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.