A CALL TO ACTION: A New Civil Rights Movement Focused on Public Education!

Education is a civil rights issue of our time just as education and segregation were in the 1950s. Back then, the challenge was breaking down the barriers that prevented black children from attending public schools.  Thanks to the civil rights leaders of 50s and 60s, all children are permitted to attend public schools, but not much else has changed. Academic performance of many poor and minority children, blacks especially, still charts well below classmates.

Poverty still pervades the black communities and those of other minorities, and they are populated with multiple generations of men and women who have always failed in school. Far too many of their sons and daughters fill the seats of the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse express to overflowing; adding “criminal justice reform” to the list of civil rights issues.

Shutting down the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a point on everyone’s priority list, but all the talk and pledges in the world will not alter our current reality until we begin to alter the forces that drive that reality. Even then we cannot change, overnight, that which has taken generations to evolve.

The problems are systemic, and we must address the inherent imperfections of systems, not treat the symptoms of those imperfections.

The issue of criminal justice provides a useful example. For people who have not worked in the criminal justice system, the reactive nature of the system is often misunderstood. Our courts do not go out and seek people to load up their dockets nor do corrections facilities recruit inmates. Each institution must deal with the people delivered to its door.

Our police departments respond to complaints, patrol to deter crime, and act when witnessing evidence of illegal activity. Abuses of their power are not part of law enforcement training protocols, they are aberrant behavior; whether resulting from prejudice, poor training, or breaches of policy.

Although founded on the principles of democracy and on the rights and responsibilities protected and expected under the U.S. Constitution, the criminal justice system, like all systems of human design, are imperfect. When these systems are inundated, both the imperfections of the systems and the prejudices of some of its people are exposed. It is such aberrations that destroy trust between law enforcement and the communities they exist to serve and protect.

The criminal justice system is inundated because the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is overflowing. We will not be effective in improving the efficacy of the criminal justice system until we address the social problems that overload its circuits. We must understand why the pipeline exists and the simple and convenient answers of poverty and discrimination are not very helpful. 

If we have learned anything over the last 60-plus years, it is that  we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices and enmity in the hearts of man. We cannot wish away the social realities that devastate the lives of so many people.

While necessary, protesting the injustices in society will not alter the social realities of our communities.

The only way to protect blacks and other minorities from discrimination and the imperfections of the justice system is to reduce the flow of people entering that system.

The only way to keep young black and other minority men and women from entering the system is to help them become impervious to discrimination by giving them a menu of meaningful choices.

The only way to provide them with meaningful choices is to make meaningful changes in the education process that was intended to provide them with those choices.

The only way to ensure a quality education for every child is to alter an education process that, historically, has not served the interests of society’s most vulnerable children; whatever the genesis of that vulnerability.

Like poverty and discrimination, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a consequence of something that is not working the way our society needs it to work. That something is the “education process” at work in our schools, both our public schools and private. Whether they will admit it or not, virtually every educator understands that what they are being asked to do does not work for many children. Our education process has been obsolete for generations.

From the perspective of this observer, when the growing population of students demanded a reconfiguration of the process, in the early years of public education, the mounting cost and the need for operational efficiency obscured the essential purpose of education. We must redefine that purpose, which was to ensure that the unique needs of individual students are met.

Far too many of the young men and women leaving high school, today, with or without diplomas, are bereft of meaningful choices of what to do with their lives to find joy and to provide for themselves and families. When they leave school, this population of students opts for the only choice available to them: return to the communities from which they came, unprepared to participate in what the rest of us think of as the American dream.

Clearly, the education process is not meeting the needs of these young people. Unfortunately for society and educators alike, we blame our schools and teachers for the flaws of the process rather than the process, itself.

The consequence for society is that the education reforms, innovations, and initiatives of the last half century or more were like seeds planted in barren soil. Even the best ideas in the world will not take root in an environment unable to provide the nutrients necessary for germination, let alone blossoming.

A special report published, just this morning, in EdWeek UPDATE illustrates my point. The report notes that there is “no measurable gap between charters, traditional public schools on national tests.”

The charter school movement has not fixed what is broken in our schools because they still rely on the same education process as other schools. Just changing names, buildings, and teachers doesn’t change that which does not work.

In the interim, notwithstanding the litany of education reforms, American society has seen significant erosion of its faith in our public schools and teachers, never quite comprehending that teachers are as much victims of flawed education process as the students and communities they were employed to serve.

Americans are left with an education process that is the functional equivalent of a maelstrom in which children, communities, teachers, school, administrators, policy makers, and elected officials have become entrapped. It is an education process that cannot be fixed from the inside out.

As difficult as it may be, everyone involved in or who has a stake in the American education system must fight their way to the shore, climb out of the maelstrom, and examine the process from a new perspective. They must be challenged to take a paradigm leap and seek solutions outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

For that purpose, I have developed an education model that has been created to serve no purpose other than meet the unique needs of each one of our children. The Hawkins Model© is designed to allow teachers to focus on relationships and to ensure that every student has as much time and attention as they need to learn as much as they are able, at their own best pace. Only in such a learning environment can teachers help children develop their intellectual, physical, and emotional potential and begin discovering their special talents, interests, and aspirations.

The one thing educators dare not do, after fighting their way to the shore, is to dive back into the maelstrom where they will be engulfed in hopelessness; powerless to alter the destiny of our society and our participatory democracy.

Part 7 of the chapter by chapter review of “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch – What about PISA?

Whether or not Ravitch is correct about the validity or significance of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other international student assessments, and she may well be, it is still embarrassing when we argue that the test itself was biased, unfair, or otherwise flawed whenever the results do not suit us.

The most important thing we need to learn from PISA is something that no one seems to recognize or acknowledge. The very existence of PISA and its assessment process signals a desire on the part of other nations to demonstrate that they can compete.

Dr. Ravitch may also be correct that we have no significant enemies that threaten to conquer us. What we do have, however, is a growing number of significant challengers in the “competition” that we know as the world marketplace. These nations are committed to competing with us economically and even surpassing us as the preeminent economic power. There is little evidence to show that we take this competition seriously. Most Americans seem to feel that we are somehow invulnerable to such challenges.

We need to remind every American citizen that our nation did not acquire its status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world as a birthright and we cannot sustain it because we feel entitled. That status was achieved because we had the best educated and the most productive workforce in the world. As we speak, other nations are working hard to change that reality and we need to be cognizant of the zeal of their efforts and commitment.

Competition is a bad thing only for those people who are unprepared or unable to compete. In the case of the U.S., it has been a long time since we have been sufficiently challenged that we have felt any need to work hard to sustain our advantage. That reality has been and is being altered irrevocably and we must respond. It is imperative that we view this challenge not as a threat but rather as an opportunity to expand our limits and raise our expectations.

Whatever one’s opinion about PISA, it is only one small piece of a growing body of evidence that the American education system is in crisis and that our national well-being is at risk. It is ironic that the only people who seem to recognize the risks are people who have no clue what to about it while the people who have the expertise to address the problems of American public education seem to be in denial and are more focused on defending their profession.

Far more important to us than PISA, the other evidence seems, to this writer, compelling and overwhelming:

1) According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results show that only 40 percent of American eighth graders are “proficient or above” in math. The achievement levels that have been defined by NAEP are “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” (The reader is referred to the May 13th segment of our chapter by chapter review of Reign of Error, explaining why we reject Dr. Ravitch’s assertion that the benchmark should “basic or above” in favor of the far higher threshold of “Proficient or above.”) Our nation’s NAEP results for eighth grade reading, science, and writing were 31, 30, and 33 percent respectively. I don’t see how anyone can feel good about the fact that only 30 to 40 out of every 100 children have developed sufficient mastery of the subject matter to be able to apply what they have learned to real-world situations.

2) The performance gap between white and minority students, whether measured by NAEP or state competency exams, clearly indicates that the educational needs of minority children are not being effectively addressed in American public schools. Saying we have closed the gap a few percentage points over the past decade does not even approach acceptable. NAEP results show that 44 percent of white kids scored a Proficient or better compared to only about 15 percent of African-American students and 20 percent of Hispanics. This is an untenable situation and we dare not rest until we have altered this reality.

3) Employers throughout the U.S. are frustrated that young people entering the work force are poorly prepared to do the jobs for which they are being hired. (See the May 19th column by Paul Wyche of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette headlined: “The Young and Unreliable: Millennials’ work ethic appalls employers, who can’t find skilled help”) As a result, employers must incur significant costs to assess and provide remedial training for huge numbers of new hires.

4) The frustration in public school classrooms in communities throughout the U.S., on the part of teachers who must devote significant time and energy to maintain order – the lack of which deters millions of other students from taking full advantage of their opportunity for a quality education.

5) The burgeoning population of American parents who have lost hope and faith in the American Dream and no longer view an education as a ticket to a better life for their children.

The author’s personal experience as an ASVAB test administrator for the Department of Defense validates the existence of a crisis in education. Let there be no doubt that the military service will be only one of many doors of opportunity to close on young men and women unable to meet minimum eligibility requirements for enlistment in the Armed Services of the U.S.

Ravitch offers an eloquent argument for rejecting the focus on standardized testing, whether international student assessments or state competency exams, and preserving the educational traditions that contributed the U.S.’s rise to the top.

Yes, what we have been doing has brought us to where we are today but that does not mean it will take us where we need to go from here. Let us not forget that this same educational process that has gotten us where we are today also gave us a performance gap that is staggering in its scope and will continue to have crippling consequences.

And, NO, we cannot blame that all on poverty. One of our great weaknesses is our inability to step far enough back that we are able to see how our educational process contributes to the failure of so many of our children. It is a process that both contributes to and exacerbates the problems of poverty. These things are both interdependent and symbiotic.

One of the great misfortunes of the current corporate reform movement with its focus on privatization, choice, standards, testing, and accountability is that it distracts us from what should be our real mission. Our professional educators, justifiably or not, have chosen to slip into a defensive mode rather than use their experience and wisdom to evaluate and address the weaknesses of our current and obsolete educational process.

Quoting Yong Zhao, a Chinese born professor at the University of Oregon, Ravitch brings us to the crossroads but then sends us down the wrong path. Ravitch quotes Zhao, “that China wants to transform itself from ‘a labor-intensive, low-level manufacturing economy into an innovation-driven knowledge society. . . . Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge. Zhao then writes, “If China, a developing country aspiring to move into an innovative society, has been working to emulate U.S. education, why does America want to abandon it.”

China seems to be beating us to the logical leap to where we should already be as illustrated by Valerie Strauss’ report in the May 26th issue of the Washington Post, “No. 1 Shanghai may drop out of PISA.”

Quoting Yi Houqin, an official of the Shanghai Education Commission the article shares that they are no longer interested in a focus on standardized testing. “What it [China] needs are schools that follow sound educational principles . . . and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development.”

If anything should alarm American leaders, this shift in direction on the part of China’s educational leaders, should.

In the U.S., we tell ourselves that this is what we are about but our actions speak the truth. We say we want to develop the individuality of students and teach them to think and to explore but the way we structure the process is to ask all students to rush down the same path on the same schedule. Our educational process (not our schools or teachers) is focused on grading rather than learning; on failure rather than success.

If our objective is that kids learn something, why do we grade and then record their unsuccessful attempts. All those mistakes on practice worksheets and failed quizzes do is tell us that the child has not yet learned and is not ready to move on. So what do we do? We grade the worksheet or quiz, record the “C,” “D,” or “F” and move them along to the next lesson, module, grading period, semester or grade. What those practice worksheets and quizzes are really telling us is that our job on that particular lesson with that specific child is not yet completed.

Our real issue with testing, standardized or otherwise, should be on the purpose for which the test is designed to serve. Testing should always be, first, diagnostic: asking the question what has the child learned and how prepared are they for future; or, second, documentary: has the child mastered the lessons that we have striven to teach them? How they rank in comparison to other students is no more consequential than how the U.S. ranks compared to China or other nations on PISA assessments.

We come back to the only question that matters. How far has the child progressed; what are his or her strengths and weaknesses; and, where do we go from here.

The nation that is the world leader in economic performance will be the nation with the best educated workforce, with the best work ethic, and with the highest level of productivity. Economic laws and principles care nothing about the political, racial, or ethnic make-up of the population, only about what a people can accomplish.

We have already experienced, as a nation, what it is like to lose huge chunks of low-paying jobs to China, Mexico, and parts elsewhere. Imagine the consequences if we begin to lose chunks of our highest paying jobs for skilled or professional workers.

Imagine the impact if the average American household income was to drop by 10, 20, or even 30 percent. As earned income shrinks, how do we continue to bear the cost of the millions of baby boomers who are withdrawing from the workforce and can be expected to live until they are in their 80s and 90s. How do we continue to bear the cost of the growing population of Americans who are under-employed, unemployed, and unemployable when fewer people are working for fewer and fewer dollars.

If we want to get a different outcome we must begin doing things differently. Sadly, the opportunity cost is staggering when the powerful platform of Diane Ravitch is distracted from the real issues.

international student assessments, PISA, American education system, American public education, public education, NAEP, Reign of Error, performance gap between white and minority students, performance gap, American public schools, public schools, standardized testing, educational process,

Opening Paragraphs from the Preface of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream

The golden age of the United States of America, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, is nearing an end according to some forecasters of Twenty-first Century trends. The world is in the midst of unprecedented economic, political, cultural, technological, sociological, and ecological changes that will forever transform human society. One of the drivers of American preeminence has been our systems of public education that gave the United States the most well-educated and productive workforce on the planet. As we enter the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, the U.S. is like a professional sports franchise that has seen the quality of its player development program languish over a period of years. That our competitors in the international arena are placing the education of their children at the top of their priority list while the American educational system remains a relic of times past has tragic consequences for Americans and our way of life.

That many of these nations reject the principles of democracy only heightens the magnitude of an already alarming situation. While the American economy is under relentless attack by emerging economies, its system of core values are eroding from within. Culturally, millions of Americans either have become or are becoming disenfranchised. They have lost hope in the American dream, no longer believe they possess control over their own lives and destinies, and no longer believe their government cares what happens to them. The disenfranchised have given up on even the idea of meaningful employment; they are denied access to quality healthcare for themselves and their children; and, they have been chewed up and spit out by the American educational system.

Education, historically viewed as the ticket to the American dream, is no longer relevant to this burgeoning population of our citizens. For these men and women, education has become a ticket to nowhere. As a result, millions of American parents do not teach their children that education is important and do not infuse their children with a moral compass sufficiently strong to withstand the pressure of an ever more powerful peer group. The children of these parents show up at a school that is dreadfully unprepared for them; arrive with little or no motivation to learn; precious little preparation; and, demonstrate no commitment to cooperate with their teachers or abide by rules of behavior. Then, they repeat the cycle, all over again, when they send their own children off to school a generation later.