The Politics of Abandonment

The most appropriate way to describe the policies of educational reformers, educational policy-makers, and government officials with respect to their support of charter schools and vouchers to pay for them is the word “abandonment.” Think for a moment about what these powerful men and women do and examine the underlying logic of their actions.

In response to our most challenged public schools that almost always exist in areas populated by Americans of low income, these reformers, policy-makers, and their government supporters rarely, if ever, talk about what we can do to fix these low-performing schools. Instead they are indignant and decry the performance of such schools, implying that things would be different if only they were in charge.

These powerful men and women, often with the support of billion-dollar foundations and wealthy business people, make a great show of demanding accountability from such schools and their teachers. They threaten dire consequences for both the teachers and their schools corporations and demand that they demonstrate what they call “documented” or “verifiable” improvement on the basis of annual competency exams. When, as almost always happens, the test scores for the students of these schools show no improvement or even fall to a lower level these reformers and policy makers throw up their hands in figurative despair; their voices loud and echoing.

They respond by encouraging the creation of charter schools in those communities to provide what they anticipate will be attractive and high-performing alternatives. They then institute voucher programs that allow families to take the stream of revenue that follows their sons and daughters and transfer them to their school of choice. Parents who are sufficiently motivated to take advantage of such incentives are able to choose from the newly created charter schools and also parochial and other private schools within or close to their communities. Some even opt to go to nearby suburban public schools that are able to boast of the impressive performance of their students on annual competency exams.

That many of the charter schools are unable show improved performance of their new student populations seems not to matter. Rarely noted is that many of the parochial schools, all of which are thrilled to enjoy the increased revenue from vouchers, are poorly resourced and have faculties that receive insufficient training to help them deal with this influx of new and more challenging students. We often forget that many of the parochial schools are unable to compete with their public counterparts on the basis of teacher salaries. These schools typically attract teachers who share religious convictions or who are seeking what they believe will be a more stable and rewarding teaching environment.

Even the high-performing suburban public schools may struggle to welcome the “voucher students” and incorporate them into their mainstream academic and social cultures.

While many of the new students in charter, parochial, private, or suburban public schools make a successful transition and demonstrate a higher level of academic performance, many others do not. What seems to matter is attitude and level of commitment of the parents of these transferring students. Just because such parents are motivated to take advantage of the opportunities that vouchers present does not mean that they are sufficiently motivated to become actively involved and accept responsibility as partners in the educational process. Many of these parents are more likely to conclude that their job is done and now it is up to the new school and its teachers to turn their children around.

In the interim, the abandoned public schools from which voucher students have fled are left with fewer students with a strong motivation to learn, fewer parents that care, and less revenue with which to work. We should not be surprised that the progress these schools claim to be making is often obscured by their more challenging student population.

When these schools clamor for more revenue with which to rise to their escalating challenges and to pay their teachers, their requests are denied. More often than not they are met with even more emphasis on annual competency exams accompanied by sanctions and other consequences as a result of their presumed failure to rise to expectations.

When the teachers in these abandoned schools, and the unions and associations that represent them, lobby for more resources and better contracts those requests, too, are rejected. In many cases, the legislators in these states respond with bills and proposals to restrict the collective bargaining power of teachers’ unions and, in some cases, threaten to eliminate the unions, altogether.

Consider the social and economic consequences when our government offers lifelines to only the most motivated families in our most troubled schools and then confines the remaining families to what we publicly label as our worst schools. Consider the consequences when the actions of our government seem directed at increasing the level of segregation, not just in our schools from the perspective of race, but more importantly segregating both our schools and entire communities on the basis of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

With righteous indignation our leadership is charting a course toward unmitigated disaster for our cities and, ultimately, for our society as a whole. We are fast becoming a house divided at a time when we can least afford it.

Our only hope of competing effectively in the ever-more dynamic and demanding world marketplace requires the very best that a people united by a common purpose can give.

Somehow we must reverse our course. Doing so requires that each and every one of us make a commitment to change the way we think; to solicit the support of our friends and colleagues; and, to act on the basis of our shared values and principles. And, we need to do so damn quickly!

Read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America to see exactly what we can do and how!

Excerpt #9 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream – The Introduction

The True Challenge

This author suggests that the two major problems in education are 1) the level of motivation of the students and the corresponding commitment of their parents. It takes exceptional teachers to overcome the lack of student motivation and parental commitment, and 2) an educational process that is obsolete and poorly designed to meet the needs of students and to place teachers in a position to be teach effectively.

Bringing about the necessary cultural transformation and returning education to the top of the American priority list is a formidable but not impossible challenge. Public education is the single most important issue on the American agenda and we must declare it as such. This is an issue on which our entire future depends. It is my sincere belief that if we do not turn this situation around, in fifty years, China will be coming to the United States for its supply of cheap labor.

What differentiates this book from the many others that have been written about education in the U.S. is 1) that its focus is outward on the growing cultural disdain for education; 2) that it is focused on taking action by proactively engaging parents as full partners in the educational process; and, 3) that the specific educational reforms it proposes are the result of a systems-thinking approach that challenges our conventional wisdom and traditions.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream has been written from the perspective of an organizational leadership consultant rather than that of a social scientist or professional educator. I am convinced that we must take a pragmatic business approach if we are to effectively address the problems plaguing public education, which, not coincidentally, are the same problems that plague our society as a whole. If we can fix education we will also, to one degree or another, be addressing poverty, hopelessness, drugs, gangs, violence, and the very roots of our socio-economic foundation.

This project was motivated not only by my experiences as a substitute teacher in a public school system but also as a result of my experiences as a manager responsible for hiring new employees for my organizations and also for training them. Also contributing was my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my professional career and, more recently, while administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) which serves, among other things, as the entrance exam for prospective enlistees in the Armed Services of the United States.

Other authors proceed with critiques of public education’s declining performance followed by prescriptions for training better teachers, reorganizing schools in creative ways, making preschool more accessible, for improving curricula, and tailoring instruction to the unique needs of children, revamping assessments, and building true accountability. All of their focus is internal as if the cultural forces that relentlessly devalue the primacy of education and the corresponding decline in the motivation of American children are unalterable givens.

These are the realities that are having a devastating impact on the quality of education and we go about our important business as if we are powerless to address them. Like so much of American society and its government, we have acquired, over the last half century, a misguided belief that we have all the answers; that we can solve everyone’s problems for them; that we bear full responsibility. Possibly, we have forgotten that ensuring that children receive a quality education is a shared responsibility. Possibly we have come to believe that it is politically incorrect to call parents out; to get in their face and demand that they accept their responsibility as partners in education. We behave as if the poor and the nonwhite are too pathetic to take responsibility for their own futures. Possibly, poor people and minorities have written us off because they feel powerless to affect the outcomes in their lives. This is a reality Americans must alter at all cost.

In Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream we will provide vignettes from my own experience as a substitute teacher in the classrooms of the middle and high schools of Fort Wayne Community Schools. The focus of each will be to provide the reader with a glimpse of what takes place in the classroom and also to illustrate the importance of parental commitment and participation. Also included will be a vignette from a first-year teacher’s experience in an inner city elementary school in Washington DC. We believe these anecdotes provide compelling evidence of the mounting disdain for education and for our assertion that parents are abdicating their responsibility as indispensable partners in the educational process.

The “action focus” of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream will be divided into two sections. Before we can challenge the American people to begin changing the cultures and subcultures of American society we must demonstrate that “we mean business.” It is not enough to make empty promises because empty promises are all many Americans believe they have heard, each and every day of their lives. We need to speak with our actions, demonstrating that we are making real and substantive changes in the way we will teach their children. We want parents to be able to look at the changes we have made so that they can truly believe that we will be giving their children the education they will need to make the American dream a reality. We want them to believe that this new educational process will truly empower their children to take control of their young lives and to seize an array of opportunities, from a huge and diverse menu, according to their unique talents, interests, and abilities. We want parents to want the best for their children even when they have given up hope for themselves.

Only when the parents of our nation’s children can reach out and touch these things can we reasonably expect them to believe in a new reality; and, only when they believe in the reality of this new educational process can we ask them to begin, once again, to have faith in the American dream and to have real and meaningful hope in a better future. Only when we are able to give American men and women a realistic hope for a better future for their children can we begin asking them to change the way they live, think, and feel.

As we turn our focus to the process of education in America, we will begin by comparing the way children learn during their pre-school years whether at home, in daycare, pre-school or head start programs with what we offer them when they arrive for their first day at school. What the reader will see, in this simple analysis, is that our educational process seems to work at cross purposes with the way the natural learning process functions. The result is that the fun of learning is soon replaced with a stress-filled, esteem-damaging process that sets many children up for failure.

We will also examine:

• Compulsory education and the fact that unmotivated students are allowed to be a disruptive influence on students who want to learn and teachers who are striving to teach;
• Teacher accountability and the trust between teachers and parents;
• The way we structure our schools and group children in classrooms, together;
• The way we identify an educational path for our children and then direct them down that path;
• The way we utilize teachers and facilitate their ability to teach and interact with students and their parents;
• Our current educational system’s focus on failure;
• Protecting children from humiliation;
• Homework, practice, and the manner in which we deal with the mistakes our students make;
• The way we assess a student’s level of competency over the subject matter within the context of educational standards;
• The allocation of scarce resources to serve our mission to the optimal advantage; and,
• The effectiveness with which we utilize the technology of the Twenty-first Century.

After re-thinking our assumptions about the educational process, we will present nineteen specific action strategies that will enable us to re-invent the educational process in order to better meet the educational needs of our children and to prepare them for the unprecedented challenges of the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

Through the implementation of these nineteen action strategies, we will show how we can structure the educational process in such a way that the structure supports and facilitates our teachers and students as they go about their important work. We will show how we can create real trust between parents and the teachers of their children in order to engage them as full partners in the educational process. We will illustrate how we can shift the focus away from humiliation and failure, focusing instead on teaching children that success is a process that all can master within the context of their individual talents and abilities. We will show how, utilizing Twenty-first Century technology, we can integrate the assessment of student competency and mastery into the educational process very much like industry has integrated quality systems within the production and assembly process.

It is a national tragedy that so many students reach a point in their academic careers where they have given up on themselves. It is a national travesty that we have given up on them. It is imperative that we place teachers in an environment in which they can make a real difference in the lives of the children in their classrooms. We want our teachers to be developing rich and nurturing relationships with our children and their families; relationships that will endure and that will be remembered with the same warmth that all of us feel when we think back on our favorite teachers. We want to eliminate the meaningless activity in which so many teachers become entrapped so that their time and energy are focused not only on helping children learn how to be successful but also helping them remember how much fun learning can be. We want teachers to re-discover how much fun it is to teach.

Simply by changing our thinking we can irrevocably alter the current reality of education in America and help our children develop the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in an ever more complex international arena. We believe we can show, emphatically, that all of these things are well within our power to accomplish if only we open our hearts and minds and view them without prejudice.

Few if any of these first nineteen action times will require an act of the legislature. They can almost all be implemented by individual school corporations acting within the parameters of their legislated authority.

After we have presented our blueprint for the reinvention of education in America, we will shift our focus to the formidable challenge of changing our culture to one in which every American has faith and hope in the American dream, for their children if not for themselves, and where we are each committed to a portfolio of shared values constructed on the principles of freedom and democracy in which “. . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . .”

We will begin by examining what takes place in our public schools, particularly in urban America. We will also look at the vital role education has played in the development of American society as we have evolved into the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

We will examine the results from state competency exams, using Indiana as our example. These data clearly illustrate that the performance gap between white students and blacks and other minorities is as real as it is disturbing. What we will also see is that all students in urban public schools, whites included, underperform when compared with students in private and parochial schools and in rural and suburban public schools. That we misinterpret the reasons for this underperformance places our future in jeopardy.

It is also vital that we understand how American culture has evolved to present day and we will take an in depth look at the impact this cultural evolution has had on education in America, both public and private. We will show how several cultural phenomena, beginning after the Great Depression and end of World War II, transformed our nation and society in such a way that the core values that contributed to our nation’s greatness became obscured.

We will take a particularly close look at the culture of African America because the most significant and alarming performance gap in all of education is the chasm that exists between the educational performance of white children and their black classmates. This reality demands direct, unapologetic attention. That discourse will involve a close look at the work of John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America . Dr. McWhorter suggests to us that the problem is a culture in which it has become a symbol of “black authenticity” for African-Americans to shake their finger at “whitey” for institutional racism and degradation that no longer exist to any relevant degree, and to flip a certain other finger at education and the other responsibilities of citizenship. These responsibilities are essential to the ongoing viability of a democratic society. We hope to dispel, irrevocably, even the notion that there is an entire race of people who are predisposed to academic failure, and replace it with a challenge to African-Americans and other minorities to take their rightful place as full partners in meeting the economic, social, and political challenges facing our nation. That challenge must come with the commitment that parents can count on the partnership of their children’s educators.

We will also devote time to a discussion of “entitlement mentality.” Typically, when people feel entitled to something they do not believe they should be required to do anything to earn it. We believe this is part of the problem with public education; that we have come to view education as an entitlement for which we should not be required to be responsible. Today, our entire society spends too much time talking about rights and entitlements rather than talking about responsibility. Aided by the literal eruption of electronic communications and computer technology, the power of the peer group has become more powerful than at any time in the history of our nation and now threatens to replace the family, church, and schools as the dominant socio-cultural force.

We will suggest that changing our culture is the categorical imperative of our time. Talk is cheap, however and we will offer a strategic plan of action designed to bring about massive and comprehensive cultural change. We will suggest that, as formidable as this challenge may seem it is nothing more than a sales and marketing plan of enormous size and scope. Because sales and marketing are two of the areas in which the U.S. is unsurpassed, this challenge is within our power to overcome.

Our action strategy to alter the culture of America will commence with a clear statement of purpose followed by a focus on the utilization of the principles of positive leadership , and will be manifested in fourteen specific action items directed to the community.

We will show how educators and other community leaders can reach out into the community and pull parents in. We will show how we can parlay one of President Barack Obama’s early campaign challenges to parents to accept responsibility for their children into a nation-wide initiative to rally the American people, across all cultural boundaries, to the idea that education is the ticket to a new, Twenty-first Century version of the American dream. Somehow, we have to sell Americans on the idea that the American dream still exists. We need to re-instill hope in the hearts and minds of men and women from across the entire spectrum of the American panorama that the dream is both real and achievable. For those who are poor and disadvantaged, we need re-ignite the hope and belief that they can make it real for their children and that a quality education is a pass of admission to the dream. Education has become something that these youngsters do not value and it is imperative that we alter this reality. The reader is urged to understand that this is not something that would be nice to accomplish; it is something that must be accomplished or our children and grandchildren will find themselves in an entirely different world where being an American is not something about which one can feel proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The reader is encouraged to believe that each of things is possible if only we will proceed with an open mind and hold on to the idea that anything man can imagine, man can do. Educators must be encouraged to believe that these things are possible if only they will challenge their biases and assumptions and, most of all, if only they will accept responsibility for finding a solution. You will hear this axiom, in one form or another, again and again as you proceed through this book, as it is central to our purpose:

Instead of blaming other people, our government, or the world for our problems, it is only when we accept responsibility for those problems that we begin to acquire the power to solve them.

The bottom line is that the problems facing American society and the problems facing our systems of education are the exact same problems and they cannot be solved by educators working unilaterally. We must involve the entire community.

Teacher Performance Evaluations are the First Step in the Right Direction, But. . . ?

As I am still getting requests for copies or links to this article, which was shared more than 500 times on Facebook, I have elected to re-run the piece on this Memorial Day,

Teacher Performance Evaluations are the First Step in the Right Direction

Whatever one feels about the reliability of the data regarding “school staff performance evaluations” released by the State [Indiana] Department of Education and reported in Tuesday’s (April 8, 2014) Journal Gazette, just having a system of evaluation in place and reporting results to the public is a positive step for our state’s educators.

Performance evaluations in any venue are an uncertain science but the fact that they acknowledge a responsibility to be accountable to the public is the first step in the right direction. The results of these evaluations are far more credible than the off-hand assertions of skeptics that the “results do not provide a true and accurate assessment.” References to what would appear to be contradictory evidence provided by the performance of students’ on ISTEPs are equally nonsensical.

It has become fashionable to blame teachers for the poor performance of their students but this should be construed as evidence that critics of our systems of public education have an over-simplistic understanding of why so many American children are performing poorly in school. Those who advocate the use of state competency test results to punish schools and teachers are simply out of touch with reality and demonstrate, with each shouted breath, that they are clueless as to the reasons for failure in our schools.

The reasons why children fail in school are many and they are complex and can be discussed in detail at another time and place; but, let there be no doubt that far too many of our children are failing and this is, without question, one of the most important issues on the American agenda. It is because this issue is so critical to the future of our society that it demands thoughtful examination on the part of men and women who are more concerned about understanding the dynamics of the issue than they are about assigning blame or spouting meaningless platitudes.

Blaming teachers for the problems in public education in America is like blaming soldiers for the war they were asked to fight. Teachers are as much victims of an obsolete educational process as are the students that they teach. It is bad enough that they are asked to perform miracles in the classroom without the necessary structure, support, and resources; can we at least spare them the ramblings of an uninformed public?

I am not suggesting that the teaching profession is without culpability and they certainly must bear a significant share of the responsibility for changing the reality that is education in 21st Century America. Performance evaluations can play an important role in that process and they can be a powerful tool in driving organizations toward their objectives and in holding employees at all levels of an organization to the highest possible expectations. Unfortunately, the quality of performance evaluations are often a function of the caliber of management in the organization. If they are to work in an educational environment, principals must be thoroughly schooled in their use. Interestingly, this is an area where school corporations and teachers associations could work together toward a common purpose.

Performance evaluations are also another area where schools can learn from business. While the value and functionality of performance evaluations in a business environment span the continuum from pathetic to outstanding, many industries have been engaged for decades in the development of meaningful instrumentation. The concept of integrated performance evaluations would be one innovation that would offer great promise in an educational environment. Integrated performance management systems are designed to provide ongoing, real-time interface between worker and supervisor and are focused upon helping workers, both professional and non-professional, maximize their ability to provide products and services of the highest caliber.

It seems to this observer that it would be in everyone’s best interests if teacher associations would take the lead in working with their school districts to mutually develop such capability. Nothing drives innovation like the compelling need to satisfy demanding and unhappy customers and there are few people who are happy with the state of public education in America in this second decade of a new century. If ever a time would be right this would seem to be it.

Things You Can Do, Part 8 – A Positive Leader’s Vision and Relentlessness

A positive leader’s ever-expanding vision for the future of his or her organization is an energizing force. In this, as in so many things, positive leaders are relentless.

If you are a leader and your vision has grown stale, your organization is in trouble and you need to do whatever it takes to recharge and revitalize yourself. The very future of your organization depends on it – your organization depends on you!

Put this quote on the wall of your office and at other high visibility locations throughout your facilities:

“The point at which an idea, process, product, service, or organization can no longer be improved is the precise moment in time that it becomes obsolete.”

There are no leaders who can afford to become complacent and there are no organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit; whether manufacturers, assemblers, or service providers that can afford to become stagnant.

The pressure to survive, let alone prosper, in the economy of the Twenty-first Century decade will be extraordinary and whatever one’s venue, entities that cannot compete will surely disappear. This places an exceptional premium on positive leadership.

Many leaders feel over-whelmed by the challenges of leading their people through incessant change and relentless improvement – continuous improvement does not cut it anymore.

Listen carefully – positive leaders neither live nor work in isolation. Positive leadership recognize that every member of their organization is a partner and bears a share of the responsibility for the “relentless improvement” process. Positive leaders enlist the full participation of the people and they establish incentives for creative thinking.

Any leader that guards the creative and decision-making process and restricts participation to a select few is doomed to fail. Make relentless improvement an expectation of everyone in your organization and include it in your performance management system. If your organization does not have a performance management system, create one. Create ad hoc brainstorming teams, pulling people from all departments and levels of the organization. Celebrate excellence and creativity at every opportunity. Share information about performance and work to create an ownership mentality throughout your organization. These are characteristics of winning organizations.

As a leader, take the time to talk to as many of your people as possible. Thank them for their effort, share your vision and elevate both your expectation and theirs. Teach your people to feel like winners and you will discover that there are few things in the work world more exciting than being a part of a winning organization.

Being part of a winning organization creates a self-perpetuating cycle in which a leader’s vision seems to expand magically. Just like an answer to a question will lead to multiple new questions, the introduction of a new idea spawns creation of a chain of new ideas.

Black Kids, White Kids, Asian and Hispanic Kids, All Kids Can Learn!

Let’s clear up any confusion, misconceptions, or lingering doubts about whether or not there are certain groups of children who can or cannot learn. The fact that so very many children do not learn has nothing to do with whether or not they can. What we have seen in public schools all over the U.S., as well as in private, parochial, and charter schools, as well as in experimental schools, is that kids from every racial, ethnic and cultural heritage can learn, irrespective of their economic circumstances.

The question is, what do we as a society do to insure that all children do learn; each and every one of them to the full extent of their unique genetic capability? Notice that I did not say what “can” we do. The use of the world “can” suggests that something may or may not be possible.

We have the power, individually and collectively, to create a reality in which every child learns to the fullest extent of their capability. Given that we have such power, it is absolutely intolerable that we allow the existence of a reality in which so many children are allowed to fail.

Please ask yourself what you can do, whether you are in a position to reach out to a single child or to an entire generation. And then, make a commitment to do it.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (REHAD). I wrote:

“. . . the mathematical and scientific laws of the universe care nothing about the color of a man or a woman’s skin. The only reason children of any racial or ethnic group are not masters of the sciences and mathematics is that their fathers and mothers do not insist that they learn these things. The only reason girls and boys, whatever their lineage, do not read and write proficiently is because their mothers and fathers do not insist that they become proficient.
The only time children of any cultural heritage do not become loving partners in the process of rearing their own children and teaching them these values is when we, as parents, do not teach them by our example. The only time any child grows up with an unhealthy self-esteem is when we do not teach him or her, each and every day of their lives, how very special they are; because we do not demand that they learn responsibility and self-discipline.”

Conveying this message as part of a coordinated plan of action is, I am convinced, the most important thing any American can do for our country at this point in our history. In REHAD, I outlined a blueprint for action that involves two components.

The first component is to fix an educational process that is more than a century old and that no longer meets the needs of children of the Twenty-first Century. It was a system that sets children up for failure and humiliation and that has left full generations of American men and women not only bitter and resentful but also hopeless and powerless that they can effect the outcomes in their lives. These men and women no longer believe in the American dream and no longer teach their kids that an education is important and offers them a pathway to a better life. As a result, the children of these men and women show up for their first day of school poorly prepared and with precious little motivation to learn.

The performance gap that we refer to so often is simply an illustration of that fact. That the most disparate performance gap is between white and black students is not proof that African-American children are less able to learn rather it is proof that the culture of much of the African-American community is one in which this disdain for education is most pervasive. In fact, this disdain for education transcends culture and is growing more pervasive each and every day that we stand by and do nothing.

The real performance gap exists between children reared in an environment where belief in the American dream is real and abiding and where families are hopeful and believe they possess the power to create a better life for their children, if not for themselves; and between children raised under a shroud of hopelessness and powerlessness.

Fixing the educational process is just the first step.

The second component of my blueprint for transformation is that we must come together as one people, in all of our diversity, united by a common purpose. That purpose is to repackage and resell the American dream and then take that message to the people. It requires that we ask every American who is hopeful and powerful to reach out into every nook and cranny of our community and engage the hopeless and the powerless.

We want all of our neighbors to believe that they can create a better life for their children and that they need not do this alone. We want them to understand that their entire community, across the full cultural panorama, is available to help them.

We want them to understand that the most important thing they can do is to partner with the teachers of their sons and daughters; teachers that offer a new educational process that is focused on helping each and every one of our children learn how to be successful and acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to control the outcomes in their lives. Knowledge and skills that will enable them to create their own future.

This is a plea to each and every one of you who is reading these words to make a commitment to action. That action begins by sharing these ideas and your commitment with everyone in your sphere of influence.

What are you waiting for?

Blaming teachers in our schools is like blaming soldiers for the war they were ordered to fight.

Blaming public school teachers for the problems in education is like blaming soldiers for the war they were asked to fight.

On the battlefield, soldiers have no control over the level of commitment, courage or resiliency of their opposition. They have no control over the efficacy of their command structure or quality of the strategy flowing through the chain of command. Neither do they control the timeliness and reliability of their supply lines or the relative primacy of their weaponry. While we might second guess the strategic decision making in war, we do not attempt to hold soldiers accountable for the success of their efforts, measured after-the-fact, using unproven metrics. These valiant men and women can only give the best of themselves and in this they are very much like our teachers.

How is it, then, that we can ask the teachers in our most challenging schools to overcome the lack of support of parents? How can we expect them to fight through the disruptive behavior of students with widely disparate levels of preparation and motivation and then guide them down the same path, toward the same destination, at the same pace?

We ask them to rise to these extraordinary and unreasonable expectations while we shower them with criticisms and disrespect? And, as if the job were not sufficiently challenging, we promote vouchers and charter schools that siphon off motivated families and their children from our most challenged public schools? Each child that escapes to an alternate school leaves teachers with fewer students that care and the school with less revenue with which to work.

Such a strategy might be justified if it included a plan to re-infuse the abandoned public schools with additional resources, innovative programming, extra training, and curricula tailored to the unique requirements of their students. Instead the strategy seems to be that we will turn our heads and shut our minds to the plight of such schools. “We can’t do anything about these schools until someone addresses the problem of poverty,” we tell ourselves.

The overwhelming majority of our elected officials and the powerful interest groups that lobby for what they call radical educational reforms have not taken the time to understand the realities with which these teachers, their schools, and their students must contend. They act on the basis of abstract principles that are as clichéd as our traditional American educational process; a process that has not been significantly altered for decades. It is a process that has chewed up and spit out millions of children, leaving generations of Americans bitter and resentful.

Meanwhile, our government and forces of corporate reform talk about privatization of schools and such business principles as investments, competition, and entrepreneurialism. They push for teacher accountability using annual test scores as if this is leading-edge thinking. The truth is that American industry has, long ago, replaced “end-of-the-production line quality inspections” with quality systems that are integrated within the production or assembly process.

These advocates do all of these things as if their leadership and initiative can magically solve the problems of public education; problems that they do not fully understand.

The worst objective these advocates pursue is separating schools from the communities they exist to serve. One of the primary problems in education is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness on the part of Americans who no longer believe in the American dream nor do they see an education as a way out for their children. Separating schools from their communities and its people can only serve to reinforce that sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Business principles are needed if we are to reinvent public education but they are not the principles of the board room but rather the principles from operations. They are focus on purpose and customer, structuring resourcing the organization to support its objectives, problem-solving, team building, innovation, appropriate utilization of technology, and performance management.

It is imperative that we abandon our current educational process’s focus on failure. We must teach for mastery of subject matter, not test preparation, and we need to teach children how to be successful. It is only when a child has learned how to be successful that he or she can begin to see how they can control the outcomes in their lives. It is only when young men and women believe they can control the outcomes in their lives that they begin to feel hopeful for a better future and sufficiently powerful to make it happen.

What we need from corporate and government reformers is very simple. We need them to cease and desist. We need them to begin providing positive leadership in reselling the American dream to the people, in all of their diversity. We then we need them to find ways to support rather than subvert local innovation and initiative.

Article by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg as shared by Valerie Strauss in her column “The Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

A huge thank you goes out to Valerie Strauss (@valeriestrauss) for sharing the article by Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), in her column, “The Answer Sheet” for The Washington Post. Pasi Sahlberg is the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland.

I encourage the reader to check out Sahlberg’s article “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. Schools?”

Sahlberg’s most important point is that there is no one approach or “silver bullet” that will solve the problems with education in America. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that addresses every aspect of a nation’s educational system from the way we prepare teachers for their professions, what we teach, how we teach it, and how we involve the entire community.

Our current focus on teachers as both the cause and the solution to the problems of public education in American is a prime example of how little our policy makers, our politicians, and even our business leaders understand about education as a system. We proceed as if the answer is holding teachers accountable on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized competency exams on the one hand and threatening dire sanctions against schools, including closure, if they fail to measure up on the other. Sahlberg’s reference to such a “toxic use of accountability” suggests that the approach itself is harmful to the system and to the children and communities that our schools exist to serve.

Our complementary focus on encouraging the establishment of charter schools and offering vouchers to entice motivated families to abandon their public schools suggests a presumption, on our part, that we expect our focus on accountability and testing to fail.

I share Sahlberg’s belief that teachers, while important, are only a part of the problems with education in the U.S. and, regardless of how effective they are, “schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty” and, I would add, the lack of both the motivation of students and support of parents. Sahlberg cites the need to “Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.”

My only criticism of Sahlberg is his not uncommon assertion that poverty plays the pivotal role in the problems of education in the U.S. As he suggests, however, the data seems to show that poverty plays a bigger role in the challenges facing American children than in most other developed nations. This is a fact that should shake Americans out of our complacency but we reject it because it does not fit into our rather exalted self-image.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (REHAD), I suggest that it is not poverty so much as it is the lack of hope on the part of the parents of our children that an education offers a way out of poverty. No one can deny that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for American children but the fact is that some children find a way to excel academically, in spite of the poverty they endure.

What we need to understand is “what are the characteristics that distinguish such children from the majority of their classmates?” I suggest that the distinguishing characteristic is that the children who succeed are supported by parents who somehow, in the face of all odds, cling to the hope that an education is a portal to a better life. These parents and guardians possess a relentless commitment to the education of their children and not a day goes by that they do not communicate the importance of education to their sons and daughters.

The problem is not poverty rather it is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so typically accompany poverty. While poverty is a condition that seems to defy our best efforts, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind about which we can do something. We may not be able to get our hands around poverty, but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one family, one school, or one community at a time.

Sahlberg’s message is that we need a comprehensive approach that addresses every facet of the problems of education in America. I call this a systems-thinking approach in which we step back, sufficiently, that we can view our educational system as an integral whole. It is only from such a vantage point that we can begin to see how the system is influenced not only by external forces but also by internal forces that represent the consequence of our ineffectual tampering.

We not only need to shift our focus from teacher effectiveness to school effectiveness, as Sahlberg suggests, we need to effect a paradigm shift of our focus to the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

“Careful quality control at entry into teaching;” regarding teaching “as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering;” rigorous “competition to get into these teacher education programs” is where Sahlberg suggests we begin. He talks about the effectiveness of leadership within the classroom and school and the important role that parents play. He also talks about the importance of a positive school climate where teachers can “use their skills, wisdom, and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning.”

We need a comprehensive plan of action that addresses every aspect of our complicated educational system and process and offering a blueprint for such a plan is the essential purpose of my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, (REHAD). Although I believe the solution I offer in REHAD is practical and effective it is offered as much as a catalyst to a profession-wide brainstorming process as it is a proposal for direct action.

Sahlberg closes out his article with a theoretical exchange of teachers with Finnish teachers coming to Indiana and Hoosier teachers going to Finland. He suggests that the Finnish teachers working in the context of the current American educational process would be able to deliver only marginal improvements in test scores. He suggests that, once acclimated, Hoosier teachers in Finland would begin to flourish.

Interestingly, in one of the drafts of REHAD, I posed a similar hypothetical experiment in which we would exchange teachers from model schools that exist along the fringes of the American educational system with those from our more challenged public schools. The results I envisioned as a result of such an experiment were virtually identical to those envisioned by Sahlberg.

Sahlberg strives, as do I, to challenge Americans to alter the way we think about education and expand the boundaries of conventional thinking. It is my hope that my modest contribution will help ameliorate the difficulty many Americans have in acknowledging that we can learn something from the experience of other nations.

Excerpt #8 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream – Introduction

Outdated Facilities and Technology

With respect to school facilities and resources, there are abysmal facilities in communities around the nation and, while they are certainly substandard and contribute to an overall unfavorable atmosphere, replacing these facilities with modern state-of-the-art physical structures will not result in a dramatic turnaround. Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) provides a marvelous example. Two of the eleven FWCS schools that were identified by the State of Indiana as at risk of takeover because of their performance as measured against a number of criteria, had been renovated, in the recent past, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. These two schools are, arguably, two of the finest high school facilities in all of northeast Indiana. Quality buildings are a real positive but they do not alter the level of student motivation and they do not alter the recipe for educational success.

Should we continue to improve school buildings and technology? Absolutely but it must not be our first priority.


While many advocate curriculum reforms, most schools within individual states are held to the same educational standards and have curricula that vary minimally with other schools, irrespective of the performance of those schools. Can we do a better job at the development of curricula that are well-suited to the needs of the Twenty-first Century? Yes, we can and we must do better but curricula alone do not explain divergent results within schools of the same community and a focus on curriculums must not be our highest priority.

Often, lowered expectations account for curriculum variances as underperforming schools often lower their expectations in an effort to make gains in competency test results and graduation rates. Even more critically, expectations correlate to our perception of relative disadvantage with respect to a child’s circumstances. Whether we admit it or not, there is a tendency to consider it unfair to expect as much from disadvantaged students as we do from their counterparts.

Another common assertion is that we must extend the number of hours in the classroom and increase the proportion of those hours devoted to math, language arts, and science. It is unrealistic to think that this is anything other than a small part of the solution and certainly not one at the top of our priority list. In schools comprised of large populations of unmotivated students, such initiatives will only serve to prolong the daily agony of students and teachers alike

Race and Ethnicity

Is the problem race or ethnicity? The most glaring fact in all of public education is the performance gap between African-American and white students. It is a fact of which we all are aware but about which few will talk, candidly. For many experts, it is safer to cling to the idea that poverty is the culprit. Sadly, there are some Americans who are content to believe that the performance results of black children are the best that we can expect. Some actually believe that black children are predisposed to fail. That the majority of Americans are unwilling to talk about this issue openly and frankly contributes greatly to the persistence of such ignorance.

The performance gap between white students and Hispanic and other ethnic and racial subgroups may not be as glaring but it is every bit as disconcerting. The indisputable fact is that students from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds excel academically and that some white students fail just as badly as their minority counterparts. When will we wake up to the fact that the issue is one of culture rather than of race or color, and then act accordingly? One of the most important lessons to be gained from the success of the “model” schools about which we have talked is that kids from diverse backgrounds can and will learn.

Student Behavior

Is the problem behavior? There is no doubt that teachers who labor in under-performing schools spend a disproportionate amount of their time striving to restore order. Stories of teachers who have time for little else are well documented. Disruptive behavior is nothing other than a manifestation of a lack of motivation, which we believe to be a symptom of a counter-cultural devaluation of education, and a system that is focused on failure.

Fractured Families

Finally, we return to the subject of supportive families. The single greatest advantage enjoyed by high-performing schools, of whatever genesis or jurisdiction, is the support of the parents of their students. The more a parent values education and the more he or she wants the best possible education for his or her children the more involved and supportive he or she will be and it does not seem to matter whether it is a one or two-parent home. What matters is that parents truly consider themselves to be partners who share in the responsibility for the success of their children. The more relentless these mothers, fathers, and grandparents are with respect to academic expectations, the more successful the child, whatever his or her racial, ethnic, or economic circumstances.

One of the more interesting developments since the emergence of charter schools is that many of these schools have failed to produce significantly better results on competency examinations than their public school counterparts. While we encourage research into the dynamics of this phenomenon, we think we can predict one of if not the biggest contributing factor.

Parents who make sacrifices, both financial and otherwise, to enroll their children in private, parochial, or charter schools are typically invested in the education of their children. They are motivated to see a positive return on their investment and they accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. Unfortunately, some parents take advantage of vouchers but think, having made such a choice, their job is complete. Such parents are not invested and may not accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. The students of such parents will be no more likely to succeed academically than they were in their former school. As is so often true, when people get something for nothing, they have an entitlement mentality. We repeat our assertion that, it is not the school that makes the difference in education and that vouchers are not the solution.

If educators could have just one wish, and truly took the time to think about it, the overwhelming majority would wish that each of their students had parents who care, who want to be involved, who truly accept responsibility for their kids, and who support the teachers and principals. Proving this assertion is the greatest single contribution special schools make in an aggregate sense. Creating such a reality in every school in the United States of American is the categorical imperative of our time.

Excerpt # 7 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, from the Introduction


The majority of experts suggest that poverty is the biggest problem in American public education. Notwithstanding that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for students and that much must be done to put supports in place, there are many students from the poorest of backgrounds who excel academically and there are those who fail in spite of the relative affluence enjoyed by their families. We suggest that poverty and the problems with our systems of public education are symptoms of the same pathology. What seems to matter is a combination of two critical states of reality.

The first is how parents view the relationship between education and opportunity. For the relatively affluent families, it comes down to whether children are taught that opportunities must be earned, on the one hand, or are entitlements on the other. For the poor or for families that hover in the vicinity of the poverty level the issue is whether parents see an education as a way for their children to escape their disadvantage on the one hand or whether they have lost hope on the other.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the challenges of affluence are easier to overcome than the challenges poverty. We are concerned, however, about failing children on whatever end of the affluence continuum on which they can be found. The operative question is why we do not attack hopelessness, ferociously. Hope and expectations are inextricably connected. The consequences of an educational system that puts children in a position to fail can be devastating to the vulnerable and contributes greatly to this sense of hopelessness.

The second reality is the level of influence parents and family have over their children relative to the power and influence of the peer group. We suggest that parents who are ardent advocates for the importance of education and who teach their sons and daughters to swim in the currents of peer pressure rather than be swept away by it are most likely to have children who excel academically. As the strength of both the parent(s) advocacy regarding the importance of an education and their ability to help their children develop a healthy self-esteem begins to wane, academic performance seems to diminish. We suggest that the color of a family’s skin has precious little to do with the academic performance of their children. The role of affluence matters only to the extent that a family’s relative wealth contributes to or impedes its ability to sustain close relationships with its children.

Bad Teachers

Are there bad teachers in our public schools? Most certainly! Only a few, however, entered the teaching profession as bad teachers. They became bad over time, in many cases, after years of being subjected to a failure-laden system and precious little support from the parents of their students. If we were able to plot out the deterioration of the performance of such teachers it would be in almost perfect inverse proportion to the increase in their level of hopelessness with respect to successful outcomes. Many lose faith that what they are doing is making a difference.

What is remarkable is that there are so many public school teachers in urban communities all over the U.S. who somehow cling to their hope in the face of such distressing academic environments and teach to the best of their abilities. These men and women are the unsung heroes of public education and they deserve our respect and support, not the mounting criticism and indictments they are forced to endure.

Legislators are naive to think that they can make better schools available to the broad public simply through legislation that gives people more choices and also vouchers that help them pay for those choices. The problem, of course, is that only a small percentage of the total population is motivated to take advantage of such opportunities even when readily available to them. More choices and vouchers may provide lifelines to a few of the most motivated families but it is comparable to a sentence of death for the remainder.

The sad reality is that every time concerned parents jerk their children out of public schools in favor of alternatives such as suburban public, parochial, charter, or other “model” schools the abandoned urban public school is left with one less parent who cares. The teachers of these schools are now left with the most challenging and unmotivated students and least supportive parents, while enjoying none of the special luxuries that contribute to the success of their “model” counterparts and none of the hope. Projecting to all fifty states Indiana public schools’ loss of $37 million during the 2012-2013 academic year and we are talking about nearly $2 billion in revenue lost by schools systems that can least afford it.

What we are creating is a bifurcated system of education that separates the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The problem is not that we are creating alternatives for families that value an education rather it is that we are failing miserably in our efforts to fix the problems faced by the schools that are being abandoned.

The teaching profession certainly bears a portion of the responsibility for the problems with education in America and we must make every effort to improve the quality of teachers. We must challenge school administrations and teachers’ unions to find ways to work together toward this objective. In a later discussion, we will make recommendations for teachers and their unions on how to improve the accountability of teachers, thereby improving the quality of the aggregate faculty. Our top priorities, however, must be to attack the cultural forces that lead to parental apathy with respect to education and the resulting absence of motivation on the part of so many students on the one hand and to re-invent the educational process on the other.

Powerful forces are poised to rip control of education out of the hands Teachers and communities

Yesterday’s (5/8/14) report, by Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press, under the headline: “Nation’s students not improving: Exam finds no gains in seniors’ critical skills since ’09,” is certain to renew exclamations that our teachers are failing America’s children.

However absurd such proclamations may be, it is time for teachers, working collectively and with their communities, to take the lead in advocating substantial reforms of the educational process. If teachers permit educational reforms to remain exclusively in the hands of the government and corporate reformers, they are putting America’s children at risk and are leaving the teaching profession unprotected.

It is not sufficient to take a defensive posture and cry out against such reformers. What is needed are proactive proposals that the entire teaching profession can support with all of its political influence and might at the local, state, and federal level.

The reforms themselves must be substantial and they must literally reinvent the American educational process so that it:

• Is focused on success in real and substantive ways that allows teachers to teach children how to be successful;

• Shifts the focus back to subject mastery rather than test preparation, using the NAEP definition of “proficient” as a model where the expectation is to help students acquire the ability to apply what they learn to real-life situations;

• Puts teachers in a position to teach in an intimate environment in which they can form close, nurturing relationships with both students and parents;

• Help children experience the fun of learning under the tutelage of a “favorite teacher” rather than deal with the stress of looming annual, standardized exams;

• Integrate student assessment and teacher accountability into the instructional process, much like industry has done with quality systems, obviating the need for annual standardized examinations to demonstrate competency;

• Provides teachers with state-of-the-art technology and other tools to facilitate rather than obstruct what they do, where the technology is as seamless and productive as the smartphones most of us carry in our pockets and purses; and,

• Begins the challenging process of re-establishing the highest possible level of trust between parents and their children’s teachers.

Teachers must also use their collective might to aggressively pursue grants for creative programs that engage parents as partners in the education of their children (I encourage teachers to count the number of such programs of which they are currently aware).

I offer my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, as a model for implementation at the local level in schools and communities all over the nation. It is a model that can also serve as catalyst for brainstorming or as a springboard for the development of other models.

In any case, it is time for teachers to act before their credibility is completely tainted and their social capital squandered.