Education Model & White Paper
Below you will find, first, The Hawkins Model©, a reimagined education process that puts teachers and students first, independent of standards and practices; followed by a White Paper entitled, Breaking Down the Cycles of Failure and Poverty: Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin, which lays the foundation for the education 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
Original version published in 2013.
Current Version dated: April 2021.
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, the process is broken and must be reimagined. The education process in our public schools must be tasked, organized, staffed, and resourced in such a way 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 aspirations.
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 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.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to read Katie Martin’s wonderful book, Learner-Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius[i], where she put the perfect name to what I have labored to create in the The Hawkins Model©.
Dr. Martin talks about the need to create an “innovative ecosystem.” My model was designed to create a classroom structure to support innovation on the part of teachers and principals. Not all will be quick to transform a structured, traditional classroom setting into an innovative laboratory, as there are always first and last adapters. It has been my experience, however, in multiple venues, when you give intelligent people permission to imagine new and better ways of doing things, a setting that enables development of those ideas, the resources to implement them, and put your faith and trust in them, meaningful change is inevitable.
Think of a garden plot that has lain fallow for years. Deep within its dry and barren soil, the seeds of beautiful flowers lay dormant. It is only a matter of time before water, nutrients, and proper cultivating leads to germination. Think of traditional American classrooms and their teachers and replace the word “soil” with “soul” and one can begin to imagine how the first blossoms of innovation will emerge.
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 this model will stimulate your imagination and open your hearts and minds, not only to the deficiencies of the existing education process but also to the limitless possibilities of a model created for you.
My model has been titled, the 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 Spring, with the working title, The Hawkins Model: 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 eight years. While I believe the original book is worth a reader’s time and consideration, I have discovered many interesting 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.
A question often asked of me is “What qualifies me to tell teachers how to teach?” The first answer is “I am not telling teachers how to teach. What I am proposing is a model/process that will enable teachers and give them more latitude to respond to the unique needs, unimpeded by arbitrary rules, calendars, and schedules. The second answer is thirty-plus years of organizational and leadership development, and consulting experience, seeking innovative solutions to service delivery and productions processes.
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 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 many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher(s), almost always give their best effort and this 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 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 “what 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 existing education 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, ready or not; 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 level 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 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 ensure 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.
To accomplish this objective, we must alter the way we think of and utilize time. We must change time from a constant to an independent variable. Time must be a resource we can make available to students in whatever quantity he or she requires. The expectation must be that educators keep working with the students until each 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 in the real world, 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 where 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 how we teach. We must teach more than academic subject matter and we must teach to the whole child. We want to teach applied academics—how to use what students learn in the real world. We want to teach them how to think creatively; how to solve problems; how to communicate effectively using all forms of expression; and, how to work together with other people both individually and as members of a team or group.
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, practice the principles of democracy, and to respect the rights and beliefs of all human beings. 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, and the quality of their relationships with teachers. 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. 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 an aircraft engineer uses to design the cockpit to support and enable every function pilots might be called upon to perform.
An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them 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 good and bad.
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 must learn mistakes are learning opportunities and they should never give up on themselves.
- Success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of classmates.
- We will strive for subject mastery and the threshold for mastery on various forms of assessment is the equivalent of 85 percent.
- 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 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 Students Need to Learn?
Let us summarize all the things children need if they are to learn:
- A nurturing 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 and within the context of an education process, to leading edge methodologies, approaches, and technologies; from STEM to stern.
- Our patient time and attention, utilizing time as an independent variable the quantity of which teachers have discretion to adjust to meet a student’s unique requirements.
- 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 success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way based on what they learn from experience,
- To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win.
- High-performing students must be given the freedom to push ahead and explore the secrets of life, of human beings and of society.
As educators, we must understand 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 to test the model and, also, by soliciting the support of local advocacy groups representing people residing in each school’s boundaries. We stress our focus on public schools because public schools are the only entities built to serve every student in their districts. When something works in public education, it will find its way into private, parochial, and charter schools but the converse is not always 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 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 them.
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 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 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 of existing classrooms might be nice, they are not essential.
Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for many years, 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 nowhere 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 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 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, given the insertion of a substitute or replacement.
Step 7- Optimizing Teaching Staff
Our objective is to optimize our faculties because teachers are our most crucial resource and an essential variable in the education equation. For many school districts and corporations, most of which must operate with less than adequate budgets, adding teachers will present a financial challenge. For most, sacrifices may need to be made and grants may need to be sought.
Schools that utilize teacher’s aides in elementary classrooms, for example, may want to consider re-allocating funds spent on aides to create a full complement of fully certified teachers. Often, employee costs for every two aides could be exchanged for one additional teacher. If a school district can accomplish this objective without sacrificing the jobs of these dedicated men and women, that is wonderful. Otherwise, if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose, however capable they may be. We repeat our assertion, qualified teachers are an essential variable. We dare not spend so much as a single dollar on resources that do not serve our purpose.
Like the practice of medicine, teaching is an uncertain science in which the difference maker is often a professional man or woman’s wisdom and judgment. 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. The primary purpose of this model is to place teachers and their students, in a position to be successful; in a position to practice their craft, relentlessly. This is non-negotiable.
Step 8 – Duration and Stability
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 “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. Far too often, some students are never able to benefit from such special relationships.
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 adapted for students moving from the elementary/primary phase to the middle school and high school phases.
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 children 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 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 an opportunity to intervene, if there are younger children in the home, to help insure 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
We need to select an appropriate assessment process 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 take them from their unique starting point and help meet each student’s unique requirements.
We know the disparity with respect to academic preparedness of students spans the full spectrum. We also know children have different learning styles. What policymakers, administrators, and teachers must do is to recognize 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, our concern is the expectation students will arrive at the same place at the end of a school year. Given that students have different starting points, learn at a unique pace, and are headed for more than just one destination, such expectations set millions of kids up for failure. Learning must never be sacrificed to honor arbitrary schedules or calendars and time must never be a scarce resource.
When innovative approaches to teaching children using experiential learning and other methodologies are integrated with what we do in the existing education process, such insertions can create friction, which adds unnecessary levels of complexity. This can lead to disconnections between academic standards and what kids truly need. Education leaders and policy makers must begin to re-evaluate the efficacy of existing academic standards.
Most of us would agree 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 remain essential. Our challenge is to prepare children for life, not test-taking, and this demands new and better ways to help kids learn by doing. Critical skills such as creative thinking, communication, teamwork, 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 help them assume ever greater responsibility for their own growth and development. As their interests and aptitudes evolve, students 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 practice and learn from their mistakes.
- Incessant feedback, help, and encouragement beyond grades in a teacher’s gradebook.
- 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. An equivalent level of mastery must be adapted for the many experiential projects we might choose to utilize.
- The expectation must be 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 will be scheduled in 6 to 8 weeks.
When a 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 each subject area, in possession of the necessary pre-requisite knowledge and skill. It is envisioned such formal documentation will, someday, replace the need for standardized competency exams given once a year. It is also true children who have learned how to use what they have learned on future lessons, or in life, their level of mastery on pre-requisite knowledge will continue to advance.
When we talk about assessments, we are talking about much more than quizzes and classroom tests or Mastery Assessments, and Verification Mastery Assessments. There can be as many more forms of assessment as our imaginations can give us. We encourage teachers and administrators to collaborate on innovative ways to assess comprehension of subject matter, however presented. The more we can simulate real-world scenarios the more meaningful will be the benefit. We are striving to teach applied academics which is much more than a student’s ability to regurgitate lessons learned. We are seeking sustained knowledge and skills.
Story problems are a great example of how skills can be utilized to solve real-world problems, instead of just working formulas and equations. Imagine how we can used story problems as a springboard to a newer, higher, and more effective ways to assess comprehension and retention.
One of our Twitter colleagues, @nkgalpal, reminded us 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 one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. This suggests 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 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; cheering for and supporting their classmates; and shared celebration of success. 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.
Step 12 – 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, too often, they are sacrificed in challenging environments and situations, particularly in our era of high-stakes testing.
We suggest these things are interdependent. Think of subject matter mastery as laying a foundation upon which character, genius, and individuality will be constructed. An individual’s ability to explore and create is a function of fundamental knowledge and skill sets.
Step 13 – 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. The value of technology, like all other assets, is determined by their utility to human beings. This education model is premised upon the primacy of teachers in the education equation, and on the primacy of relationships. 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 available for teachers and students but many of them are specialized to an extent 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 as many classroom management responsibilities as possible, so their time can be devoted to relationship building and teaching. These types of products are used in many large companies across a range of operational settings. With ERP in place, the ability of schools to integrate subject-matter specific applications will be enhanced.
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 help develop the full capability of their product and 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 and integrate digital resources that are specific to subject matter,
- Help teachers and students through lesson presentations or experiential projects,
- Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative,
- Permit teacher to enter qualitative assessments of performance,
- Identify areas where students need more review and practice,
- Signal readiness for Mastery Assessments,
- Record the results of quizzes and assignments, when appropriate, 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 Assessment or otherwise document mastery,
- Make this documentation 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 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 14 – No Failure and No Waiting
Students must be moved on from one success to another, whether mastering subject matter from their teacher and classroom’s curricula or subject areas identified by state standards. When a student has been participating in any of wide range of experiential projects, they must be able to demonstrate a sufficient level of mastery to earn their teachers’ confidence in their ability to use the knowledge, skills, experience, and wisdom on future lessons and assignments, and in the real world. The goal must always be to lay a solid foundation of pre-requisite knowledge on which students can build a foundation for future learning.
This illustrates the importance of time as a variable resource. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated 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.
We are striving to encourage kids to keep trying and not give up. They must learn success is possible with determination and persistence. Our purpose is to help kids learn the process of success, doing our best not to make them feel pressure to perform and, more importantly, to experience the humiliation of failure. Nothing motivates students, or any of the rest of us, more than success. One of the benefits of team teaching is our ability to have other members of the team to share responsibility when progress appears to have stalled.
Our definition of “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 comprehend. 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 unsatisfactory grades in their books. This type of failure not only deprives children of an opportunity to experience success it robs them of the prerequisite knowledge and skills they will need to be successful on subsequent lessons, and to live productive and meaningful lives.
The ultimate mission of education is to put the fun back in learning and teaching. If all we ever do is lose when playing a game, it is only a matter of time until we avoid playing. Teacher are asked to look at your grade books to see how many students experience and celebrate success in your classroom and how often. Whatever you find in their gradebooks, remember, it is not your fault, rather it is a consequence of an education process grown dysfunctional to the point of obsolescence.
Educators are challenged to understand one of the single greatest flaws in education, both public and private, is its acceptance of failure on the part of so many of our students, and how seldom they get opportunities to celebrate their success. Nothing destroys motivation to learn and creates an atmosphere of hopelessness as much as repeated failure. That we permit children to fail is unconscionable and inexcusable.
Children must be able to use what they have learned in “real-life” situations. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)[ii] 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.”
Anything less than proficient is unacceptable and that includes “approaching proficient.” Approaching proficient 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 15 – the Arts and Exercise
`We 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 16 – 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.
Students will be expected to pass not only a Mastery Assessment (MA) with an equivalent score of 85 percent or better on subject matter lessons or experiential projects before moving on to subsequent lessons, but also a Verification Master Assessment (VMA) administered to students 6 to 8 weeks after passing the MA. Parameters for mastery verification on experiential projects must defined as part of the project design. The purpose of the VMA is to determine whether students have retained what they have learned and are able to utilize the knowledge and skills in real life situations. This can best be measured by determining the percentage of students who pass their VMA 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 VMAs, signaling that they were not ready. While we want to minimize such occurrences, teachers will not suffer consequences. Learning that students are struggling and taking steps to help them learn is an important part of the process of success. It is when we do not know our students are struggling that problems reveal themselves. We must ensure that “pace of learning” does not replace “comprehension” as the objective of teachers or the education process. The failure of a VMA by a student is nothing more than an opportunity for teachers and students to learn from their disappointing outcomes and signal the need for more time.
Step 17 – High Stakes Testing
The performance of teachers will not be evaluated on 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. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them, however. 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 18 – 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 as they happen. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind there are no perfect systems or processes, but the best and most successful allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.
Step 19 – 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 unable to deliver the outcomes we want because many components work at cross purposes with the mission.
We are striving to create an environment in which the fact 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 one child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her peers. Once children learn, they all derive benefit from the knowledge gained.
Step 20 – The Power of Positive Leadership
As with any human endeavor, positive leadership is crucial. Administrators, whether superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, or assistant principals, must be trained to be more than administrators. They must be powerful positive leaders who understand their success is a function of both their ability to keep their organizations focused on purpose and on the quality of leadership they provide to their people. The bottom line is 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.
Positive leaders must strive to forge the same quality of relations with their teachers, as teachers are expected to forge with their students. Leaders are not cops looking for wrongdoing, although they must be prepared to respond to it. Their purpose must be to empower, teach, facilitate, support, and affirm, always striving to make teachers feel important.
Education departments in our colleges and universities must ensure the study of positive leadership is a core component in the education of school administrators, at every level. We must view them as leaders, not administrators.
Step 21 – Special Needs
At any time 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 believe 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 opportunity and if they feel safe, secure, and cared about. 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 and will create long-term harm for both our children and our society.
Once a school district becomes satisfied 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 capability and 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
Copyright, April, 2021
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, and what we are learning about the associated risks; a crumbling infrastructure; a more competitive world marketplace; a fragile ecosystem; and a far more complex political environment place intense pressure on a democratic form of government.
Democracy depends on our public schools to prepare our young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive members of society and this must be the focus of our schools. 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.
To alter this reality, we must start by clarifying the purpose of public education in America. As simply as we can state that purpose, we must help all children, not just a fortunate few, 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 can enter adulthood with a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives to find happiness and meaning. We also want them to be able to create value and add wealth to society, as well as for themselves, and be able to carry out their civic responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy.
For this to be possible, they must possess sufficient understanding of the complex issues facing our society to make thoughtful decisions. Think about how many Americans are willing to exchange mainstream, factual news reporting for news that tells them what they want to hear and for conspiracy theories portraying citizens who disagree with them as enemies. What about citizens who evidence minimal understanding of the way a democratic government is designed to work and want their government to represent their interests but not the interests of people with whom they disagree. And there are so many Americans who seem willing to reject science, whether environmental science, the science of infectious diseases, and any other science asking them to change their behavior for the betterment of society. These men and women are unwilling to relinquish what they believe to be their constitutional rights. Do they not understand rights must be balanced by responsibility?
We want the education our young people receive to be well-rounded and focused on applied academics to include language arts and mathematics skills; a solid understanding of the natural world (science); a grasp of history in hopes 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. Students must be able to problem-solve, be creative, and think exponentially (outside the box). We need to teach them diversity is our greatest strength as a nation and has always been a characteristic that sets us apart.
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 these things amid the hatred some people have for others and despite the horrific 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 number 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 Americans is their desire to cut off those who depend on government assistance. The problem, of course, is 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 help these folks re-engage and become full participants in American enterprise. We need “all hands, on deck.” Conservatives must understand that the health of their futures are at risk if we force segments of our population to remain dependent. The best way to protect one’s own rights is to protect the rights of others.
We must also recognize 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 about 60 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 illegals be returned to their home nations. Is it possible the motivation for restricting voting rights and giving the states the power to overturn elections is to preserve the vested interests of a few rather than the interest of all?
If we are committed to the preservation of the great American democracy, we must not allow the interests of the American people to be subverted by special interest groups with their elitist agendas. 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 this demands an American education system and process 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, over the past ten years, is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America and the educational process at work within the system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization,[iii] 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 many 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 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 begin creating a whole new generation. They congregate in these poor communities because they have few opportunities and nowhere else to go except for our jails and prisons.
Through the utilization of the tools of systems thinking, the application of the principles governing organizations, and the principles of “positive leadership[iv]” 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. We need a process that enables and empowers our teachers to develop their craft and have discretion to respond to the unique needs of their students, individually or as a classroom.
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 to the public schools and teachers on whom so much depends. It is as if these reformers never consider they might be wrong.
Although some charter schools do well for their students, many others do not. Micro schools are another intriguing innovation that does well for its students. Micro schools suffer from the same limitation as charter schools, however, as it would take decades for their proponents to establish enough charter or micro schools to serve all our nation’s 50 million school-age, children, including the disadvantaged. Think of such schools as lifeboats but with insufficient capacity to rescue all school-age children in the U.S. who struggle to survive in dangerous waters. We need bigger and fully inclusive lifeboats. All schools doing good work for their students are encouraged to continue with their important work. To serve fifty million or more school-aged children in the U.S., however, we must provide public education with a process that works and can be adapted meet the unique requirements of all students, in all communities, and in all of our public and parochial school corporations. This is the purpose for which The Hawkins Model© was created.
The reform movement is correct, however, about the need to apply proven business principles but education in America will not benefit from the principles that come from the boardrooms with their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The business principles on which The Hawkins Model© relies are the operational principles. These principles have to do with things like clarifying and selling mission and purpose, 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, and to their teachers.
Reforms of the last two decades have attacked them to such a degree, our teachers’ defensiveness is understandable but that does not make their intransigence defensible. We need fresh insight into this vital issue, including insights from teachers. 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 my blog, Education, Hope, and The American Dream, 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 it has been eight years from the time my book was released and ten years since the writing commenced. In the intervening years I have learned a great deal from many of the wonderful, professional educators with whom I have spoken and interacted with on social media. I am working on a new book that will incorporate what I have learned and change those things I no longer believe to be true. In the interim, I have offered over 250 articles on the challenges facing publication and the things we can do in the above referenced blog.
I also ask 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 separating the haves and the have nots. We believe, also, putting teachers in a position to be successful will restore them to the level of esteem they have earned.
Reimagining the American Educational Process at Work in our 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 or 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. This is not because of anything they have done rather it is because traditions of the existing education process and the prejudices that detract from society.
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 a few exceptions we will soon discuss, these parents and guardians no longer teach their children education is a ticket to the American dream, nor do they make sacrifices to help their kids prepare 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 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. Fifty years ago, when I was a juvenile probation officer, I sat across many a table sharing coffee with mothers and grandmothers whose biggest concern was that their children were not treated fairly and were not given the support they needed to learn. Not much has changed. 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 to fix what they believe to be 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 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—something the application of system’s thinking will reveal.
The rest of us nod our heads in bewildered agreement because what else could it be? The fact this population of the poor and the uneducated is disproportionately black or other minorities is declared to be a consequence of poverty and of segregation and discrimination. Sadly, an embarrassingly large segment of mainstream America, a society still scourged by the enmity and resentment of racism, believe 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 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, 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 have become angrier as they find more and more doors of opportunity closed to them and to their children. 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. What they fail to understand is there are some things to which all human beings are entitled, regardless of the color of their skin or the language of their birth.
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 on the part of some Americans for a more authoritarian style of leadership, a phenomenon that has been studied by such people as Professors Marc J. Hetherington at Vanderbilt University and Jonathon Weiler at the University of North Carolina.
It is just such a desire for an authoritarian solution that led the American people to elect Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States. President Trump and his disciples have evidenced a clear intent to seize more power, destroy our faith in our institutions, including our foundational right to free elections for all citizens. That administration went further down the path to autocracy when they sought to overturn 2020’s certified election results with the full support of all but a few Republican members of Congress. That a President and his followers actually considered the invocation of martial law. President Donald Trump has, also, worked hard to makeover the Republican Party, with him as its undisputed head. In the process, President Trump has further divided and already polarized Congress.
It is within this context the battle for the future of public education is being fought. We have businessmen and women, with incredible wealth, who have generously pledged huge chunks of their personal fortunes to reform education in America. These advocates in both government and in the private sector, promote their reforms, under the banner of “School Choice,” are tired of waiting for professional educators to “clean up their act.” They 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 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 schools unable to improve their performance on such exams 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 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 appears to be clear picture of intent “to help the families they 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 provide opportunities.
We seem to have lost sight of the original vision with respect to charter schools which was they 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 do little more than replicate the traditional educational process, it should come as no surprise that not all charters are outperforming their public-school counterparts and that some are under-performing. The list of meaningful innovations that might work in public schools is not long. Meanwhile, the resulting loss of revenue is having a devastating effect on the public schools from which voucher students transfer.
At a gathering of teachers a few years ago, in Washington D.C. a teacher, well-respected by his peers, said and I am paraphrasing, here, “his job is not to provide a stream of automatons to work in their corporations.” As a former corporate leader, I can attest that automatons are the last thing the private sector, the military services, the public sector, health care, and even the field of education are looking for. What these sectors want are men and women who are creative and can think exponentially, who can problem solve, and who take pride in doing the best job of which they are capable and are willing to take responsibility for getting the job done and for responding to the needs and concerns of their customers. I urge the reader to consider these kinds of applicants are not what employers are getting from our high schools and colleges and universities and this creates an elevated level of discontent with public education.
The mission and purpose of our teachers and schools must be to prepare young people to find success and to be able to earn a living somewhere in the realm of American enterprise; second, to help employers in all venues get people with the highest possible quality education to help them serve their customers or constituents. Educators must come to embrace the idea their customer base extends well beyond their students. If they have unsatisfied customers, they must be prepared to rethink their purpose and what they are doing as has every other successful profit or not-for-profit since their inception.
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 some of these corporate reformers and their conservative political supporters are against unions, irrespective of venue. The best way for teachers’ unions and association to defend themselves from the attacks of reformers would be to take the lead in seeking meaningful reforms of the American education process. They must become powerful advocate for something new.
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 they do not 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, 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 before many students are ready. Teachers know the educational process is flawed every time they record Ds and Fs 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. What teachers complain about in the faculty lounge or at association and union gatherings are the exact same problems I am addressing.
One can only wonder how the people in an educational system that fails so many of its students can consider what they do 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 our students have demonstrated their inability 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 the whole of society. Educators also point to the re-segregation of our poor urban and rural public schools as a causal factor. Despite poverty and other challenges, these educators insist that our public schools are better than they have ever been. This might be true of teachers, but it is not true of the education process that is supposed to support them. .
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 the only way black and other minority 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.
We need to address the assertion that neither our government nor our society has done anything to address the problems of poverty. History illustrates they have done much but it does not yet, nor is it likely to produce the results we seek, if we keep asking our teachers to do what they have been doing in our schools. Over the last fifty or more years, taxpayers have invested trillions of dollars to build public school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., and to staff those schools with teachers and administrators trained in our best colleges and universities. These professional men and women do their best working within an education process that is neither designed nor structured to produce the outcomes we seek no matter how dedicated teachers may be or how hard they work.
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. The success of high-achieving students does alter the reality that such students represent a minority of our nation’s children. The fact is, we can start today to create an educational process that assures disadvantaged kids will get the time and extra attention they require to learn, along with every other student. They all count, or no one counts.
The truth about the generations of the uneducated who live in poverty is 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 being the cause of the challenges in public education, poverty is, in fact, an outcome of the crisis in our schools. 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 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 despite 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. With this knowledge, we are in position 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, grandparent, 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 accomplished adults owe everything to a parent or guardian and teachers who, working in partnership, refused to let them fail.
These parents and guardians are fiercely determined their child is going to learn, and they do whatever it takes to help. They make sure their child is prepared academically; is motivated to learn; and works hard. Unfortunately, these parents are the exception to the rule, but this 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 child’s teachers, their power and that of the teachers is magnified. Amazing success follows.
What this means for educational reform is, somehow, we must find a way to convince parents 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 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 maelstrom 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 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 their child will not be subjected to the cycle of failure; something they know well from their own school experience.
School districts must make a special effort to involve advocacy groups in their targeted school districts and communities. The importance of gaining support from these organizations cannot be overstated. We must, also, reach out to national advocacy organizations and associations.
It is imperative we understand 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. Once again, this is not the blame of teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes. What we need from teachers is the next level of heroism, their dedicated advocacy for a new idea. Nothing else will produce the success we seek.
We turn, now, to the educational process at work in schools, public, parochial, and private, throughout the U.S.; first to understand and then to figure out what must be done. What is it about an existing education process that is having such a devastating effect on so many of our nation’s most vulnerable children and is driving teachers from the profession they joined with such hope and dedication, both placing our society at risk? We need to think about what happens, today in 2021, in elementary schools throughout the nation. It is elementary school that prepares children to meet the challenges and expectations of middle and high school.
The disparity in academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support of 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 other types of recognized disability. The negative impact is probably greater for the children with “academic preparedness impairments” because these other disabilities are not always accompanied by elevated 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 while teaching in a process that impedes the work they do. Very often, these children come from low-income families and live under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness. Many but not all 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 their best for these students within the context of the current educational process and its associated expectations. Teachers recognize many children are faltering, and they reach back to help as much as time permits. What we must understand is the educational process is not structured in such a way that helping disadvantaged kids is a priority or even an expectation and this is not activity against which our teachers’ performance will be measured. Teachers cannot invest time they do not have.
The primary focus of the existing educational process, rather, is on preparing the whole class to keep pace with arbitrary time constraints and for the standardized competency exams looming in the 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 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 there is a certain percentage of failure 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 poverty and discrimination that contribute to the failure of so many children. If we stop to 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? Education was never meant to be a competition rather it is preparation to help young men and women compete in the real world.
Although we possess the tools and expertise with which to perform comprehensive assessments of the extent of a child’s disadvantage, when they report for their first day of school, how many schools do this? Had we tried 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. What we need is an education model designed to enable and support teachers in their essential work.
While we could make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children with an academic- preparedness deficiency, by performing such assessments and creating tailored instructional plans, even this is insufficient if we do not 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 the child will be successful on future lessons. As this pattern plays out, the one lesson kids are learning is they are not able to keep up with their classmates. In such an environment, how can we not expect these kids to give up on themselves? Most of us would choose to do the same after a long tradition of failure.
Sometime around the year 2007, I had an epiphany. I began subbing for Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2002. For the first few 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.
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 produces unacceptable outcomes. What I learned from my experiences is 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 this vignette, here:
Vignette #1 – Fort Wayne, IN – Middle school Math – Substitute Teacher
It is not very often that a substitute teacher is able to actually 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 like the problems the teacher had included on the several worksheets on which we had been working. This teacher went to great lengths to ensure his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had 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 a classmate without being seen.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, my expectations were high, believing the students would do well on the quiz. To my surprise and disappointment, the results revealed 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 of the eight 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 this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. My hope was 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, and ten scored above 95 percent. Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude 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. We will 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 tried something different, the scores from the first quiz would have been recorded in the teacher’s gradebook and I would have moved the class on to the next lesson. 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 and only a few question the wisdom of what they are expected to do.
The question that kept nagging at me was, how would the 64 students who had received Ds and Fs on the first quiz 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, 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, they stop trying?” Of how much prerequisite knowledge had these students been deprived? 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 significant 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 most 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. The counterpoint is that most of the six students who earned a B on the first quiz benefited from the extra time and opportunity, having earned an A on the second quiz, likely better prepared for subsequent lessons.
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? I believe the extra time for these students allowed them to move forward with a higher level of confidence, thus a higher probability of success. In my mind, the benefit of this boost in confidence far outweighed value of the time lost.
It was at this point when I realized an educational process is a logical construct, much like the many operational processes I had seen and worked in throughout my career. It seemed apparent to me the logic of the current education process is flawed, and unable to produce the outcomes we seek just like so many I had worked and consulted on.
Despite 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 each student’s progress on a unique educational path, rather based on how an entire population of children of the same age perform when measured against state academic standards for children of that age.
In Indiana, up until 2020, we tested kids beginning in the second semester of the third grade, and then multiple grades thereafter, until high school, using ISTEP+, up until then 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 arrive at your door 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 opportunity for success? What if we exchanged teachers in those two classrooms? Would it be reasonable to expect better outcomes all around? Our objective, for every lesson, must be to ensure our students master the prerequisite knowledge they will need be successful on subsequent lesson modules, and will be well-prepared for new subject matter, and for life as an adult. With such an approach. and without the impediments of the process, all teachers would prove effective, and their students would learn.
This is the reality of the American educational process for teachers and students in schools, both public, parochial, and many 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 each states’ academic 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, particularly in earlier grades, the older students get and the further they have fallen behind, the more problematic effective teaching becomes.
Competency exams looming 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 at an acceptable pace, is nothing short of relentless.
The fact that a great variance exists with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support is given little or 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 administrations. Although they strive to give each student as much time and attention as possible, patience and discretion are luxuries not often available to teachers. The time allotted for help and review is usually sufficient for small numbers of students with a few mistakes, but it is never enough for students who made many, or for classrooms in which struggling students are the majority.
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. If we think learning is difficult, now, imagine how much more difficult teaching will be when students look into a mirror and see a C, D, or F student looking back at them.
Very often, the next lesson requires students to 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 sufficient level of mastery to utilize that knowledge “in real world situations,” which includes subsequent lesson modules and competence examinations, not to mention life as an adult.
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. Teachers often ask what they can do to change this reality. The answer, of course, is no one knows what is happening better than teachers , thus it is incumbent on teachers to speak out.
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, 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 discretion 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. Think about the consequences had they not given those kids the time they need. At the very least it would be unfortunate. If the same thing happened in the classroom, the consequence could well be horrific.
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 require. Learning quickly, or at least as quickly as one’s classmates, has become more important than whether a student has learned. Is it any wonder kids give up on learning, stop trying, and begin acting out, simply because they were permitted to fail?
This is the reality for most students who struggle and often fail, every day and in every classroom 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 our students, their families, their teachers, and our nation. That kids 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 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 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 on 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 it the students and their teachers, 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 administered the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), part time, in Fort Wayne, Indiana from 2005 to early 2019. My unofficial data reveals, over a ten-month period, approximately 30 percent of prospective enlistees were unable to achieve the minimum score of 31 out of a possible 99 points. Consider, also, only individuals who post a score of 50 or higher are considered, by the military, to be desirable candidates and eligible for enlistment incentives.
Of the 340 men and women who took the ASVAB during a stretch when I recorded results, 181 (53 percent) were unable to achieve a score of 50 needed to be viewed as a “desirable candidate” even though over one hundred of them achieved the minimum score for eligibility. These young adults come from high schools throughout NE Indiana, with the majority coming from the four public school districts in Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana. They are predominantly high school seniors and recent graduates. It seems reasonable to conclude young adults who are 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. An interesting side note, in 2019, the ASVAB was declared to be an alternate pathway to graduation and was administered multiple times in many high schools throughout the state. This came to a halt when Covid 19 reared its savage head.
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, public school districts 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 an academic preparedness 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 such families 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 the process of success; that they can learn, that learning can be fun, and success will be celebrated. As the child moves along the path, one success at a time, the speed with which they learn will gradually accelerate. Our job is simply to help them get as far down their unique academic path as they can go, while 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 they initially respond to our overtures or not. Gradually, most parents will begin responding when they see or hear their child is making progress; when they begin to see evidence of that progress in the eyes, hearts, minds, and behavior. 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 along each student’s unique academic path. The second benchmark should be applied at strategic points along the way and, 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. 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 reach strategic points along the way and when students graduate from high school is, “based on 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 often amounts to no choice at all. The whole point of an education is to ensure 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.
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? Do we want kids to learn that success is process not a destination? Or do we want a system in which we are 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, the process is flawed and must be replaced or reimagined.
Do we want a process that allows children to enter adulthood without the knowledge and skills they will need to accept the responsibilities of citizenship? The standard should be that every child is expected to achieve a level of mastery that is an equivalent to least 85 percent on every lesson module and that no child should be allowed to fail no matter how long it takes. We are teaching children not classrooms. 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, however, we challenge our assumptions, alter those expectations to match our newly identified objectives, and restructure the educational process to support those expectations, 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 books, whether published in 2013 or the one to be released in 2021, offer 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 make the American dream an achievable reality for all people.
We will discover, beyond a reasonable doubt, poverty is not the cause of the academic failure rather it is the other way around. Poverty is the one of the unfortunate outcomes our current educational process is structured to create.
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. So many 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. 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, the more likely its people are to accept their circumstances with passive resignation. It has been engrained in them so deeply, 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 black 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 black men and women who are successful professionals or who occupy high-level positions would acknowledge they often have a sense of being separate and apart from poor blacks in urban and rural America.
Poor and poorly educated adult Americans, white or of color 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. The rising number of hate crimes only increases the sense of isolation as does legislation passed to restrict voting rights. That some Americans also support legislation forbidding anyone from providing refreshment to people waiting in line to exercise their Constitutional right to vote is shameful and validates a man or woman’s feeling of not being valued by society.
Breaking down the mistrust our nation is creating is incredibly challenging, thus it is vital we unveil a new educational process and can demonstrate it will work for their children. When the barriers have been overcome, minority children are every bit as capable of high academic achievement as any other child. The success of so many accomplished Americans of color in venues up to and including the American presidency and vice-presidency, proves this beyond any reasonable doubt. When children and their parents begin to believe our reimagined educational process will work for them, the motivation these role models provide to their children will be more powerful and inspirational than they have ever been.
I urge the reader to take the time necessary to read my white paper and education model and my blog. Education, Hope, and the American Dream, at httpswww.melhawkinsandassociates.com, and to look forward to my upcoming book, The Hawkins Model: Reimagining Education, One Success at a Time. Public education is, after all, an issue of such importance we cannot afford to leave a single 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 the poverty and racism that place the future of America at risk.
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 components must support the system’s mission. When we only tinker with complex systems, we will discover some components work at cross purposes with the mission. It is so easy for human beings to slip back into old patterns of behavior. As we have said many times, this must not be permitted. If we want better outcomes, we must change the rules of the game and the way the game is scored.
Everything starts with purpose/mission and, in the case of public education, the purpose is to help every child gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed 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 of providing every child with that kind of educational experience.
- We must perform an assessment of each child’s academic preparation when they arrive for their first day of school.
- We must develop an academic path tailored to his or her unique requirements.
- We must create an environment that fosters close personal relationships between students and teachers and between 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 recall when we think back to our favorite teacher(s) and we want the parents to be an integral part of that special relationship.
- This environment must be sustained and enduring, providing a place where students feel safe and secure and are able to develop strong, positive relationships with their peers for longer than a single school year.
- 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 behind and we must do everything within our power to ensure they progress from their unique starting point.
- 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 and with the expectation that the minimum subject mastery, however measured and whatever and however we teach, is equivalent to 85 percent.
- We must eliminate even the possibility of failure. We want an environment in which all children progress at their own best speed. They must not be required to wait on those who learn more slowly or be pressured to keep up with students who had a head start. If a child cannot demonstrate mastery on a given lesson, our job is not finished, and we must give them more time to practice and learn. We do more than teach subject matter out of book. We want them to have as much time as possible on creative and experiential learning projects that are hands-on.
- We must provide teachers with clear expectations consistent with our new mission and we must equip them with whatever tools and technology they will need to optimize the performance of their students.
- We must develop a performance management process that evaluates the performance of teachers against our expectations in a meaningful way and will, someday, render high stakes testing irrelevant.
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 upcoming book, I offer twenty-one action strategies to create such an educational process. These illustrate exactly how this new educational process will be structured and how it will work.
In addition to this white paper, I have attached an implementation plan for The Hawkins Model© to illustrate how manageable would be its implementation. This educational model has been updated, periodically, to include much of what I have learned from educators. The original version was presented in my book in 2013, focused on the classroom activities of teachers, students, and parents. What follows is the latest version.
We must, then, reach out to organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advocacy on behalf of the poor, of black 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 struggling in the aftermath of the national movement to “reform public education.” These school corporations will be offered the opportunity to test this new model in one or more of the 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 every school throughout the U.S.
The Covid Pandemic may offer a perfect window of opportunity to accomplish our objective. Below we will illustrate how The Hawkins Model© will make it possible for students to take ownership of their own futures and how teachers can practice their craft for the benefit of all, to help address extraordinary and unprecedented challenges the balance of the 21st Century will bring.
[i] Martin, Katie, Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius, Impress, 2018
[iii] Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, Doubleday, 2006
[iv] Hawkins, Mel, The Difference is You: Power through Positive Leadership, CreateSpace, 2013