All Kids Can Learn but Many Are Sure to Fail If We Fail to Help Them

Every day that we delay addressing the problems of public education in America more kids give up on themselves because they have fallen so far behind their classmates that they have no hope that they will ever catch up.

I see these young men and women as seniors in high school or shortly after they finish high school when they show up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). They are hoping to find a way to make a life for themselves by enlisting in the Armed Services. At the end of the test session, they walk out of the room with an envelope in their hands and their heads hanging low. In the envelope are the results of their ASVAB that show they have scored below the minimum score of 31 out of a possible 99, which is the threshold for enlistment eligibility.

So far this year, 25 percent of the candidates to whom I have administered ASVAB have scored below 31, and half of those score below 20. A score of less than 20 indicates a high probability that individuals are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Two-thirds of the young people who scored below 31 were African-American. Not only do these young American men and women not qualify for enlistment, they will also fail to qualify for all but the most menial and lowest-paying jobs in their community. In all likelihood, the young African-American men will return to their poor urban or rural communities where many will to turn to gangs, crime, and or drugs. Some will be killed during commission of a crime or as a result of black on black violence. Far too many will end up in a state penitentiary. The young woman will most likely get pregnant and begin raising their own children in the same cycle of failure and poverty in which they were reared.

All of the young men and women who scored below 31 are victims of flawed educational process in which they started out behind and found it impossible to catch up with their classmates. The sad truth is that they never had a chance and they are left with very few choices in life. There are millions of other young children in public schools all over the U.S. who are destined to the same fate.

Our systems of public education are like any other system that has lost focus on its purpose and has been allowed to deteriorate over time. Somewhere along the line, as the society-at-large became exponentially more complex, our systems of public education began to view accelerating levels of failure as normal and acceptable.

We must stop blaming poverty and recognize that poverty is a consequence of our flawed educational process not the cause of it. We must stop blaming our teachers and schools that are doing the best they can under a flawed educational process that is neither structured nor tasked to help children who show up for school with a range of “academic preparedness deficiencies.” It is a system that allows an unacceptable percentage of students to fail while contributing to the burnout of a growing population of teachers; men and women who have lost faith in the profession they chose with youthful enthusiasm and lofty purpose.

We must stop educational reformers who have no clue about the damage they do when they siphon off tax dollars of which our most challenged schools, teachers, and students are in desperate need. We must not allow them to further weaken the ties between our public schools and the communities they exist to serve, while destroying the hope of students and teachers, alike.

In their defensive postures, professional educators like to scoff at the results of the Nation’s Report Card, presented by the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), which provides documented evidence that public education in America is in a state of unacceptable crisis.

The irony is that professional educators would be well-advised to embrace the findings of the Nation’s Report Card as verifiable proof that the educational process, with which teachers are asked to do their important work, is fatally thawed.

Here is a quick summary of the NAEP’s findings for 20131, showing the percentage of American students whose performance is measured to be below or above “Proficient.” The Achievement Levels identified by the NAEP are “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.

NAEP defines “Basic” as: “denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade assessed.”

NAEP defines “Proficient” as: “representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

1 The italics are mine. NAEP data can be accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/stateprofiles/sresult.asp?mode=full&displaycat=7&s1=18

Average Scale Scores
8th grade math: 67% Below Proficient; 33 Proficient +
8th grade reading: 71% Below Proficient; 29% Proficient +
8th grade science: 73% Below Proficient; 27% Proficient +
8th grade writing: 69% Below Proficient; 31% Proficient +

For purposes of this article, the author identifies “Proficient” as the minimum acceptable level of achievement for our students for the simple reason that if a student has achieved only partial mastery of the subject matter and is unable to apply what they have learned to real-world situations they our job is not finished.

Clearly, the goal of education must be that students be able to “demonstrate competency” over the subject matter and they must also be able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations,” which would include subsequent lessons within a subject area.

How long do we allow roughly 70 percent of American students, a disproportionate percentage of which are black and other minorities, to be less than “proficient” before we say this in unacceptable? How long can we allow public school educators to claim that American public education is better than ever? How long can we allow the educational reform movement’s focus on privatization and standardized testing to abandon our nation’s most vulnerable students and school districts and hurt these kids, their teachers, and their communities?

It does not have to be this way! Through a straightforward application of “systems thinking” and organizational principles we can alter this reality for all time.

For an overview of my book and its recommendations, I invite the reader to check out my blog post of October 26, 2015, which is a white paper 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.”

At the end of this post, I have provided an implementation outline that will show just how simple it would be reinvent the educational process at work in American public schools. It is a model that requires no legislative action and can be implemented by local school districts, acting on their own authority.

Finally, the reader is also encouraged to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America and my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

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

Submitted by: Mel Hawkins, BA, MSEd, MPA

April 18, 2016

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?

Or,

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.

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