Dialogue with Russ Walsh, an educator and blogger

Below is the original blog post by Russ Walsh on his blog Russ on Reading which you can find at http://russonreading.blogspot.com/

What follows will be my comment to Russ, his response, and then my reply.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Chris Christie and the “Failure Factories”

Chris Christie is tremendously popular in New Jersey primarily because he casts himself as a truth teller and New Jersey tough guy in the Tony Soprano mode. In these days of wishy-washy politicians and an endless stream of political correctness coming over the airwaves, Christie’s in-your-face style resonates. He will likely skate to an easy re-election in a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the characteristics that make the Governor popular do not make him a good leader. Certainly in the area of education, Governor Christie is more demagogue than leader. The truth of this was brought home again by Christie’s recent characterization of 200 public schools in New Jersey as “failure factories.” This kind of rhetoric makes a good sound bite, but it does irreparable harm to the children, parents and educators of New Jersey.

Why would the Governor of the State of New Jersey demonize children and educators in this way? For political purposes, of course. Christie is anti-teacher union and pro privatization of education. He looks to increase the numbers of charter schools and push a voucher measure through the legislature. Both of these initiatives take money away from public schools and place it into private hands. If you are still under any delusions that charter schools are public schools, please read this from Anthony Cody of Education Week.

Of course, there is a major problem in the inner cities of New Jersey and doing nothing to improve the educational opportunities of children in these schools is not acceptable. But what would an actual leader do when faced with the daunting issues of turning around education in the State’s urban areas? Well, a leader might look around and notice that his State has the third highest educational achievement of any state in the country, behind only Massachusetts and Vermont. That must mean that many public schools in New Jersey are doing very well indeed. A leader might try to find out what these schools are doing right.

What that leader would find is many high achieving schools and school districts throughout the State of New Jersey. That leader would also find that virtually all of those schools had strong teacher unions, tenure and seniority rules, reasonable working conditions and competitive pay and benefits. The leader would also find a healthy mix of experienced and newer teachers, programs for continued professional development and a staff of teachers, support staff and administrators dedicated to student well-being and achievement.

The leader might notice that these schools had a rich curriculum that included lots of opportunities in the core subjects, but also in arts education, athletics and co-curricular activities. The leader might also note that the school buildings themselves were in good repair and had an adequate supply of educational materials, including well-stocked and well-staffed libraries, to support the teachers and children.

A leader might then conclude that unions, tenure and seniority are not what is wrong with the schools. That conversely strong unions, competitive salaries and benefits and good working conditions actually make a school attractive to a prospective teacher. The leader might further conclude that a bare bones curriculum, crumbling infrastructure and staffing reductions would not be in the best interest of a thorough and efficient urban education.

Finally, this leader would go back to the office and have some Department of Education minion bring him a socio-economic map of New Jersey. There he would see, in living color, the answer to school improvement. “Wow!”, he might say to the minion, “Did you notice that all the high achieving schools in New Jersey are in relatively wealthy areas and all the “failing schools” are in high poverty areas?”

“But poverty is no excuse for poor schools, Governor.” might squeal the minion. “No,” the wise leader might respond, “it is not an excuse, but it is a reason.”

A real leader could only then conclude that vouchers and charter schools were not going to change the calculus for the inner city child. Only through a combined effort to do something about poverty and to ensure that urban schools were properly funded could real inroads be made.

A leader would then try to move forward with a plan on two fronts.

What we get from Christie is not leadership, but demagoguery. We get a cynical appeal to our baser emotions and prejudices, instead of a visionary plan that might make a real positive difference in children’s lives. With his sound bite outbursts about “failure factories”, Governor Christie continues to throw urban children, parents and educators under the school bus.

Here is my comment on the blog post:

You and others are correct to reject the arguments of politicians like Christie and the many so-called business gurus who advocate privatization of education, vouchers, and reliance on testing to assess both student and teacher performance and who blame teachers and their unions for the problems with education in America. Critics of these initiatives are wrong, however, to cite them as examples of the danger in applying business principles to problems in our schools. These proposals have nothing to do with business principles.

These same critics are also wrong to defend the state of education in America as something less than a crisis. Administrators, educational researchers, and policymakers are poorly positioned to judge the performance of public education.

If you wish to know the truth about the quality of education in America, ask the employer who is struggling to hire people who can read, write, and enumerate with any level of sophistication. Ask test administrators like myself, who see only minimal improvements in the number of young people, over the past decade, who can earn the minimum score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gain eligibility for entry in to the Armed Services of the United States. Ask the middle school and high school teachers of our urban public schools who devote so much time to dealing with behavior issues in their classrooms that teaching has become problematic.

Draw your own conclusions when you examine the results of the performance of American children, as documented by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), when compared to children of other developed and developing nations.

Our systems of education in America derive no benefit when their advocates lash out at critics and pull their heads inside their shells while claiming that everything is getting better.

The crisis in education in America is real and we stumble along making the same mistakes that we’ve been making for generations and offering up the same excuses. It is poverty, they say as if the acknowledgement somehow absolves them of their responsibility.

The problem is not poverty and it is not racial discrimination or segregation; it is not bad teachers and schools; and it is not fractured families living in deteriorating urban and rural communities. I suggest an alternate hypothesis that the relationship between poverty and the failure of our educational systems, along with deteriorating urban communities, is not causal, rather that they are all symptoms of the same pathology. It is our unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about theses systemic issues that blinds us from the real truth.

When we look at the problem and study the children who are failing we are looking through the wrong end of the microscope and we are asking all the wrong questions. There is only one question that we need to ask and the answer to that one question will tell us everything we need to know to solve the problems of education in America, which, by the way, will lead to the solutions of poverty, and deteriorating communities. What is that one question?
That question is not “why do children fail?” rather it is: “what do children who succeed have in common with one another?” Or, re-phrased, what is the one characteristic shared by almost every single successful American primary and secondary education student?

We will be surprised to discover that it is not affluence because just as there are poor children who excel academically, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.
It is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.

It is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.
It is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.

Finally, it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst schools.

The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by one or more parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children with teachers and principals.

Think for a moment, about how this one distinguishing characteristics of successful school children changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.

The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries; and, finally, more often than not, they have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

We have two challenges if we wish to secure any semblance of a competitive advantage for the U.S. as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations.
2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it sets all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates.

The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children.

The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because each and every school corporation in America has the authority to change the educational process by decree. That we choose to continue our practice of stumbling around in the dark is nothing short of malpractice and it places our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

I invite you and your readers to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America. What you will find is a different approach to the challenge of identifying and then rectifying the problems with education. We offer a business approach but not in the way you might think.
What businesses do not do is rush headlong into the fray implementing unproven solutions to their most challenging problems. With their focus on customer satisfaction, businesses seek practical solutions to real life problems, aggressively but not recklessly. If we are not getting the outcomes we seek, we search for alternate solutions. To paraphrase the wisdom of Zig Ziglar, if “you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”

Businesses also understand that we must structure our production processes to get the outcomes we seek. Tinkering with a dysfunctional process will create nothing but disappointing outcomes. What is needed is a systems-thinking approach in which we examine the educational process as an integral whole, identify what it is we want to accomplish, and then re-design or, if you will, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes.

In Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream I walk the reader through this systems-thinking process, systematically.

I also invite you and your readers to visit my blog THE LEADer (Thinking Exponentially: Leadership, Education, and the America Dream). This blog was created to explore the cultural challenges we face as we strive to re-instill faith and home in the American dream.

And Russ Walsh’s thank you and response:

Mel,

Thank you for reading my post and for your thoughtful reply. I don’t believe I, or most of my colleagues blogging criticism of education reform, insist that we can do nothing about education improvement because of poverty. As I said in the post we need a two pronged approach: fight poverty and improve education through improved instruction, recruiting of top notch teachers and strengthened curriculum.

You sight success stories from impoverished areas and failure stories from affluent areas. The truth is you are citing outliers. I have taught in identified poverty areas and in affluent areas over a 45 year career. One of the advantages that affluent children have is parental advocates as you say. Parents who are not struggling against poverty have the time, energy and sense of power that allows them to be advocates. Disenfranchised parents do not live in a vacuum. They are disproportionately located in poor areas.

The schools in affluent areas where I have taught are preparing young people at a very high level indeed. One that is competitive against any nation in the world. I am not saying that the education system does not need improvement, but that it is clear that impoverished children face a disadvantage from the start.

And, Finally, my response to his response:

Russ,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. I enjoy the opportunity for dialogue.

I have great respect for your 45 years of experience as I do for teachers in general. Many are heroes and all are victims of a system that is poorly designed to allow them to do what is needed in a classroom. As a profession, teachers are unfairly blamed for the problems in education but they are not without culpability.

I believe the two most important elements in successful education are 1) parental support and encouragement and the motivation that flows from that support, and 2) the relationship between teachers and both students and their parents.

I have 44 years of experience and two masters degrees (Psychology and Public Affairs). My experience includes 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and ten years as substitute teacher. I began subbing after leaving a job, initially while striving to resurrect a consulting practice and while writing books. In the intervening 20-plus years, I hired, trained, and managed employees, often rejecting discouraged young men and women who were unable to pass our very basic screening exams in math and English.

During this period, I also developed expertise in the application of a systems thinking approach and problem solving. As a consultant, I could almost always walk into an operation and, with a fresh perspective, find practical solutions to the operational problems of my clients.

More recently I have also served as a part-time test administrator of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to both prospective enlistees and also to high school students as tool for guidance counselors to use in helping students plan for their future. It is disturbing to see how many high school graduates, current high school students, and young adults who earned a GED are unable to get the minimum score needed for enlistment eligibility (a 31 out of 99). Many more barely score higher than the minimum score and are considered qualified for only the least attractive military jobs.

You are correct that there are great schools in which the majority of students excel and there are many other schools with honors programs in which the schools’ best students flourish. The system works pretty well for students that have learned how to be successful, academically. The remaining students do not fare so well.

I also know about poverty and have spent many an hour sitting at a kitchen table (often a card table because that is all they have) consoling mothers and grandmothers of my probationers, striving to find a way to keep their children out of trouble.

Poverty creates terrible disadvantages but I have come to believe that the greatest contributor to the disdain for education on the part of many poor Americans, and the poor performance of their children, is the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that seems always to accompany the impoverished. Even in the poorest communities, a few parents cling to hope that their child can have a better life and, as a result, their children have a chance and often do well in school.

My daughter taught sixth grade at Garfield Elementary School in Washington DC. It was a distressing place to see. In a class of 30 students, she might have four kids who tried always to do their best, who earned good grades and were well-behaved in the midst of a chaotic atmosphere of disruption. The parents of these students would be the only one to show up for parent/teacher conferences and back-to-school night, or to respond to a call or offer to help out with something for the class. These families were not outliers. They lived in the same tenements and row houses as their classmates and their families.

It was the hopes these parents had for a better future for their children that were the difference makers for these students.

Poverty is a condition that we cannot change from where we work. Fifty years ago LBJ declared war on poverty and it is a war we have never come close to winning. Hopelessness, however, is a state of mind and something that we can attack relentlessly, even if only one family at a time. Hope is a powerful force and that creates an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together as partners. When you combine the motivation that children from such families bring with them to school with the partnership of parents and teachers, wonderful things can happen.

How many programs can you name, in any of the communities with which you are familiar, that focus primarily on pulling parents into the process as early in their children’s lives as possible? What percentage of local funding, federal funding, or grant monies are allocated to programs with such a mission? One rarely hears even a discussion about such programs. It is my belief that his should be the focus of every single reform initiative and the vast majority of the dollars we spend should be allocated for such programs.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I walk the reader through a systems-thinking process, much like I offered to my consulting clients, in which the educational process is examined as an integral whole. The result is a strategic action plan to address what I believe are the two most important aspects of education:

1) Pulling parents in to the process as partners to create a better future for their children, and
2) Reinventing the structure of the educational process to optimize a teacher’s ability to do what they do best, without the pressure of standardized tests, without arbitrary time lines or measuring a child’s success against the performance of their classmates.

What matters is that children learn as much as they can at the best speed of which they are capable and that what they have learned they can apply to future lessons, assessments, or to real life challenges and opportunities.
I encourage you to read, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream as I believe many of these ideas will make sense to you. The objective is also to prompt more and hopefully better ideas from accomplished and experienced professionals like you, simply by showing you how the systems appears to an someone with a different perspective.

Other than making better use of the technology that is available, today, to support what teachers do you will find no experimental approaches and a clear rejection of privatization, vouchers, profit incentives, and reliance on standardized competency examinations to evaluate the performance of either students or their teachers.

I welcome your thoughts and reaction and ask that you consider whether or not this work is appropriate for your colleagues and also the readers of your blog.

Here are a few comments from professional educators who reviewed the book, and also from a couple of professional book reviewers.

From professional educators:

-“As an educator, I see the truth in so much of the author’s ideas. It’s refreshing to see someone willing to buck the trend towards implementing “experimental” programs foisted upon our innocent children. Thanks, Mr. Hawkins.”
-“. . . it is something, particularly Part I, that should be read by a wide variety of audiences. In general, on a scale of one to ten, I would consider American Education (not Public Education as Mr. Hawkins identifies it) to be no more than a two. If totally implemented, Mr. Hawkins recommendations would move it up to at least an “Eight”. . . . his well-researched suggestions would advance our culture by light years.”

-“Chapter 6 entitled, “The Role of Culture” was one of the best, well-written/easily read overviews of the impact of the culture wars on the preparation of our young I have ever read. Not sure that there is anything new in this, but it is so comprehensive, yet so concise that the words literally jumped off the page at me.”

-“Every school staff should read chapter 1 and 2 and use them to evaluate their programs and attitudes toward young people and learning.”

-“The other tremendous positive is Mr. Hawkins point-blank, simple attack on the ridiculous system of placing young people in grade levels based upon age. In my entire professional life, I have never found any study which supports this. Every learning theorist I ever read gives a wide variance in brain/social/background readiness for every academic objective in every grade level. If learning were the true goal of schools, common sense would tell us to evaluate current status and build from there.”

-“This book is a timely message about critical concerns in education. Ideas or suggestions for change are outlined as agenda items and have prompted discussions between my colleagues and me. Mr. Hawkins emphasizes community support, parent involvement and positive leadership as critical to the future of education. He suggests changing the way we teach and urges teachers to teach for mastery.”

-“Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream conveys a strong message that needs to be heard and shared.”

From professional reviewers:

-“This is one of the more important books to be released this year and certainly MUST be read by all who have fears of the current status of our educational system. This book is a brilliant achievement.”

-“An invaluable resource for anyone with an interest or passion in improving education.”

-“Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America” is nothing short of brilliant. . . .”

-“Hawkins is brilliant- He is saying the hard things, he is opening eyes and he is doing it in a way that is logical, easy to understand and will incite a passion in you to change the way we view education and it’s important in this nation.”

-“A must-read for parents, teachers and all those involved in improving the state of education.”

-“. . . . Mel Hawkins, provides a critical look at the current state of education in America and follows through with innovative, inspired and crucial steps to reviving the standard of education in America. . . .”

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