This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

I admit I am a novice when it comes to critiquing basketball. Growing up, I never played the game, and I never watched it or read about it until I became a Portland Trailblazer fan a few years ago Yet, I am a lifelong teacher, used to studying the performance of students in order to help them learn better. I’ve brought my eyes to the game, and what I’ve learned there I’d like to bring back to the classroom.

During the regular season, as I watched the Blazers play erratically I accepted the professional wisdom that the trouble was playing better teams, using the wrong strategies, being on the road, or having insufficient time off between games.

But now, after watching the playoffs and the finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, and seeing the differences in team and individual player performance from game to game, none of those explanations answers my essential questions about basketball: Why does a team play so much better on one night than another? Why does it often play better at the end of a game than at the beginning?

In education the questions are not much different. The recently released report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that the No Child Left Behind law has not reduced the achievement gap between white and minority students. It also shows that high school students have made far less progress than their elementary counterparts.

In both instances the question is, “Why”? In accordance with their educational philosophies and politics, different groups and individuals give different answers: bad schools, poverty, unequal distribution of effective teachers, lack of early childhood education, insufficient federal funding,

Surely, all these conditions have negative effects on student performance, but I think there is an additional factor that makes students learn less and score lower on tests than they are capable of. My answer is the same as it is for inconsistency in basketball: attitudes and feelings.

How does it feel to be a hungry child in a dilapidated school in a dangerous neighborhood with a teacher who reads from a script? How much does a teenager who has little hope of going to college or living the “American Dream” care about handing in his homework or acing the big test? It is just as difficult for that child, or that teenager, to perform well as it is for a basketball player whose team is three games down in a seven-game series.

Although we can’t do much more than cheer for our own favored teams, we could do a lot more for our students. Fixing all the things mentioned above by the NAEP commentators is a long, slow, expensive process, but it would work better than just tightening the screws on schools, teachers, and students, which was the prevailing government policy under the Bush administration that continues with only cosmetic changes under President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

With school reforms that would bring more positive attitudes and feelings into the classrooms, all our kids could be winners in the education game.


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