It was after thirty-two years of working with kids outside of classrooms and compiling a resume of organizational management, leadership development, and problem-solving experience—from both an operations’ management perspective and as a consultant—that I began my work as a substitute teacher. It is from the melding of those experiences that I felt compelled to understand why the dedicated efforts of professional educators produce such disparate outcomes for children in our schools. I believe there must be a better way to teach children. In fact, I have come to believe, over the course of my career, there is always a better way if we open our hearts and minds to the possibility.
It is not often that a substitute teacher has an opportunity to do what regular teachers do, which is to teach. It was during a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher that I experienced an epiphany. It gave birth to an idea that became an education model.
The instructions the teacher left for me as I began that assignment were prefaced by his comment that he did not expect me to cover all the subject matter in the outline. He encouraged me to do the best I could in the time I had.
After two days of work on material having to do with prime factoring, rules of divisibility, and reducing to lowest terms, the students in three separate classes took a quiz, which the teacher had prepared in advance. It included twenty-five problems like the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which the class had been practicing.
This teacher went to great lengths to ensure his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had constructed interlocking boards that were somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four inches high for the purpose of dividing the table into four equal sections. Prior to every quiz or exam, the students would retrieve the boards from behind a cabinet and would set them up. As a result, it would be difficult for students to copy off each other.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter, and the straightforward nature of the material, I had lofty expectations for students. To my surprise and disappointment, the results revealed that half of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and three-quarters of them scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two of those 8 students scored better than 95 percent. In other words, there were 43 Fs, 21 Ds, 13 Cs, 6 Bs, and 2 As.
The next day, prompted by my surprise at the results, I spent the entire period reviewing the same material using the practice worksheets the teacher had provided at the outset, focusing on the problems with which the students had the most difficulty. I did not return the quiz to the students and chose not to review the actual problems from it. We did the problems on the whiteboard, as a class, and I worked one-on-one with the students who needed that level of attention.
The following day, I had all three classes retake the quiz. In advance of the retake, they were told, in broad strokes, how poorly the class had done, although no one had access to their own results. I assured the students this was a risk-free venture and promised to use the highest of their two scores. My hope was that this would motivate students to do their best on what I described as a do-over opportunity while alleviating performance pressure.
The new scores showed dramatic improvement by all but a handful of students. Better than ninety percent of students earned higher scores on the second quiz with several improving by two or more letter grades. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or higher and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Chart A-1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude that their new scores represented a significantly higher level of subject mastery as a result of the extra time, instruction, and practice they were given.
While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, the level of improvement certainly was not a result of pure chance. The operative question was: “Is it worth the extra time and a second chance to get such dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery?” How much more effort would have been necessary to achieve an 80+ percent success rate?
If the purpose of teaching is to help all students learn every lesson well enough to not only be able to use what they have learned as prerequisite knowledge for subsequent lessons—but also be able to retain the knowledge and use it throughout their lives—my job as teacher would have been incomplete after the first exam. At that point, seventy-seven out of my 85 students would have been poorly prepared for the next lesson and the quiz results over the material in future lessons would have likely been every bit as abysmal as the lesson in this anecdote.
It seemed clear to me it was not in the best interests of these seventy-seven students to be pushed along to the next lesson, poorly prepared. I worried, however, that my decision to delay moving the class on to the next lesson may not have been in the best interests of the eight students who scored better than 85 percent on the first quiz. I chose to believe the extra practice would not hurt them. As the results illustrate, all the students who had recorded Bs on the first quiz improved to an A on the second. More importantly, an additional 20 students reached the 85 percent threshold.
After the second quiz I was still faced with a dilemma. There were still 57 students who had been unable to earn an 85 percent grade and only 28 who could. Thus, those 57 kids were still poorly prepared for subsequent lessons and were likely to be unsuccessful. Of even greater consequence is the reality that those students, and others like them throughout the U.S., experience being unprepared for almost all next lessons, semester after semester, year after year. How is this in the best interests of our children, their teachers, and our society?
Much as I had done so many times as a leader of other operations throughout my career, and as a consultant, I began thinking about how we could devise a way to give more time to the students who needed it without an adverse impact on the students who did not.
I have no doubt that all but a few of the 57 students who had still fallen short of expectations after the first do-over quiz would have demonstrated significant improvement had they been given just a little more help, time, practice and a second do-over opportunity.
My conclusion, after this experiment, is that the problems in education are structural and process-related and that teachers are victims of a dysfunctional process every bit as much as their students. The fact that keeping to a schedule appears to be a higher priority than helping more students learn is not because teachers do not care, rather it is the way things are done.
When we get into the actual implementation plan for my model, in Chapter 6, we will devote time to the way teachers are assigned to students and to classrooms and how this dysfunctional aspect of the education process can be addressed, along with each of the other issues noted in Chapter 1. All it requires is a little creativity and freedom to differentiate.
It is my assertion, also, that the job satisfaction and fulfillment of teachers is enhanced when they are successful in helping their students succeed and that the model I will be presenting will serve the interests of students and teachers, alike.
Superintendents and principals are encouraged to consider conducting this same experiment in selected classrooms in each subject area. The only cost to the school is a little lost time, comparable to the time lost when a substitute teacher is needed.
Giving students more time to practice and learn is just one of several strategies that can be utilized to ensure that all kids learn. I refer to these strategies as the essential variables of an education process. All they require is a willingness to step outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. The Hawkins Model© is a template that places these essential variables at the top of our priority list.
This brings us back to maintaining a focus on the mission and purpose of education. Is an education meant to be a competition to see who can learn the most, the fastest, or is its purpose to prepare all students for citizenship.
Why would we want a society in which only thirty percent of students, or less, are well prepared for the responsibilities they will face as members of a participatory democracy? The way the existing education process is structured suggests to me that many educators, at all levels, view the outcomes we get today as the best our students can do. I hope this little experiment demonstrates that we are doing nowhere near the best we can do for both students and teachers.
Classrooms, substitute teacher, disparate outcomes, problem-solving, leadership development, organizational management, better way to teach, middle school, math teacher, middle school math teacher, students, practice worksheets, risk-free venture, motivate students, do-over opportunity, subject mastery, subject-matter mastery, purpose of teaching, prerequisite knowledge, more time and practice, dysfunctional process.