Education Model & White Paper
Below you will find, first, the Hawkins Model followed by a white paper that lays the foundation for the model. Whether you elect to start with the model or jump ahead to the white paper, please help me bring this vision to life.
THE HAWKINS MODEL
Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure.
By Mel Hawkins
Version dated: September, 2018
A Process is Just a Process
Teaching children in a classroom is a process of human design, no different than any other production, assembly, service-delivery process, or even a software program. It is a logical construct engineered to produce certain outcomes.
We are guided by the principle that when a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes, no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is broken and must be reinvented. The education process in our public schools must be tasked, organized, staffed, and resourced in such a way that every child leaves school with a quality education. It is such an education that gives them meaningful choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning and to provide for themselves and their families. The education process must help students discover their potential and help them develop that potential and begin taking ownership of the pursuit of their dreams and ambitions.
The existing education process in use in public schools is structured like a competition in which some students win and others lose. It is a rigid process that requires teachers and schools to conform to its structure and organization. It is our belief that the structure and organization of teachers, students, and schools must be driven by the purpose for which schools and teachers exist: “To help all children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed.”
I challenge educators to examine the model you are about to read with an open mind, seeking to understand how it could work and not in search of reasons why it will not. My hope is that this model will stimulate your imagination and open your heart and mind not only to the deficiencies of the existing education process but also to the limitless possibilities of a model created for you.
The model has been titled, the Hawkins Model, so I can retain the right of authorship. The Hawkins Model will be offered to public and parochial schools, free of charge. The only compensation I expect to receive would be royalties on the sale of my new book, that will be released, later this year, with the working title, The Hawkins Model: Public Education Reimagined, One Success at a Time!
This work will replace Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, published in 2013 through Createspace. Thanks to the wonderful professional educators who support one another and share ideas through social media, I have learned a great deal in the past five years. While I believe the original book is worth a reader’s time and consideration, I have discovered many new ideas and have abandoned others.
My final advice to prospective readers is to consider that positive advocacy for a new idea or solution is a far more effective means of driving positive change than complaints and protests. The latter are like fireworks. They are exciting, stimulating, and even inspiring, but when the last echoes fade into the night sky and the smoke has dissipated, they are quickly forgotten. Only ideas and solutions, promoted through the advocacy of positive leaders working together, have an opportunity to become real and have a lasting impact on the world.
Discarding the Past
What public school teachers and administrators will think when they first review my model is, “this will not work in my classroom(s),” and, of course, they are correct. This is exactly my point. In the current education process, it takes an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and principals to implement innovative ideas and solutions that will endure and not be ground to dust by the unrelenting glacial power of the existing education process. It is my assertion that no educator can be satisfied, no matter how successful their own school, until every school is focused on the success of every student.
We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.
Two Fundamental Truths
There are two fundamental truths that are central to our purpose and every detail of the education model you are about to read has been designed to serve those truths.
The first truth is that academic success is a function of the quality of the relationships between teachers, students, and parents. Children who feel a close personal relationship with their teacher, the kind that many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher(s), almost always give their best effort and that proves to be true throughout one’s whole life. In fact, is there any time in our lives when close relationships with other human beings are not the most important source of our happiness and well-being?
The current education process is not structured to facilitate those relationships for more than a given school year, if it happens at all. Neither is it an expectation on which teacher performance will be evaluated. That those special relationships that do develop are severed, routinely, at the end of a school year illustrates that the most important variable in the education equation is not even a priority in the education process in schools, today.
Of great concern is the tendency of some education reformers to denigrate the importance of teachers. We reject this notion, categorically.
In the Hawkins Model, nothing is more important to the success of kids than enduring relationships with caring teachers. Add concerned parents to the equation and students will soar.
Learning is the only thing that counts
The second truth is that the only thing that matters is that children learn as much as they can at their own best speed. One would think this would be obvious but all students in schools, today, are not given the same opportunity to succeed. The process is structured to move children along an identical path, at the same pace. At the end of the lesson, we assign a grade to each child’s performance, record it in our grade books, and move on to a new lesson; our job on the previous lesson, completed; or so we believe. At the end of the school year, we move all but a few on to the next grade where new teachers will try to get to know them and move them and their new classmates along the next measured segment of the path delineated by state academic standards. We then, repeat this process in succeeding years as we are gradually conditioned to tolerate a certain level of failure. It is difficult not to become inured to the failure of our students.
The model you are about to examine has been engineered to insure no child is pushed on to a new lesson until they understand and can demonstrate mastery on the current lesson. If a child has not learned a given lesson the job of educators is incomplete. The expectation must be that educators keep working with the child until they can demonstrate an acceptable level of mastery; until our students have learned. Nothing else matters. We must not be satisfied, however, that a student was able to pass a test. The true measure of learning is one’s ability to apply that skill or knowledge in real life situations. Simply stated, if a child cannot use a skill or knowledge they have not learned it, and this has devastating consequences with respect to the child’s ability to become the best version of themselves.
At the same time, the last thing we want to do is put a child in a situation in which they feel pressured to perform. Learning is supposed to be fun. It is one of the great ironies of life that many children perceive learning to be fun until they start school. Learning can be fun in any environment if success in learning is both assured and celebrated. We want children to believe in their hearts that learning is a great adventure. We want it to be a great adventure for teachers, as well.
This requires that we change what we teach. We must teach more than academic subject matter and we must teach the whole child. We want to teach applied academics–how to use what they learn in the real world. We want to teach them how to think creatively; how to solve problems; how to communicate effectively using all media; and, how to work together with other people both individually and as members of a team. We want them to embrace technology and use their imaginations to take on the challenges facing both the planet Earth and human society. We also want them to learn how to be kind; how to have an open mind and be non-judgmental. We want to teach them how to participate in their own governance and to respect the rights and beliefs of individual human beings and the principles of democracy. We want them to be good citizens who accept responsibility for their actions and their communities. We want to teach the principles of positive leadership, of organizational dynamics (people working together in organizations), and systems thinking, which is the process of bringing about systemic changes. Finally, we want to teach them to value life, family, and community.
Where our students will end up in life will be determined by their individual potential, their interests, how much they learn, and how hard they are willing to work. If they leave school with few, if any, choices about what to do with their lives then not only have they failed, we have failed them.
The Hawkins Model
Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose
The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives to find joy and meaning. We want them to be able to think creatively. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance and be able to make informed choices with respect to significant issues of the day.
The welfare and success of all students must be a teacher’s over-riding priority and the instructional process, and the very structure of the environment, must be molded to serve that purpose with the same dedication aircraft engineers use to design the cockpit to support and enable every function a pilot will be called upon to perform.
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 by learning from one’s experiences; both mistakes and successes.
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. Each school must be a “No Failure Zone!”
It is our expectation that:
- Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn every lesson;
- They learn that mistakes are learning opportunities and that they should never give up on themselves;
- Success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;
- We will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;
- Students must learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations that include subsequent lessons, state competency examinations, and life in a democratic society;
- There are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule; and, finally,
- Learning is an adventure of discovery.
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. No child should be asked to keep up with their classmates and no child should be asked to wait for classmates to catch up.
Step 3 – What do children need to learn?
Let us summarize all the things children need if they are to learn:
- A close personal relationship with one or more qualified teachers;
- The involvement and support of parents/guardians in partnership with teachers;
- To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;
- An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements and where disadvantaged students receive accommodations appropriate to their disadvantage much as we do for special needs students;
- Access, under guidance of their teachers, to leading edge methodologies, approaches, and technologies; from STEM to stern;
- Our patient time and attention;
- A stable and safe environment for the long term;
- The freedom to explore the world and pursue their own interests as well as the curriculum developed for them;
- 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 experience; and,
- To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win.
As educators, we must understand that while cutting-edge technology may seem threatening to us, it will be an integral part of the world in which our children must, someday, thrive. Educators are encouraged to think of their smart phones as an example of something that was initially intimidating but has become an integral part of our lives. Notwithstanding that everything in life has tradeoffs, think about how our smart phones have benefited us in our daily lives.
Step 4 – Where do we begin?
We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted public school districts and using them as a test case and, also, by soliciting the support of local advocacy groups that represent the people residing in a given school’s boundaries. We stress our focus on public schools because this is the only place we can attend to the needs of all our nation’s children. When something works in public education, it will find its way into private, parochial, and charter schools but the converse is not true.
People in the communities to be targeted will be skeptical. They have spent a lifetime hearing false promises and enduring their own difficulties in school. We will need the help of a community’s leaders to convince people that this is something special that will truly give their children a path out of poverty. After sharing our objectives with the community, our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and what we now refer to as first through fifth grade. Our objective will be to meet each child at the unique point on an academic preparedness continuum where we find them on day one. From that unique point of departure, our objective is to help each child move forward on their unique path at their own best speed.
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/Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)
- Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)
- Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)
While addressing pre-school learning is not within our purview, what we will be doing will bring the importance of pre-school learning and development into sharper focus. The primary focus of public schools, however, must be on the children who stand before us.
It is understood that many school districts have divided elementary schools into smaller segments, e.g. K to 2, 3 to 5, etc. While these segments could be preserved in our proposed education model, we would ask administrators and policy makers to remember that one of our core objectives will be to sustain the relationships between children and their teachers and between students and their classmates for as long as possible.
Step 6 – Teaching teams
We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15, meaning not more than 45 students assigned to a team of three teachers. To optimize our chances for success we would solicit volunteers from among the school corporation’s most capable and most innovative teachers. We want teachers who will be proud to be part of something new and excited by the opportunity. It is our belief that while modifications to existing classrooms might be nice they are not essential.
Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance and commitment than management. Individuals who are marginal performers and evidence low levels of commitment may be able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person is held accountable by the team.
Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with a student, another member of the team can step in, thus increasing the probability that every student will find a teacher with whom they can bond. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents as we triple the likelihood that a parent will find a teacher with whom they feel comfortable.
Finally, teams 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 or replacement.
Step 7- Optimizing teaching staff
If a school has teacher aide slots for elementary classrooms, we 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, however capable they may be. Qualified teachers are an essential variable.
Like the practice of medicine, teaching is an uncertain science. Physicians practice medicine and they are challenged to learn, relentlessly. Just like their students, practice is an integral part of a teacher’s learning process and provides one with opportunities to learn from the outcomes we produce, whether positive or negative.
Step 8 – 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. Eventually, that model will be employed as students move from the elementary/primary phase to the middle school and high school phases.
Close personal relations with teachers and their 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? We are guided by the adage that “the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.” Sometimes, it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have the relationship severed at the end of a school year, which is nothing more than a designated point on an arbitrary calendar.
These types of long-term relationships also increase the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers. Finally, we believe keeping students together in such an intimate environment will strengthen the bonds between classmates and have a positive impact on both the incidence of bullying and our ability to respond to such incidents.
Step 9 – Reaching out to Parents
Reaching out to parents must be a high priority. By partnering with their child’s teachers, the parent can play an important part in helping the child succeed. There is a high expectation that, as students begin to experience success, their parents/guardians will begin to see a difference in their children, at home. Success is contagious, even for those of us on the sidelines. It is our hope that the desire to share in and help celebrate their son or daughter’s success will lure even the most skeptical parents into partnerships with their child’s teachers.
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 thus optimizing their academic preparedness. With each parent we pull into the process, we expand our presence in the community and raise awareness that our new education model is a special opportunity.
Step 10 – Assessment and tailored academic plan
Select an appropriate assessment process/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 to create a tailored academic plan to meet each student’s unique needs.
We know that the disparity with respect to academic preparedness of students spans the full spectrum. We also know that children have different learning styles. What educators must do is to recognize that these differences exist and do their best to accommodate the unique style, potential, and interests of their students.
Step 11 – The learning process
Academic standards have been established by most states and on a nation-wide level there is “Common Core.” These standards drive expectations of schools, teachers, and their students and they also drive the high-stakes testing that assesses performance against those standards. While assessing standards and curricula is not my area of expertise, the other area of concern is the expectation that students are all expected to be at the same place at the end of a school year. Given that students have different starting points and that they are headed for more than just one destination, such expectations set millions of kids up for failure.
As new approaches to teaching children using experiential learning methodologies gain popularity, the greater the disconnect will be between standards and what kids truly need. Education leaders and policy makers must begin to re-evaluate the efficacy of existing standards.
Most of us would agree that there are foundational academic skills upon which a diverse population of young people can build different lives. The common denominator, however, is no longer limited to being able to read and write and to have basic math and science skills, although these are essential. Our challenge is to prepare children for life, not test-taking, and this demands that we find new and better ways to help kids learn by doing. Critical skills such as creative thinking, communication, team work, problem-solving, and the ability to understand and utilize technology will be as essential to their success as reading, writing, and math skills. The compelling need to be better stewards of our environment will make science and engineering more important than ever. As citizens of the 21st Century, our students must not only be able to utilize what they learn they must be able to adapt to the accelerating speed of obsolescence.
Because of the disparity in the academic preparedness of children arriving for their first day of school, we need to help children progress along a tailored academic path from their unique starting point and we must also be helping them assume ever greater responsibility for their own growth and development. As their interests and aptitudes evolve they must begin charting their own futures, with the help of caring teachers. The process for helping kids develop mastery over an ever-widening range of subject matter must be adaptive and involve, in some form:
- Presentation, appropriate to the subject matter, through utilization the full spectrum of media, methodology, and technology;
- Practice and review, giving the student as much time as they require to learn from their mistakes;
- Assessment of their ability to demonstrate mastery over subject matter, which we define as the ability to utilize it in the real world. When that level of mastery is quantifiable, such as a grade on a test or other instrument of measurement, the target will be minimum of 85 percent;
- The expectation that no child will be pushed ahead before they are able to utilize what they have learned even if that means starting over using other means and approaches; and,
- A verification assessment, in each subject area, to confirm retention of subject area mastery at a point in the near future, such as 6 to 8 weeks.
If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success must be celebrated and, also, formally documented. Students are, then, ready to move on to the next steps on their unique academic path in a given subject area. It is envisioned that such formal documentation will, someday, replace the need for standardized competency exams given once a year.
One of our Twitter colleagues, @nkgalpal, reminded us that students can also play a vital role in helping classmates who may be struggling on a given lesson or subject area. Educators have long recognized that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. This suggests that more advanced students benefit as much or more as the classmates they have an opportunity to help. Not only does this enhance the level and quality of learning that takes place it also strengthens the bonds between students.
We want our classrooms to function like a family or like an athletic team in which members have formed the strong bonds that result from dedication to shared purpose and objectives; sharing the demanding work required in practices; cheering for and supporting their classmates; and shared celebration of success in overcoming their academic challenges. Think about how many times you have seen starters, at the end of a basketball game, cheer excitedly for teammates who work hard in practice but rarely get an opportunity to make a basket, a steal, rebound, or an assist in an actual game. These bonds are enduring.
Character, Creativity, Imagination, Service, and Civic Responsibility
As we have noted, our objective as educators extends beyond subject matter mastery. Even when character, creativity, imagination, service and civic responsibility are covered in the academic standards of some jurisdictions, they are easily forgotten in challenging environments and situations, particularly in our era of high-stakes testing.
We suggest that these things are interdependent. Think of subject matter mastery as laying a foundation upon which character, genius, and individuality will be built. An individual’s ability to explore and create is very much, if not always, a function of fundamental knowledge and skill sets.
Step 12 – State-of-the-Art technology and tools of success
Provide each student and teacher with appropriate technology with which to work. We must be willing and able to utilize state-of-the-art technological tools, as they evolve, to help teachers teach and kids learn. Among other things, this requires that teachers be willing to relinquish their reticence.
No matter what some education reformers might say, technology will not and cannot replace teachers. This education model is premised upon the primacy of teachers in the education equation. Technology can and will empower teachers, however. The world is becoming and will continue to become more technology-driven than it is today, and this trend will only accelerate and expand in scope.
Our children will live, work, and rear their own families in a technological world that surpasses anything most of us can imagine. Our job is to prepare students for that future, not find ways to avoid it because of our own fear and reluctance.
There are wonderful digital tools on the market but many of them are specialized to the extent that it is unlikely they will provide the full range of support teachers and students need. We are seeking something comparable to an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that is real-time, cloud-based, and integrated with 360-degree feedback capability. Such technology must relieve teachers of all classroom management responsibilities, so they can be devoted, optimally, to relationship building and teaching.
It is envisioned that, as the scope of the potential market for such a product begins to reveal itself, developers of technology solutions will be competing aggressively to capture sustainable market share. Astute providers of such solutions will work closely with their prospective customers to ensure satisfaction.
A system must help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels, in various subject areas, utilizing an array of resources to meet the needs of a diverse student population. Students will be on a unique path even though many of the paths may be parallel.
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 assessments of performance;
- Identify areas that need review and more practice;
- Signal readiness for Mastery Quizzes;
- Grade and record the results of quizzes and assignments and then direct students onward to a subsequent lesson module or back for more work on current modules;
- Celebrate success much like a video game;
- Signal the teachers at every step of the way;
- Recommend when it is time for a Verification Mastery Quiz;
- Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record; and,
- Give students the freedom to pursue their interests, as they strive to explore the universe.
Our objective is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed along their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include teaching, coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction must also include time spent with students’ parents.
Step 13 – 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. This creates opportunities for students to move ahead on their own initiative and take ownership of their own adventure of discovery even if it means teachers must scurry to keep up.
It also means that no student will experience the humiliation of failure.The ultimate mission of education is to put the fun back in learning and teaching. Success is what drives motivation, commitment, and fun. If all we ever do is lose when playing a game, it is only a matter of time until we avoid playing.
Success is a process of applying what we learn from our experiences, whether successful or unsuccessful. The more we succeed, the more confident we become and the more confident we become, the more motivated we are to learn and grow. As children gain confidence in their ability to control the outcomes in their lives, their self-esteem is strengthened and their ability to overcome obstacles, including discrimination, is enhanced.
Educators are challenged to understand that the single greatest flaw in education, both public and private, is its acceptance of failure on the part of our students. Nothing destroys motivation to learn and creates an atmosphere of hopelessness as much as repeated failure. The fact that we permit children to fail is unconscionable and inexcusable.
In our definition, “failure” and “making mistakes” are not the same thing. We all make mistakes. Mistakes become failure only when students are allowed or are required to stop trying before they come to understand. This happens every time we ask a child to move on to a new lesson before they are ready and every time teachers are asked to record an unsatisfactory grade in their books. This type of failure not only deprives children of an opportunity to experience success, it robs them of the essential knowledge and skills they will need to be successful on subsequent lessons, and to live productive and meaningful lives.
Children must be able to use what they have learned in “real-life” situations. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) defines “proficiency” as:
“having a demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” [The emphasis is mine.]
Anything less than proficient is unacceptable and that includes “approaching proficiency.” Approaching proficiency is a good thing only if a student subsequently becomes proficient. The work of our teachers and schools is not complete until students have actually achieved “proficiency.”
Step 14 – the Arts and Exercise
We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must be given the opportunity to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:
- Develop relationships with other teachers;
- Exercise their young bodies;
- Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art; and,
- Interact with children from other classes.
Step 15 – Performance Management and Metrics
Identifying how performance against objectives will be measured is a vital part of any operational plan because how we keep score determines how the game will be played. We want teachers and administrators to be rewarded for the quality of the outcomes they produce. Our objective is to measure how effectively teachers are helping kids learn and be able to apply what they have learned in real-life situations.
Students will be expected to pass not only a Mastery Quiz (MQ) with a score of 85 percent or better before moving on to subsequent lessons, but also a Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) that will be administered to students 6 to 8 weeks after passing the MQ. The purpose of the VMQ is to ensure that students have retained what the have learned and are able to utilize that knowledge and/or skills in real life situations. This can best be measured by determining the percentage of students who pass their VMQ on the first attempt. The higher the percentage of passage the better the performance of teachers.
We are not expecting perfection, however. Certainly a few students will not pass their VMQs, signaling that they were not ready. While we want to minimize such occurrences, teachers will not suffer consequences. We must ensure that “pace of learning” does not replace “understanding” as the objective of teachers or the education process. The failure of a VMQ by a student is nothing more than an opportunity for teachers and students to learn from their disappointing outcomes.
Step 16 – High Stakes Testing
The performance of teachers will not be evaluated on the basis of the results of high stakes testing. We do not want teachers to feel pressured to move students along before they are ready. Every student who passes a VMQ will be demonstrating that they were, indeed, ready.
High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be irrelevant and 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.
Step 17 – Stability and Adaptability
We will not concern ourselves with the 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 events will occur, 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 18 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment
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.
We are striving to create an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is 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 children learn they all derive benefit from the knowledge gained.
Step 19 – The Power of positive leaders
As with any human endeavor, positive leadership is crucial. Administrators at every level, whether superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, or assistant principals, must be trained to be more than administrators. They must be powerful positive leaders who understand that their success is a function of both their ability to keep their organizations focused on purpose and the quality of leadership they provide to their people. The bottom line is that the over-riding priority of positive leaders is to help their people be successful at every level of their organization and its supply chain; which includes students, parents, and the community.
Education departments in our colleges and universities must ensure that the study of leadership is a core component in the education of school administrators, at every level. We must view them as leaders, not administrators.
Step 20 – Special Needs
At anytime 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
The only justification for preserving the status quo in public education would be if we truly believed the children who fail are incapable of learning. If, on the other hand, we believe all children can learn, we are compelled to act.
The fundamental premise of the Hawkins Model is that 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. Refusal to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality is inexcusable.
Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes they are seeking, the model can be implemented in every school in the district and can be modified to fit the needs of students as they move on to middle school and high school.
The success of this model will also drive the need for revolutionary change in our institutions of higher learning. Colleges, universities, community colleges, technical schools, and vocational education programs must be prepared to reinvent themselves as the needs of their students will have changed exponentially.
The White Paper:
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.
By Mel Hawkins
Setting the Stage
Over the last 150 years, the educational process at work in our systems of education, both public and private, has evolved slowly through a steady stream of incremental reforms. During those same 150 years, American society has changed exponentially. A combination of a growing population; increasing diversity; immigration, both legal and not; advancements in technology that would have seemed unimaginable even two decades ago; a crumbling infrastructure; a more competitive world marketplace; a fragile ecosystem; and, a far more complex political environment place great pressure on a democratic form of government.
Democracy depends upon public schools to prepare our young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive members of society. Given, however, the dynamic world in which we live, the American educational process is ill-equipped to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population of children. If we were creating an educational process from scratch, given what we now know, that process would look much different than it does today. It would be structured to produce the outcomes we want.
In order to alter this reality, we must start by clarifying the purpose of public education in America. As simply as we can state that purpose, it is to prepare our nation’s children for the responsibilities of citizenship and to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and tools they will need to become productive citizens. We must work to help each child maximize their talents and abilities so they will be able to enter adulthood with a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find happiness and meaning. We also want them to be able to create value and add wealth to society and also be able to carry out their civic responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy. This requires that they have sufficient understanding of the complex issues facing our society to make thoughtful decisions.
We want their education to be well-rounded to include language arts and mathematics skills; a solid understanding of the natural world (science); a grasp of history in hopes that they can learn from our mistakes; and, finally, a full appreciation of the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences. We need to teach them that diversity is our greatest strength as a nation.
During the balance of this Twenty-first Century, the world will continue to undergo unprecedented changes that will challenge the ability of our planet’s diverse population to live together in peace. We must address the issues of hunger, health, and economic welfare while protecting our natural habitat. We must do all of these things in the midst of the hatred some people have for others and in spite of the horrible violence people do to one another.
As a nation, we cannot be successful bickering among ourselves and neither can we meet our objectives if we must continue to support an ever-larger segment of people who live in poverty. Add caring for the steadily aging baby boomer generation and the burden will soon be overwhelming.
A significant emphasis of conservative right Americans is that it is time to cut off those who depend on government assistance. The problem, of course, is that these millions of Americans who are dependent are not going to slip away into oblivion and let the rest of the population do their own thing.
We must also recognize that there will be a shift in political power over the balance of this century. According to the projections of the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2060, the population of non-Hispanic whites is projected to decline from 62 percent, today, to an estimated 44 percent of the total US population. Any illusions white Americans may have that they will continue to rule the roost into the latter half of this century are pure fantasy, which may explain the vehement demands that refugees be barred from entry and that illegals be returned to their home nations.
If we are committed to the preservation of the great American democracy, we must invite the poor and the non-white to become full and equal partners. For the poor and the non-white, it is time to take charge of one’s own destiny. All of this demands that public education be able to meet the needs of disadvantaged children. We cannot allow them to fail because if they fail we all fail.
What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.
Today, our educational process, whether employed in a public, private, or parochial setting is focused more on failure than success, which we will illustrate at a later point in this document. As children fall out along the way from ages 5 or 6 to 18, we let them accumulate along that path, much in the way a 1950s assembly line would produce a scrap pile of discrepant material. Because these children have not been successful in acquiring even a basic portfolio of knowledge and skills, they congregate in the poorest neighborhoods and communities in both urban and rural America and they begin creating a whole new generation. They congregate in these poor communities because they have nowhere else to go with the possible exception of our jails and prisons.
Through the utilization of the tools of systems thinking and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.
Reformers who push for privatization of education; standardized testing as a tool to hold teachers and schools accountable and promote charter schools and vouchers are wrong in their assertions about why so many American children are failing in our schools. In their drive to apply what they refer to as “proven business practices” they are doing great harm to our most vulnerable children, their schools and communities, and also to the public school teachers on whom so much depends. These reformers proceed with such arrogance that they never consider the possibility that they might be wrong.
These reformers are correct, however, about the need to apply proven business principles but we are not talking about the principles that come from the boardrooms with their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The business principles to which we refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective in a business environment. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer, structuring an organization to serve its purpose, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to do the best job of which they are capable.
Public school teachers and other educational professionals, while unfairly blamed for the problems in our public schools, are also wrong. They are wrong to defend an educational process that fails to meet the needs of so many of our precious children. It is my assertion that the educational process, with its focus on failure, does a disservice to even the children who appear to excel academically.
Reforms of the last two decades have attacked them to such a degree that our teachers’ defensiveness is understandable but that does not make their intransigence defensible. We need fresh insight into this vital issue. It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.
If your find merit in the following pages, I ask that you read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (CreateSpace, 2013) and the companion blog at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com. The book is available in both Kindle and paperback format and can be ordered through Amazon.com or through my website. Also be aware that it has now been 5 years from the time my book was released and six years since the bulk of the writing was completed. In the intervening years I have learned a great deal from the many professional educators with whom I have spoken. I am working on a new book that will incorporate all that I have learned and change those things that I no longer believe to be true.
I also ask that you join me on a mission to transform public education in America. It is also a mission to transform American society and begin narrowing the chasm that separates the haves and the have nots. It will also allow us to narrow the political differences that divide us as a nation.
Reinventing the American Educational Process and our Public Schools
For as long as anyone can remember, children at the ages of 5 or 6 have arrived for their first day of school where they, as a class, have been placed on a path from Kindergarten and first grade to twelfth grade, although not all make it to grade 12. There have always been children who fail or perform poorly in school and, over the decades, the number of failures has multiplied as one generation after another has sent its sons and daughters off to school. We now have multiple generations of families who have always failed at school and who have always been poor. With each generation, the hope in the minds of parents that an education provides a way out for their children has eroded as has their faith in the American dream.
These mothers and fathers, and sometimes grandparents and other family members, raise their children in poverty. They still send their children off to school but for many, the purpose of school has been downgraded to free daycare, five days a week, 9 months of the year. With but the fewest of exceptions that we will soon discuss, these parents and guardians no longer teach their children that an education is a ticket to the American dream, nor do they make sacrifices to help prepare their children for school or support their kids’ teachers.
Their youngsters show up for their first day of school with minimal motivation to learn, little if any academic preparation, and little parental support. Often, the parents’ biggest concern is a fear that their children will be picked on by their teachers and treated unfairly, so minimal is the trust of schools and teachers on the part of many of these parents. The seemingly inevitable outcome of these realities is that each generation of the poor and the failing is even more likely to remain entrapped in the cycles of poverty and academic failure.
For decades, educators and educational policymakers have responded to this cycle of failure with a bevy of incremental reforms and initiatives and have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to fix what is wrong with public education. In their frustration with their inability to put an end to the cycle of failure, educators and policymakers alike have declared that such pervasive failure is a consequence of poverty. They suggest that we will not alter the outcomes in our schools until we do something about poverty. At no time have these educators considered that what they do contributes to the crisis or that the educational process, itself, is flawed.
The rest of us nod our heads in bewildered agreement because what else could it be? The fact that this population of the poor and the uneducated is disproportionately black or other minorities is declared to be a consequence of segregation and discrimination. Sadly, an embarrassingly large segment of mainstream America, a society still scourged by the bitterness and resentment of bigotry, believe that such outcomes are the best we can expect from children of color or for whom English is a second language. Crime and violence are viewed as inevitable outcomes. Sad commentary for a nation that boasts that it is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world and a beacon for freedom and human dignity.
These beliefs play a significant role in the tendency of some whites and some police officers to profile blacks as a threat, young men in particular, thereby elevating the tension in even routine interactions and confrontations. This is all part of a complicated web of interdependent forces that adversely affect American society; a society comprised of unequal components. The growing number of successful, well-educated blacks and other minorities is viewed as nothing more than an anomaly by some white Americans.
The poor and minorities are becoming angrier as they find more and more doors of opportunity closed to them. Meanwhile, mainstream Americans are angrier because they resent having to support a population of men and women whom they view as unwilling to pull their own weight. They greatly resent what they view as an entitlement mentality.
The wider the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” the greater the threat to a democratic form of government that depends on the ability of reasonable men and women to work together. This ever-widening chasm contributes to a growing desire of some Americans for a more authoritarian style of leadership, a phenomenon that has been studied by such people as Marc J. Hetherington at Vanderbilt University and Jonathon Weiler at the University of North Carolina. The reader may also wish to check out an article on the subject on March 1, 2016 in Vox by Amanda Taub, and a column by Colbert I. King in the Washington Post on March 4th of this year.
It is just such a desire for an authoritarian solution that has led the American people to elect Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States of America.
It is within this context that the battle for the future of public education is being fought. On the one hand, we have business people with incredible wealth who have generously pledged huge chunks of their personal fortunes to reform education in America. These people, and those who support them in both government and in the private sector, are tired of waiting for professional educators to “clean up their act.” These education reformers are motivated by years of frustration with the difficulty in finding capable, well-educated men and women to work in their companies. They are emboldened by their absolute belief that the wealth and jobs created by their corporations are the fundamental backbone of the American economy.
These reformers have declared that if professional educators cannot fix public education “they need to get out of our way and let us run their schools like we run our businesses.” In their zeal to hold schools and teachers accountable, they have placed great emphasis on standardized competency examinations. They suggest that schools that cannot improve their performance should be taken over or closed and their teachers let go.
Their other point of emphasis is privatization through the creation of charter schools that provide alternatives so families can “choose the best available school for their children.” The words “choice” and “school choice” and derivatives have become an effective if misleading tagline for reformers and political candidates who portray themselves as “champions of public education.” These politicians profess to be committed to the idea of “choice,” and they charge forth ignorant of both the true issues facing public education and of the harm they do. They are also proponents of voucher programs as a tool to subsidize charter and other private and parochial schools with tax dollars.
This sounds promising but it is the shallowest of promises. The problem with such strategies is not that charter schools are inherently bad rather that these reformers are abandoning our most challenged public school districts and their students and teachers. If one steps back and examines this movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”
We must not allow public education to be considered “triage” where we pick and choose to whom we will guarantee opportunities.
We seem to have lost sight of the original vision with respect to charter schools which was that such schools would become laboratories for innovative techniques and approaches that, once proven, can be rolled out for the benefit of all schools. Given the fact that many charter schools seem to do little more than replicate the traditional educational process, it should come as no surprise that few charters are outperforming their public school counterparts and that some are under-performing. Meanwhile, the resulting loss of revenue is having a devastating effect on the public schools from which voucher students transfer.
Teachers unions and associations have also been targeted by reformers who believe these entities, through their advocacy on behalf of teachers, have become obstacles in the path of educational reforms. The reality is that some of these corporate reformers and their conservative political supporters are against unions, irrespective of venue.
All of these reform initiatives, including “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” evidence no real understanding of the reasons why so many American children are failing. In the interim, these education reform initiatives and their proponents are a powerful force doing horrific damage to our public schools, their students and teachers, and also to the communities public schools strive to serve.
On the other side of the battle for the future of public education, we find American teachers and other educators who proclaim that our public schools are not failing. It is disappointing that teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, are so busy defending themselves from critics that they cannot translate what they see in their own classrooms into meaningful advocacy.
Teachers know the educational process is not working every time a student arrives in their classroom who is so far behind that catching up seems improbable. They know the process is flawed every time they are expected to move their entire class on to the next lesson even though there are many students who are not ready. Teachers know the educational process is flawed every time they record an F in their gradebook or are asked to help a student qualify for graduation when that student has made minimal effort over a four-year period. The things teachers complain about in the faculty lounge or at association and union gatherings are the exact same problems to which I refer in my book.
One can only wonder how an educational system that fails so many of its students can be considered to be a success. If we examine the findings of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), that data suggests that 60 to 70 percent of American students perform below “proficient.” This is most troubling because NAEP defines “proficient,” among other things, as a student being able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations.” That we can claim the system is working, when more than half of its students are unable to apply what they have learned in response to “real-world situations,” strains credibility.
These professionals insist that poverty is the culprit and throw up their hands in figurative despair that they are powerless to overcome the impact of it. Ridding the nation of poverty, these advocates suggest, is the responsibility of our government and of society as a whole. Educators also point to the re-segregation of our poor urban and rural public schools as a causal factor. In spite of the poverty and other challenges, these educators insist that our public schools are better than they have ever been.
The re-segregation of our schools has had and is having an enormous adverse impact on black and other minority children. While integration of our schools and our entire society must be a goal, we do not suggest that the only way black children can learn is when they share a classroom with white kids? Without a doubt, children benefit from an environment in which diversity is the norm. It would be this author’s assertion that we cannot wait until our schools are re-integrated before we stop the failure of disadvantaged children whatever their race or ethnicity.
There have, indeed, been many advancements in education over the years but we can only judge a system or process by the outcomes it produces, no matter how hard people are working or how well-meaning they may be. The fact is that we can start today to create an educational process that assures that disadvantaged kids get the time and extra attention they require in order to learn.
The truth about the generations of the uneducated who live in poverty is that they are victims of a century’s worth of ineffective and misguided government policies and an obsolete educational process that works at cross purposes with the efforts of teachers and sets children up for failure. No one can dispute that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for children but it is because of the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty that parents have given up on education and have lost faith in the American dream.
Instead of blaming poverty, we need to attack hopelessness and powerlessness, relentlessly. We need to take this logic a step further and suggest that rather than poverty being the cause of the challenges in public education, poverty is, in fact, an outcome of the crisis in public education. It is a “chicken versus the egg” conundrum, to be sure.
Poverty exists because a huge population of American men and women—the overwhelming majority of whom attended public schools—lack literacy, numeracy, and the other knowledge and skills essential to full participation in the American enterprise and in our democracy. These Americans are trapped in a maelstrom of failure and poverty and are virtually powerless to alter that reality. This fact is indisputable and to disclaim any and all responsibility for such outcomes further damages the credibility of educators. We are at a critical point in our nation’s history and being in denial serves the interests of no one.
Let us be blunt. Poverty does not keep children from learning and our insistence that poverty is to blame for the problems in public education obscures the truth and bars the path to meaningful reform. Throughout our nation’s history there are countless examples of children from impoverished families who have excelled, academically, and have escaped the clutches of poverty. This is also true, today. We have known this but because we have been asking the wrong questions, the significance of these success stories eludes us.
Rather than asking “why do so many children fail?” the question we should be asking is “what are the characteristics of the children who succeed in spite of the incredible disadvantages they face?” As it turns out, the answer to the “correct question” is the key to unlocking the secrets of both the cycles of failure and of poverty. Only when we understand the real forces at work will we be able to develop a strategy to fix public education, attack poverty, and begin transforming American society.
The reason why some kids find success in a landscape of deprivation is, first, because they are supported by a parent or guardian who, in the face of incredible odds, somehow clings to hope that an education can provide a way out for their children. Many of the educated black men and women who are reading these words know that what I say is true from their own experience. Many of these adults owe everything to a parent or guardian who refused to let them fail.
These parents and guardians are fiercely determined that their child is going to learn and they do whatever it takes to help. They make sure their child is prepared, academically; that they are motivated to learn; that they work hard; and, these caregivers accept responsibility for their child’s education through committed partnerships with their children’s teachers. Unfortunately, these parents are the exception to the rule but that does not diminish the significance of what we can learn from their success.
The lessons we can learn from these incredible caregivers must be central to every effort to reform public education. A committed parent who believes in the American dream for their children, if not for themselves, is formidable force in the life of a child. When those parents are willing partners with their children’s teachers their power and that of the teachers is magnified. Amazing success follows.
What this means for educational reform is that, somehow, we must find a way to convince parents that an education will be the difference in the lives of their children. This is no easy task when those parents have spent a lifetime on the outside looking in and have been victims of as many as 150 years of failed promises. These parents are part of multiple generations of men and women who have been chewed up and spit out by an educational process that is focused on failure. They neither believe in the importance of education nor the integrity of teachers and other educators. These Americans are drowning in a sea of anger and despair and they do not trust the hands that reach out to teach their children.
If we are going to convince people, we must be able to show them that we have something new and powerful to offer that will benefit their children. There is nothing in marketing as powerful as having something new and innovative to sell. Parents and guardians must be convinced that their child will not be subjected to the cycle of failure; something they know well from their own school experience.
It is imperative that we understand that this flawed educational process threatens the very principles of democracy. Unless we act quickly, with purpose and commitment, the adverse consequences for our society will be as certain as the impact of unrestrained use of fossil fuels on our planet. These generations of American were not destined to fail, rather they were permitted to fail and until we accept responsibility for that failure, the consequences will haunt the great American democracy for generations to come.
We turn, now, to the educational process at work in schools, both public and private, throughout the U.S.; first to understand and then to figure out what must be done. What is it about this process that is having such a devastating effect on so many of our nation’s most vulnerable children, thus placing our society at risk? We need to think about what happens, today in 2016, in elementary schools throughout the nation.
The disparity in academic preparation, motivation to learn, and parental support of the children who arrive at our door on their first day of school is cavernous. The disadvantage created when a child is bereft of these essential supports is every bit as great as a child with a visual, auditory or any other type of recognized disability. The impact is probably greater for the children with “academic preparedness” impairments because these other disabilities are not always accompanied by such high levels of hopelessness and powerlessness. We have known what to do for the former group of children for a long time and so we just do it.
We have had no idea what to do with students with an “academic preparedness deficiency” and so we have done next to nothing other than rely on teachers to do the best they can. Very often, these children come from low-income families and live in the midst of hopelessness and powerlessness. Many are children of color or those for whom English is a second language. These children deserve the same level of accommodation as other children with impairments.
Teachers, particularly in the lower grades, do the best they can for these students within the context of the current educational process and its associated expectations. Teachers recognize that many children are faltering and they reach back and help as much as time permits. What we must understand is that educational process is not structured in such a way that helping these kids is a priority or even an expectation and this is not activity against which our teachers’ performance will be measured.
The primary focus of the educational process, rather, is on preparing the whole class for the standardized competency exams that loom in the near future. It is on the aggregate performance of the class, on such exams, that the performance of both teachers and their schools will be measured and for which they will be held accountable. It is understood that not all children will perform well on such tests and about this educators do feel remorse. It is a numbers game, however, the essence of which is that there is a certain percentage of failure that we have been conditioned to tolerate. A school’s performance is measured against both state averages and its own past performance.
The educational process is not perfect, we tell ourselves, and it cannot be expected to solve the problems of society that contribute to the failure of so many children; most notably poverty. If we stop and truly think about the implications of this mindset it is difficult to fathom or justify.
Why would we ever be willing to accept the failure of a child? Why would we ever judge a child’s performance against that of his or her classmates?
Although we possess the tools and expertise with which to perform a comprehensive assessment of the extent of a child’s disadvantage when they report for their first day of school, how many schools do this? Had we made the effort to do such an assessment, we possess the know-how to design a unique instructional plan to mitigate the disadvantage of every single child who arrives at our door. This is no different than making any other type of accommodation.
While we could make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children with an academic preparation deficiency by performing such assessments and creating tailored instructional plans, even this is insufficient if we do not also address the fundamental flaws in the educational process. It is a process that expects teachers to move students forward, as a class, even when some students are not ready. Every time a student is expected to move on to a new lesson before they are ready reduces the odds that the child will be successful on the next lesson. As this pattern plays out the one lesson kids are learning is that they are not able to keep up with their classmates. Sooner or later these kids will give up on themselves.
Sometime around the year 2007, I had an epiphany. I began subbing for Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2002 and for the first couple of years I was so overwhelmed by the challenges of subbing that I rarely found the time or the presence of mind to really think about what was happening around me. In this respect, I was much like the teachers for whom I was filling in.
I came out of my shell-shock when I accepted a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher. What made my experience different is that my entire career had been spent searching for solutions when a process or operation produced unacceptable outcomes. What I learned from that experience is that there is always a solution if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to the possibility. I wrote about that experience and it is one of six vignettes that I included in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream (CreateSpace 2013). I have reproduced that vignette here:
Vignette #1 – Fort Wayne, IN – Middle school Math – Substitute Teacher
It is not very often that a substitute teacher actually has an opportunity to teach. One of the few occasions when I was able to teach was in a week-long assignment for a middle school math teacher. 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; all very similar to the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which we had been working. This particular teacher went to great lengths to insure that his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had acquired interlocking boards that were about 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 if not impossible for a student to copy off of a classmate without being seen.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, I had high expectations, believing the students would do well on the quiz. To my surprise and disappointment, the results were that better than fifty percent of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and 75 percent of the students scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two out of the 85 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. I did not return the quiz to the students, however, and chose not to review the actual questions from the prior day’s quiz. We worked problems as a class on the whiteboard and I worked one-on-one with the students who appeared to need that level of attention. Great care was taken to avoid doing the work for them.
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. They were also assured that this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. The hope was that this opportunity would motivate the students to improve their scores 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, three or more letter grades. A few students improved from failing grades to As and Bs. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or better and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Figure 1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude that their scores on the second quiz represented a substantially higher level of mastery.
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 is: Is it worth an extra two days to get such a dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery. I’ll let the reader decide for themselves.
The epiphany occurred for me when I realized that I had witnessed something that happens to students every day, in every class, year after year. Had I not attempted to try something different, the scores from the first quiz would have been recorded in the teacher’s gradebook and I would have moved on to the next lesson and we would have repeated the same process of presentation, practice, review, quiz, and final review. For both students and teacher this process has become a ritual.
The question that kept nagging at me was, how would the 64 students who had received Ds and Fs have fared on the next lesson module, had I not taken the extra time on the most recent lesson? For that matter, how would the 13 students have fared who had received Cs? It struck me, then, that for the students who struggled—90 percent of the students of this teacher and classroom—this was a microcosm of their academic life; probably from beginning to end. We have placed these children in an environment that we have structured as a competition in which there are both winners and losers. The logical progression of this thought process was, “how much failure can a child deal with before they become so discouraged that they stop trying?” If that were not bad enough, we accept the failure of these students as if we are powerless to do anything about it.
In the above vignette, even though there was great improvement after the second quiz, two-thirds of the students were not yet able to achieve a score of 85 percent, but many were close. It probably would not take more than one more review and the majority of the class would be ready to move on to the next lesson module. Another sad fact in this story is that the students who had achieved 85 percent or better after the first test were forced to wait for others to catch up. In the ideal scenario, these students would have been encouraged to charge ahead at their best speed.
How much failure can any of us endure before losing hope that we will ever be successful? The reader is encouraged to think back on their own experience of a time when you were struggling to keep up with your classmates; or about a task you could never quite get right; or, about a game you could never win. How did you feel? How long did it take before you began avoiding such situations?
It was at this point that I began to think about the educational process as a system much as I had done in my earlier career when looking at an operational process.
In spite of the great variance on the academic preparedness continuum of the children arriving for their first day of school, for generations we have asked individual teachers to do the best they can for each child. We have laid down this challenge to our teachers, however, within the context of a specific set of expectations. Those expectations are that the results of their efforts will be measured not on the basis of each student’s progress on a unique educational path but rather on the basis of how an entire population of children of the same age perform as measured against state academic standards for children of that age.
In Indiana, for example, we do this beginning with the second semester of the third grade, and then multiple grades thereafter, until high school, using ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of a standardized competency examination. Once in high school, the purpose of the testing shifts to graduate qualification in certain subjects.
Imagine that you teach at a school where only 20 percent of the students who arrive at your door are well-prepared for academic success. On standardized competency exams, how would the performance of your students compare to the students in a school across town where 80 percent of the kids arrive well-prepared? Would you feel that you were being fairly compared? More importantly, would your students have the same chance for success?
This is the reality of the American educational process for teachers and students in schools, both public and private, in communities throughout the United States. Teachers are expected to move their entire class, in sequential order from step-to-step as established by state standards for each subject area. Teachers must do this lesson-to-lesson, chapter-to-chapter, semester-to-semester, and grade-to-grade. While teachers have some latitude to help children who struggle, at least during Kindergarten and first and second grades, the older the students get the more pressure is felt to move everyone along at a steady and comparable pace.
That ISTEP+ or other competency exams loom in the not-too-distant future is a cold reality for schools and teachers. If students do not perform well on these exams both the school and its teachers face consequences. From this point onward, the pressure to keep students moving along a common path becomes nothing short of relentless.
The fact that a great variance exists with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support is given virtually no consideration. Teachers must present subject matter according to the lesson plans that they have developed in conformance with state standards and that have been approved by their administration. Although they strive to give each student as much time and attention as possible, patience is a luxury not often available to teachers. The time allotted for help and review is usually sufficient for students with a few mistakes but it is never enough for those who have made many.
The unvarnished truth is that the students who did poorly have been allowed to fail. The grades also become part of the student’s academic record and, not too gradually, begin to have a labeling effect. Children begin to identify with the grades they are given,
Very often, the next lesson requires that students be able to apply all or some of what they learned on previous lessons so that the student who is struggling is now at an even greater disadvantage and a greater risk of failure. Recall that according to NAEP results, 60 to 70 percent of American students “are below proficient.” They have not attained a level of mastery sufficient that they can utilize that knowledge “in real world situations,” which includes subsequent lesson modules!
Repeated failure chips away at a child’s confidence and self-esteem as these students recognize, very clearly, that they are not keeping up with classmates.
Now, think about this process within the context of teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. Some children learn quickly and are riding well before the end of the day. Other children fall down, cry and, for days, suffer skinned appendages and bruised egos. We keep encouraging them, however, because we know they can and will learn—they just need more time and our patient attention, which parents have the ability to give.
Within a few days, all are riding with comparable proficiency. Even bruised egos heal under the canopy of success and the joy of riding with one’s friends. After a couple of days, the fact that some kids took longer to learn than others becomes totally inconsequential to both the child and the community. Imagine, however, having to learn how to pop wheelies or perform other advanced riding skills before we have mastered balance, steering, and braking.
When kids fail in our schools it is not because they are incapable of learning and it is not because our teachers are incompetent. Children fail because our educational process is not structured to give each child however much time and patient attention they need. Learning quickly, or at least as quickly as one’s classmates, has become more important than whether or not a student has actually learned. This is proven, daily, throughout the nation whenever teachers must move on to new subject matter knowing full well that many of their students do not understand the previous one. Is it any wonder that kids give up on learning, stop trying, and begin acting out simply because they were permitted to fail?
This is the reality for the overwhelming majority of students who struggle and often fail, every day and in every class in virtually every school in America. Whether these struggling students represent 5 percent of their school’s population or 80 percent, the consequences are tragic for both the children, their teachers, and our nation. The fact that they do not get the time and attention they require is not because it is beyond our capability rather it is because this is not the expectation we lay out for teachers and because the educational process upon which we rely is not so structured.
Consider an alternative educational process in which students are not permitted to fail; a reality in which they are always given the time and patient attention they require. When children who start from behind begin to realize that they can learn and when they have an opportunity to enjoy the success of learning, everything changes. We all want the same thing. When we sample a taste of success—of winning—we want more. The more kids learn, the more confident they become and the more confident they become the better they learn, and the better they learn the more able they are to control the outcomes in their lives. The more control young people have over outcomes, the stronger their self-esteem. Before long, the speed at which these children learn accelerates and they begin closing the gaps between themselves and the classmates with whom they have never been able to compete.
In a discussion with a teacher about this very process, he said “But they will never really catch up.” My response was a blunt “so what!” It does not matter whether they catch up with everyone else because we have no expectation that every student who completes high school will have chosen the same destination. We want them to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. We want them to have choices based upon their own unique skills, knowledge, and interests. If a child leaves school at the age of 18 or younger and has no choices available to them because of their poor academic performance, who has failed? Is the student or is it the American educational process?
Young men and women seeking enlistment in the armed services provide an interesting, if unofficial picture, with respect to the performance of our educational process. I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In the past year, 25 percent of the young men and women who took the ASVAB in hopes of joining the military, were unable to achieve the minimum score of 31 out of a possible 99 points. Only the individuals who post a score of 50 or higher are considered, by the military, to be desirable candidates. Of the 340 men and women who took the ASVAB, 181 (53 percent) were unable to achieve a score of 50 in order to be viewed as a “desirable candidate” even though over half of them achieved the minimum score for eligibility. These young adults come from high schools throughout NE Indiana, with the bulk coming from the four public school districts in Fort Wayne and Allen County. They are predominantly high school seniors and graduates. It seems reasonable to conclude that young adults who are considered to be unqualified or undesirable for military jobs will be similarly viewed in the civilian job market. One could infer that neither civilian employers nor the U.S. military is a satisfied customer of public education.
We must begin with the simple idea that every child can learn and we must commence their formal education at the specific point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. The fact that our community needs to begin intervening in the lives of these children earlier and more aggressively does not change the job of our schools and teachers. With one exception, we can accept responsibility only at the point at which children pass through our door.
The exception is that when we find, through our assessment, that a child has any kind of impairment, the first question we need to ask is “are there other children in the home who are at risk?” If so, we need to do what we can to connect that family with whatever kind of early intervention programs might be available in their community. We must, then, turn our full attention to the children who stand before us. They each need and deserve our best and most patient effort. They must not be allowed to fail, under any circumstances, as we begin moving them at their best speed from point to point on the unique academic plan we have tailored for them.
We are not just teaching colors, letters, numbers, words or other academic skills, we are teaching them that they can be successful, that they can learn, that learning can be fun, and that success will be celebrated. As the child moves along the path, one success at a time, the speed with which they learn will gradually begin to increase. Our job is simply to help them get as far down their unique academic path as they are able during the time they are our responsibility. As it turns out, as kids gain confidence they also begin to build character.
There is one more job that we must do, however. We must make it an ongoing routine to communicate with the child’s parent or guardian, whether or not they initially respond to our overtures. Gradually, most parents will begin responding when they see or hear that their child is making progress; when they begin to see the evidence of that progress in the eyes, hearts, minds, and behavior of their sons and daughters. Success and winning are as contagious as any infectious disease, even for those watching from the sidelines. Every time a parent is lured by their child’s success we have gained another foothold in the community.
What is important are two fundamental benchmarks that should be applied to every child. The first benchmark should be applied at every step of the way down each individual’s unique academic path. The second benchmark should be applied at strategic points along the way and once again when they finish high school.
The first benchmark is “can the student apply what they have learned in subsequent lessons or in responding to real life challenges.” If a student is unable to utilize what they have been taught, they have not really learned. And, if they have not really learned, then our job as educators is not done with respect to that child on that lesson. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable.
The second benchmark to be applied when kids finish high school and at other strategic points along the way is “on the basis of what they have learned, do students have meaningful choices to make.” Kids who cannot utilize what they have learned are almost always left with default choices, which amount to no choice at all. The whole point of an education is to insure that kids have choices as adults.
We do a great disservice to a child who is pushed along to a second lesson before they have learned and mastered the first. We also do a great disservice to students who are at the top of their class when we ask them to slow down and wait for their classmates to catch up. Students should always be allowed to move forward at the best speed of which they are capable and that speed should never be influenced by the learning velocity of their classmates. To ask a student who excels, academically, to slow down will only diminish the joy of learning and add unnecessary boredom and frustration. When students are bored and frustrated they begin looking to friends, social media, and video games for their intellectual stimulation. The last thing we should ever want to do is dampen the joy of learning for any child, at any time.
In business, there is a principle that an organization is structured to produce the outcomes it gets. What outcomes do we covet? Do we want every child to learn and be able to utilize what they have learned and experience success; or, do we want a system that is satisfied to determine which kids learn the most, the fastest and in which only a few get to experience the joy of success?
In operations management there is also an axiom that if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter hard people work and how well they are trained, then the process is flawed and needs to be replaced or reinvented.
Do we want a process that allows children to enter adulthood without the knowledge and skills they will need in order to accept the responsibilities of citizenship? The standard should be that every child is expected to achieve a level of mastery that is at least 85 percent on each and every lesson module and that no child should be allowed to fail. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable. This raises questions of what is possible and practical.
Is it even possible for teachers to give kids as much time and patient attention as they need? Is it realistic to think that all kids can achieve 85 percent mastery in every subject?
The answer is “no” when we try to do it within the context of the existing educational process and the incumbent expectations on both teachers and students. When we challenge our assumptions, alter those expectations to match our newly identified objectives, and then restructure the educational process to support those expectations, however, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” It is nothing more than a human engineering problem that will yield to the application of the human imagination and relentless determination.
My book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a specific blueprint for a practical solution that achieves our objectives and more. This is not science fiction, it is real-world problem-solving that will change the reality of public education for millions of American children and, in the process, will transform American society. It will also make the American dream an achievable reality for all people.
We will discover beyond a reasonable doubt that poverty is not the cause of the academic failure rather it is the other way around. Poverty is the outcome our current educational process is structured to create because it not only permits students to fail, it sets them up for failure.
We cannot continue churning out young adults and continue to grow the population of American men and women who lack the levels of literacy, numeracy, and other academic knowledge and skills necessary to be productive players in the American enterprise. We cannot accept the outcome in which young people are unable to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to make informed choices. These men and women do not believe in the American dream and they do not teach their children that a quality education is a ticket to that dream. Instead they live in poverty under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness and they bequeath the same tainted heritage to future generations of their offspring. This is untenable and unnecessary.
Our nation’s poor urban and rural communities are now full of several generations of Americans with a common experience. Whether white, black, or minorities of other ethnic heritage matters not. The longer a culture has been forced to endure the cycles of failure and poverty, however, the more likely they are to accept their circumstances with passive resignation. It has been engrained in them so deeply that few are able to envision anything different. If we cannot envision a better life for ourselves or our children, how can we create it?
The performance gap between white and black students is the most gaping because African-Americans have been forced to endure the equivalent of lower class citizenship for a hundred and fifty years and that does not include the centuries of slavery. In some respects, African-American culture has evolved in isolation from mainstream America and is very much separate and apart. The exceptions are those who, with the help of parents and teachers, have enjoyed academic success and have carved out a place for themselves as educated men and women in mainstream society. If they were to speak candidly, many highly educated African-American men and women who are successful professionals or who occupy high level positions would acknowledge that they often have a sense of being separate and apart from poor blacks in urban and rural America.
Poor and uneducated adult Americans have minimal trust in mainstream/white society and its promises. For them, the dream is a failed promise and it is no more real for their children. Breaking down that mistrust is incredibly challenging so it is vital that we have unveiled a new educational process and can demonstrate that it will work for their children. When the barriers have been overcome, black children are every bit as capable of high academic achievement as any other child. The success of so many African-Americans in venues up to and including the White House proves this beyond any reasonable doubt. When children and their parents begin to believe that our reinvented educational process will work for them, the motivation these role models provide will be more powerful and inspirational than they are now.
I urge the reader to take the time necessary to read my book and blog. Public education is, after all, an issue of such importance that we can afford to leave no stone unturned in search of a solution. What a bonus it will be if, when we solve the problems of public education, we learn that we have also set in motion the systematic abolition of poverty.
I offer one last caveat. There is a tendency to back off from sweeping systemic change and to latch onto bits and pieces of a newly designed proposal or system. This never works and is no more effective than the routine incremental changes that have failed public education for a century. What we have today is a product of that way of thinking. Systems are complex human organizations and/or processes with many interdependent people, parts, and forces. For a transformational change to work as envisioned, all of the components must support the system’s mission. When we only tinker with complex systems we inevitably discover that some components work at cross purposes with the mission. If educators are not forced out of their comfort zone they will be likely to slip back into old patterns of behavior. This must not be permitted. If we want better outcomes we must change the rules of the game and the manner in which the game is scored.
Everything starts with purpose or mission and in the case of public education the purpose is to help every child gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for them to have a full and productive life and to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship.
Next, we must identify the key components that create the absolute best chance that we can provide each and every child with that kind of educational experience.
1. We must perform an assessment of each child’s academic preparation;
2. We must develop an academic path tailored to his or her unique needs;
3. We must create an environment that fosters close personal relationships between students, teachers and parents as this gives each child the absolute best opportunity to be successful. We want each child to have the same type of special relationship with their teacher that many of us remember when we think back to our favorite teacher(s) and we want the parents to be an integral part of that special relationship;
4. This environment must be sustained and enduring, providing an environment in which students feel safe and secure and are able to develop strong, positive relationships with their peers for longer than a single school year;
5. During Kindergarten, first, and second grades we need to increase the resources dedicated to helping these youngsters lay a solid foundation for success and learning. Some kids start from way behind and we must do everything within our power to see that they progress from their unique starting point;
6. We must give each child the time and the patient instruction they need to begin moving down the unique academic path we have created for them at the best speed of which they are capable with the expectation that the minimum subject mastery score is 85 percent;
7. We must eliminate even the possibility of failure. We want an environment in which all children are allowed to progress at their own best speed. They must not be required to wait on those who learn more slowly and they must not be pressured to keep up with students who had a head start. If a child cannot demonstrate mastery on a given lesson then our job is not complete;
8. We must also provide teachers with clear expectations consistent with our new mission and we must equip them with tools and technology they will need to optimize their performance; and,
9. We must develop a performance management process that evaluates the performance of teachers against our expectations in a meaningful way and that can eventually obviate the need for high-stakes testing using competency examinations.
On the foundation of these core objectives we can construct a new educational process that will be structured to produce the outcomes we seek. In my book, I offer nineteen action strategies to create such an educational process. These illustrate exactly how this new educational process will be structured and how it will work. I then offer an additional 14 action items that are designed to take this message to the people and engage parents as full partners.
In addition to this white paper, I have attached a implementation plan for my model to illustrate how manageable would be its implementation. This educational model is an updated version of the model proposed in my book and is more focused on the classroom activities of teachers, students, and parents.
We must then reach out to organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advocacy on behalf of the poor, of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other minorities. With the assistance of these organizations, the intent is to take a new educational model to public school corporations that are struggling in the aftermath of the national movement to “reform public education.” These corporations will be offered the opportunity to test this new model in one or more of elementary schools in their district with the poorest records of performance. Once the performance of this model has been demonstrated and well-documented, we can begin rolling the model out in each and every public school in that school corporation and then throughout the U.S.
Only when this has been accomplished will we be prepared to meet the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges that the balance of the 21st Century will bring.