quickly and strongly to make schools more unusual, appealing, and effective.

Although the article did not tell me enough about the various school themes and how students were able to move from one educational site to another, I was impressed with the system’s willingness to have students use so many of the city’s facilities as educational experiences.

Clearly, the officials of Grand Rapids were smart and daring in their efforts to revive their city and serve the families who chose to live there.  The city’s concept of community schools is quite different from those common in other places, but they represent  a new way to improve education in public schools and give students a wide range of meaningful learning experiences.

*That word means the study of economics


Leave a comment »

One Way to Cure Math Anxiety

Today’s post recounts information from two articles in the May 17th edition of Education Week: “How Much Math Anxiety Is Too Much?” and “Do Digital Games Improve Children’s Math Skills?”, plus my letter in reply, which was published on June 7th. Read the whole story below.

Ironically, Education Week posted an article about a serious school problem and another one that suggested a solution to that problem in the same issue, with the second article right above the first.

The problem article started off by describing the severe anxiety of Levi Vaughn, a 5 year-old kindergartner, who fell apart openly whenever math was being taught in his classroom, and his mother’s distress about those actions. Most of the rest of the article was about research studies on math anxiety for people of all ages; but I didn’t feel that any of them suggested an explanation of Levi’s anxiety or a solution to the anxiety problems other students might have.

Instead, what his mother said led me in a different direction altogether: there was something very wrong with the way math was being taught at her child’s classroom. She explained that “His math papers get pulled out and he’s in full-blown crisis mode.” Math papers in kindergarten? Does that mean that young children are being taught to add and subtract numbers formally that, as yet, have no meaning for them? If so, I’m amazed that all the other kids in the class aren’t also having anxiety fits.

Right after reading that article I moved on to the other one on the page where there was a very different picture of math instruction and student responses. It told the story of 5th graders who were spending a lot of class time playing math games. Those games covered a wide level of difficulty from single digit addition to multiplication and division by percentages, and weak students were deliberately matched with strong ones. In the beginning, the strong players always won the games, but soon the weak players began to win some of the time.

According to the teacher, what was happening was that the weaker students were learning how to solve various types of math problems by observing and remembering what their opponents did. In addition they were enjoying their games. A further benefit was that the games provided continual positive or corrective feedback to individual students that the teachers did not have time to give.

From my perspective, such classroom math games, when carefully chosen and assigned to the right students, are a powerful way to avoid or cure math anxiety. If that strategy and other positive ones can become regular practices in teaching math, there will be little or no need for more research on math anxiety.

Here’s my letter to Education Week.

To the editor:

  Although math anxiety is a sad and significant barrior to student learning, it is not an unsolvable problem. Ironically, an article published in the same issue of   Education Week suggests a good solution: math games.

 Working with numbers, just for the fun of it, develops student’s skills and makes them feel comfortable with various operations. If kindergartners who suffer from severe math anxiety were given simple games with numbers appropriate for their age group—between zero and ten—instead of math problems on paper, many young children might start their schooling with the conviction that math is, and will continue to be, fun.

       Joanne Yatvin

Leave a comment »

The Invisible Components of Reading

Today’s post is a revision of an article I wrote for teachers several years ago.  I post it again now because I think it’s important for parents, grandparents, and critics of schools to also understand how reading, writing, and  vocabulary are learned beyond the traditional components of  classroom teaching.

We all know that young children learn many things on their own without any help from adults, such as walking, talking, scribbling with crayons and playing with toys. But what most of us don’t realize is that children also learn without formal instruction the basics of some skills that are considered part of the education process. Although the components I list below aren’t really invisible, they go largely unnoticed because children begin to learn them incidentally at home and continue learning them through their outside environments. Today I will identify six such components that parents and teachers should be aware of and support as children proceed through their maturation and school grades.

1. Listening /Speaking Vocabulary—Children begin learning words in their first year of life. Their oral vocabulary grows quickly as they interact with adults and older children in their pre-school years. Research done in the mid-twentieth century indicates that between the ages of 3 and 8, ordinary children learn approximately 20 new words a day. Even more interesting is recent research that counted the number of words exchanged between pre-school children and their primary caregivers and found that socio-economic factors make a huge difference. Based on extrapolations from observations made in the homes of children between 7 months and 3 years of age, children in low-income families  exchanged an average of 10 million words with family members by the age of 4; those in working class families, 30 million; and professional class children, more than 50 million. There were also significant differences in the content of their exchanges, ranging from commands such as, “Pick up your toys,” to discussion questions such as, “What should we do this afternoon?” Just think what those differences in oral vocabulary can mean when a child begins formal reading instruction in school.

2. Intonation Patterns of Speech--Although we rarely notice, spoken Language has defined patterns of rising and falling tones and word emphasis within every sentence. Think about this sentence: “Have you washed your hands?” It can have three different meanings depending on intonation and whether you stress “you,” “washed,” or “hands.” Yet, nothing on a written page suggests those patterns. If we were to read a text as written, we would give every word the same voice tone and emphasis, stripping away any meaning. Unfortunately, many struggling readers work so hard decoding word-by-word that they do just that and, as a result, may not understand what they have read.

3. Sentence Structure—By the time children enter school, their basic oral grammar is fairly well developed and acceptable by the standards of their cultural or regional dialect. Although young children can’t say whether a word is a “noun”, “verb,” or “adjective,” and may not use the standard word endings, they do know how to sequence words in a sentence. No child says, “ Dog I my fed.”  This knowledge helps children to make sense of sentences in which there are unknown words such as, “Don’t step on that echinoderm!”

4. Literary Forms and Conventions—When children are familiar with fairy tales, poems, fables, and sayings they find it much easier to read new examples of those literary forms. In beginning to read a new fairy tale, for example, such children already know what to expect from the hero, heroine, villain, and secondary characters.  They are also familiar with patterns of threes in tasks, obstacles, or contenders, and stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after,” even though those phrases are not a part of the everyday world.

5. Reasoning—Unfortunately, too much of current reading instruction emphasizes following rules and memorizing procedures. And because they are what is taught, children think that’s what they are supposed to do. If teachers emphasized thinking more and formulae less, children encountering unknown words could do a better job of reading them. Take, for example, the sentence, “ The cowboy jumped onto his cayuse and galloped away.” Instead of trying to sound-out the word “cayuse”, a reasoning young reader can easily deduce that it is some kind of horse and just go on reading.

6. Background Knowledge—Indisputably, this invisible component contributes the most to reading competence. When children know people beyond their family and friends, places beyond their neighborhood, and things other than the content of their homes, their ability to read increases exponentially. To take a simple—and common—example, I have met few first graders who could not read the words “tyrannosaurus rex’’ in context, even though they present decoding problems. Because most young children have seen pictures and heard information about this dinosaur, they can read not only its name but also words referring to its habitat and behavior. The more young children know of the world in general and its contents in particular, the better equipped they are to read new material with understanding and to master the various academic subjects covered in school.

Given the potency of these invisible components of reading, the question for us to consider is how can they be incorporated in the school literacy program without making them into formal lessons or unnecessarily repeating the experiences children already have in their natural environments.

First and foremost, I advocate that parents and teachers should read aloud regularly to children of any age from materials they are not likely to read on their own. I would aim for a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction–including pieces from newspapers and magazines– that introduce children to unfamiliar places, people, animals and language styles. As adults read aloud, they should pause from time to time to explain unfamiliar words and allow children to ask questions.

Another powerful strategy is to incorporate more oral use of different language forms into the school curriculum, such as poems, songs, chants, and games that children can learn and recite in chorus. Other appealing and helpful experiences for children to expand their knowledge of written language are participation in various forms of oral language arts, such as puppet shows, role-playing, and the re-enactment of stories they have read.

Finally, I suggest using all manner of visual materials—at home as well as in school–such as photos, videos, cartoons and artwork, to help explain new words and make challenging reading materials more understandable.

Before signing off, I want to mention one more invisible component of reading not directly supported by research: children’s beliefs about their relationship to books. When it comes to developing reading competence, nothing could be more powerful than believing “Books are so full of wonderful things. I bet I will like this one, and I’m sure I can read it!”




Leave a comment »

One Way for Schools to Save Money and Better Serve Students

One of the things we rarely—if ever—hear about is the cost of testing in both money and school time. In today’s blog I will give significant information about both costs as reported in a research study done by the American Federation of Teachers. The title of the report is “Testing More, Teaching Less; What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time”

 In 2013 the American Federation of Teachers initiated a study of two medium size urban school districts, using the psuedodyms of “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District” to determine the costs of school testing and lost instructional time in a single year. To carry out the study the AFT gathered information on the assessment inventory and testing calendar from both districts. They also used the information from previous studies to compare their results to the practices in other states.

Some interesting results revealed that the District of Columbia spent the most on tests: $114 per student and New York, where test scoring is done locally spent $7 per student. Over all standardized testing cost the United States $1.7 billion a year.

Looking at the situation in the two school districts selected, researchers found that the time students spent taking tests ranged from 20 to 50 hours per year. In addition, students  would spend 60 to more than 110 hours per year in test prep in high-stakes testing grades. When the cost of lost instructional time (at $6.15 per hour, equivalent to the per-student cost of adding one hour to the school day), the estimated annual testing cost per pupil ranged from $700 to more than $1,000 per pupil in different grades. 

If student testing were abandoned altogether, one school district in this study could add from 20 to 40 minutes of instruction to each school day for most grades. The other school district would be able to add almost an entire class period to the school day for grades 6-11. In addition, in most grades, more than $100 per test-taker could be reallocated to purchase instructional programs, technology or to buy better tests. Just cutting testing time and costs in half would yield significant gains to the instructional day, and free up enough dollars in the budget to pay for tests that are better aligned to the school program and produce useful information for teachers, students and parents.

In my opinion the estimated savings in money and instructional time should be a game changer. In these times of ever shrinking school funding school districts ought to spend what they have on meeting the needs of students rather than on high stakes testing. When selecting any test a district should take the trouble to estimate what various commercial tests will cost per student and how much class time will be lost, and then go for the best economic choice.

Although selecting a test that seems to be of high quality and to fit well with school programs is a worthy objective, we must recognize that all commercial tests are designed on the premise of “One size fits all”.  We must also understand that to a great extent high stakes testing imposed upon school districts by the federal government is actually a sham and a punishment. It does not render a fair judgment on a school’s quality, improve teaching or learning, better serve students, or make our country do better on international tests. Although schools must play this game—for now—there is no reason why they should not choose the tactics that give them the best chance of winning it.

1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: