An Urgent Plea to Teachers for Social Justice

This blog post is an urgent plea to our nation’s public school teachers and particularly to those who refer to themselves as Teachers for Social Justice. I wonder if you realize how perfectly positioned you are to do more for social justice than any other group in America.

Teachers have one of the most important jobs in America but throughout the last few decades, during which teachers have been under attack because of the problems in public education, far too much effort has been placed on defending the job teachers do. It is as if teachers feel that in order to defend their own hard work and dedication they must defend a system of public education that fails and inordinate number of our nation’s most vulnerable children. When you chose to be a teacher you did so because you wanted to teach children and because you wanted to make a difference in the lives of your students and in your communities.

Right now, at this point in the history of the United States of America, your students need you more than ever. They need you to stand up for them and proclaim that something is terribly wrong when so many children fall through the cracks no matter how hard you work and no matter how much you care. Your students desperately need you to step back and think about what you see in your classrooms on a daily basis.

As a teacher in urban or poor rural schools, you know there is something wrong with the system when kids show up in your classrooms who are so far behind that they have stopped trying. You know the system is broken when you are required to move on to a new lesson knowing that many of your students are not ready. You know things are not as they should be every time you sit down to record the failing grades of far too many children. Unless you have become totally burned out, you agonize over the fact that these kids are failing and there seems to be nothing you can do about it. Teachers know the system is flawed when, at the end of the school year, many of your students are less prepared for the next grade level than they were for the preceding level. High school teachers know the system is flawed when you are asked to find a way to help a student qualify for graduation when that student has done nothing for an entire semester.

The majority of Americans who are victims of social injustice are people who are poor and people of color. Another characteristic of these victims is that the overwhelming majority of them attended public schools. They are members of multi-generational families that have always been poor and have always failed in school. Each year these parents and guardians send their own children off to school with little reason to hope that an education will provide a way out for their sons and daughters. It did not work for them so why would they think school will work for their children.

The facts are indisputable. Year after year, in poor urban and rural school districts throughout the U.S., children are failing their classes and failing state competency exams, in huge numbers. Even in school districts that have a few high performing schools you will find elementary and middle schools in which less than fifty percent of the students are able to pass state competency exams. In many cases the percentages are as low as ten to twenty percent. The percentage of high school students who are able to pass what some states call “end of class assessments” in English, Algebra, and Biology are about the same. That graduation rates in some of these school districts are on the rise is more the result of the creative use of waivers than true academic achievement.

When they walk out on their last day of school, many of these young Americans are virtually illiterate and innumerate and they quickly become entrapped in the cycles of poverty and failure. Many, young black males in particular, become statistics in what some are calling the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track.” As teachers, don’t you agonize when you read about one of your former students who is killed in the streets or sentenced to prison after killing another of your former students?

Public education and the educational process it employs works well for many children so why does it produce such tragic outcomes for disadvantaged students? Is it because the children of color or children who are poor are incapable of learning? Is it because teachers are incompetent? I think we all reject both of those explanations, categorically.

It is my assertion that there another possibility? The reason why so many of these young people fail is because the educational process at work in public schools throughout America is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to meet the unique needs of disadvantaged kids? These kid are behind when they arrive for their first day of school and there is never enough time to see that they catch up.

The purpose of this blog post is to challenge Teachers for Social Justice to consider a principle in operations management that suggests that if a process or operation is not producing acceptable outcomes, no matter how hard people are working, then it is the process or operation that is suspect.

Successful business leaders routinely discover that the solution is as simple as replacing or reinventing a process to produce the outcomes we want. Positive leaders in the world of business believe that people want to do good work if only someone would give them the opportunity. These leaders accept responsibility for making sure their employees have the tools and resources they need to achieve excellence and their people respond by producing quality products and services. Would not teachers respond in similar fashion if only we gave them the tools and resources they need to help their disadvantaged students?

How have things gotten so far out of hand that so many parents are unwilling to trust that teachers want what is best for their children. Parents in our nation’s poorest communities cannot look into the hearts of their children’s teachers and see their effort and dedication. These parents can only see that far too many of their children are failing just as they did. These men and women are powerless to alter the reality in which their sons and daughters must live but teachers are not powerless. All that is required is that teachers stand united behind the idea that the educational process, itself, is flawed and then set about the important task of fixing that which is broken.

If you do not stand up for your students is there anyone else who will? Is there anyone else who can?

Re-inventing the educational process to one that is tasked, structured, and resourced to meet the needs of students, wherever they fall on the academic preparedness continuum, is nothing more than a human engineering challenge that will yield to the creativity and ingenuity of the human mind.

You must understand, however, that tinkering with the existing educational process with incremental changes will be no more effective in the future than it has been over the last half century. Old traditions and patterns of behavior are too deeply ingrained in our psyches and are like a powerful gravitational force that pulls us back into our comfort zones.

We must re-define the mission of public education; we must identify clear expectations that are focused on success, not failure; we must create a structure to support teachers and students in the important work they do; and, finally, we must move heaven and earth to make sure professional educators and their students have the resources they need to enjoy success in learning as much as they can as fast as they are able.

My book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a 33 specific action strategies to transform public education in America. I have also written a white paper to provide readers with a quick overview of the recommendations in the book and a model implementation plan to illustrate just how simple it would be to make these transformational changes. The white paper is entitled, Breaking Down the Cycles of Failure and Poverty: Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin. Both the white paper and implementation plan can be found in recent posts on my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream (October 26, 2015, and June 27, 2016, respectively).

The best thing we can do to promote social justice in America is to give poor children and children of color the kind of education that will allow them to walk out of high school at the end of their senior year with meaningful choices. Giving children the ability to control most of the outcomes in their lives is one of the foundations of a powerful self-esteem.

All of these things are well within our power to do but only if teachers are willing to be relentless advocates for transformational changes to public education in America.

Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure

Discarding the Past

We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.

It understood that most public school teachers and schools believe they work hard to make sure that every child learns and that no child gets left behind. The reality, however, is that each year children are moved from grade to grade who are behind their classmates. Each and every year thereafter they fall a little further behind until they lose all hope that they can ever catch up.

That this occurs is not the fault of teachers rather it is a flaw in a structure that does not provide each teacher with the time and resources they need to teach and does not provide each and every child with the time and support they need to learn. We cannot alter those unfortunate outcomes until we alter the internal logic of the educational process and also the structure that exists to support that process.

What we offer is a new reality that can benefit every child in America and that can transform public education.

Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose

The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a wide menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance, and be able to make informed choices with respect to the important issues of the day.

Note: An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them that success is a process. Success and winning are not accomplishments rather they are a life-long process of getting the most out of one’s life.

Step 2 – Objectives and Expectations

Our objective as educators is to help children learn as much as they are able, as fast as they are able, beginning at that point on the learning preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. Our schools must be a “No Failure Zone!”

It is our expectation that:

• Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn each and every lesson;

• We teach children that success is a process that must be learned and that all of our students can be successful;

• That success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;

• That we will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;

• That students will learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations

• That there are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule.

Note: Education is not a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of failure. Our task is to create a model of an educational process that rejects failure and where the only thing that matters is that children learn.

Step 3 – What do children need In order to truly learn?

Children Need:

• To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;

• A close personal relationship with one or more teachers;

• Our patient time and attention;

• A stable and safe environment for the long term;

• To learn that mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities that come only when we extend ourselves beyond our zones of comfort;

• To learn how to be successful and they need to know that success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way on the basis of what they learn from their mistakes.

• To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win:

• An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements.

• The involvement and support of their parents or guardians.

Step 4 – Where do we begin?

We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted districts and use them as a test case.

Note: Our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and all of the action items are presented with that assumption. If a school district’s commitment to this model is sufficiently high, however, there is no reason why we could not, similarly, organize students in the higher elementary grades in the same manner. Doing so creates additional challenges because the farther along children have been pushed, the further behind they will be. If we commence with these older children, it still requires that we know where they are in terms of their academic development in each subject area, and then that we tailor a plan to begin the process of starting over with that unique student. Teachers will have less time to help these kids play catch up but, clearly, these students will need all the help they can get before they move on to the middle school phase.

Step 5 – Organization and structure

We will eliminate references to grades k through 12 as well as any other arbitrary schedules in the educational process and replace those grades with three phases of a child’s primary and secondary education:

• Elementary/or Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)

• Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)

• Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)

Note: We chose Kindergarten rather than first grade for our starting point because the sooner we intervene in the lives of our students, the better. Part of the problem in disadvantaged communities is that children live in an environment in which intellectual and emotional enrichment opportunities are few in number. The longer a child is left in such an environment the further behind they will be.

Step 6- Teaching teams

We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15

Note: Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of high levels of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance or commitment than management. In large work groups, marginal performers and those with low levels of commitment are able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person his held accountable by the team.

Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with any individual student, another member of the team can step in. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents.

Teams also provide much more stability. If one team member is off due to illness or other reasons, the team is still able to maintain its equilibrium, even given the insertion of a substitute.

If a school has teacher aide slots for this age group, we will recommend that the funds allocated for such positions be redirected to paying for additional teachers. Striving to optimize teacher resources is a top priority and if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose.

Step 7 – Duration and stability

Students will remain together as a group and will be assigned to the same teaching team throughout their full elementary/primary academic phase.

Note: Close personal relations with teachers and other students, in a safe environment, can best be accomplished by keeping them together over a period of years. Why would we want to break up relationships between teachers and students because the calendar changes. Sometimes it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have it brought to a halt at the end of a school year.

This type of long-term relationships also enhances the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers.

Step 8 – Reaching out to Parents

Reaching out to parents must be a high priority.

Note: We know that students do better when they are supported by their parents and when parents and teachers are working together as a partners behind a united front. We also know that when we form close relationships with parents we also get to know their families. This creates a real opportunity to intervene if there are younger children in the home to help insure that they enjoy improved enrichment opportunities.

Step 9 – Assessment and tailored academic plan

Select an appropriate assessment tool and utilize it to determine the level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school. We will then utilize what we learn from that assessment to create a tailored academic plan for each and every student based on where they are and pursuant to the academic standards established in that state.

Step 10 – The learning process

From their unique starting point, we will begin moving our students along their tailored academic plan, one lesson module per subject at a time. The learning process will be:

• Lesson presentation

• Practice

• Review

• Mastery Quiz (MQ)

• Verification Master Quiz (VMQ)

Note: Teachers can spend as much time as necessary on any of the steps in the process and can even go back to re-present a lesson using other methods and resources. Each review gives teachers the opportunity to help children learn from the mistakes they made on practice assignments and on unsuccessful quizzes. When the student’s success on practice assignments suggests they are ready, they can move on to the MQ. If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success can be celebrated and they are ready to move on to the next lesson. If not, the teacher can recycle back through all or part of the learning process until the student is able to demonstrate mastery.

Step 11 – State-of-the-Art tools of success

Provide each student and teacher with a personal tablet with which to work.

Utilize technology to help teachers teach, and kids learn with the Khan Academy’s program as but one example. The tool must also help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels. Students are all on a unique path even though they may often be parallel paths. Software must be able to:

Keep attendance records,
Manage various subject areas,
Help teachers and students through lesson presentations,
Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative,
Permit teacher to enter qualitative results generated by them,
Identify areas that need review and more practice,
Signal readiness for MQ,
Grade and record results of quiz and direct student on to next lesson module or back for more work on current module,
Celebrate success much like a video game,
Signal the teachers at every step of the way,
Recommend when it is time for VMQ, and
Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record.

Note: The purpose of the software is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed on their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction may also include time spent with students’ parents.

Whenever it is deemed advantageous, we believe there is also great value in group learning sessions, projects and interaction.

Step 12 – No Failure and No waiting

No student is to be pushed to the next lesson until they have mastered the current lesson as success on one lesson dramatically improves the readiness for success on subsequent lessons. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated that they are ready to move on will be asked to wait for classmates to catch up. Every student moves forward at the best speed of which they are capable.

The beauty of this approach is that students can progress at their own speed, even if that means charging ahead with teachers rushing to keep up. It also means that no student will feel pressured to move faster than they are able nor will they experience the humiliation of failure.

Step 13 – Verify and document mastery

The Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) will occur a few lessons later as the purpose is to assure that the child has retained what they have learned and are able to utilize it on future lessons. Ultimately, if the child cannot utilize what they have learned in real-life situations they have not learned it and, therefore, our job on that lesson is not completed. Once verified, mastery is documented as part of the student’s permanent record.

Step 14 – High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be obsolete. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them. If students are truly learning, their ability to utilize what they have learned will be reflected in competency exam results. Such exams are, after all, nothing more than a real-life opportunity to apply what one has learned.

Note: Ask yourself “Who would we predict to perform better on a competency exam given in the second semester of what we currently refer to as the 5th grade?

The child who has fallen further and further behind with each passing semester and simply has not learned a significant portion of the subject matter on which they will be tested?


The child who may or may not be on schedule as determined by state academic standards but has actually mastered the material they have covered and who are demonstrating an accelerating pace of learning?

I think we all know the answer.

Step 15 – the Arts and Exercise

We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must still be given the opportunities to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:

• Develop relationships with other teachers;

• Exercise their young bodies; and,

• Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art.

Step 16 – Stability and adaptability

We will not concern ourselves with arrival of new students or the departure of students during the process or with teachers who may need to be replaced for whatever reason. These things will happen and we will deal with them when necessary. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind that there are no perfect systems but the best and most successful systems are the ones that allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.

Step 17 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment

Finally, we must stress that winning organizations are driven by operating systems in which every single event or activity serves the mission. When we tinker with bits and pieces of an operation out of context with the system and its purpose, we end up with a system that looks very much like the educational process we have today. It will be a system that simply cannot deliver the outcomes that we want because there are components that work at cross purposes with the mission.

Note: We are creating an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is considered to be inconsequential in the long run and in the big picture, much like it is inconsequential if it takes a child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her playmates. Once they learn to ride they all derive equal benefit and joy from bicycling.

Step 18 – Special Needs

Anywhere along the way, from initial assessment and beyond, if a child is determined to have special needs they will be offered additional resources, much as happens in our schools, today.

Summary and Conclusions:

All children can learn if given the opportunity and if they feel safe and secure. The fact that we have clung for so long to an ineffectual educational process that sets kids up for failure and humiliation is unfathomable. If we refuse to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality it is inexcusable.

Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes we want, the model can be implemented in each and every school in the district.