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.