Response to [at] stampingout re: Competency Based Education (CBE)

Thank you for taking the time to comment and I appreciate the referral to Jean Robbins’ paper in The Federalist. It has taught me a lesson in semantics because what she is writing about when she refers to competency-based education (CBE) and what I am talking about are two entirely different things. I hope you will take the time to understand the difference because I believe we share the same passion for doing what is best for our nation’s children.

In the interim, I will come up with a new label for the “success-based approach to education” that I envision in the education model I have developed and which is what I have referred to as competency-based education (CBE). I hope you will take the time to review my education model. I believe it will speak to your heart.

The essence of my model is that the teacher and student relationship is an essential variable in the education equation. One of the many flaws in the current education process is that children, beginning at the tender ages of five and six, are not given enough time to form, let alone sustain, a nurturing relationship with a teacher who is going to care about them, deeply, while helping them learn. The acquisition of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life is a daunting process with which they will need patient support.

One of the other essential variables is that kids need time to learn. What we must strive to do is help them experience success in learning because it always leaves us yearning for more. Success is a process, not a destination or even an “A” in a teacher’s grade book. An “A” is nothing more than the equivalent of a “digital badge” to which Robbins refers in her paper. What students must acquire are building blocks of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to build an academic foundation from which they can create a life for themselves.

So much of the focus in the current education process is on failure. We need to distinguish between mistakes and failure. Mistakes are nothing more than disappointing outcomes that can be improved if we are given enough time to learn from them. When a child does poorly on a chapter test, for example, it does not become a failure until we deprive them of the time they need to go back and learn from their mistakes. This is a fatal flaw where the current education process breaks down in the face of the relentless pressure to keep a class on schedule. Teachers do their best to help struggling students keep pace, but the larger the number the more problematic that becomes.

We know learning from mistakes takes longer for some children than it does for others. Yet, when teachers must move kids along to a next lesson, ready or not, it is likely they will never experience the “aha” moment that most of us have had when a lesson clicks in our minds and we understand. Such moments are “successes” that prepare the student for future lessons in a subject area. It is only a matter of time before students who never experience success give up on learning and stop trying.

Not all kids are not headed to the same destinations and they did not start at the same point of embarkation. Students will go to college or to some type of vocational school; others will go directly into the workforce or to the military according to their own interest, demonstrated capabilities, and achievement. Unfortunately, a great many children, particularly the disadvantaged and minorities, fall out along the way and they leave school in possession of few, if any, choices about what to do with their lives.

Yes, many school districts boast a ninety percent graduation rate, but the rates reflect the creativity in finding alternate criteria for graduation qualification on the part of administrators rather than the capabilities of the students. Sadly, few educators, witness the challenges these young men and women face when confronted with real life; when they are bereft of meaningful choices. Graduation rates are not an effective measure of success.

What employers see when these young people enter the job market and what military recruiters see when their candidates fail the ASVAB, echoes what the results of state academic competency exams and NAEP assessments are telling us. Far too many students are not learning the subject matter presented to them well enough that they can utilize it in real life situations. Because we are so quick to point the finger of blame for the results of such testing rather than take the time to understand what they are telling us, we wrongly hold schools and teachers responsible for the performance of their students. Such tests
DO NOT measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers, but THEY DO MEASURE THE SUCCESS OF THE EDUCATION PROCESS with which teachers and schools are expected to work. Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive, but if a process produces bad outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, the process is the problem. People can only do what the process allows them to do.

The reality is that the education process does not work for millions of students and this is the real crisis in American education. I wish educators could see how poorly prepared their students are when they are unable to pass a basic assessment of their math and reading skills needed to qualify for a job or pass the ASVAB for enlistment in the Armed Forces. Thirty to thirty-five percent of recent high school graduates and high school seniors are unable to get the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, often after taking the ASVAB up to four times. The percentage of blacks and other minority candidates passing is lower, still. I cannot begin to describe the anguish on the faces of these young men and women when they walk out of a testing room with a piece of paper that says this door is closed to them.

Differentiation: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

One of the essential variables that is missing from the education equation in America is differentiation.

When they begin school, we do not treat each five- or six-year-old boy and girl as unique little people with respect to their characteristics, challenges, and potential. Neither do we adapt the academic standards to which we teach nor the individual lesson plans with which teachers must work to serve each child. Instead, the education process often impedes the ability of teachers to attend to children, individually.

Teachers go to great lengths to help their students negotiate the challenging academic pathway along which all of them are directed but there is only so much they can do, particularly if they teach in schools that are attended by disadvantaged children.

In addition to a host of disparities that exist, their personality impacts the ability of children to form nurturing and enduring relationships with their teachers and the likelihood that they will find their place within the community of students in their classrooms. What kind of social skills do they possess? Is there anything about them that stands out and attracts either the positive or negative attention of their classmates? Are they among that population of children who are the most difficult to love but who need it the most? Children who are different in some obvious way need the help of their teacher to negotiate not only the complex academic pathways but also the social minefields that exist in even Kindergarten classrooms.

Having a sense of belonging can change the course of a child’s entire life. Teachers who are overwhelmed by challenging classrooms will find it difficult if not impossible to attend to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls. And no, it is not enough that teachers bond with a few of their students.

It is one of the great ironies of the human condition that children think learning is fun until they begin their formal education. It is the first few years of school that will determine how many of these young lives will be lost to society. Make no mistake, the unmotivated and disruptive students we meet in middle school and high school lost their way during their first few years of school, if not their first few months. These are the children with whom teachers were unable to form enduring relationships in Kindergarten and first grade. These are the children who were the hardest to love but who needed it the most.

Somehow, we must shake education leaders and policy makers of education in America with enough force that they see the folly of the learning environments they create for their students and teachers. For every child that we lose in their first few months of school there will be consequences, both for the children and society. There is also an incalculable opportunity cost associated with each child who falls off the conveyor belt that is education in America. The boys and girls who will someday end up in prison, on drugs, or who will suffer early, violent deaths might have had the potential to achieve greatness had we created an education model and learning environment crafted to meet their unique requirements.

How many more young lives can we afford to squander and how long are we willing to let this tragedy to continue? How many teachers are we willing let flee the profession because they are unable to give kids what they need?

When children arrive for their very first day of school, they are at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives. They need to feel safe, loved, and important. These are the things that allow the development of a healthy self-esteem. It is insufficient that teachers strive to identify and respond to the unique needs of each of their students—and indeed they do—the education process and the way teachers, students, and classrooms are organized must be crafted to support that essential variable of a child’s education: differentiation. We are not just teaching children to pass annual competency examinations, we are preparing them to be responsible citizens of a participatory democracy.

What we teach and how we teach it must, also, differentiate with respect to the reality that our children do not all learn the same way and are not all preparing for the same futures. Some will be going on to college, some to vocational schools, others to the military or directly into the work force. In some cases, they are preparing for careers and endeavors that do not exist, today, and that we cannot envision. Our job, as education leaders and teachers is to help them acquire an academic foundation that, as their unique talents and abilities are revealed, will allow them to choose their own destinations; to strike out in any direction.

If we are helping them learn the things they will need to develop their unique potential; to discover their special talents and abilities; to formulate and begin to pursue their dreams for the future; to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy; and to be able to control most of the outcomes in their lives, a healthy self-esteem will prove to be more important than what they know. With a solid academic foundation, a healthy self-esteem, and active imaginations they will be able to learn whatever they need to know.

This tragedy need not continue. We can go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we seek. This is what I have striven to accomplish in the development of my education model and I urge you to take time to read it, not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. My model is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Relationships

An excerpt from my education model https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Anyone who has worked closely with children of any age, but especially five and six-year-olds, knows that relationships are everything. It is our belief that this is true, also, for teenagers and for adults. For kids who are five or six, some of whom are away from their mothers and other primary caregivers for the first time, a close personal relationship with one or more teachers is more important than anything else. Children who feel a close personal relationship with their teacher, the kind that many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher(s), almost always give their best effort and that proves to be true throughout one’s whole life. If we think back on those times in our lives when we enjoyed the most success, most of us will recall a favorite teacher, coach, mentor, or boss. In fact, is there any time in our lives when close personal relationships with other human beings are not the most important source of our happiness and well-being?

The current education process is not structured to facilitate those relationships for more than a given school year, if it happens at all. Neither is it an expectation on which teacher performance will be evaluated. That those special relationships that do develop are severed, routinely, at the end of a school year illustrates that the most important variable in the education equation is not even a priority in the education process in our public schools.

We are guided by the principle that the people in our lives are always more important that the things in our lives. We must acknowledge that the academic success of every child and of everything we do for them will be a function of the quality of relationships we have been able to build.

In a recent Tweet, our colleague Amy Fast, Ed.D. (@fastcrayon) said,

“If students are under-performing in class, we can guess at the reasons why, or we can ask the students themselves: Do they feel the classes are relevant to their lives? Do they think they are too hard? Too easy? Do they feel like their teachers care about them and their success?”

Amy Fast’s questions are vital on two levels of analysis.

These are all questions to which teachers must have answers for each of their students, with the last being the essential question. The challenge for teachers is that the probability of receiving meaningful answers to these and many other important questions is a function of their success in developing meaningful relationships.

It is this author’s assertion that, from the moment of first contact with a new student, whether on their first day of Kindergarten, or any other grade, or whether he or she has transferred in from another class or school, the development of nurturing, meaningful relationships with each student should be the teacher’s first and over-riding responsibility/priority. It is only as such relationships are beginning to form that our students will begin to place their trust in us.

Students are often the people least qualified to answer the question, “are their classes relevant to their lives?” The younger the student the less of an idea they will have of the challenges in life with which they will be called upon to deal. We need them to trust us that we know what they must learn.

It is up to teachers to utilize their experience, training, and appropriate assessment tools to discern what their students know, what their capabilities might be at a given point in time, how their young minds work (how they learn and process information), how confident they are in their own abilities, and what their interests might be at that stage of their development. As they learn, grow, and begin to experience success, their individual interests begin to take shape and their special abilities begin to reveal themselves—to us as well as to them. Our willingness to invite our students to participate in charting the direction of their studies will be influenced by the way our relationships have evolved and the level of mutual trust we have been able to establish.

In this education model, there is nothing as important to the job of teaching as the development of positive relationships with students and it is at the top of our priority list, even if that means that other priorities need to be put on hold, temporarily.

Time: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

In recent posts we have talked much about the critical role relationships play in learning. Strong, nurturing, enduring relationships between teachers and students is one of the essential variables of the education equation. If parents can be pulled into the relationship as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children, the students’ probability of success will soar.

One of the other essential variables in the education equation is time. Not just time by itself, but time and our patient attention. In most school settings; whether public schools, private, parochial, or charter schools; the education process is structured around arbitrary schedules of time. This is not surprising because everything human beings do is done within the context of time. Not all things are meant to be on a predetermined schedule, however.

If you have ever been a part of a child’s life from birth to adulthood, you know that each child is unique and learns at their own pace. The human brain, particularly a child’s brain, is a remarkable thing, possibly the most remarkable thing in all creation. A child’s brain is programmed to learn; it is like a sponge that soaks up the world around it. While science has determined that there is a clear developmental path through which children grow and mature, the variance in rates of childhood development can be great. If your eldest child walks at 12 months and speaks in sentences by 18 months, there is no reason to be concerned when you second child takes a first step at 13 months and says only a few words at one-and-a-half. The only thing that matters is that the important bases are touched and that once a skill is acquired the child can utilize it, effectively.

When children arrive for their first day of school, we see much the same pattern. Some are already reading by that monumental first day but many of their new classmates are not. Some know their letters and numbers, others may know colors and shapes. Where they fall with respect to an academic preparedness continuum is determined by the unique characteristics of their individual lives and genetic capability. Not only do they have varying starting points, some learn more quickly than others and their manner of learning may differ. Just like early childhood development, however, the bottom line is that they all can and will learn. The question is: How can we best help them learn?

Everything else changes beginning on that first day of school. No longer is the pace and direction of a child’s development determined by nature or a child’s interests and talents. Pace and direction are now guided by academic standards that are essentially an arbitrary determination of things educators believe children must learn if they are to enter adulthood with choices. When I suggest that the standards are arbitrary, I am not suggesting they have been poorly researched, rather that there is an underlying assumption that the standards and their accompanying timelines are appropriate for all “non-special needs students.” This assumption has a powerful influence on the academic success and failure of our students.

No longer is learning a natural and fun process that progresses at the child’s own pace. The first change with which children are confronted is that specific learning objectives have been identified and prioritized. The second change is that the specific learning objectives have also been correlated to a schedule that provides guidelines for the pace of learning. The expectation of teachers is that they guide their students down an academic path, as outlined by state standards and at a pace that conforms to what has been determined to be an acceptable rate of progress. Teachers have some latitude to help if the number of students who are getting off to a slow start is small. The larger the population of students who struggle and the older they get, however, the more problematic it becomes for teachers.

To gage how well students have progressed through the outline of academic standards, competency assessments have been developed. It turns out that the performance of students, on these assessments, has been determined to be an effective way to hold schools and teachers accountable for the performance of their students. Therefore, the process has come to be known as high-stakes testing.

The process begins to break down when individual students are unable to keep pace and we can be certain that learning is no longer fun for these children.

As it turns out, the two most essential variables of the education equation; which I have suggested are enduring relationships between teachers and students (not to mention parents) and that children are given however much time and patient attention they need to learn at their unique pace, are difficult to provide within the context of the current education process. The education process is comprised of two essential components. The first are the academic standards and schedules and their accompanying competency assessments; and, the second is the way teachers, classrooms, students, and resources are organized to achieve their purpose.

Think about the current education process as a conveyor belt designed to move kids along the path outlined by academic standards and that the speed with which it moves is an arbitrary schedule intended to correspond to the benchmarks placed along the path. The way we have organized teachers is that they ride along with their students as the conveyor belt moves toward its destination.

When we place a diverse population of children on that belt it appears to work well for many of our students. Other students, however, lack the skills (academic preparedness and pace of learning) that enable them to remain secure in their seats. Gradually, these children begin to fall off the belt and they lack the ability to climb back on, unassisted. Their teachers reach out to them and retrieve as many as they can, while others fall quickly out of reach. The students who have been retrieved still lack the skill necessary to hang on, however, so they fall off again and again.

Never are teachers able to retrieve all students who have fallen behind and the population of children who are failing at school grows, unrelentingly. These young people have fallen off the conveyor belt and they have no where to go other than to be swallowed up by a maelstrom of poverty and failure that plagues our society.

Until we abandon the conveyor belt as obsolete and replace it with an education process that is engineered to meet each child’s unique requirements, students will continue to fail no matter how hard our teachers work; even with innovative and sophisticated tools and methodologies that are being developed.

If, however, we utilize our imaginations, in combination with our education and experience, to design and construct a process around the way children learn, and that empowers both teachers and students, we can help each child receive the best education of which they are capable. A nice bonus will be the discovery that, in the right environment, most of our innovations with which we have been struggling will work.

Once again, I urge you to take time to review my white paper and education model to see one way we can create a teacher/student-centered education process. Please read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work, rather in hope that it might work. The model, which will be available for public school systems to use, free of charge, is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ You are also invited to peruse the other 150 plus articles posted on this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

The Recurring Theme of Obsolescence!

It is a recurring theme, I know, but the existing education process, which has been in place for most of our lifetimes, is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to give our students what so many of you consider to be the essential variables in the education equation.

Whether it is making certain our students feel important, cared about, and confident that their teachers are one hundred percent committed to their success because relationships are an essential variable. Relationships are everything and all the knowledge, talent, and achievements in life pale in comparison to the importance of the people in our lives; people who care about us unconditionally. We must understand that it is only through our relationships with our students that we can compete with the power of the peer group.

Whether it is the belief that we must, somehow pull parents into the process as partners sharing responsibility for the education of their children.

Whether it is knowing that children are more than just test scores and that high-stakes testing forces us to teach to the test.

Whether it is knowing that teachers need to be guided and supported by visionary, positive leaders who exist to help us be the best teachers that we can be rather than search for what we do wrong. Just like our students, we need help to learn from our mistakes. This is what positive leaders do.

Whether it is wanting each child to be given the opportunity to learn from mistakes even if it takes more than one or two attempts. We know, from infancy, learning is all about making small adjustments based upon the mistakes they make and that all kids are on a unique time table. A child’s brain is programmed to learn, relentlessly; to soak up the world around them. How is it that somewhere along the line we throw obstacles in their path that cause them to stop trying, convince them that learning is anything but fun, and dampens if not destroys their motivation to learn.

Whether it is the belief that each child has inherent, if unknown, potential and that the job of our public schools and teachers is to help them discover who they are and who they can become, if given the chance; to help them create their own unique futures. Who knows, there may be a child in your classroom who could grow up to be President of the United States, if only we were able to help them through the, often, challenging learning process. Whether or not they will become a real President and not a pretender may well be up to you.

Whether it is believing that we must make the effort to understand the unique level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school because it is only when we understand what they know and where they lag that we can chart out a unique academic path and truly provide personalized learning.

Whether it is believing that we need to be open to and free to explore all the innovative ideas, personalized learning, digital learning, and other approaches, tools, and methodologies until we find what works for each child; recognizing that what works for one boy or girl may not work for another.

Whether it is knowing that we must teach the whole child and not just fill their heads with facts, numbers, and knowledge. Understanding that we must help them learn how to think creatively and critically; help them learn how the world really works so they can be contributing members of society and make informed choices about the critical issues of their time. Or, helping them be wise to the false promises, jingoistic dogma, or confidence schemes with which they will be showered.

Whether it is being convinced that we must help them understand history so that they can learn from mistakes of the past and make certain they understand the principles of democracy and the form and functions of a participatory democracy.

Whether it is a commitment to make sure that our students learn to understand and appreciate the diverse cultural fabric of humanity through the arts and social sciences. We want them to learn to be tolerant, understanding, and have empathy. And, we want them to learn to express themselves through literature, oral communication, art, and music.

Most of you believe that these are all essential variables in the education equation and vital to a child’s motivation to learn; that it is these things, rather than charter schools and vouchers, that will save public education in America.

If we are truly committed to the teaching profession, we want young people to leave our public schools with a portfolio of knowledge, skills, and understanding that will give them choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning, provide for their families, and participate in their own governance. We want them to have the healthy self-esteem that comes from being able to control as many of the outcomes in their lives as possible.

As a former employer, I have always been surprised that so many public school teachers and other educators think corporations want our schools to produce automatons who will become replacement parts for their machinery. Some educators do not seem to understand that the frustration of the business community that feeds the “choice” education reform movement is that candidates for employment seem unwilling to work and unable to think creatively, accept responsibility for outcomes, and strive for excellence.

The only way to shut down education reformers with their platform of “choice” and their focus on high-stakes testing, charter schools and vouchers is to render them irrelevant; to make our public schools the “preference of choice.” This cannot be accomplished with the obsolete education process we have today. We must have an education model that frees teachers to give each of their students what they need and we can have this if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to a new idea.

This is exactly what my education model is designed to do. Don’t reject it without taking the time to understand it and, once you understand it, don’t hesitate to improve it so that it will truly help you meet the needs of each one of your students. Please learn about it at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/