Political Commentary by a Concerned American and Supporter of Community Public Schools!

Differentiation is the most vital of the missing ingredients in public education in America and merits a serious discussion; a discussion that will follow this commentary in a subsequent post.

The way academic standards are written; the way curricula are designed to teach to those standards; and the way high-stakes testing is geared to measure performance against those standards and hold both teachers and schools accountable shape the function and character of the education process in America. The result is an education process structured like a conveyer belt that moves students from point to point down the list of academic standards without regard for the unique requirements, academic preparedness, strengths, weakness, and personalities of these children from five years of age to eighteen.

Teachers do the best they can to differentiate with respect to the diverse needs of their students. Because teachers are not encouraged to deviate from the curriculum, however, there are only so many exceptions even the most accomplished and innovative teachers can carve out of their daily lesson plan and classroom-management responsibilities. The more challenging the classroom the more difficult it becomes to personalize our approach and the more adverse the consequences of not doing so.

That so many of our public schools and their students seem unable to rise to these standards should prompt us to challenge the effectiveness of the education process and, probably, the academic standards, themselves. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, critics of public education have opted, instead, to question the effectiveness of public schools and their teachers rather than challenge the efficacy of the process within which our teachers are expected to teach.

If we were responsible for managing a production or assembly process that consistently fails to meet our expectations, most leaders would start by questioning the capability of their people. While our people are where our problem-solving effort should begin, however, its focus should not be poking fingers of blame rather it should strive to understand where the process impedes rather than supports the efforts of our people.

With rare exceptions, we are most likely to conclude that giving our workers more training and asking them to work harder will not help them overcome the challenges of a flawed process. The one thing my 45 years of leadership experience has taught me is that most people want to do a good job if we give them the support they need to do so. It is when they are unable to excel, no matter how hard they work, that they become discouraged and stop trying. Such workers, professional or blue collar, are very much like struggling students in underperforming schools.

Astute positive leaders do not hesitate to overhaul or completely reinvent a flawed process that produces disappointing outcomes and that discourages rather than serves their people. The impact of their decisive action is almost always transformative. In the private sector, that willingness to act is driven by the demands of customers. In the public sector, it is driven by our commitment to the people we serve and to those who do the work.

In response to the disappointing outcomes of many of our public schools, however, critics have been content to place the responsibility for those outcomes on the shoulders of our teachers. They seem unwilling to question the efficacy of the process. I believe this is because they don’t know any better.

By not vigorously disputing that teachers and schools are to blame, leaders of public education have issued a de facto invitation to private investors to compete for public dollars, as prospective educators, based on their assertion they can improve the quality of education simply by running their schools the way they run their businesses. That they rarely offer innovative education models, methodologies, and approaches should leave discerning Americans scratching their heads. We have allowed American school children to be treated like commodities.

We say American school children are our nation’s most precious assets and yet we funnel them, like livestock, through a sorting process that separates them by how well they negotiate the complex path we chart for them. It’s one thing to single out the best performers but to accept and, then, send low or non-performers out into the competitive pasture that is American society, unprepared for its rigors, makes no sense.

This suggests, to this observer, that education reformers, public officials, and many policy makers have written off low-performing public schools, their teachers, and students as lost causes, unworthy of our time and attention. Instead, we place our hopes on a solution that, purportedly, over an undefined period of years or even decades, will gradually draw enough students to its promise that our nation’s education system will be transformed. Has anyone contemplated the social cost of such unverified assertions?

Under the banner of “choice” the education reform movement has become a powerful political force. The very word, “choice,” plays on the emotions of Americans who have been conditioned to believe that consumerism and their idealized perception of a “free market system” are synonymous; that, indeed, consumerism is at the core of America’s greatness. Too many of us are oblivious to the fact that consumerism is driven, more, by the sophistication and appeal of innovative marketing campaigns than by the ability of producers of consumer products and services to deliver the goods.

It is interesting how this same phenomenon has become the primary driver of election outcomes. Elections are crucial to a participatory democracy and our leaders should be focused on instilling confidence in that process. Some leaders, however, are now casting doubt about the integrity of the election process. This is a dangerous strategy that poses a very real threat to our democratic principles. Democracy requires that people believe government serves the will of the people.

Think about how we go about choosing our elected officials. Successful election campaigns are driven less by thoughtful debates about cogent issues than by the effectiveness of a candidates fundraising strategies and marketing campaigns. Strategies that include brazen attacks on one’s opponents by the candidates, themselves, or by interest-based, political action groups have become the preferences of choice. Equally effective are shameless proselytizing of voters with sweeping promises and jingoistic platitudes.

Like consumerism, the American voter, inundated by voluminous rhetoric, must choose whom they are willing to believe. And, once one has chosen whom they wish to believe, otherwise intelligent men and women seem compelled, by some misplaced sense of loyalty, to believe every claim of their leaders. Call an opponent a crook at every opportunity and your followers will choose to believe, however scant the evidence and contrary to the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” That leaders who make such accusations will turn around and use that principle to defend their friends and supporters is the least subtle of ironies.

Could it be that the gullibility of an uninformed citizenry is a consequence of an ineffective education process? We will explore that question in our next post.

Who is @melhawk46 and What Is His Agenda?

After a brief respite to spend time with my four grandchildren, it is back to work.

In response to my last blog post, Twitter user and educator, @thenerdyteacher, reacted negatively to some of the points I made in the article. He wrote:

“If you wanted to say it was something learned at school because of the system that accepts “C” as good enough, that would be one thing. Teachers do not teach mediocrity. They push students to do their best.”

And, of course he is correct, teachers do not set a goal for their students to be mediocre. They do their best to help their students do their best, to the extent the education process allows.

It occurred to me that @thenerdyteacher had not been a part of an ongoing conversation I have been having with educators, on Twitter. Had he been involved, he would know that expressing concern that “the system accepts a C as good enough” is exactly my point; a point I have been making for over five years. I would add, “the system also accepts Ds and Fs.”

For the record, I believe teachers are unsung American heroes and that blaming them for the problems in public education is like blaming soldiers for the war they were asked to fight. The problems in public education are not the teachers, rather they are the result of an education process that has grown obsolete. The education process at work in American public schools impedes rather than enhances the ability of teachers to respond to the unique needs of their students.

Ask yourself a simple question. Did someone sit down and design the education process (the process by which we teach students in our schools, today) because it was perceived to be the best way to teach our children or, did it evolve over time?

If it evolved over time, why not reinvent the process so that it is specifically designed to provide the best way to teach our society’s children in this 21st Century? The education process is no different than any other service-delivery or production process. It is a logical construct created to produce certain outcomes. Just because the existing process has been in place for decades does not mean it cannot be changed.

In case you are wondering, I am categorically opposed to the education reform movement with its focus on “Choice.” I believe the education reform movement places the future of public education and community schools at grave risk, making it imperative that we go back to the drawing board and reinvent our obsolete education process as if the future of our society depends on it; because it does.

Charter schools are not the solution to preparing millions of American children for leading our nation through the challenges the balance of this 21st Century will present for two fundamental reasons. The first is that most charter schools rely on the same education process used in the public schools they are intended to replace and, routinely, prove incapable of outperforming those schools. Moving kids to a different building with different teachers changes nothing. Different teachers and facilities are not the solution; what matters is what we do in those buildings—what matters is how we teach.

The second reason is that simple logistics make it impossible for charter schools to fulfill their “professed” promise that they will ensure the highest possible quality of education for all children. We cannot solve the problems of millions of children with a handful of charter schools, scattered here and there, serving a few hundred students at a time. We already have school buildings in every community in the U.S., full of students, and staffed with teachers trained in our best colleges and universities. This is where the challenges lie, and it is with those same teachers and in those same buildings that they must be met.

It is my assertion that no child should be allowed to fail. Our colleague, @thenerdyteacher, commented that “Failure is good for students as they learn new things.” I choose to distinguish between failure and mistakes and I believe our colleague would concur. We all make mistakes and we all experience disappointing outcomes. These are not failures and do not become a failure until we throw up our hands in defeat and stop trying. When teachers are required, by the education process, to record an F or other low score and move a class on to the next lesson, knowing there are students who are not ready, the system is forcing them to accept failure or less than a student’s best.

For these students, this is not an isolated event rather one that will be repeated lesson after lesson, semester after semester, and year after year. The longer it goes on the more improbable the odds that these kids will ever overcome their disadvantage. Kids are learning, but they are not learning the correct lessons; they are not learning how to create success for themselves.

Teachers do their best to help kids learn from their mistakes. At the end of a lesson, teachers take as much time as they can to help students who are struggling and are not ready to move on to the next lesson, but that only works when the number of struggling students is small. When the percentage of struggling students in a teacher’s classroom grows to 25, 50, 75 percent or more, the amount of time the education process gives teachers to help these kids is insufficient. There is no policy that tells teachers not to help these students, but circumstances often make it impossible. The pressure to move kids down the path established by academic standards is relentless. This arbitrary schedule is created, not to serve the best interests of our students, but to serve organizational efficiency and administrative convenience.

None of this is the fault of public school teachers and administrators but they are the only people in a position to do anything about it.

State legislators do not understand it and the powerful forces that influence them understand it even less. If we wait for people outside the field of public education to solve the problem, nothing will happen. It is only when we accept responsibility for a problem that we begin to acquire the power to change it. It is time for public school educators to accept responsibility, not for the blame, but for finding a solution. And, yes, I understand that this is easier said than done and this is where I come in. Whether what I am offering is an end-solution or a catalyst, it has been motivated by nothing other than the interests of our nation’s children, their teachers, schools, and communities.

If they are to learn at their optimal level, what students need is an model built on the essential variables of the education equation =

Warm, nurturing relationships with teachers for a sustained period
+ they need to start with what they know
+ they need our patient attention to give them sufficient time to learn from their mistakes
+ they need to build on their successes
+ they need the support of their parents.

Garnering the support of parents is a challenge and not something over which teachers have direct control. Providing the first four of the essential variables in the education equation, however, creates the best opportunity to pull parents into the process as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children. Success is contagious even for those sitting on the sidelines.

The existing education process does not ensure that teachers have the time and environment to form those important, sustained relationships; it does not ensure that we begin teaching each child at the unique point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door; it does not make giving students as much time as they need to learn from their mistakes an over-riding priority; it does not allow all students to build on their success because one cannot build on success until one begins to experience it; and, the education process does not make parental support a priority and is not designed to facilitate the formation of such relationships.

Teachers do the best they can to make these things happen despite the education process but both teachers and their students deserve more. What teachers, students, and parents deserve and what school corporations must be compelled to do is provide an education process that is designed to facilitate the education equation. They require a process that is molded around the work that teachers, students, and parents must do together, much in the way the cockpit of an airplane is molded around the needs of a pilot.

I understand that many teachers reading this post are proud of the work they have done and of the success of their students and they should be proud. It took sustained effort to achieve that success within the context of a process that does not make it easy.

What teachers across the spectrum of public education must be willing to acknowledge, however, is the process does not work for every child, for every teacher, and in every school. And, if it does not work for every child it is not good enough. Every child counts or none of them count.

What all public-school educators must do is be willing to step back and think about how you would structure the education process if you were starting from scratch. Over the past dozen years, that is what I have been doing by applying my experience working with kids, leading people and organizations, finding innovative solutions, and applying what I learned over my ten years as a substitute teacher. I simply went back to the drawing board.

It may seem arrogant to say it, but I believe everything I have done and learned over the last 50 years has prepared me for this purpose: to change the way we teach children in order to ensure that every child learns as much as they are able, at their own best pace rather than an arbitrary schedule, and are driven by their own unique interests and potential.

I ask you to take the time to think about a new model designed to support teachers and students as they go about their important work. I am also asking for help in finding at least one superintendent willing to test my model in one of his or her district’s struggling elementary schools. The outcomes in these schools have not changed in years and they are unacceptable. That means we must try something other than what we have always done. My model can be found at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

For those who would like to have a better understanding of why I believe I am uniquely qualified to introduce a new education model, I offer the short bio, below.

After a career that included: a summer running a churchyard playground and game room on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, in 1966, for the purpose of keeping teens and preteens away from gang recruiters; 9 years as a juvenile probation officer working with a similar population of kids; thirty years in organizational leadership positions and as an independent consultant, I left my consulting business to pursue a lifelong dream of writing books.

During a ten-year period from 2002 through 2011, during which I wrote 3 books, I worked as a substitute teacher for my local public-school district. This was the same district my three kids had attended.

During this same period, and up to present day, I also administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to potential enlistees in the Armed Services and, also, to high school students as part a Career Exploration Program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. I have Masters’ degrees in both Education (psychology) and Public Affairs (public management).

Among my specialties as an organization executive and as a consultant had been to help organizations address their dissatisfaction with the unacceptable outcomes of their production and service-delivery processes. I did this by conducting an organizational assessment and then applying the principles of systems thinking, positive leadership, and operations management to reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes. My work was guided by a simple axiom I have observed in operations management that:

“If a process continues to produce disappointing outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and must be replaced or reinvented.”

In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future (2010) Linda Darling-Hammond made a similar point:

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

It is time to go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to ensure the success of every child.

What I proceeded to do, first, in my book, Reinventing Education Hope, and the American Dream: the Challenge for Twenty-first Century America (2013), and in my blog Education, Hope, and the American Dream, and through tweets and other forms of communication is clarify the mission or purpose of education; identify the key variables in the education equation; and, then design an education model that insures that every child receives the time, relationships, and support they need to learn as much as they are able, at their own best pace. No child should be pushed ahead to keep up with classmates and neither is it acceptable to ask other students to slow down and wait for classmates to catch up to them.

My book is now over five years old and I have learned a great deal since then, thanks to the many professional educators with whom I have had the opportunity to converse. I am working on an updated version to incorporate what I have learned, and to alter things I wrote, then, that I no longer believe to be true. I am striving to complete the book before the end of the summer.

In the interim, I have published an updated version of my education model and a white paper. The latter provides the logical foundation for the model and an overview of the other findings and conclusions from the book. The reader is encouraged to check out the white paper and model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

My blog now has over 200 articles written about the challenges facing public education and can be accessed at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/blog/

You are invited to share your comments and criticisms through the blog or Twitter. I also encourage you to subscribe to my blog, and to share this message with your colleagues. However well your own school may be doing, I know you all share grave concerns about schools and students that struggle and I know you are concerned about the future of community public schools. This is an opportunity to make a difference that extends beyond the walls of your classrooms and schools.

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?

Separate and Apart – Again and Again

What happened in Dallas will happen again. These acts are symptomatic of the degree of separation between us. Although interactions between police and African-Americans bring the matter into the sharpest focus, these acts represent only the surface of the deep, dark place where racism resides in the collective consciousness of the American people. It is just one of the divisive issues that creates sufficient anger, resentment, and mistrust that so many Americans want more authoritarian leadership and are willing to support Donald Trump for President. It is an American tragedy.

We have also witnessed, in Dallas, an expression of grief that is shared by well-meaning Americans of every race, color and creed. We saw protesters from each side of an issue reaching out to embrace and comfort one another. This is a sign of hope. For healing to occur we, first, must grieve but we cannot legislate an end to the racism that exists in the hearts of man and neither can we wish it away. If we want a future in which all are truly equal, we must address the conditions, other than the color of our skin, that separate us as a people and that lead to police and African-American confrontations.

More often than at any time in our history, white Americans see well-educated African-Americans move into their neighborhoods and rub elbows with them on the job. Coming in contact with these black neighbors and co-workers begins to produce subtle shifts in the attitudes and perceptions of white Americans. We also see more inter-racial friendships and dating. It is hard to be prejudiced against a people who look like someone you have loved.

For many white Americans, however, their core values do not change. Instead, they carve out space in their mental view for the exceptions that these neighbors and co-workers represent. Yes, “he’s black but he’s a good worker or a good neighbor.” When these same white Americans see stories about drive-by shootings, black men arrested and sent to prison, or even when they pass judgment on the contents of a welfare mother’s grocery cart, all of their deeply-rooted stereotypes are re-confirmed.

We must challenge our fundamental assumptions about our society and about the way we educate our children. Poor people do not choose to live in economically depressed neighborhoods in America; they live there because it is the only place they can afford to live. They lack the knowledge and skills needed to qualify for good jobs and that give them choices of where and how to live. Poor Americans, whatever the color of their skin, lack such choices because the educational process at work in American public schools is neither structured, tasked, nor equipped to teach disadvantage kids.

We are not powerless to alter this reality. Solving the problems of poverty and academic failure are possible but only if we are able to imagine a different reality. They are simple human engineering problems that will yield to the fertile imagination of the human mind.

People will remain poor for as long as we continue to defend a system of public education that consistently fails the poor and the disadvantaged, with African-American children affected the most. In spite of all the talk about education reform in the U.S., we do nothing to help disadvantaged kids but try to entice families away from our most challenged public schools with charter schools and vouchers or we tinker with a flawed educational process with one meaningless, education reform after another. We fail to see that incrementalism has the same destructive power as erosion and that it is subverting the very purpose of public education.

If we cannot address the problems in our public schools, the social crises these problems create will continue to prompt people to reach out for a more authoritarian leadership and Donald Trump for President might be the least of our fears. The problems in our society are functions of the choices we make and if we want better outcomes we must be prepared to make better choices. Those choices must begin with how our public schools respond to the challenge of disadvantaged kids.

Breaking Down the Cycles of Failure and Poverty

Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin.

Setting the Stage

Over the last 150 years, the educational process at work in our systems of education, both public and private, has evolved slowly through a steady stream of incremental reforms. During those same 150 years, American society has changed exponentially. A combination of a growing population; increasing diversity; immigration, both legal and not; advancements in technology that would have seemed unimaginable even two decades ago; a crumbling infrastructure; a more competitive world marketplace; a fragile and demanding ecosystem; and, a far more complex political environment place great pressure on a democratic form of government.

Democracy depends upon our public schools to prepare young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive members of society but, given the dynamic world in which we live, the American educational process is ill-equipped to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population of children. If we were creating an educational process from scratch, given what we now know, that process would look much different than it does today. It would be structured to produce the outcomes we want.

In order to alter this reality, we must start by clarifying the purpose of public education in America. As simply as we can state that purpose, it is to prepare our nation’s children for the responsibilities of citizenship and to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and tools they will need to become productive citizens. We must work to help each child maximize their talents and abilities so they will be able to enter adulthood with a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find happiness and meaning. We also want them to be able to create value and add wealth to society. Of equal importance is that they be able to carry out their civic responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy. This requires that they have sufficient understanding of the complex issues facing our society to make thoughtful decisions.

We want their education to be well-rounded to include language arts and mathematics skills; a solid understanding of the natural world (science); a grasp of history in hopes that they can learn from our mistakes; and, finally, a full appreciation of the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences. We need to teach them that diversity is our greatest strength as a nation.

During the balance of this Twenty-first Century, the world will continue to undergo unprecedented changes that will challenge the ability of our planet’s diverse population to live together in peace. We must address the issues of hunger, health, and economic welfare while protecting our natural habitat. We must do all of these things in the midst of the hatred some people have for others and in spite of the horrible violence people do to one another.

As a nation, we cannot be successful bickering among ourselves and neither can we meet our objectives if we must continue to support an ever-larger segment of people who live in poverty. Add caring for the steadily aging baby boomer generation and the burden will soon be overwhelming.

A significant emphasis of conservative right Americans is that it is time to cut off those who depend on government assistance. The problem, of course, is that these millions of Americans who are dependent are not going to slip away into oblivion and let the rest of the population do their own thing. We must, somehow, re-engage the poor as full and productive citizens.

We also need the millions of immigrants who have fled to the U.S., whether legally or illegally.
We must stop thinking of these people as a liability or as a danger. This population will prove to be an invaluable asset to our country and all they ask in return is the same freedom and opportunities that Americans should be able to expect.

We must also recognize that there will be a shift in political power over the balance of this century. According to the projections of the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2060, the population of non-Hispanic whites is projected to decline from 62 percent, today, to an estimated 44 percent of the total US population. Any illusions white Americans may have that they will continue to rule the roost into the latter half of this century are pure fantasy. If we are committed to the preservation of the great American democracy, we must invite the poor and the non-white to become full and equal partners. For the poor and the non-white, it is time to take charge of one’s own destiny.

What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.

Through the utilization of the tools of systems thinking and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.

Today, our educational process, whether employed in a public, private, or parochial setting, is not structured to see that each child learns as much as he or she can, as quickly as he or she is able. Rather, the process is structured to move children, grouped by chronological age, along a path outlined by academic standards that are established by each state. Standardized tests are utilized to assess whether children are where the academic standards say they should be at predetermined points in time.

What the current educational process does is ask teachers to guide children down that path as if it were a race and to keep score to see who learns the most, the fastest. As children fall out along the way from ages 5 or 6 to 18, we let them accumulate along that path, much in the way a 1950s assembly line would produce a scrap pile of discrepant material. Because these children have not been successful in acquiring even a basic portfolio of knowledge and skills, they congregate in the poorest neighborhoods and communities in both urban and rural America and they begin creating a whole new generation. They congregate in these poor communities because they have nowhere else to go with the possible exception of our jails and prisons.

Reformers who push for privatization of education; standardized testing as a tool to hold teachers and schools accountable and promote charter schools and vouchers are wrong in their assertions about why so many American children are failing in our schools. In their drive to apply what they refer to as “proven business practices” they are doing great harm to our most vulnerable children, their schools and communities, and also to the public school teachers on whom so much depends. These reformers proceed with such arrogance that they never consider the possibility that they might be wrong.

These reformers are correct, however, about the need to apply proven business principles but we are not talking about the principles that come from the boardrooms with their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The business principles to which we refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective in a business environment. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer, structuring an organization to serve its purpose, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

Public school teachers and other educational professionals, while unfairly blamed for the problems in our public schools, are also wrong. They are wrong to defend an educational process that fails to meet the needs of so many of our precious children. It is my assertion that the educational process, with its focus on failure, does a disservice to even the children who appear to excel academically.

Reforms of the last two decades have attacked them to such a degree that our teachers’ defensiveness is understandable but that does not make their intransigence defensible. We need fresh insight into this vital issue. It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.

If your find merit in the following pages, I ask that you read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (CreateSpace, 2013) and the companion blog at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com. The book is available in both Kindle and paperback format and can be ordered through Amazon.com or through my website.


Reinventing the American Educational Process and our Public Schools

For as long as anyone can remember, children at the ages of 5 or 6 have arrived for their first day of school where they, as a class, have been placed on a path from Kindergarten and first grade to twelfth grade, although not all make it to grade 12. There have always been children who fail or perform poorly in school and, over the decades, the number of failures has multiplied as one generation after another has sent its sons and daughters off to school. We now have multiple generations of families who have always failed at school and who have always been poor. With each generation, the hope in the minds of parents that an education provides a way out for their children has eroded as has their faith in the American dream.

These mothers and fathers, and sometimes grandparents and other family members, raise their children in poverty. They still send their children off to school but for many, the purpose of school has been downgraded to free daycare, five days a week, 9 months of the year. With but the fewest of exceptions, these parents and guardians no longer teach their children that an education is a ticket to the American dream, nor do they make sacrifices to help prepare their children for school or support their kids’ teachers.

These youngsters show up for their first day of school with minimal motivation to learn, little if any academic preparation, and little parental support. Often, the parents’ biggest concern is a fear that their children will be picked on by their teachers and be forced to endure other forms of discrimination, so minimal is the trust of schools on the part of many of these parents. The seemingly inevitable outcome of these realities is that each generation of the poor and the failing is even more likely to remain entrapped in the cycles of poverty and academic failure.

For decades, educators and educational policymakers have responded to this cycle of failure with a bevy of incremental reforms and initiatives and have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to fix what is wrong with public education. In their frustration with their inability to put an end to the cycle of failure, educators and policymakers alike have declared that such pervasive failure is a consequence of poverty. They suggest that we will not alter the outcomes in our schools until we do something about poverty. At no time have these educators considered that what they do contributes to the crisis or that the educational process, itself, is flawed.

The rest of us nod our heads in bewildered agreement because what else could it be? The fact that this population of the poor and the uneducated is disproportionately black or other minorities is declared to be a consequence of segregation and discrimination. Sadly, an embarrassingly large segment of mainstream America, a society still scourged by the bitterness and resentment of bigotry, believe that such outcomes are the best we can expect from children of color or for whom English is a second language. Crime and violence are viewed as inevitable outcomes. Sad commentary for a nation that boasts that it is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world and a beacon for freedom and human dignity.

These beliefs play a significant role in the tendency of some whites and some police officers to profile blacks, young men in particular, as a threat, thereby elevating the tension in even routine interactions and confrontations. This is all part of a complicated web of interdependent forces that adversely affect American society; a society comprised of unequal components. The growing number of successful, well-educated blacks and other minorities is viewed as nothing more than an anomaly by many white Americans.

The poor and minorities are becoming angrier as they find more and more doors of opportunity closed to them. Meanwhile, mainstream Americans are angrier because they resent having to support a population of men and women whom they view as unwilling to pull their own weight. They greatly resent what they view as an entitlement mentality.

The wider the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” the greater the threat to a democratic form of government that depends on the ability of reasonable men and women to work together. This ever-widening chasm contributes to a growing desire of some Americans for a more authoritarian style of leadership, a phenomenon that has been studied by such people as Marc J. Hetherington at Vanderbilt University and Jonathon Weiler at the University of North Carolina. The reader may also wish to check out an article on the subject on March 1, 2016 in Vox by Amanda Taub, and a column by Colbert I. King in the Washington Post on March 4th of this year.

It is within this context that the battle for the future of public education is being fought. On the one hand, we have business people with incredible wealth who have generously pledged huge chunks of their personal fortunes to reform education in America. These people, and those who support them in both government and in the private sector, are tired of waiting for professional educators to “clean up their act.” These education reformers are motivated by years of frustration with the difficulty in finding capable, well-educated men and women to work in their companies. They are emboldened by their absolute belief that the wealth and jobs created by their corporations are the fundamental backbone of the American economy.

These reformers have declared that if professional educators cannot fix public education “they need to get out of our way and let us run their schools like we run our businesses.” In their zeal to hold schools and teachers accountable, they have placed great emphasis on standardized competency examinations. They suggest that schools that cannot improve their performance should be taken over or closed and their teachers let go.

Their other point of emphasis is privatization through the creation of charter schools that provide alternatives so families can “choose the best available school for their children.” The words “choice” and “school choice” and derivatives have become an effective if misleading tagline for reformers and political candidates who portray themselves as “champions of public education.”
These politicians profess to be committed to the idea of “choice,” and they charge forth ignorant of both the true issues facing public education and of the harm they do. They are also proponents of voucher programs as a tool to subsidize charter and other private and parochial schools with tax dollars.

This sounds promising but it is the shallowest of promises. The problem with such strategies is not that charter schools are inherently bad rather that these reformers are abandoning our most challenged public school districts and their students and teachers. If one steps back and examines this movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”

We must not allow public education to be considered “triage” where we pick and choose to whom we will guarantee opportunities.

We seem to have lost sight of the original vision with respect to charter schools which was that such schools would become laboratories for innovative techniques and approaches that, once proven, can be rolled out for the benefit of all schools. Given the fact that many charter schools seem to do little more than replicate the traditional educational process, it should come as no surprise that few charters are outperforming their public school counterparts and that some are underperforming.

Teachers unions and associations have also been targeted by reformers who believe these entities, through their advocacy on behalf of teachers, have become obstacles in the path of educational reforms. The reality is that these corporate reformers and their conservative political supporters are against unions, irrespective of venue.

All of these reform initiatives, including “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” evidence no real understanding of the reasons why so many American children are failing. In the interim, these education reform initiatives and their proponents are a powerful force doing horrific damage to our public schools, their students and teachers, and also to the communities public schools strive to serve.

On the other side of the battle for the future of public education, we find American teachers and other educators who proclaim that our public schools are not failing. It is disappointing that teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, are so busy defending themselves from critics that they cannot translate what they see in their own classrooms into meaningful advocacy. The things they complain about in the faculty lounge or at association and union gatherings are the exact same problems to which I refer in my book.

One can only wonder how an educational system that fails nearly a third of its students can be considered to be a success. If we examine the findings of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that data suggests that 60 to 70 percent of American students perform below “proficient.” NAEP defines “proficient,” among other things, as a student being able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations.” That we can claim the system is working, when more than half of its students are unable to apply what they have learned in response to “real-world situations,” stretches credibility.

These professionals insist that poverty is the culprit and throw up their hands in figurative despair that they are powerless to overcome the impact of it. Ridding the nation of poverty, these advocates suggest, is the responsibility of our government and of society as a whole. Educators also point to the re-segregation of our poor urban and rural public schools as a causal factor. In spite of the poverty and other challenges, these educators insist that our public schools are better than they have ever been.

There have, indeed, been many advancements in education over the years but we can only judge a system or process by the outcomes it produces, no matter how hard people are working or how well-meaning they may be.

The truth about the generations of the uneducated who live in poverty is that they are victims of a century’s worth of ineffectual government policies and an obsolete educational process that works at cross purposes with the efforts of teachers and sets children up for failure. No one can dispute that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for children but it is because of the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty that parents have given up on education and have lost faith in the American dream.

Instead of blaming poverty, we need to attack hopelessness and powerlessness, relentlessly. We need to take this logic a step further and suggest that rather than poverty being the cause of the challenges in public education, poverty is, in fact, an outcome of the crisis in public education. It is a “chicken v. the egg” conundrum, to be sure.

Poverty exists because a huge population of American men and women—the overwhelming majority of whom attended public schools—lack literacy, numeracy, and the other knowledge and skills essential to full participation in the American enterprise and in our democracy. These Americans are trapped in a maelstrom of failure and poverty and are virtually powerless to alter that reality. This fact is indisputable and to disclaim any and all responsibility for such outcomes further damages the credibility of educators. We are at a critical point in our nation’s history and being in denial serves the interests of no one.

Let us be blunt. Poverty does not keep children from learning and our insistence that poverty is to blame for the problems in public education obscures the truth and bars the path to meaningful reform. Throughout our nation’s history there are countless examples of children from impoverished families who have excelled, academically, and have escaped the clutches of poverty. This is also true, today. We have known this but because we have been asking the wrong questions, the significance of these success stories eludes us. Rather than asking “why do so many children fail?” the question we should be asking is “what are the characteristics of the children who succeed in spite of the incredible disadvantages they face?”

As it turns out, the answer to the “correct question” is the key to unlocking the secrets of both the cycles of failure and of poverty. Only when we understand the real forces at work will we be able to develop a strategy to fix public education, attack poverty, and begin transforming American society.

The reason why some kids find success in a landscape of deprivation is, first, because they are supported by a parent or guardian who, in the face of incredible odds, somehow clings to hope that an education can provide a way out for their children. Many of the educated black men and women who are reading these words know that what I say is true from their own experience. These adults owe everything to a parent or guardian who refused to let them fail.

These parents and guardians are fiercely determined that their child is going to learn and they do whatever it takes to help. They make sure their child is prepared, academically; that they are motivated to learn; that they work hard; and, these caregivers accept responsibility for their child’s education through committed partnerships with their children’s teachers. Unfortunately, these parents are the exception to the rule but that does not diminish the significance of what we can learn from their success.

The lessons we can learn from these incredible caregivers must be central to every effort to reform public education. A committed parent who believes in the American dream for their children, if not for themselves, is formidable force in the life of a child. When those parents are willing partners with their children’s teachers their power and that of the teachers is magnified. Amazing success follows.

What this means for educational reform is that, somehow, we must find a way to convince parents that an education will be the difference in the lives of their children. This is no easy task when those parents have spent a lifetime on the outside looking in and have been victims of as many as 150 years of failed promises. These parents are part of multiple generations of men and women who have been chewed up and spit out by an educational process that is focused on failure. They neither believe in the importance of education nor the integrity of teachers and other educators. These Americans are drowning in a sea of anger and despair and they do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.

If we are going to convince people, we must be able to show them that we have something new and powerful to offer that will benefit their children. There is nothing in marketing as powerful as having something new and innovative to sell. Parents and guardians must be convinced that their child will not be subjected to the cycle of failure; something they know well from their own school experience.

It is imperative that we understand that this flawed educational process threatens the very principles of democracy. Unless we act quickly, with purpose and commitment, the adverse consequences for our society will be as certain as the impact of unrestrained use of fossil fuels on our planet. These generations of American were not destined to fail, rather they were permitted to fail and until we accept responsibility for that failure, the consequences will haunt the great American democracy for generations to come.

We turn, now, to the educational process at work in schools, both public and private, throughout the U.S.; first to understand and then to figure out what must be done. What is it about this process that is having such a devastating effect on so many of our nation’s most vulnerable children, thus placing our society at risk? We need to think about what happens, today in 2016, in elementary schools throughout the nation.

The disparity in academic preparation, motivation to learn, and parental support of the children who arrive at our door on their first day of school is cavernous. The disadvantage created when a child is bereft of these essential supports is every bit as great as a child with a visual, auditory or any other type of recognized disability. The impact is probably greater for the children with “academic preparedness” impairments because these other disabilities are not always accompanied by such high levels of hopelessness and powerlessness. We have known what to do for the former group of children for a long time and so we just do it.

Since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) we have made all manner of accommodations to mitigate the disadvantages of those with physical, visual, auditory, and emotional impairments and we have spent billions of dollars toward that objective, as well we should. We have done the same for children with clearly identifiable learning disabilities.

We have had no idea what to do with students with an “academic preparedness deficiency” and so we have done next to nothing other than rely on teachers to do the best they can. Very often these children come from low-income families and live in the midst of hopelessness and powerlessness. Many are children of color or those for whom English is a second language. These children deserve the same level of accommodation as other children with impairments.

Teachers, particularly in the lower grades, do the best they can for these students within the context of the current educational process and its associated expectations. Teachers recognize that many children are faltering and they reach back and help as much as time permits. What we must understand is that educational process is not structured in such a way that helping these kids is a priority or even an expectation and this is not activity against which our teachers’ performance will be measured.

The primary focus of the educational process, rather, is on preparing the whole class for the standardized competency exams that loom in the near future. It is on the aggregate performance of the class, on such exams, that the performance of both teachers and their schools will be measured and for which they will be held accountable.

It is understood that not all children will perform well on such tests and about this educators do feel remorse. It is a numbers game, however, the essence of which is that there is a certain percentage of failure that we have learned to tolerate. A school’s performance is measured against both state averages and its own past performance.

In other words, the process is designed to view a certain level of failure as acceptable. The educational process is not perfect, we tell ourselves, and it cannot be expected to solve the problems of society that contribute to the failure of so many children; most notably poverty.
If we stop and truly think about the implications of this mindset it is difficult to fathom or justify.

Why would we ever be willing to accept the failure of a child? Why would we ever judge a child’s performance against that of his or her classmates?

Although we possess the tools and expertise with which to perform a comprehensive assessment of the extent of a child’s disadvantage when they report for their first day of school, how many schools do this? Had we made the effort to do such an assessment, we possess the know-how to design a unique instructional plan to mitigate the disadvantage of every single child who arrives at our door. This is no different than making any other type of accommodation.

While we could make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children with an academic preparation deficiency by performing such assessments and creating tailored instructional plans, even this is insufficient if we do not also address the fundamental flaws in the educational process. It is a process that expects teachers to move students forward, as a class, even when some students are not ready. Every time a student is expected to move on to a new lesson before they are ready reduces the odds that the child will be successful on the next lesson. As this pattern plays out the one lesson kids are learning is that they are not able to keep up with their classmates. Sooner or later these kids will give up on themselves.

Sometime around the year 2007, I had an epiphany. I began subbing for Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2002 and for the first couple of years I was so overwhelmed by the challenges of subbing that I rarely found the time or the presence of mind to really think about what was happening around me. In this respect, I was much like the teachers for whom I was filling in. This changed when I accepted a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher. I wrote about that experience and it is one of six vignettes that I included in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream (CreateSpace 2013). I have reproduced that vignette here:

Vignette #1 – Fort Wayne, IN – Middle school Math – Substitute Teacher

It is not very often that a substitute teacher actually has an opportunity to teach. One of the few occasions when I was able to teach was in a week-long assignment for a middle school math teacher. After two days of work on material having to do with prime factoring, rules of divisibility, and reducing to lowest terms, the students in three separate classes took a quiz, which the teacher had prepared in advance. It included twenty-five problems; all very similar to the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which we had been working. This particular teacher went to great lengths to insure that his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had acquired interlocking boards that were about twenty-four inches high for the purpose of dividing the table into four equal sections. Prior to every quiz or exam, the students would retrieve the boards from behind a cabinet and would set them up. As a result, it would be difficult if not impossible for a student to copy off of a classmate without being seen.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, I had high expectations, believing the students would do well on the quiz. To my surprise and disappointment, the results were that better than fifty percent of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and 75 percent of the students scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two out of the 85 students scored better than 95 percent. In other words there were 43 Fs, 21 Ds, 13 Cs, 6 Bs, and 2 As.
The next day, prompted by my surprise at the results, I spent the entire period reviewing the same material. I did not return the quiz to the students, however, and chose not to review the actual questions from the prior day’s quiz. We worked problems as a class on the whiteboard and I worked one-on-one with the students who appeared to need that level of attention. Great care was taken to avoid doing the work for them.
The following day, I had all three classes retake the quiz. In advance of the retake they were told, in broad strokes, how poorly the class had done, although no one had access to their own results. They were also assured that this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. The hope was that this opportunity would motivate the students to improve their scores while alleviating performance pressure.

Figure 1 – Comparing 1st and 2nd Quiz Scores

The new scores showed dramatic improvement by all but a handful of students. Better than ninety percent of students earned higher scores on the second quiz with several improving by two, three or more letter grades. A few students improved from failing grades to As and Bs. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or better and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Figure 1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude that their scores on the second quiz represented a substantially higher level of mastery.
While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, the level of improvement certainly was not a result of pure chance. The operative question is: Is it worth an extra two days to get such a dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery. I’ll let the reader decide for themselves.

The epiphany occurred for me when I realized that I had witnessed something that happens to students every day, in every class, year after year. Had I not attempted to try something different, the scores from the first quiz would have been recorded in the teacher’s gradebook and I would have moved on to the next lesson and we would have repeated the same process of presentation, practice, review, quiz, and final review. For both students and teacher this process has become a ritual.

The question that kept nagging at me was, how would the 64 students who had received Ds and Fs have fared on the next lesson module, had I not taken the extra time on the lesson? For that matter, how would the 13 students have fared who had received Cs? It struck me, then, that for the students who struggled—90 percent of the students of this teacher and classroom—this was a microcosm of their academic life; probably from beginning to end. We have placed these children in an environment that we have structured as a competition in which there are both winners and losers. If that were not bad enough, we accept the failure of these students as if we are powerless to do anything about it. The logical progression of this thought process was, “how much failure can a child deal with before they become so discouraged that they stop trying?”

In the above vignette, even though there was great improvement after the second quiz, two-thirds of the students were not yet able to achieve a score of 85 percent, but many were close. It probably would not take more than one more review and the majority of the class would be ready to move on to the next lesson module. Another sad fact in this story is that the students who had achieved 85 percent or better after the first test were forced to wait for others to catch up. In the ideal scenario, these students would have been encouraged to charge ahead at their best speed.

How much failure can any of us endure before losing hope that we will ever be successful? The reader is encouraged to think back on their own experience of a time where you were struggling to keep up with your classmates; or about a task you could never quite get right; or, about a game you could never win. How did you feel? How long did it take before you began avoiding such situations?

It was at this point that I began to think about the educational process as a system. Let us summarize the existing educational process:

In spite of the great variance on the academic preparedness continuum of the children arriving for their first day of school, for generations we have asked individual teachers to do the best they can for each child. We have laid down this challenge to our teachers, however, within the context of a specific set of expectations. Those expectations are that the results of their efforts will be measured not on the basis of each student’s progress on a unique educational path but rather on the basis of how an entire population of children at the same age perform as measured against state academic standards for children of a given age.

In Indiana, for example, we do this beginning with the second semester of the third grade, and then multiple grades thereafter, until high school, using ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of a standardized competency examination. Once in high school, the purpose of the testing shifts to graduate qualification in certain subjects.

Imagine that you teach at a school where only 20 percent of the students who arrive at your door are well-prepared for academic success. On standardized competency exams, how would the performance of your students compare to the students in a school across town where 80 percent of the kids arrive well-prepared? Would you feel that you were being fairly compared? More importantly, would your students have the same chance for success?

This is the reality of the American educational process for teachers and students in schools, both public and private, in communities throughout the United States. Teachers are expected to move their entire class, in sequential order from step-to-step as established by state standards for each subject area. Teachers must do this lesson-to-lesson, chapter-to-chapter, semester-to-semester, and grade-to-grade. While teachers have some latitude to help children along, slowly, at least during Kindergarten and first and second grades, the older the students get the more pressure is felt to move everyone along at a steady and comparable pace.

That ISTEP+ or other competency exams loom in the not too distant future is a cold reality for schools and teachers. If students do not perform well on these exams both the school and its teachers face consequences. From this point onward, the pressure to keep students moving along a common path becomes nothing short of relentless.

The fact that a great variance exists with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support is given virtually no consideration. Teachers must present subject matter according to the lesson plans that they have developed in conformance with state standards and that have been approved by their administration. Although they strive to give each student as much time and attention as possible, patience is a luxury not often available to teachers. The situation is complicated by the reality that anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of a teacher’s students miss most if not all of the questions or problems on practice assignments, quizzes, and tests. The time allotted for help and review is usually sufficient for students with a few mistakes but it is never enough for those who have made many.

The unvarnished truth is that the students who did poorly have been allowed to fail. The grades also become part of the student’s academic record and, not too gradually, begin to have a labeling effect. Children begin to identify with the grades they are given,

Very often, the next lesson requires that students be able to apply all or some of what they learned on previous lessons so that the student who is struggling is now at an even greater disadvantage and a greater risk of failure. Recall that according to NAEP results, 60 to 70 percent of American students “are below proficient.” They have not attained a level of mastery sufficient that they can utilize that knowledge “in real world situations,” which includes subsequent lesson modules.

Repeated failure chips away at a child’s confidence and self-esteem as these students recognize, very clearly, that they are not keeping up with classmates.

Now, think about this process within the context of teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. Some children learn quickly and are riding well before the end of the day. Other children fall down, cry and, for days, suffer skinned appendages and bruised egos. We keep encouraging them, however, because we know they can and will learn—they just need more time and our patient attention, which parents have the ability to give.

Within a few days, all are riding with comparable proficiency. Even bruised egos heal under the canopy of success and the joy of riding with one’s friends. After a couple of days, the fact that some kids took longer to learn than others becomes totally inconsequential to both the child and the community. Imagine, however, having to learn how to pop wheelies or perform other advanced riding skills before we have mastered balance, steering, and braking.

When kids fail in our schools it is not because they are incapable of learning and it is not because our teachers are incompetent. Children fail because our educational process is not structured to give each child however much time and patient attention they need. Learning quickly, or at least as quickly as one’s classmates, has become more important than whether or not a student has actually learned. This is proven, daily, throughout the nation whenever teachers must move on to new subject matter knowing full well that many of their students do not understand the previous one. Is it any wonder that kids give up on learning, stop trying, and begin acting out simply because they were permitted to fail?

This is the reality for the overwhelming majority of students who struggle and often fail, every day and in every class in virtually every school in America. Whether these struggling students represent 5 percent of their school’s population or 80 percent, the consequences are tragic for both the children, their teachers, and our nation. The fact that they do not get the time and attention they require is not because it is beyond our capability rather it is because this is not the expectation we lay out for teachers and because the educational process upon which we rely is not so structured.

Consider an alternative reality in which students are not permitted to fail; a reality in which they are always given the time and patient attention they require. When children who start from behind begin to realize that they can learn and when they have an opportunity to enjoy the success of learning, everything changes. We all want the same thing. When we sample a taste of success—of winning—we want more. The more kids learn, the more confident they become and the more confident they become the better able they are to control the outcomes in their lives. The more control young people have over outcomes, the stronger their self-esteem. Before long, the speed at which these children learn accelerates and they begin closing the gaps between themselves and the classmates with whom they have never been able to compete.

In a discussion with a teacher about this very process, he said “But they will never really catch up.” My response was a blunt “so what!” It does not matter whether they catch up with everyone else because we have no expectation that every student who completes high school will have chosen the same destination. We want them to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. We want them to have choices based upon their own unique skills, knowledge, and interests. If a child leaves school at the age of 18 or younger and has no choices available to them because of their poor academic performance, who has failed? Is the student or is it the American educational process?

We must begin with the simple idea that every child can learn and we must commence their formal education at the specific point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. The fact that our community needs to begin intervening in the lives of these children earlier and more aggressively does not change the job of the school and its teachers. With one exception, we can accept responsibility only at the point at which children pass through our door.

The exception is that when we find, through our assessment, that a child has any kind of impairment the first question we need to ask is “are there other children in the home who are at risk?” If so, we need to do what we can to connect that family with whatever kind of early intervention programs might be available in our community. We must, then, turn our full attention to the child who stands before us. Each of them both needs and deserves our best and most patient effort. They must not be allowed to fail, under any circumstances, as we begin moving them at their best speed from point to point on the unique academic plan we have tailored for them.

We are not just teaching colors, letters, numbers, words or other academic skills, we are teaching them that they can be successful, that they can learn, that learning can be fun, and that success will be celebrated. As the child moves along the path, one success at a time, the speed with which they learn will gradually begin to increase. Our job is simply to help them get as far down their unique academic path as they are able during the time they are our responsibility.

There is one more job that we must do, however. We must make it an ongoing routine to communicate with the child’s parent or guardian, whether or not they initially respond to our overtures. Gradually, most parents will begin responding when they see or hear that their child is making progress; when they begin to see the evidence of that progress in the eyes, hearts, minds, and behavior of their sons and daughters. Success and winning are as contagious as any infectious disease, even for those watching from the sidelines. Every time a parent is lured by their child’s success we have gained another foothold in the community.

What is important are two fundamental benchmarks that should be applied to every child. The first benchmark should be applied at every step of the way down each individual’s unique academic path. The second benchmark should be applied at strategic points along the way and once again when they finish high school.

The first benchmark is “can the student apply what they have learned in subsequent lessons or in responding to real life challenges.” If a student is unable to utilize what they have been taught, they have not really learned. And, if they have not really learned, then our job as educators is not done with respect to that child on that lesson. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable.

The second benchmark to be applied when kids finish high school and at other strategic points along the way is “on the basis of what they have learned, do students have meaningful choices to make.” Kids who cannot utilize what they have learned are almost always left with default decisions, which amount to no choice at all. The whole point of an education is to insure that kids have choices as adults.

We do a great disservice to a child who is pushed along to a second lesson before they have learned and mastered the first. We also do a great disservice to students who are at the top of their class when we ask them to slow down and wait for their classmates to catch up. Students should always be allowed to move forward at the best speed of which they are capable and that speed should never be influenced by the learning velocity of their classmates. To ask a student who excels, academically, to slow down will only diminish the joy of learning and add unnecessary boredom and frustration. When students are bored and frustrated they begin looking to friends, social media, and video games for their intellectual stimulation. The last thing we should ever want to do is dampen the joy of learning for any child, at any time.

In business, there is a principle that an organization is structured to produce the outcomes it gets. What outcomes do we covet? Do we want every child to learn and be able to utilize what they have learned and experience success; or, do we want a system that is satisfied to determine which kids learn the most, the fastest and in which only a few get to experience the joy of success? Do we want a process that allows children to enter adulthood without the knowledge and skills they will need in order to accept the responsibilities of citizenship?

The standard should be that every child is expected to achieve a level of mastery that is at least 85 percent on each and every lesson module and that no child should be allowed to fail. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable. This raises questions of what is possible and practical.

Is it even possible for teachers to give kids as much time and patient attention as they need? Is it realistic to think that all kids can achieve 85 percent mastery in every subject?

The answer is “no” when we try to do it within the context of the existing educational process and the incumbent expectations on both teachers and students. When we challenge our assumptions, alter those expectations to match our newly identified objectives, and then restructure the educational process to support those expectations, however, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” It is nothing more than a human engineering problem that will yield to the application of the human imagination and relentless determination.

My book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a specific blueprint for a practical solution that achieves our objectives and more. This is not science fiction, it is real-world problem-solving that will change the reality of public education for millions of American children and, in the process, will transform American society. It will also make the American dream an achievable reality for all people.

We will discover beyond a reasonable doubt that poverty is not the cause of the academic failure rather it is the other way around. Poverty is the outcome our current educational process is structured to create because it not only permits students to fail, it sets them up for failure.

We cannot continue churning out young adults and continue to grow the population of American men and women who lack the levels of literacy, numeracy, and other academic knowledge and skills necessary to be productive players in the American enterprise. We cannot accept the outcome in which young people are unable to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to make informed choices. These men and women do not believe in the American dream and they do not teach their children that a quality education is a ticket to that dream. Instead they live in poverty under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness and they bequeath the same tainted heritage to future generations of their offspring. This is untenable and unnecessary.

Our nation’s poor urban and rural communities are now full of several generations of Americans with a common experience. Whether white, black, or minorities of other ethnic heritage matters not. The longer a culture has been forced to endure the cycles of failure and poverty, however, the more likely they are to accept their circumstances with passive resignation. It has been engrained in them so deeply that few are able to envision anything different. If we cannot envision a better life for ourselves or our children, we cannot create it.

The performance gap between white and black students is the most gaping because African-Americans have been forced to endure the equivalent of lower class citizenship for a hundred and fifty years and that does not include the centuries of slavery. In some respects, African-American culture has evolved in isolation from mainstream America and is very much separate and apart. The exceptions are those who, with the help of parents and teachers, have enjoyed academic success and have carved out a place for themselves as educated men and women in mainstream society. If they were to speak candidly, many highly educated African-American men and women who are successful professionals or who occupy high level positions would acknowledge that they often have a sense of being separate and apart from poor blacks in urban and rural America.

Poor and uneducated adult Americans have minimal trust in mainstream/white society and its promises. For them, the dream is a failed promise and it is no more real for their children. Breaking down that mistrust is incredibly challenging so it is vital that we have unveiled a new educational process and can demonstrate that it will work for their children. When the barriers have been overcome, black children are every bit as capable of high academic achievement as any other child. This is true for all children, whatever the demography.

I urge the reader to take the time necessary to read my book and blog. Public education is, after all, an issue of such importance that we can afford to leave no stone unturned in search of a solution. What a bonus it will be if, when we solve the problems of public education, we learn that we have also set in motion the systematic abolition of poverty.

I offer one last caveat. There is a tendency to back off from sweeping systemic change and to latch onto bits and pieces of a newly designed proposal or system. This never works and is no more effective than the routine incremental changes that have effected public education for a century. What we have today is a product of that way of thinking. Systems are complex human organizations and/or processes with many interdependent people, parts, and forces. For a transformational change to work as envisioned, all of the components must support the system’s mission. When we only tinker with complex systems we inevitably discover that some components work at cross purposes with the mission. This must not be permitted.

Everything starts with purpose or mission and in the case of public education the purpose is to help every child gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for them to have a full and productive life and to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship.

Next, we must identify the key components that create the absolute best chance that we can provide each and every child with that kind of educational experience:

1. We must perform an assessment for each child who arrives for their first day of school so that we can develop an academic path tailored to his or her unique needs;
2. We must create an environment that fosters close personal relationships between students, teachers and parents as this gives each child the absolute best opportunity to be successful. We want each child to have the same type of special relationship with their teacher that many of us remember when we think back to our favorite teacher(s) and we want the parents to be an integral part of that special relationship;
3. During Kindergarten, first, and second grades we need to increase the resources dedicated to helping these youngsters lay a solid foundation for success and learning. Some kids start from way behind and we must do everything within our power to see that they progress from their unique starting point;
4. We must give each child the time and the patient instruction they need to begin moving down the unique academic path we have created for them at the best speed of which they are capable with the expectation that the minimum subject mastery score is 85 percent;
5. We must eliminate even the possibility of failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is critical to academic success but mistakes and failure are two entirely different things. If a child cannot demonstrate mastery on a given lesson then our job is not complete;
6. We want an environment in which all children are allowed to progress at their own best speed. They must not be required to wait on those who learn more slowly and they must not be pressured to keep up with students who had a head start.
7. We also want to create an environment in which students feel safe and secure and are able to develop strong, positive relationships with their peers irrespective of the speed with which they learn;
8. We want to give each child as much stability as possible with respect to both relationships and environment, for as long as possible, and, finally;
9. We must also provide teachers with clear expectations consistent with our new mission and we must equip them with tools and technology to help them optimize their performance.

On the foundation of these core objectives we can construct a new educational process that will be structured to produce the outcomes we seek. In my book, I offer nineteen action strategies to create such an educational process. These illustrate exactly how this new educational process will be structured and how it will work. I then offer an additional 14 action items that are designed to take this message to the people and engage parents as full partners.

As an addendum to this white paper, I have attached a model implementation plan to illustrate how manageable would be its implementation.

We must then reach out to organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advocacy on behalf of the poor, of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other minorities and demographic groups. With the assistance of these organizations, the intent is to take a new educational model to public school corporations that are struggling in the aftermath of the national movement to “reform public education.”

These corporations will be given the opportunity to employ this new model in one or more of elementary schools in their district with the poorest records of performance. Once the performance of this model has been demonstrated and well-documented, we can begin rolling the model out in each and every public school in that school corporation and then throughout the U.S.

Only when this has been accomplished will we be prepared to meet the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges that the balance of the 21st Century will bring.

An Invitation to Read: “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream”

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, challenges both the conventional thinking about why so many American children fail and many of the education reform initiatives that are sweeping the nation including the focus on standardized testing, blaming teachers, privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and the corresponding abandonment of our most challenged rural and urban public schools.

The book was inspired by my ten years as a substitute teacher for a public schools district; my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; and, by over thirty years of leadership development and consulting experience in organizations where I was responsible for hiring, training, and then both leading and holding the employees of my organizations accountable. Most importantly it was inspired by my experience in applying a “Systems Thinking” approach to understand why systems and processes fail and then to reinvent them to produce desired outcomes. I have Masters Degrees in both Education and Public Affairs and have written four books.

Because we are asking the wrong questions in our search for meaningful solutions to the problems of public education, current reforms are woefully misguided. The correct question is “what are the characteristics common to children who succeed,” not “why children fail.” We need to understand why children fail but we must build our solutions around things that work.

In public schools all over the US, there are examples of children from impoverished families who find a way to excel academically. Whether white or black, from intact or fractured families these children share a common advantage. They are supported by parents who cling to hope that an education offers a way out for their sons and daughters. These mothers, fathers, and often grandparents are relentless in the expectations they hold out for their children. They take responsibility for their children’s success and they partner with their children’s teachers. Unlike so many of today’s students, the children of these parents arrive for their first day of school well-prepared and well-motivated.

While poverty creates tremendous disadvantages, it is not the reason why children fail so often. A fundamental premise of this work is that the problem with public education in America is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty and that permeates so many communities throughout the U.S., irrespective of race. I suggest that it is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that contributes to the burgeoning population of parents who have given up on the American dream and on education as a way out for their children. We declared war on it a half century ago but poverty is so huge and amorphous that we feel powerless in its wake. We can do something about hopelessness and powerlessness, however. I show how we can attack that hopelessness, relentlessly, even if it is only one family, one school, or one community at a time.

The other main problem with public education in America is an educational process that is, essentially, early 20th Century technology that has not been substantially modified in over a century. It is an obsolete system that is structured to produce the outcomes it gets and is simply inadequate to meet the needs of Twenty-First Century America and its children. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets children up for failure and humiliation while actually impeding the ability of teachers to do what our children so desperately need them to do and what they so desperately want to do. The system has left generations of adults bitter and resentful and is the cause of teacher burnout on an unacceptable scale. Ironically, it is system that also does a disservice to the thirty to forty percent of the student population who seem to perform well.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream offers thirty-three interdependent action strategies to transform public education in America. They are interdependent because incremental changes and half-measures will not work. The first nineteen strategies are focused on reinventing the educational process to one that is focused on success and subject mastery. It offers specific recommendations to structure the system to produce the outcomes we want by focusing on the relationship between teachers and students. This new model will help teachers teach and foster the ability of teachers to develop long-standing, nurturing relationships with their students and parents. I offer an educational process in which children can learn that success is a process that all can master.

The remaining fourteen action strategies are focused on attacking hopelessness and powerlessness in the community and speaks specifically to the problem of the performance gap between white students and their black and other minority classmates. This performance gap is the most destructive aspect in all of public education. If public education is going to work we need to re-engage parents as critical partners in the education of their children.

I believe that business practices can make a significant and meaningful contribution to the challenges facing public education but I am not talking about principles from the boardrooms with which so many reformers and politicians have become enamored. The business principles to which I refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer; structuring an organization to serve its purpose; leadership development; problem solving; teamwork; integrating quality assessments into the educational process; and, giving teachers, administrators, and their staff the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

It has been two years since Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream was released and, like most authors, there are things I wish I had said differently. If I were re-writing the book today I would minimize, if not eliminate altogether, the discussion about PISA results and comparisons with other nations as I have come to believe they are meaningless.

That being said, it is vital that we understand that the U.S. is being challenged by existing and emerging players in the international marketplace and our supremacy, both economically and politically, is at risk. I am convinced that this makes finding a solution to the challenges of public education the most important item on the American agenda.

Improving the quality of education for every single child in the U.S. is the only way to meaningfully address the problems of poverty and racism that threaten to undermine our democratic traditions.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions at amazon.com and melhawkinsandassociates.com.

Public schools our best hope to strengthen communities

I wrote the following article for today’s edition of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (October 3, 2014).

Published: October 3, 2014 3:00 a.m.
Public schools our best hope to strengthen communities

Supporting the emergence of charter schools as an alternative to public education is one thing. Subsidizing, with vouchers, a family’s choice to transfer their child to a charter or other private or parochial school is another.

“Choice” is one of the key components of the educational reform movement being pushed by the federal government, by the Pence administration and by corporate America. Candidates who support such reforms announce with great passion that education is at the top of their priority list. Voters need to understand that these candidates are not talking about “public education.”

Advocates of “choice,” holding teachers and schools accountable on the basis of ISTEP+ scores, Common Core, taking control of schools out of the hands of communities, and diminishing the influence of teachers unions are what might be called “the politics of abandonment.” These reform initiatives include no provision to help the public schools that are being abandoned and that are losing much-needed revenue.

The sad reality is that charter schools are not the solution to the challenges of public education, if for no other reason than because there will never be enough private classrooms to hold all of our nation’s public school students.

This movement away from strong public schools can only aggravate what is already a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots in which the latter is made up of our nation’s poor and the disadvantaged. It is a burgeoning population that includes the majority of our nation’s minorities and also those for whom English is not their language of birth.

This population is separate and apart from main-stream society. By weakening our public schools and the relationships between those schools and their communities, we are burning the bridges between us; a practice that will have tragic consequences for our future.

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri are but one example of what happens when the ties that bind us are weakened. What kind of future can we expect when more and more Americans are unable to trust the agencies of government charged with public safety; officials who look on certain neighborhoods and their populations with inherent suspicion? If we want to be a healthy society, we must all be willing to trust one another.

The only way we can begin closing the gap and tearing down the barriers that separate us is to strengthen our public schools and the relationship between those schools and their communities.

We must come together to support our public schools and the educators who do their important work under the most adverse circumstances.

We must return control of our public schools to the communities they serve and to the professional educators upon whom our children depend.

We must restructure our educational process to focus on learning not test preparation. We must create an environment in which our children have time to learn and in which our teachers have time to teach.

Advocates for public education are coming together here in Indiana and all over the U.S. to counter the “politics of abandonment.” Those readers who were unable to attend the Oct. 4 viewing of the video “Rise Above the Mark” are encouraged to check it out and even host another viewing.

Our public schoolchildren and their teachers and schools need Americans to take a stand for public education.