Quadrilateral Pegs through the Round Holes of Public Education

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how so many seem to be unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered in at least a half century and clearly has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that many consider me an outsider because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, making it easy for them to make light of my education model. My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your minds to a new idea.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. On my own I have been a student of leadership for over forty-five years and have written a book to share what I’ve learned about the power of positive leadership. Also, I have been a student “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

I have had an opportunity to both participate in and observe what happens in public school classrooms from the perspective of a substitute teacher over a period of ten years. I have worked with some of my communities most challenging children as a juvenile probation officer for the first nine years of my career. I have spent 30 years of my career in organizational leadership and consulting where I designed from scratch or reinvented service delivery and other processes to produce acceptable outcomes for the customers of my organizations or for my clients’ organizations. I have both taught and counseled CEOs, managers, and supervisors how to be effective positive leaders of their organizations and its people. I have been both the designer and instructor of multiple employee training programs.

What I have witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that has not been significantly altered since I started school in the fall of 1951.

If you can imagine, even for a moment, what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students on the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids are the future men and women who must be prepared to lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they are without the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These reformers and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve. As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools that are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We just need to change the way we teach these kids and the way we support both teachers and students as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes will be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting today’s transportation needs. It is the education process or system that is obsolete.

Over the past few years, I have worked to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level.

I am seeking a superintendent of a public-school district willing to test my education model in one of its underperforming elementary schools. You know the numbers and, therefore, that what you have been doing has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way. Why not consider a novel approach?

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with over 200 articles on public education on my blog. I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time. Are your students worth at least that much given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

We often blame poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why these children fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education we are the ones who discriminate. What we are doing has not worked for the last sixty-five years and it will not work for the next sixty-five years. When we let them fail we render them defenseless against discrimination.

Our goal must be to arm these young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

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