Is The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream Complete?

In advance of an appearance by his son, Martin Luther King III, an editorial about the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., appeared in Sunday, June 2nd’s, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. The headline: “A dream left incomplete.” In addition to asking the son to provide personal insights about his father, the column pondered, “But what did King really accomplish? What would MLK Jr say is still left undone?”

 Although MLK, Jr. is the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement he was only one of the many heroes who labored to bring an end to discrimination in America. Had it not been for their courage and sacrifices,  the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other civil rights legislation might have been long in coming.

MLK III, is quoted as saying, “No one possibly could have projected that we would be going backward instead of forward,” referencing “the turmoil over immigration and political discourse that encourages hostility and racism and distorts the truth.”

The challenge for America, today, is to address the question, “why has so little progress been made to make black Americans and other minorities full and equal partners in American society, whether economically or politically?” The question demands  a frank an unapologetic examination.

The answer, this author believes, is that the protests and sacrifices of the civil rights movement and the subsequent civil rights legislation over the past 55 years have given black and other minority Americans the right to equal opportunity but not the means to take full advantage of those opportunities.

How does one acquire the means to take advantage of opportunities? The answer is education.

It is time to stop playing the blame game and acknowledge, once and for all, that the education process that has been in place in our schools has failed to serve the interests of disadvantaged children for as long as any of us can remember.  Over the generations, we have become inured to the failure of black and other minority children and have been willing to take the easy path by blaming poverty, segregation, public schools, and teachers. When are we going to acknowledge the obvious, that what we are asking our teachers and schools to do does not work for all?

We must also acknowledge that there are some Americans who are content to believe that the documented performance of the disadvantaged is the best that we can expect from these whole populations of children. This is an outrageous assertion that must be put behind us, permanently.

Similarly, we must stop blaming teachers and our public schools. Teachers cannot make an obsolete education process work for every child any more than you or I can quickly and efficiently mow an acre of overgrown grass with an unmotorized push mower from the early 1950s. That so many children have received a good education, notwithstanding the flawed education process within which our teachers have had to work, is an extraordinary accomplishment.

That our education leaders, policy makers, and elected officials have allowed so many children to languish  over multiple generations cannot be undone. Neither can we turn back the clock and absolve millions of teachers of the blame we have been so willing to heap on their shoulders and reputations. What we can and must do is bring this tragedy to a halt, now!

Continuing to rely on a brittle and antiquated education process that does not work for millions of our nation’s children—our most precious assets—is as irresponsible as it would have been to allow hundreds of Boeing 737s to continue flying after we discovered the existence of a fatal flaw in their systems. Unlike those Boeing737s, however, we can not change out a software application to correct the problems of education in America.

Can you think of any other venue where we have been so willing to endure products and services of such unacceptable quality? If an automaker produced vehicles that broke down as often as students fail in our schools would we keep buying their cars? If a restaurant in our neighborhood consistently produced bad breakfasts, lunches, and, dinners would we keep going back?

To fix the fatal flaws of America’s schools and give teachers an  education process that will provide every single one of our nation’s children with the means to take advantage of the opportunities to which they have an equal right, we must be willing to reinvent the education process from scratch. It must be reconstructed to serve its essential purpose, not in a few special schools but in every school, serving every community in America.

We must begin by changing the question we ask ourselves. Rather than ask “Why do so many children fail?” the question we must begin to ask is “Why do some children excel despite the disadvantages they face?”

What are the lessons to be learned from the exceptions to the norm? Could it be that, given the right circumstances, even disadvantaged kids can achieve at a high academic level? The challenge is to figure out how to replicate those “right circumstances” in every classroom, for every student.

The dream of which Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke with such eloquence is not complete and will not be complete until every child receives the quality education to which they are entitled.  Giving them that education requires that we abandon our obsolete education process and go back to the drawing board to create a process that works for all.

Creating such a process is what I have labored to do since I had the opportunity to see, first-hand, the challenges with which our teachers and students must deal. I witnessed those challenges while walking in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute teacher. The outcome of my efforts is an education model designed to focus on its essential purpose, which is to insure that every student receives the unique time and attention they need to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. This is the what teachers must be tasked to do and my model is crafted to support teachers and students in fulfillment of that essential purpose. Please check out my model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

It is on the public education that the future of our nation’s children depends, and it is on our children that the future of America depends.

In Case You’ve Missed Me!

Haven’t heard a Tweet from me in a while?

At the conclusion of a wonderful holiday visit, my four grandchildren went home after generously sharing a variety of germs and viruses. Bless their little hearts. I would make the same trade again, gladly, because they are such a joy for their Grandmother and me. The exchange does not come without consequences, however, and even had I not had other commitments, it would have taken time to get my mind and body back into the rhythm of writing.

Those other commitments have to do with administering the ASVAB (Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery); a subject about which I have written on many occasions.

Let me tell you what is happening in Indiana.

For the 2018/2019 school year, the State of Indiana authorized the use of the ASVAB to high school students as an alternate pathway to graduation. Students who are unable to pass their ISTEP+ exams in English language arts and math, which are required for graduation, can now take the ASVAB. Whether they believe the ASVAB might be easier for students to pass than ISTEPS—which would amount to lowering standards and expectations—or is just more student-friendly, I do not know.

If students earn a score of 31or higher on the AFQT component of the ASVAB they qualify for graduation. Coincidentally, a score of 31 is the minimum requirement for enlistment in the military. The AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) is comprised of four of the eight ASVAB subtests currently offered to students: Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, and Mathematics Knowledge.

Although I have not seen data to verify that many of the students who could not pass ISTEPs are having success with the ASVAB, I do believe the AFQT score is a meaningful threshold. AFQT scores are percentile scores, which means that 30 percent of all the individuals who take the ASVAB are unable to qualify for enlistment. As I begin my fifteenth year as an ASVAB test administrator, I have come to view the AFQT score as a “world ready” benchmark. I believe it demonstrates that an individual has a basic, if minimal, academic foundation that will allow them to have choices; to find a place for themselves in society.

Students who score less than an AFQT score of “30,on the other hand, will have very few choices. Young adults who score 20 or below, and remember this is a percentile score so there are many young men and women with such scores, are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

What does it say about public education when so many schools have so many students unable to pass state competency exams that they must be provided with alternate pathways?

Yes, I agree that these large, standardized exams are a burden on students, teachers, and schools and should not be utilized to evaluate their performance. That we are using these tests inappropriately, however, does not mean these tests measure nothing of consequence. We need to learn from the results of this misguided practice.

What these tests tell us is that a significant population of students cannot demonstrate proficiency on subject matter that we have identified as essential to their future well-being. That point is corroborated by NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) assessments; the experience of employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified young people; and, from my own anecdotal observations of the performance of recent high-schools graduates on the enlistment version of the ASVAB.

High-stakes testing has pushed public schools to change the way they teach but rather than change the way we teach to meet the needs of students with disparate levels of academic preparation, we have changed the way we teach in ways that divert us from our mission. What is that mission? To prepare young people to make a place for themselves in society where they will have meaningful choices.

As education leaders and policy makers, we have learned the wrong lessons and we are asking our teachers to teach kids things that will not help them make a life for themselves. Teachers are being pushed to teach kids to pass a test rather than to learn and retain the knowledge and skills they will need in life.

Teachers know that what they are being asked to do does not work for some children, but many of their leaders are not listening. Some of the leaders who do listen cling to the belief that if we ask teachers to work a little bit harder and if we tried a few new techniques, things would begin to change. Such tactics will not alter anything unless we redesign the process.

When are superintendents and their school boards going to step back far enough to see that what we are doing is not working for vast numbers of the children they exist to serve? When will these leaders recognize that the biggest impact of the modifications they have implemented is that they have made teaching more challenging than it already is? Their choices are putting undue pressure on dedicated teachers in our classrooms and are driving thousands of these men and women from the profession they entered because they hoped to make a difference.

In the private sector, if providers of goods and services were to produce unacceptable outcomes, year after year, their customers would demand that they redesign the entire production or service delivery process to produce the outcomes those customers want. The truth to which all public school educators must open their hearts, minds, eyes, and ears to is that this is exactly what the “school choice” movement is striving to do: replace public schools. These reformers will not cease and desist until public schools begin to produce better outcomes. And, no, advocates of “school choice” are not ready to acknowledge that charter schools are not meeting expectations.

With respect policy makers, superintendents, and their school boards, their intransigence is placing public education at risk by refusing to challenge their assumptions about what they ask of their teachers and why. Because our society relies on public education to prepare young men and women for the responsibilities of productive citizenship, that intransigence is placing our democracy at risk.

It is the easy way out to conclude that our teachers cannot teach and that some students, disadvantaged kids in particular, are unable to learn but these conclusions are absurd.

Teachers can teach and they are committed to their students and to their profession, but they can only do what the education process allows them to do and for which it provides the structure and support. If we can craft the process around teachers everything will change.

Our students can learn if we take the time to understand and respond to their needs. Once they begin to gain confidence in their ability to learn, their motivation to learn and their pace of learning will accelerate.

Please consider an alternative approach to education. Please consider an education model engineered to meet the needs of students and their teachers by creating a process that exists to serve the important work they do rather than one that forces compliance and conformity. Check my model out at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

The impact all of this testing has had on me, personally, and has contributed to a reduction in Tweets and blog posts, is that the number of schools offering the ASVAB has more than trebled. In the past, I might have administered four to five schools a month, I am now testing three to five times a week and each test, depending on the number of students who will be taking it, requires significant pre- and post-test preparation time. This quickly erodes the amount of time I normally allocate for writing and drains my energy, particularly when my nose is dripping and I am coughing. Not counting the three enlistment test sessions I have administered in the first 10 school days of the new year, I have tested over five hundred students in six schools.

Over the balance of the month of January, which is nine school days, I am scheduled to test up to 500 more students in six schools, in addition to two more of my weekly enlistment tests. During the first few months since the start of the school year, and up until the holidays, I tested over 3000 students in twenty-four high schools in Northeast Indiana. Please note that I am only one of several test administrators who are testing in high schools both in NE Indiana and throughout the state.

Thanks for your inquiries, and I hope to be writing more, soon!

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/

An Open Letter to Jason Riley at The Wall Street Journal

Thank you for your column in the Wall Street Journal, “Do Black Students Need White Peers?” There are several issues in your column to which I want to respond.

The direct answer to your question is, “No, But.”

Black students do not need to have white children in their schools and classrooms in order to learn and I will elaborate on this point, below. The “But” part, however, is that all children benefit from being in in schools and classrooms with a diverse population of children. I believe diversity benefits every human being, whatever their age or venue.

The second point to address is the “Choice” movement with its focus on charters schools and vouchers. While I have nothing against charter schools, it is a myth that they always perform at a higher level than public schools. The data shows that while there are many successful charter schools, there are many that underperform when compared to the public schools they were intended to replace.

My biggest problem with the education reform movement focused on “choice” is that it is suggested that this is the solution to improving the quality of education in America; that it will end the performance gap between black and white children; or, that it will improve our nation’s ability to compete in the world marketplace. None of these assertions are true.

Having the best product or service in the world means nothing unless you are able to deliver it to customers. Any solution must be logistically feasible and it is simply not feasible to believe that we can solve the issue of the quality of American education with a handful of charters schools scattered in communities throughout the U.S. It would take us generations to create a sufficient number of charters schools to meet the needs of millions of American children and we cannot wait that long.

Besides, we already have school buildings in every community in the nation, all staffed with qualified teachers, trained in the same colleges and universities in which most charter school teachers were educated. The problem with both private and public education in America is that the education process that is utilized to teach our children has been obsolete for most of our lifetimes.

It is not the school building that makes the difference and it is not the teachers that are the problem. The only thing that makes a difference is what we do in our classrooms–what we ask of our teacher–wherever it is located. The sad but undeniable truth is that the education process in place in American public schools has not changed, materially, for as long as anyone can remember while the world into which our children are born has changed exponentially. The education process does not work for disadvantaged children and I believe the current education process does a disservice to even students on the upper end of the performance continuum.

The failure of the education process is not because teachers are incompetent and not because they do not care. The vast majority of American public school teachers are unsung heroes striving to do a difficult job under nearly impossible circumstances. My only complaint of teachers is that they have been blamed for the problems in our schools for so long that they have grown defensive when they should be banging on the table and yelling that what they are being asked to do does not work.

The real problem in our schools is that education leaders whether principals, superintendents, college professors, or policy makers are not under the same pressure, as their counterparts in a business environment, to relentlessly challenge their assumptions and to question whether they are meeting the needs of their customers.

The longer we delay fixing this obsolete education process the more young Americans will be forced to endure failure. We cannot afford to waste a single child and neither can our nation afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these children represent. Public education is the civil rights issue of our time and is at the root of all of our nation’s social and political problems. That so many people are so poorly educated that they are unable to bear the responsibilities of citizenship is why so many other Americans have grown bitter and resentful. The bitterness and resentment in the hearts of people for whom the American Dream is not real burns every bit as deeply.

The irony is that reinventing the education process to meet the needs of every American child is a relatively easy thing to do if education leaders, advocates, and policy makers would simply open their minds and hearts to the idea that their might be a better way.

As I have written, so often, the education process is no different than a production, assembly, or service-delivery process in the business world. Neither is it different than an application software. It is simply a logical process designed by human beings to produce a desired outcome. Such processes are altered, reinvented, and re-engineered with regularity in the private sector because businesses must respond to the dissatisfaction of their customers and to the dynamic changes in the expectations of those customers. Reinventing a process to produce a better outcome is a routine necessity in the private sector. In public education, and in many other public venues, such reinventions seem to be beyond the imagination of our leaders.

There is an axiom in operations management that if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are then the process is flawed and must be replaced. We must go back to the drawing board. Just as in any other venue, a process must be focused on its purpose to such a degree that every single activity must be judged on the basis of how well it serves that purpose and how well it supports the people on whom one relies to do the job. The same is true for teaching kids.

In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond makes the same point when she wrote:

“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”

In American public education we have not reinvented the education process in generations, and no, just providing new and more sophisticated tools is not sufficient. The education process is not focused on the needs of students and it sets them up for failure and humiliation.

When young children show up for their first day of school the disparity in terms of their academic preparedness is cavernous. Yet teachers are expected to move kids along, from year to year, marching to the beat of a given state’s academic standards—common core or not—at relatively the same pace. As children begin to fall behind because they need more time to learn a given lesson, they are pushed ahead, ready or not. The teacher records a low or failing score in their gradebook and it’s off to the next lesson. In many subject areas, the child’s ability to learn a new lesson requires that he or she be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. As a result, the probability that a child who has fallen behind will fail, yet again, increases.

If you examine state competency scores in any state you will find that by the third grade, only about a third of disadvantaged students can pass both the English Language Arts and mathematics components of those exams. By the time those students reach middle school the percentage of those same kids who are able to pass both ELA and math exams has dropped to 25 percent or less. What we are teaching these kids is how to fail. School districts may boast of high graduation rates but an unacceptable number of those diplomas are worthless pieces of paper.

As it happens, I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to young men and women who wish to enlist in the military. Most of these young people who take the ASVAB for enlistment purposes are recent high school grads or high school seniors. The minimum score for enlistment eligibility in the Army, for example, is a percentile score of 31, meaning that 30 percent of the candidates are not eligible for enlistment. (Some services have higher eligibility requirements).

ASVAB scores for blacks and other minorities mirrors the performance of middle school students on state competency exams that I referenced above. If one is unable to qualify for even the least desirable jobs in the military, for how many civilian jobs will they be qualified? So much for 80 to 90 percent graduation rates. It’s not the diploma that matters it is how one can apply in the real world that which they learned in school.

The sad but compelling truth is that this has been going on for more than a half century and, as a result, our poor urban and rural communities throughout America are filled with multiple generations of men and women who have always been poor and who all failed in school, diplomas notwithstanding. Many are dependent on their government, to the great resentment of other Americans. Why, because the education process has never been designed with the same rigorous focus on the needs of its students or to support teachers in meeting those needs.

It doesn’t need to be this way but no one wants to listen. We can alter this reality for all time as easily as we can alter a production process at a manufacturing facility or re-engineer the software of a computer application.

I invite you to check out my website where you will find an education model I have developed at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

I, also, invite you to check out my blog, “Education, Hope, and the American Dream” where I have posted over 150 articles on the subject of public education and the challenge of meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other children of color.

For nearly 5 years I have been seeking a public school corporation willing to test my education model in just one of its underperforming elementary schools to demonstrate that we can teach every child to be successful and insure that no child fails. I have had no takers.

Since it takes 13 years to get a new Kindergarten student through high school, every year we delay creates a whole new generation of young Americans with no choices of what to do with their lives to find joy, to support a family, or to participate in their own governance as a well-informed citizen of a democratic society.

How long are we willing to accept an avoidable tragedy that destroys millions of young lives and that jeopardizes the future of our society?