Teachers Are the Solution and Not the Reason Why So Many Kids Fail!

Nothing will change for the better in public education until teachers take ownership and start doing things differently!

One of the most frightening things that can happen to a business is when its customers begin to take their business elsewhere. This is a watershed event and how the business chooses to respond will determine whether or not it survives.

This event signals that customer satisfaction has eroded and has been transformed into customer dissatisfaction. It is at this point when customers begin taking their business elsewhere.

In public education the very same thing is happening. There is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the quality of education young people are able to demonstrate when they leave school. Public school teachers and other educators may not want to acknowledge this reality but it is real and it is tangible. It is this dissatisfaction that is the driving force behind education reforms and the call for more accountability through standardized testing.

What makes this situation even more critical with respect to public education is that our federal and state governments are encouraging families to abandon their local public schools. Many states, like Indiana, are promoting the creation of charter schools for just that purpose and many are providing vouchers as incentives for families to move their children from public school to charter schools or private schools.

Teachers do not live in an ivory tower and when they ignore the truth about this fermenting dissatisfaction they do so at their own peril. Government, reformers, and the much of the public actually believe the problems in public schools are the result of bad schools and bad teachers.

The only ones who know the truth are public school teachers, public school administrators and those few groups that advocate on their behalf. This reality will not change until public school educators begin doing things radically differently.

This shift must begin with a public acknowledgement on the part of teachers that the crisis in public education is real. This is something teachers already know no matter how much they try to ignore or deny it. The next step is to present to the public the real reasons why so many children fail and they need to make this presentation boldly at every opportunity.

Every teacher knows why the system fails but they need to believe that it is okay to shout out the truth because it is not their fault. They are as much victims as are their students and their communities.

As teachers, you know the educational process if flawed:

• Every time a student shows up in your classroom who is hopelessly behind;

• Every time you must move on to the next lesson when you know that some kids are not ready;

• Every time you are asked to focus on test prep rather than subject mastery;

• Every time you see students who have given up on themselves;

• Every time you see kids who could be honor students if only they cared
and would try;

• Every time a student disrupts your class because they are hopelessly behind and have no motivation to learn;

• Every time the parents of your struggling students:
o Do not show up for BTSN or P/T conferences,
o Do not respond to your phone calls or the notes you send home, and
o Blame you for the problems their kids are having at school,

• Every time a colleague leaves teaching or, worse, gives up and goes thru the motions; and,

• Every time your state or school district asks you to implement policy changes that make no sense and make your job even more difficult than it already is.

You know each and every one of these things is real and can probably add a few more to the list. Just remember that they are not your fault and start educating the American people of the real truth about public education.

The next step is even more important! Public school educators, singly and corporately, must tell the world that they have a solution and that they are the only ones who can fix the problems that contribute to this flawed educational process! Educators must not be afraid to ask for the public’s help, however, because there are believers out there.

Teacher must act or your schools will be shut down, just like that restaurant you once patronized that is no longer there and will soon be forgotten.

Teachers must act because the consequences of not acting will be catastrophic for our way of life. The current reforms will destroy our society as surely as a cancer will destroy the cells around it and time is running out!

The Primary Purpose of Public Education

Because we live in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, the overriding purpose of public education is to prepare children to understand and accept their civic duties when they reach maturity.

Democracy exists on a precipice that represents a delicate balance between the rights of individuals to choose how they wish to live while accepting the responsibilities of citizenship. Implicit in those responsibilities are expectations that individuals will:

• Abide by the laws of their communities, state, and nation;
• Share the burden of government by paying their taxes; and,
• Participate in their government through prudent exercise of their right to vote.

The ability to participate in one’s governance and to have choices in life requires a sufficient level of literacy, numeracy, cultural awareness and tolerance, and common sense. Providing the populace with that knowledge, skill, and wisdom is the shared responsibility of parents and our systems of public education.

How we respond to the economic, political, ecological, and socio-cultural challenges of this ever-more-complicated Twenty-First Century is totally dependent upon the quality of our systems of education and the efficacy of the educational process that drives it.

There are some educators who seem to resent the inference that at least part of their purpose is to prepare young people for the workforce. Given the rampant greed with which so many corporate leaders seem consumed there is a sense that the corporate world wants a workforce of unthinking, unimaginative, uncultured worker bees.

As a former business leader, I can assure the reader that automatons are the last thing the vast majority of employers want and there is a real frustration among employers that young people entering the workforce, today, cannot think creatively; lack literacy and the ability to do basic math; are unwilling to work hard; and, are selfish and unmotivated.

The community is the customer of our systems of public education and if the customer is unhappy with the quality of the product, educators must respond or the customer will take its business elsewhere. In that sense, public schools are no different than any other producer of goods and services. When we become dissatisfied with our meal at what was once our favorite restaurant, we start exploring alternatives. Providing alternatives to public schools would seem to be exactly what reformers are striving to do.

Dissatisfied customers are the driving force behind the educational reforms that are sweeping the nation. That the reform efforts of the corporate and government leaders are misguided is a result of their arrogance and ignorance regarding the real challenges in our public schools. They do not understand the challenges because they have not taken the time to walk in the shoes of public school teachers.

The only people who can fix what is broken in American public education are the educators themselves. Because public school teachers are being pummeled with blame for the problems of which they are, themselves, victims, they struggle to separate themselves from the problems. It is also natural that when we are immersed in our daily activities and challenges that we forget to step back to review our purpose and challenge our assumptions about what it is that we do. As professionals, however, this is exactly what educators must do.

Our teachers are in a perfect position to fix what is wrong in our schools and the answers are right there in front of them. It is like a painting with a design hidden within its content and texture. We know it is there but it is not until we step back and view the work from alternate perspectives that the embedded image begins to reveal itself to us.

Educators must have the strength of character and faith in one another, as members of an honorable profession, to acknowledge the things that do not work. They must then accept responsibility for addressing them. Only then can we begin to work together to resolve them.

It is vital that we all work together to maintain the equilibrium between rights and responsibilities and that we assess, unapologetically, the challenges we face as a society in the Twenty-First Century. What we have is a cherished thing but it is jeopardized when we live and interact on the basis of our biases and prejudices rather than the wisdom of an educated populace.

The reader is invited to read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, in which I offer a blueprint for a solution to the challenges of public education with a focus on teachers, students, and success.

Challenging Assumptions in Public Education: Do Grades 1 Through 12 Really Make Sense?

Grades 1 through 12 have been around for as long as anyone can remember. One of the first assumptions we need to challenge is whether or not this is the best way to organize teachers and students in our schools and classrooms. Does the structure support our objectives as educators? Is it consistent with our purpose?

When we ask such questions, we must always take a moment to remind ourselves of our primary purpose because the way we organize our resources must support that purpose. It is amazing how many organizations discover, after asking such questions, that one’s purpose has evolved but the organizational structure has remained static.

In primary and secondary education, whether in public schools or private, our essential purpose as educators is to help students master the academic subject matter we have selected for them to the best of their ability.

Toward this purpose, individual states have established academic standards that designate what academic subject matter is to be presented, in what sequence, and at what age. These academic standards include clearly delineated check points along the academic path so that we can verify, through annual standardized testing, that the students are progressing on schedule.

Most educators would agree that the best way to achieve that purpose or objective is to:

• Create a warm, nurturing environment in which teachers and students are able to bond;

• Maintain the lowest possible ratio of teachers and students; and,

• Pull parents in as partners, sharing the responsibility for the education of their children.

What we strive to do is help each student learn the subject matter well enough that they can demonstrate mastery. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “to master” as:

“to learn (something) completely; to get the knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand (something) very well.”

It is important that we ask ourselves whether helping students achieve subject matter mastery is what we do.

I would assert that what we do, how the process is structured and how teachers and students are organized do not support our purpose. What teachers do, today, what they are asked to do, is something entirely different. Think about the way it works:

1. Academic material is presented to students in a series of lessons or modules that are to be presented in a specific sequence and at a given time in the academic calendar;

2. Teachers do their best to help students understand;

3. We give students opportunities to practice;

4. We attempt to help them learn from the mistakes they make;

5. We test them to assess how well they learned (mastered) the subject matter of each lesson;

6. We record outcomes in the gradebook, typically on the basis of an A to F grading scale; and,

7. We move the entire class on to the next lesson.

The breakdowns typically begin to occur at step #3 of the process. As much as they might like to spend more time helping struggling students learn from the mistakes they made on both practice assignments and assessments, teachers can do so only as long as it does not slow the class down.

While there is no expectation that teachers will spend extra time with struggling students, most recognize that the need exists and do their best to make time, even if it requires that they invite the student to stop in after school.

For even the most dedicated teachers, however, there is a limit to how much time they can give to each of the students who need extra help or tutoring. The reality is that the numbers are large and most kids who need that extra attention will not ask for it nor will they sacrifice their own time to get it.

So, teachers do the only thing they can do and that they are expected to do and that is move the class on to the next lesson, whether or not all of their students are ready. For the kids who struggle, the consequence of the choices teachers must make are significant and the students find themselves predetermined to continue their struggles and, ultimately, to fail. Eventually, failure becomes the inevitable outcome and the kids who were pushed ahead before they were ready begin to lose hope.

Given the way the process is designed and the way teachers and students are organized within individual classrooms it is incredibly difficult to avoid losing students who have given up on themselves.

The current structure also has an adverse impact on the quality of the bonds teachers are able to forge with their students. Some teachers are better at this than others and some students are more difficult to engage. The reader is asked to consider the adage, which I first heard from my grandmother, that

“The child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

At the end of the school year, kids move on to other classrooms and unfamiliar teachers while teachers prepare to greet twenty to thirty new students, the majority of whom they have never met. Then, the entire process begins anew.

For many students, the special relationship many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers never happens. Of equal significance is that the number of parents who have bonded with their child’s teacher by the end of a school year will be fewer, still.

The structure of the Grade 1 through 12 model has been around for so long it has become granite-like. Few educators even think about it. It has become an unalterable given in our minds.

The truth is that the Grade 1 through 12 structure is nothing more than a logical construct that was once believed to be the most efficacious way to organize teachers and students within our brick and mortar classrooms. The physical structure of individual classrooms has been questioned somewhat more than “Grade 1 through 12” but it is still the predominant reality in public schools all over the nation and also in private and parochial schools.

There have been a few initiatives to alter the structure with an “open classroom” setting as one example but few have endured. Many times, such experiments were abandoned not so much because it was a bad idea rather because there were no corresponding changes to the expectations placed on teachers working in an open-classroom setting. As a result, there were no significant changes in outcomes.

We need to remind ourselves that just because an idea does not work the first time we try it does not mean it was a bad idea.
We need to consider alterations to both the physical environment and our expectations of teachers and students.

Consider this one idea. You are also encouraged to formulate an idea of your own.

Beginning with first grade, what if:

1. We were to cut two doors between adjacent classrooms in our school and ask the two teachers to work together as a team with the same 40 to 60 students?

2. We replaced classroom aides with an additional teacher to form a team of three teachers?

3. What if we kept those same 40 to 60 students together with that same team of three teachers for a five year period and stopped referring to classrooms as first grade, etc.?

4. What if we changed our expectations so that:

a. No student is permitted to move on to new subject matter until they are able to demonstrate mastery (85
percent) over the material?

b. No student is required to wait for their classmates to catch up before moving on to their next lesson?

c. Teachers are expected to make sure that every one of their students has bonded with at least one of member of
the teaching team?

d. Teachers are also expected to engage the parents of each of their students as partners in the educational

e. And, we replaced annual, standardized competency exams with small quizzes given to verify subject-matter
mastery, one lesson at a time.

What we would have, after implementing such changes, would be an environment with close personal bonds between teachers, students, and parents and in which all students succeed, albeit at their own best speed. It would be a learning environment in which there is no failure and in which all students begin to gain confidence that not only can they learn but also that learning can be fun. We would also see that the speed with which kids learn would increase, steadily.

What a different world public education would be.

Seem impossible? The truth is that making such changes is a simple, human-engineering problem that private and public school districts could begin implementing at the beginning of the coming school year. Most important of all is that the outcomes that would result would be astonishing.

An Invitation to Read: “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream”

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, challenges both the conventional thinking about why so many American children fail and many of the education reform initiatives that are sweeping the nation including the focus on standardized testing, blaming teachers, privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and the corresponding abandonment of our most challenged rural and urban public schools.

The book was inspired by my ten years as a substitute teacher for a public schools district; my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; and, by over thirty years of leadership development and consulting experience in organizations where I was responsible for hiring, training, and then both leading and holding the employees of my organizations accountable. Most importantly it was inspired by my experience in applying a “Systems Thinking” approach to understand why systems and processes fail and then to reinvent them to produce desired outcomes. I have Masters Degrees in both Education and Public Affairs and have written four books.

Because we are asking the wrong questions in our search for meaningful solutions to the problems of public education, current reforms are woefully misguided. The correct question is “what are the characteristics common to children who succeed,” not “why children fail.” We need to understand why children fail but we must build our solutions around things that work.

In public schools all over the US, there are examples of children from impoverished families who find a way to excel academically. Whether white or black, from intact or fractured families these children share a common advantage. They are supported by parents who cling to hope that an education offers a way out for their sons and daughters. These mothers, fathers, and often grandparents are relentless in the expectations they hold out for their children. They take responsibility for their children’s success and they partner with their children’s teachers. Unlike so many of today’s students, the children of these parents arrive for their first day of school well-prepared and well-motivated.

While poverty creates tremendous disadvantages, it is not the reason why children fail so often. A fundamental premise of this work is that the problem with public education in America is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty and that permeates so many communities throughout the U.S., irrespective of race. I suggest that it is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that contributes to the burgeoning population of parents who have given up on the American dream and on education as a way out for their children. We declared war on it a half century ago but poverty is so huge and amorphous that we feel powerless in its wake. We can do something about hopelessness and powerlessness, however. I show how we can attack that hopelessness, relentlessly, even if it is only one family, one school, or one community at a time.

The other main problem with public education in America is an educational process that is, essentially, early 20th Century technology that has not been substantially modified in over a century. It is an obsolete system that is structured to produce the outcomes it gets and is simply inadequate to meet the needs of Twenty-First Century America and its children. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets children up for failure and humiliation while actually impeding the ability of teachers to do what our children so desperately need them to do and what they so desperately want to do. The system has left generations of adults bitter and resentful and is the cause of teacher burnout on an unacceptable scale. Ironically, it is system that also does a disservice to the thirty to forty percent of the student population who seem to perform well.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream offers thirty-three interdependent action strategies to transform public education in America. They are interdependent because incremental changes and half-measures will not work. The first nineteen strategies are focused on reinventing the educational process to one that is focused on success and subject mastery. It offers specific recommendations to structure the system to produce the outcomes we want by focusing on the relationship between teachers and students. This new model will help teachers teach and foster the ability of teachers to develop long-standing, nurturing relationships with their students and parents. I offer an educational process in which children can learn that success is a process that all can master.

The remaining fourteen action strategies are focused on attacking hopelessness and powerlessness in the community and speaks specifically to the problem of the performance gap between white students and their black and other minority classmates. This performance gap is the most destructive aspect in all of public education. If public education is going to work we need to re-engage parents as critical partners in the education of their children.

I believe that business practices can make a significant and meaningful contribution to the challenges facing public education but I am not talking about principles from the boardrooms with which so many reformers and politicians have become enamored. The business principles to which I refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer; structuring an organization to serve its purpose; leadership development; problem solving; teamwork; integrating quality assessments into the educational process; and, giving teachers, administrators, and their staff the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

It has been two years since Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream was released and, like most authors, there are things I wish I had said differently. If I were re-writing the book today I would minimize, if not eliminate altogether, the discussion about PISA results and comparisons with other nations as I have come to believe they are meaningless.

That being said, it is vital that we understand that the U.S. is being challenged by existing and emerging players in the international marketplace and our supremacy, both economically and politically, is at risk. I am convinced that this makes finding a solution to the challenges of public education the most important item on the American agenda.

Improving the quality of education for every single child in the U.S. is the only way to meaningfully address the problems of poverty and racism that threaten to undermine our democratic traditions.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions at amazon.com and melhawkinsandassociates.com.

Blaming Teachers in Our Schools is Like Blaming Soldiers for the Wars We Ask Them 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 expect them to spur those same students to comparable levels of academic achievement as their highly motivated classmates?

We ask teachers 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 is lured away leaves teachers with fewer students that care and the school with less revenue with which to work. That the charter or other alternative schools may be no better prepared and produce disappointing results with these kids is pure irony.

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 begin to comprehend.

One of 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 and resourcing the organization to support its objective, problem-solving, team building, innovation, appropriate utilization of technology, and integrated 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 in community-based public schools.

The reader is invited to read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America where I offer a blue print for the transformation of our nation’s public schools and the educational process that drives them and for supporting our public school teachers.