Differentiation is the most vital of the missing ingredients in public education in America and merits a serious discussion; a discussion that will follow this commentary in a subsequent post.
The way academic standards are written; the way curricula are designed to teach to those standards; and the way high-stakes testing is geared to measure performance against those standards and hold both teachers and schools accountable shape the function and character of the education process in America. The result is an education process structured like a conveyer belt that moves students from point to point down the list of academic standards without regard for the unique requirements, academic preparedness, strengths, weakness, and personalities of these children from five years of age to eighteen.
Teachers do the best they can to differentiate with respect to the diverse needs of their students. Because teachers are not encouraged to deviate from the curriculum, however, there are only so many exceptions even the most accomplished and innovative teachers can carve out of their daily lesson plan and classroom-management responsibilities. The more challenging the classroom the more difficult it becomes to personalize our approach and the more adverse the consequences of not doing so.
That so many of our public schools and their students seem unable to rise to these standards should prompt us to challenge the effectiveness of the education process and, probably, the academic standards, themselves. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, critics of public education have opted, instead, to question the effectiveness of public schools and their teachers rather than challenge the efficacy of the process within which our teachers are expected to teach.
If we were responsible for managing a production or assembly process that consistently fails to meet our expectations, most leaders would start by questioning the capability of their people. While our people are where our problem-solving effort should begin, however, its focus should not be poking fingers of blame rather it should strive to understand where the process impedes rather than supports the efforts of our people.
With rare exceptions, we are most likely to conclude that giving our workers more training and asking them to work harder will not help them overcome the challenges of a flawed process. The one thing my 45 years of leadership experience has taught me is that most people want to do a good job if we give them the support they need to do so. It is when they are unable to excel, no matter how hard they work, that they become discouraged and stop trying. Such workers, professional or blue collar, are very much like struggling students in underperforming schools.
Astute positive leaders do not hesitate to overhaul or completely reinvent a flawed process that produces disappointing outcomes and that discourages rather than serves their people. The impact of their decisive action is almost always transformative. In the private sector, that willingness to act is driven by the demands of customers. In the public sector, it is driven by our commitment to the people we serve and to those who do the work.
In response to the disappointing outcomes of many of our public schools, however, critics have been content to place the responsibility for those outcomes on the shoulders of our teachers. They seem unwilling to question the efficacy of the process. I believe this is because they don’t know any better.
By not vigorously disputing that teachers and schools are to blame, leaders of public education have issued a de facto invitation to private investors to compete for public dollars, as prospective educators, based on their assertion they can improve the quality of education simply by running their schools the way they run their businesses. That they rarely offer innovative education models, methodologies, and approaches should leave discerning Americans scratching their heads. We have allowed American school children to be treated like commodities.
We say American school children are our nation’s most precious assets and yet we funnel them, like livestock, through a sorting process that separates them by how well they negotiate the complex path we chart for them. It’s one thing to single out the best performers but to accept and, then, send low or non-performers out into the competitive pasture that is American society, unprepared for its rigors, makes no sense.
This suggests, to this observer, that education reformers, public officials, and many policy makers have written off low-performing public schools, their teachers, and students as lost causes, unworthy of our time and attention. Instead, we place our hopes on a solution that, purportedly, over an undefined period of years or even decades, will gradually draw enough students to its promise that our nation’s education system will be transformed. Has anyone contemplated the social cost of such unverified assertions?
Under the banner of “choice” the education reform movement has become a powerful political force. The very word, “choice,” plays on the emotions of Americans who have been conditioned to believe that consumerism and their idealized perception of a “free market system” are synonymous; that, indeed, consumerism is at the core of America’s greatness. Too many of us are oblivious to the fact that consumerism is driven, more, by the sophistication and appeal of innovative marketing campaigns than by the ability of producers of consumer products and services to deliver the goods.
It is interesting how this same phenomenon has become the primary driver of election outcomes. Elections are crucial to a participatory democracy and our leaders should be focused on instilling confidence in that process. Some leaders, however, are now casting doubt about the integrity of the election process. This is a dangerous strategy that poses a very real threat to our democratic principles. Democracy requires that people believe government serves the will of the people.
Think about how we go about choosing our elected officials. Successful election campaigns are driven less by thoughtful debates about cogent issues than by the effectiveness of a candidates fundraising strategies and marketing campaigns. Strategies that include brazen attacks on one’s opponents by the candidates, themselves, or by interest-based, political action groups have become the preferences of choice. Equally effective are shameless proselytizing of voters with sweeping promises and jingoistic platitudes.
Like consumerism, the American voter, inundated by voluminous rhetoric, must choose whom they are willing to believe. And, once one has chosen whom they wish to believe, otherwise intelligent men and women seem compelled, by some misplaced sense of loyalty, to believe every claim of their leaders. Call an opponent a crook at every opportunity and your followers will choose to believe, however scant the evidence and contrary to the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” That leaders who make such accusations will turn around and use that principle to defend their friends and supporters is the least subtle of ironies.
Could it be that the gullibility of an uninformed citizenry is a consequence of an ineffective education process? We will explore that question in our next post.