Relationship between teacher and student trumps everything!

“I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart!” was how one third grader in Colorado completed the assignment reported on ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir.

If we want all American school children to get the quality education they deserve, and that our society so desperately needs them to achieve, we must give them what they need to be successful. We can identify four things that are not only essential but they trump everything else. What we need our political leaders to come to understand, whether here in Indiana or anywhere throughout the U.S. is that standardized testing is not one of these four things.

The first thing children need is to be treated as individuals on a dedicated learning path that is tailored to their unique starting point. As every professional educator will attest, the level of preparation and motivation children bring with them on their very first day of school is as diverse as the population of parents who gave birth to them. Beginning with such a focus not only puts a child on a path on which they can be successful, it sends a subtle but powerful message that they are special and that they are valued. Nothing gives the child the absolute best opportunity to be successful and nothing helps a child develop a healthy self-esteem more than being accepted for who they are; not how they stack up to their classmates.

The second most critical component of educational success is that each child is placed in an environment in which they can enjoy a nurturing, positive, life-affirming relationship with a teacher who will love them and care for them unconditionally. We want every child to experience the joy of the special relationship that most of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher. While this component might be second on our list, it is second only because of chronology. Creating an environment that fosters such caring relationships between teacher and child is, overwhelmingly, the most important thing we can do to assure that the child receives the highest quality education of which they are capable. Yes, I understand that some children are easier to love than others but the universal truth is that “the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

The third thing the child needs is the assurance that they will get off to a good start and this requires that they begin learning how to be successful, from the very outset. This can be accomplished by creating a situation in which a child is not permitted to fail. Because we have placed them on a unique learning curve, it does not matter how a given child compares to other members of his or her class. We need to create an environment in which each and every child is given the time they need to learn each and every lesson, every step along the way. We simply must not permit them to fail. One of the things our current educational process does most successfully is to teach children how to fail. If we can, instead, begin teaching them that they can and will succeed it is amazing how success replicates itself every step along the way. It changes the equation to one in which the child’s success is a given.

The fourth essential component is that we need to engage parents as partners in the education of their sons and daughters. If we can pull the parents into the special relationship we strive to create between a child and his or her teacher we create an environment in which anything is possible and where every obstacle can be overcome. A warm, nurturing, and positive triumvirate between parents, children, and their teachers creates the most powerful motivational force in the world.

Many public school teachers will read this list and nod their head that these are important but will then go back to what they have been doing, whether or not it has been successful. The problem is that these four components are so far from the reality from most public school classrooms, particularly those in our most challenging schools and communities, that they are viewed as unreal; as abstractions.

What every professional educator must be challenged to believe at the very core of their being is that these components are not abstractions. They are real, and they can be created in each and every public school classroom in America, if only we step back and examine not only the way we do everything and why, but also the way we structure the process that supports and facilitates what we do. Each of these components is achievable and manageable; they are attainable solutions to a human engineering problem that requires only that we structure the educational process to support our most critical objectives.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, I offer a blueprint for an educational process that relies on these components as a foundation for everything else it does.

I can imagine nothing that would validate a teacher’s existence more than hearing one their students say, “I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart.”

Excerpt #8 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream – Introduction

Outdated Facilities and Technology

With respect to school facilities and resources, there are abysmal facilities in communities around the nation and, while they are certainly substandard and contribute to an overall unfavorable atmosphere, replacing these facilities with modern state-of-the-art physical structures will not result in a dramatic turnaround. Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) provides a marvelous example. Two of the eleven FWCS schools that were identified by the State of Indiana as at risk of takeover because of their performance as measured against a number of criteria, had been renovated, in the recent past, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. These two schools are, arguably, two of the finest high school facilities in all of northeast Indiana. Quality buildings are a real positive but they do not alter the level of student motivation and they do not alter the recipe for educational success.

Should we continue to improve school buildings and technology? Absolutely but it must not be our first priority.


While many advocate curriculum reforms, most schools within individual states are held to the same educational standards and have curricula that vary minimally with other schools, irrespective of the performance of those schools. Can we do a better job at the development of curricula that are well-suited to the needs of the Twenty-first Century? Yes, we can and we must do better but curricula alone do not explain divergent results within schools of the same community and a focus on curriculums must not be our highest priority.

Often, lowered expectations account for curriculum variances as underperforming schools often lower their expectations in an effort to make gains in competency test results and graduation rates. Even more critically, expectations correlate to our perception of relative disadvantage with respect to a child’s circumstances. Whether we admit it or not, there is a tendency to consider it unfair to expect as much from disadvantaged students as we do from their counterparts.

Another common assertion is that we must extend the number of hours in the classroom and increase the proportion of those hours devoted to math, language arts, and science. It is unrealistic to think that this is anything other than a small part of the solution and certainly not one at the top of our priority list. In schools comprised of large populations of unmotivated students, such initiatives will only serve to prolong the daily agony of students and teachers alike

Race and Ethnicity

Is the problem race or ethnicity? The most glaring fact in all of public education is the performance gap between African-American and white students. It is a fact of which we all are aware but about which few will talk, candidly. For many experts, it is safer to cling to the idea that poverty is the culprit. Sadly, there are some Americans who are content to believe that the performance results of black children are the best that we can expect. Some actually believe that black children are predisposed to fail. That the majority of Americans are unwilling to talk about this issue openly and frankly contributes greatly to the persistence of such ignorance.

The performance gap between white students and Hispanic and other ethnic and racial subgroups may not be as glaring but it is every bit as disconcerting. The indisputable fact is that students from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds excel academically and that some white students fail just as badly as their minority counterparts. When will we wake up to the fact that the issue is one of culture rather than of race or color, and then act accordingly? One of the most important lessons to be gained from the success of the “model” schools about which we have talked is that kids from diverse backgrounds can and will learn.

Student Behavior

Is the problem behavior? There is no doubt that teachers who labor in under-performing schools spend a disproportionate amount of their time striving to restore order. Stories of teachers who have time for little else are well documented. Disruptive behavior is nothing other than a manifestation of a lack of motivation, which we believe to be a symptom of a counter-cultural devaluation of education, and a system that is focused on failure.

Fractured Families

Finally, we return to the subject of supportive families. The single greatest advantage enjoyed by high-performing schools, of whatever genesis or jurisdiction, is the support of the parents of their students. The more a parent values education and the more he or she wants the best possible education for his or her children the more involved and supportive he or she will be and it does not seem to matter whether it is a one or two-parent home. What matters is that parents truly consider themselves to be partners who share in the responsibility for the success of their children. The more relentless these mothers, fathers, and grandparents are with respect to academic expectations, the more successful the child, whatever his or her racial, ethnic, or economic circumstances.

One of the more interesting developments since the emergence of charter schools is that many of these schools have failed to produce significantly better results on competency examinations than their public school counterparts. While we encourage research into the dynamics of this phenomenon, we think we can predict one of if not the biggest contributing factor.

Parents who make sacrifices, both financial and otherwise, to enroll their children in private, parochial, or charter schools are typically invested in the education of their children. They are motivated to see a positive return on their investment and they accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. Unfortunately, some parents take advantage of vouchers but think, having made such a choice, their job is complete. Such parents are not invested and may not accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children. The students of such parents will be no more likely to succeed academically than they were in their former school. As is so often true, when people get something for nothing, they have an entitlement mentality. We repeat our assertion that, it is not the school that makes the difference in education and that vouchers are not the solution.

If educators could have just one wish, and truly took the time to think about it, the overwhelming majority would wish that each of their students had parents who care, who want to be involved, who truly accept responsibility for their kids, and who support the teachers and principals. Proving this assertion is the greatest single contribution special schools make in an aggregate sense. Creating such a reality in every school in the United States of American is the categorical imperative of our time.

Excerpt #6 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, The Introduction, cont.

All educational policy makers, decision-makers, administrators, and practitioners are challenged to step back to a vantage point from which they can examine the system as an integral whole and challenge their fundamental assumptions about the educational process. We will show how this can be done, very specifically, in a later section of this work. All players in the system must be tasked to break out of their encapsulation and to think exponentially. What we need from teachers is that they acquire a willingness to try new things and be willing to leave their zones of comfort. Not everything we try will work but we will find no new solutions until we do try.

We can predict with a high level of confidence that increased student motivation and parental participation will make a difference in any educational setting. What is not so clear is whether the innovations in curriculum and instructional methodology utilized in these special schools would translate to all students across the spectrum of our diverse population of American children.

Honors programs in our mainstream public schools provide supportive evidence for this argument. In such honors programs, students have been selected on the basis of their demonstrated accomplishments. These are highly motivated students, almost all of whom are supported by committed parents who view themselves as full partners in the educational process. Within honors programs, the students, already successful academically, enjoy some of but not all of the advantages enjoyed by students in special schools. Often, principals assign their best and most experienced teachers to honors programs. In addition, the students in honors programs are sheltered from much of the negative peer pressure that pervades the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds of most urban public schools. Honor students, for example, rarely are required to deal with the harassment of students who view education with disdain. They might have to deal with it in the corridors but not in an adjacent seat within an honors classroom.

The attributes that distinguish honor students, who are essentially self-selected for the program, from the non-honors students of their school are their motivation to learn, a demonstrated proficiency in an academic arena, and the fact that they are supported by parents who rigorously support the educational process. Our argument is further supported by the fact, to which many teachers will attest, that there are many other students who could be honors students if only they cared and if only they could be encouraged to try. Excellent teachers can and do provide such encouragement and we know that the encouragement of committed parents can be a powerful influence. The encouragement of teachers and parents working in partnership, however, creates the absolute best environment for the success of students. It is imperative that we work relentlessly to bring all American parents into this partnership. Although I have no evidence to prove my assertion, I believe that even teachers at the lower end of the performance curve do their best work with those students whose parents make an effort to show up at conferences and call or drop by to see how their children are doing.

An important difference between special schools outside of the mainstream system of education and highly successful honors classes is that while special schools are able to employ innovations in curriculum and teaching methods, honors programs must rely on the same curriculum and educational methodology found in the mainstream classrooms of their state. The only apparent difference for the honors classrooms are the motivation of students, their demonstrated accomplishments, and the rigorous support of families. This suggests to this author, that student motivation and parental responsibility are the most important components of educational success, wherever we find it. Honors students are also children for whom the traditional educational process is ideally suited. The flip side, here, poses a serious question: Could this be construed as evidence that our traditional educational processes are not a good fit for the majority of the students in our public schools?

The motivation of students and the active support and participation of parents are clearly the crucial difference makers in education, both public and private. The sooner we acknowledge this reality and begin to restructure our strategies accordingly, the sooner we will begin to see a transformation in the quality of American education for all students. Our second over-riding priority must be to challenge an educational process that seems to be both designed and focused on identifying and celebrating the accomplishments of a small percentage of elite students for whom academic success comes relatively easily, to the great disadvantage of the millions of other American children.

As we shall see when we examine the results of competency tests in the State of Indiana, thirty percent of the students throughout Indiana are unable to pass the ISTEP+ or the End of Class Assessments, which are meant to determine eligibility for graduation. Just because they passed does not mean that these students scored high on the assessments. Many passed by the slimmest of margins.

Over the coming century, the success of our nation requires a diverse range of skills. Excellence in any one venue will be as vital to our nation’s success as any other. Ron Flickinger, an educational consultant who provided feedback to me when this book was being written observed that, “The larger social system will value some skills more than others and will obviously pay more for those skills, but the culture has to find a way to communicate to its young that the guy that gets your plumbing right enhances the quality of your life just as much as the mayor of your city.”

An urgent need to completely rethink the reasons why so many children fail in our mainstream schools throughout the whole of the United States seems apparent.