The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Bad

Dear readers,

In case you didn’t know until now, let me tell you that I am not good at following formal instructions on a computer. Two days ago I managed to combine an old piece of writing with a new one, and sent them out as if they were connected. Apparently, many of you began reading the top part, realized that you had seen it before, and stopped reading altogether. I apologize and will try to do better in the future.

Joanne

Leave a comment »

If I Were the Queen of Schools

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are the ones best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher in any school district is a long, unpleasant and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but their meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both

Today’s post is in many ways a summary of all the things I have written about in this blog and other places over the past several years.  It seemed to me that readers could  benefit from seeing all my ideas condensed and consider whether the things I propose would really make positive changes in American education. Let me know what you think.


Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that have dominated  public education over the past several years, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched practices now in place.

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are the ones best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher in any school district is a long, unpleasant and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but their meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both students and schools would be better served if standardized tests were given only every four years and classroom teachers were allowed to use their own methods and judgment to determine the extent and quality of each student’s learning.

Make every school a place where students want to be

In the recent studies of  test scores from school to school and district to district, researchers cite student absenteeism and indifference to learning as some of the causes of low scores and stagnation in student progress. If instead of advocating for better teaching and more rigorous students expectations, schools concentrated on providing classes and assignments that appealed to students’ interests and also gave all students opportunities to make decisions and play important roles in school operations we would see better performance from  everyone.

Although I could add a few more change proposals to my list, I believe that those above are the basics. Through my experience as a teacher and a principal I learned  a  lot about what helps teachers to teach well, children to learn, and schools to be the the healthy, happy places I have known and the even better ones I still dream of.

3 Comments »

A Better Way to Be A Teacher

A recent article in the New York Times really surprised me. In reading that newspaper regularly for many years I have become used to long factual articles that inform me, but also bore me with so many details delivered without emotion. This time there were very personal opinions and lots of emotion. I really liked it.


Unexpectedly, David Brooks, a regular writer for the Times, who ordinarily deals with serious government matters, wrote about his own emotional experience and what it taught him about quality education.

One day while teaching a class at Yale University, Brooks told his students that he wouldn’t be able to meet with any of them that afternoon because a friend was coming to help him with a personal problem.

Because he had been very unemotional in that announcement, Brooks thought his students wouldn’t fret about missing a meeting or be concerned about his wellbeing. But unfortunately several students had gotten a different message than he intended. Because they thought Brooks was facing a serious problem, several of them sent written messages to him that evening expressing their sympathy and support.

That incident had a strong effect on Brooks, making him think differently about teacher/student relationships. He decided that a positive connection between a teacher and his students was the foundation of strong learning. He also decided that the key job of a teacher was to give students new things to like, such as an exciting field of study and some assistance when they were struggling.

Brooks ended his self reflection by referring to the recent changes made in many schools, and the fact that the Aspen Institute had recently published a national report titled “From a Nation at Risk to a National at Hope” He also mentioned that many schools no longer started academic instruction in the first week of school. Instead, through games and other group activities students got to know one another.

If you are wondering why I chose to write about Brook’s article, it was because it was so uncharacteristic of those usually on that Times page, especially ones by him. That article also reminded me of my own experiences as a teacher many years ago. Teaching was tough for me at the beginning, but it softened up when I started to behave like a grownup who cared.

1 Comment »

I’m Back Again and Happy to Be Here

How sweet it feels to put my fingers on my computer and speak to all of you again. Over the past month I was busy visiting members of my family living in different parts of the country.  Most of the places were pleasant and interesting.  The only bad situation I found  was the mistreatment of teachers in one part of Florida, reported in the Palm Beach Post on January 27th of this year.


What caught my eye as I opened the local newspaper where I was visiting, was a front page article with the headline: “In Poor Schools, Smaller Pay Raises.” Since I didn’t understand what that meant, I read the article immediately.  It reported that school principals were required to rate the quality of all teachers’ performance at the end of each school year, and that such ratings determined the amount of their salaries for the following year.

At most of the schools teachers’ ratings the next year were mixed, giving the impression that their skills and efforts were also mixed. But at one high poverty school the principal gave all his teachers zero ratings, which was unheard of before.  Now the article let everyone know. All zero rated teachers would be paid lower wages over the following school year–even if they moved to a different school–while teachers more highly rated would do much better wherever they went.

What I read made me furious, and immediately I wrote a letter to the editor. How could a principal make such a cruel decision for his entire staff knowing it would go public and destroy their careers?  Although my letter got a favorable response from the newspaper, it chose not to use it, instead posting only one much milder letter from a local person. Still, I can’t resist giving you my remembered version of what I wrote. Here it is below:

As a successful teacher for several years; then a principal of two schools, and later someone selected by the state of Wisconsin as “Principal of the Year”, I was deeply dismayed by the poor ratings of teachers at a high poverty school in your city.  If those teachers were really as bad as the principal rated them, he should have provided assistance for all of them early during the school year or dismissed them midyear as hopeless. By rating them as failures at the end of the year, he  achieved nothing more than disgracing himself along with his school. A principal’s job is to help teachers become the best they can be, to enjoy their job and care about everyone in it–even if they have to endure a block-headed principal.

Finally, I can’t help being glad that no other place I know of has such cruel and foolish practices. I strongly wish that the school system in Palm Beach County grows up and behaves like real professionals and wise educators.

6 Comments »

Federal Government VS Public Schools

Today’s source,”It’s time to Redefine the Federal Role in K-12 Education”, published in The Phi Delta Kappen in August 2018, presents mixed views of the quality of American education. In the article the author, Jack Tidal Jennings, strongly criticizes the current actions of  public school leaders and then includes responses from a number of public school people. Reading the article helped me to understand the views from both sides and form my own opinion about what needs to be done to improve schools and by whom.

P.S. Writing this piece and checking for errors took me several days to do. That’s why you didn’t receive it earlier. Over the coming week I will relax with my sister in Florida and not write a word. I need a break!

——————————————————————————————————————————–

Last year Jack Jennings, the former president and CEO of the Center on Educational Policy from 1967 to 1994, decided to write a letter that questioned many of the actions of educational leaders in several states.  In that letter it was clear that he disliked much of what was happening currently and what he saw in the the new ESSA law that diminished government control of schools and gave more power to the states instead. What he wants now are new additions to the law that would make certain school actions required and others forbidden.

To help readers understand Jennings’ concerns and desires I needed to quote him directly several times. However, it would have been too much to repeat all his fears and desires.  What I’ve tried to do instead is to quote only his most significant statements–in the same order that he put them– that he believes must be included–and enforced– in the  ESSA law.

Here they are:

States will vary greatly in their goals for student achievement, their indicators of success, and their approach holding educators accountable and assisting underperforming schools.

The fact remains that ESSA rests on the same faulty foundation as NCLB

States will vary greatly in their goals for student achievement, their indicators of success and their approaches, holding educators accountable and assisting under- performing schools

When local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide all children’s needs federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

The fact remains that ESSA rests on the same faulty foundation as NCLB: the assumption that pressuring teachers and administrators raise test scores will lead to better instruction and greater learning for all students.

ESSA was enacted only two and a half years ago, but it’s not too soon to begin drafting new law.

When local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide formal children’s needs, federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

As the National Conference put it in a recent report,”The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least well-educated in the world.”

Certainly, it (the federal government) should stay out of decisions that are best left to governors, state legislators, school boards, superintendents, and teachers, but when local leaders are unable or unwilling to provide for all children’s needs, federal policy makers have an obligation to become involved.

There is both a strong precedent and an urgent need for the federal government to continue to play an active roll in K-12 education.

No state has yet come close to ensuring that all young children enter school with the early math, literacy, and other skills that will allow them to succeed.

An equally pressing problem, which states have shown little ability to solve on there own, has to do with raising the quality of the teaching force.

If we were serious about teacher recruitment, quality, and retention, would we pay our teachers such meager wages?

Nor have states made sufficient progress on another critical priority for the nations’ schools: ensuring that the K-12 curriculum prepares students well for college, careers, and a civic life.

The Federal government can and should (as it has done many times before) support curricular improvement in literacy, math, science, civics, language learning, and other subject areas.

Finally, the funding of public education needs to be overhauled.

In short, I argue that federal education policy has important contributions to make in at least four key areas: pre school education, teacher quality, curriculum, and school funding.

Further, I recommend that the government adopt a fair and straightforward process to award grants and monitor states progress.

The federal government does indeed have a vital role to play in K-12 education, providing resources and leadership, solving problems that states are unable or unwilling to solve on their own.

As I see it, Congress’ best option is to undertake difficult but crucial reforms in exchange for more and unrestricted federal aid. Specifically, I propose that the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provide grants to states.

First, to ensure the future prosperity and cohesion of our nation, we must help our students achieve at higher levels than in the past; second, our schools do not currently provide all students with equal opportunities to become well educated

We must get going, and fast!

Three Replies to Jennings

From Christopher Cross who is chairman of Four Point Education Partners, a distinguished senior fellow with the Education Commission of the States, and a consultant the Broad Foundation.

I agree with Jack that the federal government should make it a higher priority to support better research and data collection in K-112 education.

I disagree with the idea that the feds can or should get into the curriculum business.

Jack doesn’t address special education, but it is badly in need reform, and it should get more attention from federal policy makers. As Jack argues, K-12 education also has severe human capital issues that need attention.

The toughest issue is to rethink the ways in which we finance K-12 education.

Again, I don’t know that Washington should be involved in telling states and districts what to do, but this could be another place where it could be useful to create a federally sponsored commission to propose new funding models and issue a report to the nation.

From Daria Hall, Vice President for Partnerships and Engagement at The Education Trust.

Let’s not forget, the reason the federal government got involved in education was to serve as champion for the students being systematically overlooked and underserved by states and local communities.

The need for this role is no less urgent now than it was during the War on Poverty.  Every day in America, low-income children and children of color attend  schools where we spend less on their education, expect less of them, assign them to teachers who are ill-equipped to serve them, and fail to provide a supportive environment  for learning.

These inequities matter. They hinder mobility for individual students and families. And they erode the health of our collective economy, society, and democracy.

So any conversation about a revised federal role must start with attention to opportunity and achievement for low-income students and students of color. And it must be grounded in a commitment to action when any group of students is not getting the education they need and deserve.

Would more federal action on pre-school, teacher quality, curriculum, and funding be welcome? Absolutely.

But it must be grounded in a commitment to prioritizing the needs and interests of historically underserved students. Experience is clear that without a specific equity, even the best-intentioned policy advances can end up exacerbating disparities.

And it must come alongside meaningful accountability for the outcomes of all groups of students, and the expectation of meaningful action when schools or districts underserve any student group. Evidence from schools and systems that are making the most progress for all groups of students demonstrates that this progress happens when targeted resources and meaningful accountability go hand in hand.

We can do this all: Prioritize historically underserved students, maintain—and indeed improve—accountability for results, and expand opportunity for the students who most need it.  No federal law should do any less.

From Joanne Yatvin, a retired teacher and school principal who still reads and writes about American education.

You have certainly covered a wide range of the expectations of Congress for our public schools and their failure to meet them. From my view, as a long term educator and the parent of four children who are now successful adults, I disagree with most of your concerns.  In fact, I disagree almost totally with your beliefs about the weaknesses in American public education and your desire for certain changes. (The one place where I agree strongly with you is that teachers are under paid.)

Although I am aware of long-standing problems in many schools, I see them as the product of family poverty, insufficient school funding, continuing changes in school operations, unrealistic expectations for student learning, and the foolish belief that all schools should be alike. (I could name more problems, but I’m sure you can already see my views.)

What I think the Federal government should be doing–instead of making judgements based on students test scores–is get to know schools around the country and their needs, then help those schools that need success attain it.

A Final Word From Jack Jennings 

As noted by Theresa Alban, superintendent of Maryland’s Frederick County Public Schools, my purpose in writing this article was to stimulate a much-needed and long overdue discussion about Washington, DC’s role in school improvement. Because the major federal education reforms of the last three decades have not shown the progress we need, and because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides little in the way of a course correction, it’s time to take hard looks at our fundamental principles to determine how best to proceed.

Kristin Amundson, from the National Association of State Boards of Education, believes that the states are moving ahead on their own under Essa and that there is no need for significant new federal action on K-12 education. I disagree. I suspect that in the coming years, most states will simply fine tune their accountability systems and mount no major efforts to improve their schools.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: