The Purpose of Education reimagined!

In a recent Tweet, @DavidGeurin wrote:

“The purpose of education isn’t mastering standards, getting good grades, or earning diplomas. The Purpose of education is better human stories. It’s about helping people be wiser and better able to care for self and others.”

So true! Our colleague’s thought is consistent with purpose of the education model I have designed. What we teach our children, whatever the subject matter, must not be about grades or standards or diplomas. It is about helping our students  become the best versions of themselves. We want our students  to be able to use what they have learned to make a life for themselves among the people and in the world around them. The subject matter must be a means to an end they will choose for themselves rather than an end we have chosen for them.

We must strive to teach the whole child. We want them to learn how to think critically and creatively. We want them to learn how to get along with the people in their lives however far they spread their wings. We want them to learn how to become good citizens who can participate in their own governance. We want them to understand the cogent issues of their time so they may think and act on the basis reason and wisdom rather than fears and prejudices. We want them to be able to create new and better solutions to the problems the next half century will unveil. We want them to learn that freedom must be balanced by responsibility; and, that we are all interdependent. 

People want to blame our teachers for society’s problems, but unfairly so. Teachers are dedicated men and women who have only done what they were trained and instructed  to do with the resources provided for them. Teachers are constrained by an education process that has evolved gradually over the decades while the world in which our children must live has undergone exponential change.

Is there any reason to think that things will get better if we continue to do and teach what and how we have in the past? We are a society faced with unprecedent challenges and we will not rise to them without a quality education, equitably distributed. What we have done to date has gotten us to this unique point in history. Where we go from here depends on education reimagined, which my model does.  

Go ahead, check it out! Read with hope that it might truly be something new and better that will assure a quality education for all our children and a more fulfilling career for teachers.:

The Hawkins Model©

An Open Letter To: Van Jones re: his 3-Step Pathway

I was fortunate to hear your interview with Brooke Baldwin on CNN, earlier today (6/3), and was encouraged by your suggestion that a there is a 3-step pathway to a better future in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy.

The reader can find a link to this interview at the end of the post.  

Yes, we must stop the bleeding and we must help those who suffered injury and, of course, we must have justice. It is vital that we  restore some level of trust in our public safety and criminal justice systems,  in the minds of black citizens and other minorities. These three steps are essential to moving us closer to a world approaching true equality for all, but they will not take us as far as we need to go.

Please consider adding a fourth step on your pathway:  “reimagining education in America.”

Equal opportunity has been the law of the land since 1964, but it is not the reality in which most blacks and other minorities have lived for the intervening 56 years. The reason is that our education system has not provided a quality education, equally distributed to all children. The education process at work in our schools  has grown obsolete. The process impedes the vital work of our teachers and their students. This education process  is perfectly structured to produce the unacceptable outcomes we have seen for generations.

Americans must understand there will be no equality of opportunity and justice until there is equality in education. It is a quality education that gives young men and women meaningful choices about what do in life to provide for themselves and their families and empowers them to participate in their own governance.

Unless we act to reimagine education in America, the next fifty years will be little better for black men and women and other people of color than the last fifty years.

As tragic as they have been, the time-out provided by the Covid-19 pandemic and the momentum the tragic death of George Floyd has generated, together, have opened an unprecedented window of opportunity. Now is the perfect time for people of principle to unite and follow the, now, “four-step pathway” to a new reality.

To facilitate the fourth step, I offer an education model designed to transform education in America by helping every child learn as much as they are able, at their own best speed. I invite you to examine this model at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Sincerely,

Mel Hawkins, MSEd, MPA

Link to Van Jones interview with Brooke Baldwin on CNN https://www.mediaite.com/tv/cnns-van-jones-calls-police-brutality-an-atomic-bomb-were-one-videotape-away-from-five-or-10-american-cities-on-fire/

How do we extricate ourselves from the mess in which we find ourselves?

I want to share a message my daughter posted on Facebook because she said it better than I could ever hope to. Her message reminds us there are no simple answers to what is happening in our society and that nothing will change until each of us is ready to change:

“Please don’t let your outrage at the fires and looting distract from the reasons why it is happening. Our country is deeply damaged. Anger has festered for decades and it is time for a change. This type of anger is not always expressed quietly and calmly. It is ugly and uncontrolled. As ugly as the racism that has led to it. We must rebuild a better America. An America that is not great AGAIN but great for everyone going forward. White people must realize that people of color are not to be feared – WE are. We have caused this and contributed to it and we must be a part of the change. Do what you can. Donate, volunteer, demonstrate. Speak out when you see something wrong. Find your own way to help. But most importantly, learn empathy and examine yourself. We can all do better.”

                                              -Jeanne Hawkins Beaupre, Facebook, May 31, 2020

We must work to change the fundamental character of America and this can only begin with our system of education, whether public schools, parochial, or private. There is no other way.

Every child must be given the absolute best education we can provide, and this will not happen until we are willing to change how we teach them. We must not allow a single child to fail and we must never forget they can only fail when we choose to allow it. 

We have the power to ensure the academic success of every one of our nation’s children.  

We cannot accomplish this by teaching the same things we have always taught in the same way we have always taught them. We must change the very nature of our education process. While this may seem like an almost impossible task, you will discover it to be easier than most of you can imagine.

We must help every child learn as much as they are able at their own best pace. We must help children establish a foundation of knowledge and skills from which each can begin to create a positive future for him or herself. We must help every boy and girl choose whatever direction suits their interests and abilities.  The education we provide must give them a wide menu of choices of what to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning; must prepare them to provide for themselves and their families; and, it must enable them to participate in their own governance.  

If you would like to learn how this can be accomplished, please check out The Hawkins Model© at my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com

As you read the model, strive to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment, not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work.

If you like what you read, please help me find a superintendent willing to test the model in one of his or her struggling elementary schools.

What do we have to lose? If we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get the same disappointing outcomes  we have been getting for as long as any of us can remember.

More Than One Kind of Hunger!

Our society is learning much from its experience with this pandemic, but as the Novel Coronavirus saga plays out, it is revealing so much more. The most obvious lesson to be learned is with respect to our level of preparation for a phenomenon that is proving to have an adverse effect on, not only our health, but almost everything people do. For educators, our concern is with the impact on our nation’s students when our schools are shut down.

In schools, whether public, private, or parochial, we are learning just how vulnerable our nation’s children are in times of distress. One of the first revelations, beyond “how do we deliver subject matter, remotely,” is learning how much our students depend on us. Not only are many students hungry when they cannot attend school, they are enduring more than just a lack of food. We are seeing families unable to insure their children are being cared for when they must go to work. Given the low wages on which many American families must live, many mothers and/or fathers must work forty or more hours per week to provide a decent living for their families. Some must work more than one job, which only exacerbates the hardship s with which their children must deal.

For many kids, when there is no school there may be few, if any,  breakfasts, lunches, or snacks. One would think any doubts people might have had about the prudence of providing meals for hungry kids should be resolved, What is more central to caring for our children than making sure they have the healthy nutrition they need to learn and grow?

The suspension of so many schools will bring many other issues into sharper focus. It is not just how much our kids depend on school for healthy nutrition but also for safety, for social/emotional support, and for physical exercise, in addition to their intellectual and academic needs. We must keep kids safe from Covid-19, but when they return to school, we need to acknowledge that those schools are more than just places of learning.

As I said, in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream[1], “schools  have become the social milieu in which young people live and endure.” Teachers must realize that they are more than just educators. Whether we like it or not teachers and schools are a support system for the whole child, and we must structure the education process to serve all these needs.

Some teachers have expressed reservations about the level of responsibility they would be asked to bear, under such an education process. They are encouraged to think about how much they enjoy working with their favorite students from over the years. Educators are invited to examine The Hawkins Model© that is designed to increase, for both teachers and students,  the number and duration of these special relationships. Might this not enhance the satisfaction of teachers?

We must embrace the coronavirus as the learning opportunity it has the potential to be. It is unlikely this will be the last crisis of such magnitude we will face in the span of most of our lifetimes.


[1] Hawkins, Mel, Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (2013), CreateSpace.

“Social welfare programs? – A Conundrum”

In a recent gathering, someone remarked that the last things we need are more social welfare programs.

He was correct in implying that such programs do not fix dysfunctional systems. Social welfare programs almost always treat the symptoms of such dysfunctions, not the underlying problems; they are damage control. Unfortunately, until we address the underlying causes of our nation’s problems, we will continue to need damage control.

Social programs help support people who are damaged, in some way, by society’s dysfunctional processes, the most significant of which is the education process within which teachers and students must work.

What we need is a systems’ thinking approach that drills down to the proverbial root causes of our society’s challenges so we can begin to develop strategies to address them. Systems’ thinking not only helps us understand why systems are dysfunctional; it also helps us recognize the forces that influence human processes and organizations. Just as importantly, systems’ thinking helps us understand how we contribute to the problems that concern us; problems that plague our planet and our society.

As we noted above, our single greatest “systems’ failure” is public education. This is despite the heroic effort of America’s several million teachers. It is this observer’s assertion that every other social problem that exists is a product of that dysfunction, to one degree or another.

Because it is structured like a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, the education process creates populations of winners and losers, along with a huge group of people in the middle. That latter population of people in the middle may not be losers but rarely do they experience satisfactory success. They are left wanting.

Because this population of men and women has not acquired a quality education, they have not learned the science of critical thinking or the art/science of creative problem-solving. This gives them little or no control over most of the outcomes in their lives. Although they cling to hope, they often feel powerless to elevate themselves to point from which they can achieve the level of affluence to which they aspire. Instead, these Americans hover in a netherworld of resentment and disappointment, never quite understanding the forces that play havoc with their lives or how their own behavior and beliefs contribute to their plight.

Such people are likely to resent the affluent, whose lives seem out-of-reach to them; and, even more, they resent when the tax dollars they so begrudgingly pay are expended to support the dependency of the less fortunate. That this population of the less fortunate includes a disproportionate percentage of people of color and those for whom English is a second language, creates another layer of complexity.  It validates, in the minds of many, the prejudices acquired from their families and subcultures. Such prejudices are socially destructive.

What our society requires of its education system, is that all children learn as much as they are able from their unique starting point, at their own best pace. Such an environment transforms the experience of young children, beginning at ages five and six. Because they are progressing along a learning continuum, they experience success not failure; in fact, one success after another.

What happens to any of us, while we are learning a skill, is that one gets better with practice. The better one gets the more confident one becomes. The more confident one becomes, they more often he or she succeeds in what becomes a perpetual growth process; a growth mindset, if you will. It is not long until students begin to expect success. As the success continues, the rate of learning begins to accelerate and the limits that have constrained these youngsters for generation begin evaporate.

Consider how different a teacher’s challenge would be if, rather than a classroom of students who are pushed ahead before they are ready and are experiencing disappointing outcomes, routinely; that teacher found him or herself in the midst of a classroom of students who expect to be successful and are enthusiastic about learning.

Which students are most likely to perform well on dreaded high-stakes, state competency examinations

If such outcomes became the norm in public schools, how quickly would the need for programs that provide public support to the poor, begin to diminish? How long before high-risk testing would be rendered irrelevant? How quickly could our teachers be able to shift the focus of students from learning answers to questions on state competency examinations to critical thinking and creativity?

This is the world we could envision if superintendents of districts with struggling elementary schools chose to utilize The Hawkins Model©.

We would have an education process designed to produce the outcomes the American people and society need if they are to flourish and also compete in the global marketplace?

Making Transformational Change

We all know how hard it is to change things that we’ve been doing  for what seems like forever. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, start exercising, or one of a thousand other things, you know inertia can seem almost insurmountable.

Sometimes, however, we cannot get the need for change out of our head. It eats away at us and we might even lose sleep because we can’t stop thinking about it! Deep down we know something is wrong and we also know someone must do something about it. Why not let that someone be you?

Usually, we are only one among many who suffer the consequences of someone else’s inaction.  In the case of public education, everyone suffers because we seem to be stuck in time.

It is even harder when people are bashing us, always telling us we need to do something about this habit or that. No one likes to feel nagged into doing something and we don’t want to be blamed for it.

There is a part of us, however, that just wants to dig in and resist. Often, it is simply a matter of not wanting to admit that the other person might be right, especially when they are right for the wrong reasons; or to suffer what we feel is a blow to our self-esteem; or, just feel the need to defend ourselves from being unfairly blamed.

So, what do we do when there is a crisis and the need for a dramatic transformation is compelling? How do we overcome the monumental power of inertia and, often, self-defense?

Many teachers and administrators are experiencing all these things. They know public education is in crisis and they are sick and tired of taking the blame. They know many of their students are struggling and nothing we do seems to change that fact. Of course, even in struggling schools and classrooms, we do help some of our students but, often, there are just too many of them.

Teachers also know that all the attention they are asked to pay to high-stakes testing  only makes it worse, not better. The seemingly incessant focus on preparation for high-stakes testing just makes it harder to find the time to do the things we know are more important. We also have learned to resent the data from testing and how the numbers have been weaponized to attack teachers and the public schools to which we are so fiercely dedicated.

The truth is, teachers don’t need test scores to understand the problems in public education, because they see them every day in their schools and classrooms. The education system, however, is like a runaway train and all educators feel a sense of powerlessness to slow it down, let alone bring it to a halt.

Even teachers in high-performing schools and classrooms know, deep down, how fortunate they are to be teaching in district, school, or classroom where students want to learn. But for the grace of God—or good fortune–they could be laboring in a classroom where students who want to learn are few.

I challenge all public-school educators to take a step back and acknowledge that something is wrong and that the education process within which we are asked to teach offers no solutions.

I also challenge teachers and administrators to understand that legislators and policy makers cannot fix what is broken because they are too far removed from it to comprehend the full breadth and scope of the challenges facing our public schools.

It is imperative, also, that public school educators understand that education reformers; with their focus on charter schools, teacher- and union-bashing, and voucher programs; cannot fix public education because not only do they not understand how to fix it, they even fail to comprehend how much damage they do with their criticisms and misguided reforms.

The truth is that the only people who can fix what is wrong in so many of our schools and that harms so many of our nation’s precious sons and daughters, are the teachers and administrators who are up to their gills in challenges. What these teachers and educators must be willing to consider is that the answers cannot be found in the trenches.

It is the trenches, however, where professionals learn what is not working and they must feel compelled to utilize what they witness, daily, and what they have learned from those experiences as powerful motivations to embrace transformational change.

We must take back to the laboratories and drawing boards that which we learn in the pits, and then utilize the principles of systems’ thinking, of organizational development, and of positive leadership to create and entirely new way to structure, organize, task, and resource our schools. Only then are we ready to take these new solutions back to our community schools and classrooms.

Have no illusions. The only place we can fix public education in America is in our communities where men, women, and children live, learn, work, and play; and, the only people who can fix it are the teachers, administrators, and the parents of our students.

The key to transformational change is not in complaints, protests, demonstrations, and labor actions—as necessary as they might, sometimes, be.

The key to transformational change will come when professional educators and the communities they serve unite as positive advocates for a new and innovative idea. It must be understood that the sweeping changes that will be required will not be found in incremental changes, new approaches, methodologies, and new technologies, although each of these things will find a home in a new and well-conceived, 21st Century education process.

I respectfully offer an education model  I have developed as a point of embarkation. I call it The Hawkins Model© only to claim the right of authorships. If implemented, someday, my model will be available for free to any public, parochial, or private not-for-profit school that wants to utilize it. The Hawkins Model© was developed from all that I have learned after forty-five years of working with kids, leading organizations, solving problems, working as an independent organizational development and leadership consult, and of walking in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute teacher in the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms of a diverse, urban public school corporation.

Please take time to investigate my model. It may prove to be the solution we need. The very worst that can happen is that it will spark a better idea in the minds and imaginations of a few of you who are reading this post. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share it, widely, and open a dialogue.

Time is a Variable in the Education Equation, not a Constant

In our current education process within which teachers and students must do their important work, time is a constant component in what we might think of as the education equation.  Think of the education equation as you would any other algebraic equation used to illustrate the relationships of the components that work to produce desired outcomes. In the case of public education, we identify our desired outcome as student learning.

Time plays a significant role in the existing education process. We structure our classrooms according to age, which is a function of time. Students progress from Kindergarten or first grade through grade twelve on a year-to-year basis. Time, also, is integral to academic standards. Not only do those standards delineate the things children are expected to learn, we have also set time frames that are coordinated with student grade levels. These suggest where students should be in various skill development and subject areas at pre-determined points in time.

These time components are constants in that neither teachers, administrators, nor public school districts have been given the latitude to alter those time frames. They are part of the framework within which all are expected to work and are utilized to establish the basis on which outcomes are measured; specifically, student achievement . This suggests an underlying assumption that has far-reaching, adverse consequences for our nation’s children. It suggests all children learn and develop according to the same time schedules.

This plays out in the classrooms where students of a certain age are assigned to the same grade level and move from one grade to the next at the end of a calendar school year. Grades designed to measure and report student achievement are recorded by school year, semester, and grade period.

Within classrooms, students are expected to move from lesson to lesson and chapter to chapter as a group. Teachers develop lesson plans with time frames to which classes march in cadence, moving students from lesson to lesson. After allowing time for practice assignments, lesson plans have some time allocated for helping students learn from both their successes and mistakes. Within that framework, teachers do the best they can, responding to students with disparate needs and outcomes, but many  teachers would say it is never enough to meet the needs of every student, particularly those who struggle.

The reality is teachers are given little or no latitude to stop the march of time and make certain every child understands. When it is time, students are given chapter or unit tests and then must move on to next lessons and topics, ready or not.

When standardized tests are given, results are reported in relation to grade levels, as established by academic standards. When individual students are unable to pass these assessments in key subject areas, they are considered below grade level. In other words, they are not doing well when their performance is compared to students of the same grade and age.

This practice reveals significant flaws in our thinking about how students learn. We fail to consider that students start from the different points on an academic preparedness continuum. It also assumes that the appropriate way to gage a student’s progress is by comparing their progress to classmates.

Consider two students who arrive for school at the same time and age. One starts at point “zero” on a theoretical  “academic preparedness continuum,” while the other may have begun ten points ahead on that same preparedness scale.  Let’s assume, one year later, the first student has progressed from point zero to point six, while the second student has progressed from point ten to point fifteen. If the expectation is that students, at that age and grade, should have progressed to point fifteen, the second student is at grade level and the first is not.

Had we taken a closer look at the data, we would see that the first student actually made more progress than their classmate. With this data in hand, which student would we say accomplished the most? Is keeping up with a classmate truly more important than making significant individual progress? Most of us would say it is not, yet this is the way we assess performance.

This is an over-simplification, to be sure, but it is representative of what happens in classrooms across the nation for millions of children. The consequences of such things can be staggering in the life of a child. Consider that the first student, working hard to catch up and making progress, is viewed by the system as behind, based on test scores. In these situations, do any of these students begin to acquire the label of being below average or slow? We say this does not happen, but we all know it does.

We also say that the expectations for such students are never lowered but do we believe that? What happens to the child for whom expectations are lowered? How do they ever get back on track? They same is true at the conclusion of each lesson. How do students fare who are pushed ahead before they fully grasp the subject matter?   

The key to resolving these types of inequalities is to make time an independent variable, rather than a constant; giving teachers and administrators the latitude, first, to see that kids who are behind, for whatever reason, are given more time and attention so they might catch up; and, second, to measure each child’s performance against their own progress rather than on the basis of an arbitrary schedule of expectations or the performance of others.

Time can be an extraordinarily powerful tool  to enable teachers to help kids sustain their progress and be recognized as a “striving learner” rather than as one of the slow kids in the class. Presently, time is an extraordinarily negative force, constraining teachers and impeding student progress. This is just one example of how the education process is structured to function contrary to the best interests of both students and teachers.

The education model I have created was designed to mold the education process, including time, around the needs of teachers and students. The Hawkins Model© is engineered to empower teachers to utilize time as a resource to help students experience, celebrate, and be recognized for their progress; for their success. Consider how an environment is transformed when both students and teachers enjoy success. Confidence grows with each successful step taken. Once a child’s confidence and self-esteem begin to soar, who knows how much they may accomplish, someday. If you are a teacher, imagine what such an atmosphere would mean to you.

Differentiating Control and Influence with Respect to Student Achievement

Thanks to @StevenSinger3 for his comment that “student achievement and growth are things teachers do not control. His other point is that “lawmakers need to understand this & stop trying to hold us accountable for things out of our control.”

Of course, he is correct. Teachers can no more control the achievements of their students than leaders can control the achievement of their people. What teachers can and must do, however, is influence their students. How we differentiate control and influence has much significance in addressing the challenges facing teachers and public schools.

To be able to adapt to the needs of their students, teachers must possess some level of control over the education process; empowering them to exercise discretion. This brings an important question into focus. “Does the education process exist to serve the needs of teachers and students or do teachers and kids exist to serve the process.” See my earlier post entitled: A Square Peg in the Round Hole of Public Education.”

The existing education process is rigid and un-malleable. It functions to ensure that what students are to be taught conforms to academic standards and timeframes. It is not designed to provide teachers with the flexibility they need to differentiate with respect to student needs.

We have carved out exceptions for children who have been identified as having a recognized disability and this works reasonably well. Little has been done, however, for the children whose deficiency is academic preparedness, whatever its genesis. The fact that children of color and those for whom English is not their mother tongue are disproportionately represented in the population of students with an academic preparedness deficiency has enormous adverse  consequences  for all aspects of American society.

How can we expect our teachers, unsung heroes all, to have a significant positive influence on these disadvantaged children if they cannot differentiate?  

In many schools, disadvantaged kids are the rule not the exception.  It is imperative that teachers be able to deviate from rigid structure of the education process for any student who struggles; and this is especially true during a student’s first few years of school. If we cannot get kids on a positive learning path when they are 5 and 6 years old, they are likely to have given up by the time they are fifteen and sixteen? It is incredibly difficult to remediate the learning patterns of young people who have spent as many as ten years learning that it is pointless to try.

The brains of normal newborn babies are programmed to learn. Babies soak up the world around them through their sensory apparatus. Because of their innate curiosity, kids are motivated to learn but that motivation must be sustained. When they arrive for their first day of school, we can help sustain or, if necessary, re-ignite that motivation with positive reinforcement that is most powerful if it is provided within the context of a nurturing relationship with people who care about them. Positive reinforcement from parents or other caregivers and teachers, who are both able and committed to giving kids time and attention, can be a powerful  force. It works best when the providers of that reinforcement are working in concert, as members of a team, but often, it will be left to teachers. Hence, it is imperative that teachers are given latitude.

Think of that positive reinforcement in terms of affirmation, acknowledgement, and celebration of success. Affirmation is reinforcement of an individual’s inherent value. It is letting kids know that they are important, that we like and care about them. It instills a sense of belonging. Think about how many of the students who have engaged in acts of violence against their classmates and teachers  appeared to exist on the fringes of their in-school communities; who felt no sense of belonging. That sense of being a part of a community, team, or family not only helps develop a healthy self-esteem, it helps nurture and sustain one’s motivation to learn.

Acknowledgement and celebration of success are essential to learning. Success must be experienced before it can be acknowledged and celebrated, however. If the education process neither authorizes nor facilitates the ability of teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn, not only are students deprived of the opportunity to master subject matter, they are denied the opportunity to celebrate success, which reinforces the learning process and their motivation to learn.

Recall, always, the learning process is, itself, learned behavior.

It is true they do not control student achievement, but teachers have power to influence that achievement, provided they are able to exercise discretion and exert some level of control over the education process.  If the education process does not accommodate that freedom of action, on the part of teachers, it must be replaced.

Growth Mindset: an Essential Tool of Positive Leadership

This past weekend, I was pleased to receive an invitation to help @LeeAraoz prepare for a presentation by sharing my experience with growth mindset. I was asked to post a video on his growth mindset Flipgrid.

Because of a combination of not figuring out how to post my video on his Flipgrid, and the distraction of yet another in a long series of remodeling problems on our home, I missed my opportunity. Given my belief in the importance of a growth mindset, I will share my thoughts, here.

When I first heard the term “growth mindset, I had to stop and think about what it meant. After a little research, I was excited to discover that I have been talking about and teaching the concept for decades. In my leadership consulting practice, I referred to the concept of learning continuously as striving for “relentless improvement.”

I much prefer the more apt and elegant descriptor, “growth mindset.”

I have long believed that this focus on relentless improvement, growth, and learning is an essential tool of positive leadership, whether as a manager or supervisor in a business organization, a principal of a school, or a teacher in the classroom. We must always strive to pry open our minds to growth. We must be willing to challenge our assumptions at any point in time as we work to be better at what we do and produce better outcomes.

Change and growth are an essential part of life for both people and organizations. When the outcomes we produce tell us something is not working, doing nothing is irresponsible. It is a silly analogy, I know, but imagine changing the decorations on a cake but never baking a new cake. Sooner or later you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Someone, many years ago, shared with me the advice of a ski instructor, who said:

“if you are not falling down once in a while, you are not really skiing.”

When we extend ourselves to the cusp of our knowledge and experience, we fall down. It’s what we all do; it is how we learn. The best advice I can give people is “don’t sweat the mistakes we make, celebrate them.”

“Stop complaining,” is another challenge I offer to current or aspiring positive leaders. Complaints are the province of the weak and powerless. When unhappy about some aspect of your life, job, or organization, instead of complaining, offer a better idea or solution. If you do not have a better idea or alternate approach of your own, become a positive advocate for someone else’s proposal for change. If no one has a better idea, put your heads together and discover one.

There will always be a better way if we take the time and teach ourselves how to search for it. Train your mind to push the boundaries of your imagination, to reject complacency, to ask tough questions, and challenge your assumptions. Nothing hampers a growth mindset like complacency and inertia.

My mission in life, for the past decade, has been to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids. These kids are not destined to fail, and they do not struggle because they are incapable of learning, or because they have bad teachers and bad schools. If we listen to these kids, and observe their behavior, it becomes apparent that they are “street smart.” They learn what is important to them and they learn what works for them in their unique environments. The only way to convince them that what we are striving to teach them is important is by convincing them, through our words and actions, that they are important.

Growth mindset is an essential tool of positive leadership.

When disadvantaged kids struggle and fail in school it is because the education process in which their teachers are expected to teach does not allow them to give every student the time, support, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages. Those disadvantages, un-remediated, leave young people at the mercy of discrimination.

Until teachers give up, themselves, and leave the profession they chose with such high hopes and aspirations, I can assure you they do everything they can to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. The education process in which teachers are expected to work, however,  is not structured to support them in that effort. The education process at work in American schools, both public and private, has become brittle and unresponsive to the changes taking place in the world in which their students must live and teachers must work.

The moment a process, product, service, or idea can no longer be improved is the point at which it becomes obsolete.

That’s why I developed The Hawkins Model©. It offers an education process that has been designed to serve teachers and students as they do their important work, not the other way around. It’s a simple question of “who exists to serve whom?”

Never underestimate your power to influence to the world around you. Cultivate a growth mindset for yourselves and create an environment that fosters relentless growth and learning for the people around you.

NAEP and Other Standardized Tests Have Been Weaponized.

This a break in my series on positive leadership in order to respond to a recent post on our colleague @StevenSinger3’s outstanding  blog. Gadfly on the Wall.

The reaction of public-school educators to the results of standardized tests, whether state-based or national is very much like the reaction to more lessons and tests in their classrooms on the part of struggling students. When one feels victimized by something, having an aversion to it is a natural thing.

The genesis of high-stakes testing is irrelevant when public school educators feel beaten down by such exams and by the blame that is so often attached. In essence, standardized tests have been weaponized and are used to attack the very existence, not to mention credibility, of public-school teachers and administrators, and the public schools in which they teach. It should not be surprising that these educators go on the defensive at the mere mention of high stakes testing.

This is no different than a student who fails lesson after lesson with such repetition that they feel hopeless. By the time they reach middle school, struggling students have given up on learning. Some of them have given up and stopped trying by the time they reach the middle elementary grades three, four, or five. While the  demographics of these children cover the full spectrum of American society, a disproportionate percentage of them are poor, have skins that are varying shades of brown, or live in households where English is not their mother tongue.

It is no different than a person or a dog that has been beaten by a cane. After a while, they begin to react, viscerally, to the very sight of the cane. Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the cane other than it is being utilized in a manner other than its intended purpose. If the child’s parent or grandparent, or a pet’s owner, picks up the cane and uses it to help themselves walk across the room it is serving its true purpose and is inherently good. The child or pet that has been beaten by that same cane will shy away from it, nevertheless.

The problem in public education is not high stakes testing rather it is that they are being utilized as a weapon to attack public education as a whole, and teachers and their schools, more specifically.

Neither is there anything inherently evil about the results of such exams other than the fact that they are being used for reasons other than their purpose. Because they trigger a negative emotional response, educators have discounted the value of what we can learn from them. It is probably more accurate to say that educators have rejected the value of the results, altogether.

This is unfortunate because those results validate what we learn by examining the gradebooks of public-school teachers. The results confirm what our military services are dealing with when a significant percentage of our nation’s young men and women are unable to score well enough on the ASVAB[1] to qualify for enlistment. They correlate with the experiences of employers who want to hire these young men and women but find them unqualified. The results of all these assessments corroborate the reality that the men and women who populate our prisons were, at one time, our struggling students.

Having been one of those employers I can attest to the frustration when so many candidates for vacant positions lack basic math and reading skills essential to the jobs they would be asked to perform; even entry-level production or warehouse positions. For a brief period, before a change in our ownership, we provided basic math and reading skills instruction for these candidates. Even then, the results were disillusioning. Many struggled and some quit. My interpretation, then, was that they felt traumatized by the classroom.

I saw this while subbing, particularly in middle school classrooms, when students appear to be afraid to try. This triggered recollections from my years as a juvenile probation officer when my probationers seemed afraid when encouraged to talk about school experiences.

I challenge public school teachers to imagine how kids feel when, week after week, lesson after lesson, they  perform poorly on practice assignments and fail both quizzes and chapter tests. Imagine how you would feel if the evaluations from your principals were negative, time after time. After a while, being instructed to “work harder” is as demeaning as it is unhelpful.

I know teachers agonize over these kids and I know they do the best they can in the environment in which they are asked to work. I tell myself that these teachers, whom I have come to respect, must know in their hearts that something is not working; that, somehow, the process is flawed.

High stakes testing has become a pivotal issue for educators on both sides of the debate on the future of public education in America. It is worth looking at the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) testing because the results confirm that what is happening in our schools is not confined to a few unfortunate communities or school districts but occurs nation-wide. What is important about NAEP assessments is the way they define the “Proficient” level of performance.

The vital component of that definition is that it attempts to measure the ability of these youngsters to utilize what they were expected to learn in real life situations. Ultimately, this is the only measure that counts. I have no illusions that the instruments of assessment are perfect. Yes, they are culturally biased; yes, multiple choice questions are limited in their utility even though we have been using them in our classrooms for generations; but, it seems that the results are the same however we measure them. Even the chapter tests that are given in almost all classrooms, routinely, bring us to the same conclusion.

It does not matter what teachers and other educators think their students have learned; and neither do graduation rates matter. Similarly, the piece of paper with which graduates walk away that says they have completed a portion of their formal education is meaningless if they cannot apply useful skills and knowledge in real life.

Whether young people can apply what they were expected to have learned when they go out into the world and strive to make a life for themselves is the essential question and the basis on which the performance of our education process must be measured. And let us make it perfectly clear that it is the efficacy of the education process that all forms of assessment measure, not the effectiveness of public school teachers, public schools, or public education as a whole.

No matter how hard they work, how qualified they may be, nor how dedicated public-school educators may be, they cannot make an obsolete education process give us outcomes it is poorly designed and structured to produce.

My message to public school teachers is that I am not here to blame you. You are my heroes. I have subbed in classrooms that have shown me the challenges you face, daily. I have experienced what it is like to strive to teach in a classroom where the distractions of student behavior make it seem impossible. I have felt the dread of walking into a classroom every day, after having to gird myself for the challenges I was certain to face. I have at least sampled the frustration of professional men and women who are unable to do what they were trained to do; who are unable to experience the satisfaction of helping kids learn and grow—the very reason why they chose to become a teacher in the first place.

Teachers and principals: you are not to blame. I do not question your commitment or professionalism. I do not dispute how hard you work or how valiantly you strive to give your students what they need to learn. The education process that has been at work in our schools for as long as any of us can remember does not work for a significant percentage of our students, and it does not work for teachers. I would assert, also, that it does an injustice to even the students who appear to be performing well because it inhibits their ability to achieve at their full potential.

Both teachers and their students deserve better.

The challenge is, we cannot create better outcomes until we analyze what contributes to the struggles of our students and are willing to let go of the traditional methods and approaches with which we have grown comfortable. For most of you, it is the only way you have ever known.

Our students are not struggling because of bad teachers and bad schools. Neither are they struggling because they are poor, because of the color of their skin, because of the language of their birth, or because they are genetically incapable of learning.

I want to convince you that poverty is as much a consequence of inequality in education as it is a cause of that inequality.

I want you to understand that we will never get better outcomes for your students—our nation’s most valuable assets—until we go back to the drawing board. We will not get better outcomes until:

  • We assess the level of academic preparedness of each student when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.
  • We tailor what we do to meet the unique needs of each student;
  • We create an environment in which they can form enduring relationships with teachers who will provide the constant emotional, physical, and academic support they require;
  • We ensure that every child has at least one teacher with whom he or she can bond, even the kids who are hardest to love,
  • We discontinue the practice of severing relationships between students and a teacher on whom they have come to rely;
  • We stop treating education as a competition in which some kids win, and others lose;
  • We stop pushing kids ahead to “next lessons’ before they are ready—before they have mastered and understand their previous lesson in each subject area;
  • We stop asking students who “get it” to sit by patiently until their classmates catch up;
  • We stop marching to the tune of arbitrary schedules and time frames;
  • We stop measuring the performance of students against the performance of their classmates;
  • we free teachers from the unnecessary distractions that prevent them from giving each child the time and attention they need to feel safe, to feel special, and to learn at their own unique pace;
  • We give teachers the freedom to utilize whatever approaches, methodologies, media, or technology that will help a given student learn;
  • We recognize that our students are not all preparing for the same destinations and aspirations and that no one destination is more important than others;
  • We allow our students to discover the best versions of themselves and chart out their own goals and ambitions;
  • We ensure that every child learns that success is a process of learning from our outcomes and experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, and that it is a process each of them can master;
  • Until together and with enthusiasm, we have celebrated all their successes along the pathway to whatever destiny they have chosen for themselves;
  • They have developed the powerful self-esteem they will need to face the unprecedented challenges in the balance of this 21st Century; and,
  • They have sufficient strength of character and the tools to withstand the slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination with which so many of them will be subjected.

Answer the following question for your own benefit, not for mine:

“Is the education process in which you are asked to teach structured to provide students with each of these essential components?”

My purpose as an advocate for an education model designed to provide all these things, is to recruit you to rally around a positive idea that can transform public education in America.

I am an advocate for public education in community schools that are accountable to the residents of those communities. I am an advocate for teachers, whom I consider to be unsung heroes who have one of the most important jobs in all of society.  

I encourage you to ask yourself: “What if there is another way to teach our nation’s children?” What if there is a way that gives all children, not just a lucky few, the quality education they deserve while giving teachers the career you dreamt of when you chose the field of education?

What if there is a way to ensure that you will make a difference, every day, without the distractions and complications that have led so many of your colleagues to leave teaching?

Why not sneak a peek at a new education model, The Hawkins Model©; a new way to teach your students? What do you have to lose?

Remember that it is a quality education on which the future of our nation’s children depends, and it is on those same children that the future of our nation depends.


[1] Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the instrument used by the Armed Services to determine eligibility for enlistment.