Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

Transforming/reinventing public education in America is well within the realm of possibility because it is a relatively simple human engineering challenge. The obstacles to its realization exist not in the architecture or mechanics of a solution rather in the politics of change. Those obstacles begin with how difficult it is for people to step outside their paradigms and envision a different reality. Being able to envision a new reality is important to all human beings but is imperative for educators if we are to insure equality in education.

The danger we all face when confronted with a long history of disappointing outcomes is succumbing to resignation that we are powerless to alter those outcomes. It is so easy to become inured to the human consequences.

In public education, disappointing outcomes have been a fact of life for generations and the consequences have had an adverse impact on virtually all aspects of American society. Teachers entering the profession almost always believe that all kids can learn but, over time, they are confronted with the reality that so very many of them do not. Some educators succumb to the proposition that there are children who cannot learn.

That so many of these students are poor, black, and other minorities makes it inevitable that some men and women—not a majority, we believe—will draw unfortunate conclusions. Educators must be challenged to reject stereotyping or profiling by racial, ethnic, or any other categorization and conclude, instead, that the problem is not that these kids all look alike, rather that they experience similar disadvantages.

This tradition of unacceptable outcomes will not be altered until educators take a paradigm leap and imagine a new reality outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. Envisioning an alternate reality does not guarantee a solution, however. Even when we discover a transformational solution, we are still faced with one of greatest challenges facing organizations; we must overcome the paralysis of inertia.

What teachers, principals, and other administrators must do is simple. They must acknowledge that what they are asked to do in their schools and classrooms is not working for many students, especially the disadvantaged. They must be encouraged to forget about what the critics say; forget about the corporate reformers and the politicians who have been influenced by them; and, forget about test scores.

The only thing that matters to teachers is what they see in their classrooms. Not all teachers can see the pattern from their classroom, however, nor can all principals. Those educators blessed to work in high performing schools must not turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by so many of their colleagues.  They must remind themselves, often, that “if not for the grace of God, that could be me.” They must stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in our most challenging schools and districts.

Superintendents have a special responsibility to provide positive leadership and in districts populated by struggling schools and failing students, superintendents must be strong enough to share the truth of what they witness. Their responsibility includes their students, the men and women who staff their schools, and the communities they have been chosen to serve. It serves none of these interests to act as if everything is okay.

It may be unreasonable to expect all top administrators to break from tradition, but they must be  relentless in challenging the assumptions of conventional wisdom. When these leaders see a long pattern of academic distress, they must feel compelled to act because if they do not, who can? 

It is not my desire to shower these good men and women with blame, but I do challenge them to accept responsibility. Blame and responsibility are two entirely different things. There is an essential principle of positive leadership that suggests “it is only when we begin to accept responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that plague us that we begin to acquire the power to change them.”

It has long been my belief that the top executives of any organization must be positive leaders with a passionate commitment to their mission. I have observed far too many leaders in education, whether superintendents or principals, who appear to be administrators more than powerful, positive leaders. Because most were hired and are evaluated based on their administrative experience and skills, we should not be surprised. Those graduate programs for school administrators that do not place great emphasis on leaderships skills must be challenged to rethink their mission.

It is my assertion that the absence of dynamic, positive leadership in school districts throughout the U.S. has given rise to a groundswell of dissatisfaction that, in turn, has opened the door for education reformers. These reformers—also good men and women—are only striving to fill a void of leadership. They see inaction from the leaders of public schools in the face of decades of unacceptable outcomes. Those outcomes are the millions of young people leaving school without the academic skills necessary to be full partners in the American enterprise.

What is unfortunate is that the solutions these education reformers and their political supporters offer have proven to be no more effective than the public schools they are striving to supplant. And, why should we be surprised when all they do is change buildings, call it a charter school, and ask teachers to do the same job they would be asked to do in public schools. They rely on the same obsolete education process and it is inevitable that they will get the same results.

This flawed education process impacts every child, adversely. To disadvantaged students, those impacts are often devastating.

Once again, I ask the reader to consider an alternate approach; a new model designed to focus on relationships and giving every child as much time as they need to learn every lesson, at their own best speed. Please check out The Hawkins Model© not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment.

The ultimate measure of the success of our schools is not graduation rates, or the percentage of students going off to college. Education must be measured by each student’s ability to utilize, in the real world, that which he or she has learned; regardless of the directions they have chosen for their lives. Education must be evaluated on the quality of choices available to its young men and women.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, or superintendent, how does one explain that all your dedication, best efforts, and innovation over the last half century have produced so little in the way of meaningful improvements in the outcomes of disadvantaged students?

Blaming outside forces is unacceptable. If the pathway to our destination is obstructed, do we give up or do we seek an alternate route? If we succeed in treating the illnesses and injuries of some patients does this let us off the hook in dealing with people whose illnesses and injuries are both more serious, and more challenging? “They all count, or no one counts.”

It serves no purpose to beat the superintendents of our nation’s public school districts about the head and shoulders, but we have a responsibility to hold them accountable. 

If teachers would rally together and utilize the collective power of their unions and associations to challenge conventional wisdom, they would gain support and become a revolution. The same is true of administrators and their associations. If teachers and administrators would link arms, they would become an irresistible force, not for incremental improvements, but for transformational change.  

Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that if teachers and administrators were united behind a positive new idea that would assure the quality of education of every one of our children, that their communities would rally to the cause?

Educators, you truly do have the power to alter the reality that is public education for every child in America.

Public School Educators Need a Paradigm Shift

Public school teachers in our nation’s most challenging schools and communities are like someone lost in the middle of a swamp who finds him or herself up to their waist in alligators. The rest of us act surprised when people who find themselves in such a predicament cannot seem to find their way out or even find the time to wonder how they became lost in the first place.

The concept “paradigm shift,” first introduced by American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, and later popularized by Stephen Covey in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (first published in 1989), is a significant change in the way people think about an idea, concept, or process that provides one with a whole new perspective. Once a paradigm shift occurs, nothing looks the same. After our perspective has been broadened, we begin to see forces at play in our world that have been invisible to us. When we gain an understanding of these forces, whole new realms of possibility reveal themselves to us and, very often, we see new ideas scattered around us like precious gemstones.

It is bad enough that we criticize public school teachers for their inability to extricate themselves. What makes it worse is when we blame them for the existence of both the swamp and its dangers. Worse, still, is the fact that the self-proclaimed education reformers and the policy makers who are influenced by them, are choosing to turn their backs on these dedicated men and women. The focus of education reformers has shifted almost entirely to privatization through the creation of charter schools as alternatives to public schools, and voucher systems to help families pay for such choices using tax dollars. If one steps back and examines the education reform movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”

This focus on privatization through charter schools and high stakes testing also leaves public school teachers to fend for themselves. It is as if we have decided that we cannot do anything to repair the system, so we will just bypass it and those who want to come along are invited to join us. For the rest, “c’est la vie.”

This situation is aggravated by the fact that public school teachers have opted to play the role of victim. Much of the efforts of teachers appear to be devoted to defending themselves from criticism rather than taking ownership of the problems they face in their classrooms. These teachers are constrained because they are so busy fighting off the alligators that they are unable to view the larger picture. The consequence is that they struggle to envision any other way to do what they do. They spend their energy reacting to criticism rather than working proactively in their own best interests and in the interests of their students.

This is why a paradigm shift is imperative if teachers are going to utilize the power they possess to transform public education. And, yes, teachers do have the power to bring about systemic change that can transform public education even if they cannot see it. Until they break free from the encapsulation that suppresses their creativity, however, they will be doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the last half century. They will remain stuck in the swamp at the mercy of its dangers.

The solution to the problems in public education is there, right in front of teachers but they cannot see it from where they sit. Maybe the solution is too simple. Most teachers understand that some kids need more time but they do not see how they can find that time within the context of the current educational process. And that is exactly my point. Teachers cannot give students the time they need to learn, particularly the disadvantaged students, as long they are stuck in the failed education process of the last century. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students fail, unnecessarily; not because they are incapable of learning and not because teachers are incompetent. The fail because our obsolete educational process thwarts the efforts of teachers and students, alike.

So, what is the solutions?

Fixing the problems in public education is nothing more than a simple human engineering challenge. It is a matter of reinventing the education process in such a way that giving children the time they need is not only a teacher’s priority but also the basis of how their own performance will be evaluated. It is redesigning the structure to support students, empower teachers, and pull parents into the process. It is changing the nature of the game from a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, to one in which each and every child gets the help they need to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. It is changing the game from one in which some children win and others lose, to one where we make sure every child acquires the knowledge, skills, and self-discipline necessary for them to have choices about what to do with their lives. It is changing the way we keep score because that is the only way to break from the patterns of the past. We want every child to be a winner and we want all children to enter adulthood with real and meaningful choices about what to do with their lives.

What teachers will discover after a paradigm shift is that winning is not measured against the performance of classmates. Winning and learning are synonymous. Each lesson learned is a win. Why would ever allow a child lose or fail? If they are struggling to master a given lesson how can a teacher’s job be finished?

The educational model I have developed is one example of a new idea; a new solution. Once we embrace this new paradigm, everything changes. The reader is invited to visit my website and review the education model I have developed at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. They are also invited to read the white paper I have presented that provides the logical framework within which the education model was conceived.

Public school teachers have one of the most challenging, and at the same time, most important jobs in modern society. Society relies on our teachers to help our nation’s children acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to become productive members of society from both an economic and political perspective. We expect teachers to carry out this important function even though children arrive for their first day of school with great disparity with respect to their academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support. Similarly, our nation’s children come to us from a diverse patchwork of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds and, more often than at any time in our history, we may not even speak the same language. Never has American society been as diverse as it is today, and never again will it be less diverse than it is in this second decade of the 21st Century. This demands new ways of thinking about the challenges we face and new patterns of behavior that produce the outcomes we are seeking.

It demands a paradigm shift. It requires that we reinvent the education process.

The refusal, on the part of teachers, to acknowledge that the education process is flawed will eventually lead to their doom; it is a dangerous and self-defeating strategy. While they sit back in denial about the failures of the process, reformers are working, unobstructed, to put them out of business.