Troubling Questions for Troubled Times

In what kind of world do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up? What kind of people do we want them to become? What questions would you add?

Do we want our children and grandchildren to believe all people are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, or that some people are entitled to privileges because of who they are?  

Do we want them to treat people with respect and dignity or to think it okay to insult, ridicule, accuse, or attack other people?

Do we want them to be kind to one another or hateful?

Do we want our children to view the colors, shapes, and sizes of our bodies and the languages we speak as varying shades of beauty or do we want our differences to be a basis for judging others as good or bad?

Do we want them to live in a world where all lives matter, or a place where some lives matter more than others, and some seem to matter not at all?

Can we teach them police reform is not advocacy for lawlessness rather a demand, through better training, that law enforcement professionals rise to a higher standard?

How do we teach our children and grandchildren the best way to protect our rights is to protect the rights of others?

How do we teach them rights must be balanced by responsibility?

Do we want our children to learn to respect freedom of religion or learn it is okay to impose their religious beliefs on others?

How do we teach them their rights do not allow them to infringe on the rights of others?

How do we balance the interests of individuals against the good of the community?

When did it become okay to view people who disagree with us on important matters as evil, or unpatriotic, or un-American?

What happened to the days when there were issues about which reasonable men and women could disagree?

When things go wrong, shall we teach our children to find someone to blame or should we teach them to work together to find solutions that work for all?

Will the interests of society be better served when all children have a quality education or should a quality education be reserved for a fortunate few?

Do we want an education process in which all kids learn how to be successful and how to develop their  potential or an education process that functions like a competition in which some kids win, and others lose?

Do we want our children to think of science as an honest attempt to understand how the universe works, or as a strategy to justify a point of view?

Is history an opportunity to learn from the past experiences of human beings and their governments, or is history something we are free to change to justify whatever we may have done or want to do?

Is it okay if the way we teach children does not work for every student?

Do we teach our kids to always tell the truth or that it is okay to lie if it will help them get whatever they want or do whatever they want to do?

When did the truth become whatever we choose it to be?

How will life be for our children if they live in the world where there are no fundamental truths on which we can all agree?

Let us not forget we are all who and what we learned to be.

Why #SchoolChoice is an Unfortunate Distraction rather than a Solution for the Challenges Facing Education in America.

So much of the energy devoted to education reform and improvement, in recent years, has been focused on charter schools and the “school choice” movement. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a charter school, what was once an intriguing idea has become an unfortunate distraction to our efforts to transform education in America. 

In one respect, charter schools are just like so many of our nation’s public schools in that some are more successful than others and others are not successful at all. The value of charters, if they were utilized as initially conceived, is they provide an opportunity to create a laboratory, if you will, to experiment with new and innovative methodologies, outside the framework of the traditional public school system. The charter concept is now used for a totally different purpose. Advocates have concluded that letting parents choose the best school for their children is the solution for education in America.  

On the surface, the logic seems to resonate and the need for lotteries provides evidence of demand for some charters. The other side of that coin is an inability to meet demand in a local community begs the question of how “school choice” can serve the needs of fifty million American children.  This is one of the fundamental flaws in the argument that “school choice” is the solution for the U.S.  If creating charter schools for every child is impractical, what is the purpose of “school choice?”

Are “school choice” leaders content to offer a way for some families to escape what are perceived to be bad schools, assuming they win the lottery. Are they okay with letting the rest fend for themselves? What are the consequences for public schools who must operate with fewer resources and, possibly, a more challenging student population?

Another flaw is the pervasive belief that low academic achievement is the result of bad schools and bad  teachers.  Parochial schools and charters can also be found on both ends of the performance continuum. That aggregate academic performance has not responded to a bevy of innovative methodologies and initiatives, introduced over a period of decades, ought to give reformers pause.

If the problem is not who teaches and where but a consequence of what they teach and how, we are on a path to inevitable failure. We must be willing to open our minds to the obvious and address the dysfunctionality of the education process at work in schools throughout the U.S.  Ignoring the true cause is comparable to treating Covid 19 with a litany of antibiotics that cannot, now, and will never kill the coronavirus. Incorrect diagnoses rarely produce favorable prognoses.

If we want better outcomes for our students, we must do more than change school buildings and teachers. We must change what we ask teachers and students to do and what we expect them to accomplish. To paraphrase motivational icon, Zig Ziglar, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting the same disappointing outcomes.

It is not that advocates of “school choice” are bad people rather they are misguided. The only future the “school choice” movement can offer America is an education system that will become increasingly more bifurcated. It is a future with many winners, to be sure, but with far more losers because the push toward privatization siphons the lifeblood from public school districts, whatever their track record. We must reduce the number of Americans who could be counted among the “have nots,” not widen the chasm that separates us.

Now, looking back, we can tabulate the opportunity cost from years of disappointing academic achievement because we chose the wrong path to meaningful education reform. The other portion  of that opportunity cost would be benefits forgone; benefits that would have accrued for the millions of our sons and daughters whose academic distress could have been replaced by successful achievement.  

Click on this link to examine The Hawkins Model© and you will learn more about the dysfunctionality of the existing education process and how we can change the future for every girl and boy in America. You are also asked to believe it is not too late to act; in fact, this may be the perfect time to make a change.

Kids Learn from Experience to Acquire Pre-requisite knowledge: A Lesson on Dysfunctionality

Even though we do not think about it, how we learn in the classroom is just a variation of learning from experience. Lesson presentations, practice assignments, review sessions, quizzes, and tests are all experiences gained in the classroom.

In education, we place too much focus on mistakes and failure.  Of course, we learn from mistakes; in fact, that is where much learning begins.  We try something we want to learn but rarely do we accomplish it, to our satisfaction, after the first attempt. We must strive with determination.  With each unsuccessful attempt, we gain more experience which, in turn, allows us to make adjustments that produce better outcomes.  For most of us, it may take multiple attempts before we are fully satisfied with the outcomes we experience, whatever the endeavor.

Often, we refer to our unsuccessful attempts as mistakes, but in the minds of many people, educators included, the word mistake is often mistaken for a form of failure, if you will forgive the pun. We would be better off to use the term “disappointing outcomes.” Whatever we choose to call them, however, what they represent are “learning opportunities.”

 Mistakes/disappointing outcomes do not rise to the level of failure unless we give up and stop trying; until we settle for less than a full understanding of something, or less than subject mastery.  In our classrooms, students do not choose to stop trying or settle for less than their best and, it is not their teachers who make that choice for them. The decision to abandon one lesson and begin another before students are ready to move on, is what the current education process requires of teachers. Giving up is what the education process has been teaching  many children to do from their first day of school. We have not been prompted to think about it that way.

Teachers are unknowing facilitators in this process because it is what the education process demands of them. Every time teachers must record  a C, D, or F in their gradebooks, that grade becomes a specific, documented example of a student who has been required, by the education process,  to give up and stop  trying before they have gained comprehension;  before attaining subject mastery. Once that window closes on a given lesson, rarely do kids get another chance.  

This is only half of what we must come to understand as one of the most dysfunctional components of the education process on which teachers and students must rely. The other half of the dysfunction has an equally devastating impact on our most vulnerable students.

What we learn from our successes is no less important than what we learn from our unsuccessful outcomes. Every time teachers are required to move students on, ready or not, the education process deprives a child of an opportunity to experience success.  If there is no success there can be no opportunity to celebrate success, to relish in it, take pride in it. These students are deprived of  essential  building blocks of confidence and self- esteem; and  it happens to millions of children, hundreds of times, every school year.

Each of our experiences whether good or bad, positive or negative, successful or unsuccessful, acceptable or unacceptable, expected or disappointing, satisfactory or unsatisfactory are learning opportunities.  We learn from experience, not just mistakes, each  one of us, both learners and teachers. Think about what this means to our students and it becomes apparent why this discussion is so important.

Success in learning leads to proficiency. We become proficient when we have acquired the ability to utilize what we have learned in real life situations, whether they be subsequent lessons, state-competency examinations, college-entry applications and exams;  job applications, qualification for military enlistment; and, solving problems on the job and in our everyday lives. We need to think of each lesson  we ask our students to learn as an opportunity for them to acquire the pre-requisite knowledge and skills they will need to achieve success on future endeavors, whatever the venue or level.

Once we grasp the magnitude of the devastation wreaked by the existing  education process we have been utilizing in our schools for generations, we must feel compelled to change the way we think about what we do and why. How can we rely on an education process that deprives millions of children of opportunities to acquire the prerequisite knowledge and skills they will need for the rest of their lives?

Our existing education process is dysfunctional to the point of obsolescence. Is it any wonder there are so many American men and women who seem unable to make informed decisions about the cogent issues of this 21st Century, and who rely on the leadership of demagogs and conspiracy theorists to tell them what is true and what is not?

The good news, as overwhelming as this may seem, is that a solution is relatively easy to implement. Reimagining the education process is what The Hawkins Model© has been designed to do. One of the things it requires is that we utilize time as an independent variable in the education equation, rather than a constant or fixed asset.  You are invited to check it out at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

A message to my friends on Twitter and LinkedIn and followers of my blog, “Education, Hope and the American Dream,” about a non Covid health issue I’ve been dealing with.

It is my hope that a few of you, at least, have wondered why I have been so silent for so long, with both Tweets and blog posts. There have been no blog posts at all from late July to late October and only a few from the first of April, a couple of which were recycled.

I want to share a little about the “non-Covid-related” health condition I experienced that began early in 2020 and is only beginning to resolve. Because it is a health condition I had never heard of, and one that many people in my age range may be at risk for, I want to tell you about it.

The condition or syndrome is Tardive Dyskinesia, “TD” for short. It is caused by long-term use of medications, individually or in combination, for psychiatric, neurological, and gastrointestinal ailments. For some time, I had been taking medication for ailments in two of those three conditions.

My symptoms included cognitive problems such as memory loss, inability to focus, mood fluctuations balance, as well as some repeating involuntary movements. These symptoms came on so gradually the condition was not diagnosed for nine or ten months. I can tell you it was a frightening time for me and my family. We were fearful it was the onset of some form of dementia. It was diagnosed this past December and, after changing some of my medications, symptoms have begun to abate. A couple of the symptoms persist and I have been advised it may take a few months or more before I feel fully normal, again.

To give you a couple of examples, my short-term memory was awful and not just pulling an occasional word out of my memory banks, something that many people of my age group are prone to experience. So, so often, I would struggle to come up with a word and once I was able to recall it, I might be  unable to spell it.

Writing became problematic as I would sit down to type a sentence and forget what I wanted to say before I finished typing it. Often, when I was able to produce a paragraph or more, I would later discover that what I had written made no sense at all. Often, I would find words missing that were necessary for  a sentence. Occasionally what I had written would be non-sensical.

In addition, at its worst point, I would lose my balance for no obvious reason, was unable to perform simple manual tasks such as deal from a deck of playing cards or peel potatoes, and would experience repeating involuntary movements.

Most all of us know how horrible dementia can be for a family and being faced with the prospect this could be my future was frightening.

So. any of you in your late sixties, or beyond (I am 75), who take medications individually or in combinations for any psychiatric (e.g. depression), neurological, or even gastrointestinal conditions (GERD), be alert to the development of the kind of symptoms I have described and talk to your physician, immediately, if any should surface.

Some of you are aware of the book I have been writing to introduce my education model. I had hoped to complete it last Spring. Needless to say, little progress has been made in almost a year.  I am beginning to get back to work on the book, slowly, and I want to devote most of my available writing time to that purpose. Since I also want to maintain a presence on Twitter, and other social media, I will be recycling a few articles from my blog as far back as 2013; a few on topics that remain cogent.

I hope you have fared well in the Pandemic and wish all of you the best.

Mel Hawkins @melhawk46

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

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

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

                                              -Jeanne Hawkins Beaupre, Facebook, May 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from a Pandemic

There are so many lessons to be learned from this Pandemic experience, although it is sad that it takes something like Covid-19 to teach or remind us.

The starkest lesson has been the vulnerability of so many segments of our population. There are inspirational lessons, as well, such as the courage of so many men and women committed to doing their essential jobs even when it places their lives and the lives of their families at risk. We should be immensely grateful for the latter lesson, but it is the former lesson that should give us pause and motivate us to soul-search.

How we can “better prepare ourselves for disasters such as this” is an invaluable lesson as we can be certain this will not be the last global disaster to test our character; both as individuals and as a society.

We must ask ourselves whether it is in our nation’s best interests to have such disparity between those who have and those who can only want. We like to think of the U.S. as a great nation and it is, in so many ways, but we, also, must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that what we have witnessed, in these trying times, are not all things about which we can be proud.

What are a few of the things we are learning about education and healthcare: two of the essential components of a full and meaningful life? They are also the two issues with which I feel the strongest connection.

All children will be challenged to succeed when learning remotely but many of the students who will struggle the most while learning remotely are the same children who struggle the most in their classrooms. Can we hope this experience will enhance our understanding of the importance of relationships and supportive environments for learning; that these things are more important than determining who can learn the most, the fastest?

And think about what it would be like if hospitals were turning away coronavirus patients because they lack health insurance coverage. Thankfully, we have suspended some the rules in this extraordinary time, but should such rules exist at all? Would turning away patients with other life-threatening medical conditions be more justified than turning away coronavirus patients? Would the converse also be true?

Imagine the turmoil if the families of Covid-19 patients without health insurance coverage, both those who recovered and those who succumbed, begin receiving bills for their hospital and medical care. Is medical and hospital care for the sick and injured a right of citizenship?

The world around us is changing at such a pace that many of us do not even notice that things have changed. Does not this world-wide pandemic demonstrate how interconnected we are, on whichever corner of this planet we might reside?

Maybe it is time to step back and challenge all our assumptions about what is “just” and what is “unjust”; and about what differentiates “inequality” and “equality; about what makes a great nation.” Possibly we should rethink the logic behind all our government’s policies, both domestic and foreign.

We know that people are the same, in many ways, wherever they may live, but is anyone else concerned that Americans seem a little bit more likely to hoard scarce resources; to “not let this thing keep me from partying;” or to protest “shelter-in-place” policies because getting what they want is not only more important than other people getting what they need but also more important than other peoples’ lives?

Make no mistake, the world will never be the same after this 2020 “Covid-19 pandemic.” The question all of us should be asking is “do we want to lead or be led” by the changes that will be taking place around us?

As Simple as 1-2-3-4-5-6

Let us make the solution to the challenges facing public education in America as simple as possible.

Providing a quality education to every child who arrives at our door is as simple as 1-2-3-4-5-6.

  1. Children need to feel special and experience what it is like to have one or more favorite teachers on whom they can depend for the long term;
  2. Students must start at whatever point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;
  3. Boys and girls must be able to depend on us to give them however much time and attention they need to learn from the mistakes they make, every step along the way;
  4. Kids must understand they are being asked to both learn and employ the lessons, principles, and discipline with which each of them can create success for themselves, throughout their whole lives; it is a process of success;
  5. Our children must be taught to celebrate their successes and the successes of the people in their lives, always; as success is an experience best shared; and,
  6. Educators must learn that it is the success of our students, not the promises we make, that will draw parents and guardians in as partners.

We must understand there is no one, perfect solution to the challenges of public education. Technology is but one example. Digital technology is  not the solution to the problems in education rather it is a tool, the value of which is measured by its utility to teachers and students.

We must reimagine how to ensure that everything teachers and schools are asked to do will support our mission.  The mission is to send every young adult out into the world with the knowledge, skills, and wisdom they need to find joy for themselves and their families; in pursuit of whatever meaningful goals they set for themselves.

To carry out this mission superintendents, administrators, teachers and policy makers must be willing to break from the traditions of the past. The Hawkins Model© is one example of how that might be done.

The logic behind these six objectives might be simple, but the work they will require of educators will be hard. These goals require that we embrace the notion that education is an uncertain science. It requires that we all work, relentlessly, to develop our craft.

What does a craftsperson do? They must apply all their knowledge, skills, and collective wisdom to discern the unique needs of individual children and then utilize an eclectic portfolio of tools and methodologies to instill success in the hearts and minds of those children. Not everything they do will work so they must keep striving until they find something that does. They must never stop learning and they must never give up. Teachers must never permit their students to give up and stop learning.

Our teachers must be free and willing to give fully of themselves, without fear of recrimination. Creating a quality education for all will require a level of effort, dedication, courage, and camaraderie comparable to that which our medical professionals, first-responders, and so many other men and women are demonstrating in response to Covid-19.

These men and women are heroes and the work they do saves lives and a nation. Teachers are also heroes and the work they do will save lives and, also a nation.

The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!

The Failure of So Many Public School Students and Poverty: Symptoms of the Same Pathology

(this is an updated version of a post published in the fall of 2013)

In a post on the Blog of Diane Ravitch, she talked about the assertion of Michael Petrilli[i] that education can solve the problem of poverty. [This post was published in 2013 but the issue is every bit as cogent, today.]

It is my belief that understanding the relationship between poverty and the problems of our systems of education is essential to fixing education.

Michael Petrilli’s suggestion that education can fix poverty is correct, but I believe there is more to it than that. The causal relationship between poverty and the problems in our public schools is not a simple thing.  It is my assertion that poverty and the poor performance of so many American children are interdependent. It is a chicken versus the egg conundrum.

In this blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream and in my 2013 book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I suggest that poverty, deteriorating neighborhoods, the failure of so many American children, low-performing schools, and burned out teachers are all symptoms of the same underlying pathology.

That we do not recognize the true nature of the relationship between poverty and the failure in our schools contributes greatly to the disappointment of education reforms over the past half century.

I, also, suggest that race has nothing to do with this failure, and the belief on the part of some American educators and many citizens that the academic performance of disadvantaged children, specifically children of color, is the best we can expect, also contributes greatly. The problem is not race; it is culture, with poverty playing an interdependent role.

There is an enormous population of multiple generations of American men and women who have always failed in school. These citizens, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, have lost faith and hope in the American dream. These Americans, living in poverty, reside under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness and no longer believe they possess control over the outcomes in their lives or that an education provides a way out for their children. This is a cultural phenomenon that leaves these children vulnerable to ravages of discrimination.

Consider what it would be like to be born into a family where your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have all failed in school. What is the likelihood that anyone reared in such an environment would be expected to be successful in school? What is the probability that an individual child in such a family would arrive for their first day of school with an expectation that they will be successful? What is the probability that these children will grow up to be productive citizens of a participatory democracy?

Add to this that such families are part of an entire community of men and women who have always failed in school and who have little or no expectation that an education will provide a way out for their sons and daughters.  What such an environment creates is a culture of hopelessness and powerlessness that transcends race. The youngsters from this culture are not just black students or other minorities. There are white students and their families immersed in the same culture of minimal expectations; the same cycle of failure and poverty.  

During the first nine years of my career, when I was a juvenile probation officer, I met many such children. I have sat at kitchen tables sharing cups of coffee with the parents of these children; families lamenting that they have few hopes for their kids. Believe me, these parents love their children every bit as much as any other American family.

Such families, whatever their ethnicity, are part of a culture characterized by a disdain for education. These men and women do not trust their schools and teachers, they do not teach their  children to value education, and do not provide a home  environment that fosters a strong motivation to learn. How do parents provide such an environment for their children when they have never experienced it themselves?

We live in a time when the American dream has become meaningless to  many and they no longer view an education as a ticket to the dream.  The children from these cultural pockets throughout much of urban and rural America, arrive for their first day of school with precious little motivation to learn and even less preparation. There, they are greeted by an education process that is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to respond to the challenges they present and they are greeted by teachers and administrators who are as much victims of that education process as their students.

With its focus on academic standards with arbitrary timetables and on testing to measure performance against those standard, our American educational process sets up for failure and humiliation, huge numbers of students. These kids who are our society’s most precious assets are, figuratively, chewed up and spit out by the education process despite the valiant efforts of dedicated and caring teachers. That we turn around and blame these same teachers for the failings of an obsolete education process is as unconscionable as it is unfathomable.

That educators and policy makers are bewildered that these children are disruptive, earn failing grades, and disappointing scores on state competency exams is, itself, bewildering. The pleas from teachers to parents for help and support are rejected by men and women who, themselves, are products of the same educational process. These mothers and fathers and grandparents do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.

In my book and blog, I reject the conventional wisdom about the reasons for the academic failure of a growing percentage of American children and offer an alternative hypothesis. I suggest that the problems with education in the U.S. are 1) this burgeoning cultural disdain for education on the part of parents and the resulting lack of motivation on the part of their children, and 2) an obsolete educational process that allows students to fail.

The very fact that children can fail contributes greatly to a reality in which so very many of them do. This will not change until we alter how we structure and organize schools and teachers and until we reinvent the way we teach. The Hawkins Model© is created to do just that.


[i] Michael Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Executive Editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States.

Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system or education process that demands a complete re-examination.

Think about how children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and, when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike, we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is that they do learn.

When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, we comfort them, give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again. When they finally get it, we celebrate their accomplishment just like we celebrate all victories. Victory is just another word for success.

What we don’t do is tally the number of times they fall, nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready.

If we are helping two children learn how to ride a bike, simultaneously, and one child catches on more quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling and tell them time is up. Neither do we push the second child to take off in pursuit. We certainly do not start teaching both children more advanced skills, rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.

We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly, nor do we celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one rides every bit as good as the other and has just as much fun. Once one masters a skill, it no longer matters, in the least, that one student took longer to learn than another.

Now, think about how we teach children in many of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we review the most common mistakes that students make to help them learn from their mistakes. We, then, require our teachers to do one or more of three things that are incomprehensible when you think about it.

The first is that we do not, routinely, give struggling students whatever extra time they need to understand their mistakes. If they are to acquire a sufficient level of mastery of the subject matter to demonstrate to us that they understand and can use the knowledge or skill, proficiently, they must have time to learn from all their mistakes, even the uncommon ones.

Secondly, teachers will either record the grades of their students’ practice assignments or give or withhold credit for those assignments. They, then, factor a students’ scores/credits into their final grade at the end of the grading period, which often influences their grades at the end of a semester or school year.

The third unfathomable thing teachers are expected to do is require struggling students to move on to the next lesson in a textbook or syllabus, ready or not. It is as if the designers of the education process did not consider that for students to understand many lessons, they must be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. Teachers are expected to let their students advance without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding they will need.

The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the education process and entire American educational system is that we move everyone along to make sure we cover, within arbitrary time frames, all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process.

It was not always this way. When we first began teaching children, in a classroom setting, the only thing that mattered was whether each child learned as much as they were able at their own best speed. How, along the way from the early days of public schools until now, did we gravitate away from a focus on individual student achievement to an environment where we judge schools and teachers based on whether their classrooms are on an acceptable pace with respect to academic standards?

We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A”  or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future, but that is what is expected of teachers. We ask teachers to shove aside their reticence and plunge ahead.

If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than their “C, D, or F” classmates. Certainly they enjoy more success. In fact, it does not take long before it becomes clear that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”

We observe this fully understanding that it is as much fun to learn successfully as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose? How can one learn how to be successful without experiencing success?

If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions.

The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire system of education.

If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions of your leaders and policy makers.

You are also invited to examine an education model in which all these issues have been examined and where the way we have structured teachers and classrooms, and the way we  teach kids, has been re-envisioned. The result is an environment where we give our students the time and attention they need to learn every lesson and we evaluate teachers on how well they focus on that priority. It is amazing how, when we expand our paradigms, the possibilities multiply.