Excerpt #9 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream – The Introduction

The True Challenge

This author suggests that the two major problems in education are 1) the level of motivation of the students and the corresponding commitment of their parents. It takes exceptional teachers to overcome the lack of student motivation and parental commitment, and 2) an educational process that is obsolete and poorly designed to meet the needs of students and to place teachers in a position to be teach effectively.

Bringing about the necessary cultural transformation and returning education to the top of the American priority list is a formidable but not impossible challenge. Public education is the single most important issue on the American agenda and we must declare it as such. This is an issue on which our entire future depends. It is my sincere belief that if we do not turn this situation around, in fifty years, China will be coming to the United States for its supply of cheap labor.

What differentiates this book from the many others that have been written about education in the U.S. is 1) that its focus is outward on the growing cultural disdain for education; 2) that it is focused on taking action by proactively engaging parents as full partners in the educational process; and, 3) that the specific educational reforms it proposes are the result of a systems-thinking approach that challenges our conventional wisdom and traditions.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream has been written from the perspective of an organizational leadership consultant rather than that of a social scientist or professional educator. I am convinced that we must take a pragmatic business approach if we are to effectively address the problems plaguing public education, which, not coincidentally, are the same problems that plague our society as a whole. If we can fix education we will also, to one degree or another, be addressing poverty, hopelessness, drugs, gangs, violence, and the very roots of our socio-economic foundation.

This project was motivated not only by my experiences as a substitute teacher in a public school system but also as a result of my experiences as a manager responsible for hiring new employees for my organizations and also for training them. Also contributing was my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my professional career and, more recently, while administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) which serves, among other things, as the entrance exam for prospective enlistees in the Armed Services of the United States.

Other authors proceed with critiques of public education’s declining performance followed by prescriptions for training better teachers, reorganizing schools in creative ways, making preschool more accessible, for improving curricula, and tailoring instruction to the unique needs of children, revamping assessments, and building true accountability. All of their focus is internal as if the cultural forces that relentlessly devalue the primacy of education and the corresponding decline in the motivation of American children are unalterable givens.

These are the realities that are having a devastating impact on the quality of education and we go about our important business as if we are powerless to address them. Like so much of American society and its government, we have acquired, over the last half century, a misguided belief that we have all the answers; that we can solve everyone’s problems for them; that we bear full responsibility. Possibly, we have forgotten that ensuring that children receive a quality education is a shared responsibility. Possibly we have come to believe that it is politically incorrect to call parents out; to get in their face and demand that they accept their responsibility as partners in education. We behave as if the poor and the nonwhite are too pathetic to take responsibility for their own futures. Possibly, poor people and minorities have written us off because they feel powerless to affect the outcomes in their lives. This is a reality Americans must alter at all cost.

In Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream we will provide vignettes from my own experience as a substitute teacher in the classrooms of the middle and high schools of Fort Wayne Community Schools. The focus of each will be to provide the reader with a glimpse of what takes place in the classroom and also to illustrate the importance of parental commitment and participation. Also included will be a vignette from a first-year teacher’s experience in an inner city elementary school in Washington DC. We believe these anecdotes provide compelling evidence of the mounting disdain for education and for our assertion that parents are abdicating their responsibility as indispensable partners in the educational process.

The “action focus” of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream will be divided into two sections. Before we can challenge the American people to begin changing the cultures and subcultures of American society we must demonstrate that “we mean business.” It is not enough to make empty promises because empty promises are all many Americans believe they have heard, each and every day of their lives. We need to speak with our actions, demonstrating that we are making real and substantive changes in the way we will teach their children. We want parents to be able to look at the changes we have made so that they can truly believe that we will be giving their children the education they will need to make the American dream a reality. We want them to believe that this new educational process will truly empower their children to take control of their young lives and to seize an array of opportunities, from a huge and diverse menu, according to their unique talents, interests, and abilities. We want parents to want the best for their children even when they have given up hope for themselves.

Only when the parents of our nation’s children can reach out and touch these things can we reasonably expect them to believe in a new reality; and, only when they believe in the reality of this new educational process can we ask them to begin, once again, to have faith in the American dream and to have real and meaningful hope in a better future. Only when we are able to give American men and women a realistic hope for a better future for their children can we begin asking them to change the way they live, think, and feel.

As we turn our focus to the process of education in America, we will begin by comparing the way children learn during their pre-school years whether at home, in daycare, pre-school or head start programs with what we offer them when they arrive for their first day at school. What the reader will see, in this simple analysis, is that our educational process seems to work at cross purposes with the way the natural learning process functions. The result is that the fun of learning is soon replaced with a stress-filled, esteem-damaging process that sets many children up for failure.

We will also examine:

• Compulsory education and the fact that unmotivated students are allowed to be a disruptive influence on students who want to learn and teachers who are striving to teach;
• Teacher accountability and the trust between teachers and parents;
• The way we structure our schools and group children in classrooms, together;
• The way we identify an educational path for our children and then direct them down that path;
• The way we utilize teachers and facilitate their ability to teach and interact with students and their parents;
• Our current educational system’s focus on failure;
• Protecting children from humiliation;
• Homework, practice, and the manner in which we deal with the mistakes our students make;
• The way we assess a student’s level of competency over the subject matter within the context of educational standards;
• The allocation of scarce resources to serve our mission to the optimal advantage; and,
• The effectiveness with which we utilize the technology of the Twenty-first Century.

After re-thinking our assumptions about the educational process, we will present nineteen specific action strategies that will enable us to re-invent the educational process in order to better meet the educational needs of our children and to prepare them for the unprecedented challenges of the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

Through the implementation of these nineteen action strategies, we will show how we can structure the educational process in such a way that the structure supports and facilitates our teachers and students as they go about their important work. We will show how we can create real trust between parents and the teachers of their children in order to engage them as full partners in the educational process. We will illustrate how we can shift the focus away from humiliation and failure, focusing instead on teaching children that success is a process that all can master within the context of their individual talents and abilities. We will show how, utilizing Twenty-first Century technology, we can integrate the assessment of student competency and mastery into the educational process very much like industry has integrated quality systems within the production and assembly process.

It is a national tragedy that so many students reach a point in their academic careers where they have given up on themselves. It is a national travesty that we have given up on them. It is imperative that we place teachers in an environment in which they can make a real difference in the lives of the children in their classrooms. We want our teachers to be developing rich and nurturing relationships with our children and their families; relationships that will endure and that will be remembered with the same warmth that all of us feel when we think back on our favorite teachers. We want to eliminate the meaningless activity in which so many teachers become entrapped so that their time and energy are focused not only on helping children learn how to be successful but also helping them remember how much fun learning can be. We want teachers to re-discover how much fun it is to teach.

Simply by changing our thinking we can irrevocably alter the current reality of education in America and help our children develop the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in an ever more complex international arena. We believe we can show, emphatically, that all of these things are well within our power to accomplish if only we open our hearts and minds and view them without prejudice.

Few if any of these first nineteen action times will require an act of the legislature. They can almost all be implemented by individual school corporations acting within the parameters of their legislated authority.

After we have presented our blueprint for the reinvention of education in America, we will shift our focus to the formidable challenge of changing our culture to one in which every American has faith and hope in the American dream, for their children if not for themselves, and where we are each committed to a portfolio of shared values constructed on the principles of freedom and democracy in which “. . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . .”

We will begin by examining what takes place in our public schools, particularly in urban America. We will also look at the vital role education has played in the development of American society as we have evolved into the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

We will examine the results from state competency exams, using Indiana as our example. These data clearly illustrate that the performance gap between white students and blacks and other minorities is as real as it is disturbing. What we will also see is that all students in urban public schools, whites included, underperform when compared with students in private and parochial schools and in rural and suburban public schools. That we misinterpret the reasons for this underperformance places our future in jeopardy.

It is also vital that we understand how American culture has evolved to present day and we will take an in depth look at the impact this cultural evolution has had on education in America, both public and private. We will show how several cultural phenomena, beginning after the Great Depression and end of World War II, transformed our nation and society in such a way that the core values that contributed to our nation’s greatness became obscured.

We will take a particularly close look at the culture of African America because the most significant and alarming performance gap in all of education is the chasm that exists between the educational performance of white children and their black classmates. This reality demands direct, unapologetic attention. That discourse will involve a close look at the work of John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America . Dr. McWhorter suggests to us that the problem is a culture in which it has become a symbol of “black authenticity” for African-Americans to shake their finger at “whitey” for institutional racism and degradation that no longer exist to any relevant degree, and to flip a certain other finger at education and the other responsibilities of citizenship. These responsibilities are essential to the ongoing viability of a democratic society. We hope to dispel, irrevocably, even the notion that there is an entire race of people who are predisposed to academic failure, and replace it with a challenge to African-Americans and other minorities to take their rightful place as full partners in meeting the economic, social, and political challenges facing our nation. That challenge must come with the commitment that parents can count on the partnership of their children’s educators.

We will also devote time to a discussion of “entitlement mentality.” Typically, when people feel entitled to something they do not believe they should be required to do anything to earn it. We believe this is part of the problem with public education; that we have come to view education as an entitlement for which we should not be required to be responsible. Today, our entire society spends too much time talking about rights and entitlements rather than talking about responsibility. Aided by the literal eruption of electronic communications and computer technology, the power of the peer group has become more powerful than at any time in the history of our nation and now threatens to replace the family, church, and schools as the dominant socio-cultural force.

We will suggest that changing our culture is the categorical imperative of our time. Talk is cheap, however and we will offer a strategic plan of action designed to bring about massive and comprehensive cultural change. We will suggest that, as formidable as this challenge may seem it is nothing more than a sales and marketing plan of enormous size and scope. Because sales and marketing are two of the areas in which the U.S. is unsurpassed, this challenge is within our power to overcome.

Our action strategy to alter the culture of America will commence with a clear statement of purpose followed by a focus on the utilization of the principles of positive leadership , and will be manifested in fourteen specific action items directed to the community.

We will show how educators and other community leaders can reach out into the community and pull parents in. We will show how we can parlay one of President Barack Obama’s early campaign challenges to parents to accept responsibility for their children into a nation-wide initiative to rally the American people, across all cultural boundaries, to the idea that education is the ticket to a new, Twenty-first Century version of the American dream. Somehow, we have to sell Americans on the idea that the American dream still exists. We need to re-instill hope in the hearts and minds of men and women from across the entire spectrum of the American panorama that the dream is both real and achievable. For those who are poor and disadvantaged, we need re-ignite the hope and belief that they can make it real for their children and that a quality education is a pass of admission to the dream. Education has become something that these youngsters do not value and it is imperative that we alter this reality. The reader is urged to understand that this is not something that would be nice to accomplish; it is something that must be accomplished or our children and grandchildren will find themselves in an entirely different world where being an American is not something about which one can feel proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The reader is encouraged to believe that each of things is possible if only we will proceed with an open mind and hold on to the idea that anything man can imagine, man can do. Educators must be encouraged to believe that these things are possible if only they will challenge their biases and assumptions and, most of all, if only they will accept responsibility for finding a solution. You will hear this axiom, in one form or another, again and again as you proceed through this book, as it is central to our purpose:

Instead of blaming other people, our government, or the world for our problems, it is only when we accept responsibility for those problems that we begin to acquire the power to solve them.

The bottom line is that the problems facing American society and the problems facing our systems of education are the exact same problems and they cannot be solved by educators working unilaterally. We must involve the entire community.