Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

Transforming/reinventing public education in America is well within the realm of possibility because it is a relatively simple human engineering challenge. The obstacles to its realization exist not in the architecture or mechanics of a solution rather in the politics of change. Those obstacles begin with how difficult it is for people to step outside their paradigms and envision a different reality. Being able to envision a new reality is important to all human beings but is imperative for educators if we are to insure equality in education.

The danger we all face when confronted with a long history of disappointing outcomes is succumbing to resignation that we are powerless to alter those outcomes. It is so easy to become inured to the human consequences.

In public education, disappointing outcomes have been a fact of life for generations and the consequences have had an adverse impact on virtually all aspects of American society. Teachers entering the profession almost always believe that all kids can learn but, over time, they are confronted with the reality that so very many of them do not. Some educators succumb to the proposition that there are children who cannot learn.

That so many of these students are poor, black, and other minorities makes it inevitable that some men and women—not a majority, we believe—will draw unfortunate conclusions. Educators must be challenged to reject stereotyping or profiling by racial, ethnic, or any other categorization and conclude, instead, that the problem is not that these kids all look alike, rather that they experience similar disadvantages.

This tradition of unacceptable outcomes will not be altered until educators take a paradigm leap and imagine a new reality outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. Envisioning an alternate reality does not guarantee a solution, however. Even when we discover a transformational solution, we are still faced with one of greatest challenges facing organizations; we must overcome the paralysis of inertia.

What teachers, principals, and other administrators must do is simple. They must acknowledge that what they are asked to do in their schools and classrooms is not working for many students, especially the disadvantaged. They must be encouraged to forget about what the critics say; forget about the corporate reformers and the politicians who have been influenced by them; and, forget about test scores.

The only thing that matters to teachers is what they see in their classrooms. Not all teachers can see the pattern from their classroom, however, nor can all principals. Those educators blessed to work in high performing schools must not turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by so many of their colleagues.  They must remind themselves, often, that “if not for the grace of God, that could be me.” They must stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in our most challenging schools and districts.

Superintendents have a special responsibility to provide positive leadership and in districts populated by struggling schools and failing students, superintendents must be strong enough to share the truth of what they witness. Their responsibility includes their students, the men and women who staff their schools, and the communities they have been chosen to serve. It serves none of these interests to act as if everything is okay.

It may be unreasonable to expect all top administrators to break from tradition, but they must be  relentless in challenging the assumptions of conventional wisdom. When these leaders see a long pattern of academic distress, they must feel compelled to act because if they do not, who can? 

It is not my desire to shower these good men and women with blame, but I do challenge them to accept responsibility. Blame and responsibility are two entirely different things. There is an essential principle of positive leadership that suggests “it is only when we begin to accept responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that plague us that we begin to acquire the power to change them.”

It has long been my belief that the top executives of any organization must be positive leaders with a passionate commitment to their mission. I have observed far too many leaders in education, whether superintendents or principals, who appear to be administrators more than powerful, positive leaders. Because most were hired and are evaluated based on their administrative experience and skills, we should not be surprised. Those graduate programs for school administrators that do not place great emphasis on leaderships skills must be challenged to rethink their mission.

It is my assertion that the absence of dynamic, positive leadership in school districts throughout the U.S. has given rise to a groundswell of dissatisfaction that, in turn, has opened the door for education reformers. These reformers—also good men and women—are only striving to fill a void of leadership. They see inaction from the leaders of public schools in the face of decades of unacceptable outcomes. Those outcomes are the millions of young people leaving school without the academic skills necessary to be full partners in the American enterprise.

What is unfortunate is that the solutions these education reformers and their political supporters offer have proven to be no more effective than the public schools they are striving to supplant. And, why should we be surprised when all they do is change buildings, call it a charter school, and ask teachers to do the same job they would be asked to do in public schools. They rely on the same obsolete education process and it is inevitable that they will get the same results.

This flawed education process impacts every child, adversely. To disadvantaged students, those impacts are often devastating.

Once again, I ask the reader to consider an alternate approach; a new model designed to focus on relationships and giving every child as much time as they need to learn every lesson, at their own best speed. Please check out The Hawkins Model© not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment.

The ultimate measure of the success of our schools is not graduation rates, or the percentage of students going off to college. Education must be measured by each student’s ability to utilize, in the real world, that which he or she has learned; regardless of the directions they have chosen for their lives. Education must be evaluated on the quality of choices available to its young men and women.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, or superintendent, how does one explain that all your dedication, best efforts, and innovation over the last half century have produced so little in the way of meaningful improvements in the outcomes of disadvantaged students?

Blaming outside forces is unacceptable. If the pathway to our destination is obstructed, do we give up or do we seek an alternate route? If we succeed in treating the illnesses and injuries of some patients does this let us off the hook in dealing with people whose illnesses and injuries are both more serious, and more challenging? “They all count, or no one counts.”

It serves no purpose to beat the superintendents of our nation’s public school districts about the head and shoulders, but we have a responsibility to hold them accountable. 

If teachers would rally together and utilize the collective power of their unions and associations to challenge conventional wisdom, they would gain support and become a revolution. The same is true of administrators and their associations. If teachers and administrators would link arms, they would become an irresistible force, not for incremental improvements, but for transformational change.  

Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that if teachers and administrators were united behind a positive new idea that would assure the quality of education of every one of our children, that their communities would rally to the cause?

Educators, you truly do have the power to alter the reality that is public education for every child in America.

A CALL TO ACTION: A New Civil Rights Movement Focused on Public Education!

Education is a civil rights issue of our time just as education and segregation were in the 1950s. Back then, the challenge was breaking down the barriers that prevented black children from attending public schools.  Thanks to the civil rights leaders of 50s and 60s, all children are permitted to attend public schools, but not much else has changed. Academic performance of many poor and minority children, blacks especially, still charts well below classmates.

Poverty still pervades the black communities and those of other minorities, and they are populated with multiple generations of men and women who have always failed in school. Far too many of their sons and daughters fill the seats of the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse express to overflowing; adding “criminal justice reform” to the list of civil rights issues.

Shutting down the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a point on everyone’s priority list, but all the talk and pledges in the world will not alter our current reality until we begin to alter the forces that drive that reality. Even then we cannot change, overnight, that which has taken generations to evolve.

The problems are systemic, and we must address the inherent imperfections of systems, not treat the symptoms of those imperfections.

The issue of criminal justice provides a useful example. For people who have not worked in the criminal justice system, the reactive nature of the system is often misunderstood. Our courts do not go out and seek people to load up their dockets nor do corrections facilities recruit inmates. Each institution must deal with the people delivered to its door.

Our police departments respond to complaints, patrol to deter crime, and act when witnessing evidence of illegal activity. Abuses of their power are not part of law enforcement training protocols, they are aberrant behavior; whether resulting from prejudice, poor training, or breaches of policy.

Although founded on the principles of democracy and on the rights and responsibilities protected and expected under the U.S. Constitution, the criminal justice system, like all systems of human design, are imperfect. When these systems are inundated, both the imperfections of the systems and the prejudices of some of its people are exposed. It is such aberrations that destroy trust between law enforcement and the communities they exist to serve and protect.

The criminal justice system is inundated because the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is overflowing. We will not be effective in improving the efficacy of the criminal justice system until we address the social problems that overload its circuits. We must understand why the pipeline exists and the simple and convenient answers of poverty and discrimination are not very helpful. 

If we have learned anything over the last 60-plus years, it is that  we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices and enmity in the hearts of man. We cannot wish away the social realities that devastate the lives of so many people.

While necessary, protesting the injustices in society will not alter the social realities of our communities.

The only way to protect blacks and other minorities from discrimination and the imperfections of the justice system is to reduce the flow of people entering that system.

The only way to keep young black and other minority men and women from entering the system is to help them become impervious to discrimination by giving them a menu of meaningful choices.

The only way to provide them with meaningful choices is to make meaningful changes in the education process that was intended to provide them with those choices.

The only way to ensure a quality education for every child is to alter an education process that, historically, has not served the interests of society’s most vulnerable children; whatever the genesis of that vulnerability.

Like poverty and discrimination, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a consequence of something that is not working the way our society needs it to work. That something is the “education process” at work in our schools, both our public schools and private. Whether they will admit it or not, virtually every educator understands that what they are being asked to do does not work for many children. Our education process has been obsolete for generations.

From the perspective of this observer, when the growing population of students demanded a reconfiguration of the process, in the early years of public education, the mounting cost and the need for operational efficiency obscured the essential purpose of education. We must redefine that purpose, which was to ensure that the unique needs of individual students are met.

Far too many of the young men and women leaving high school, today, with or without diplomas, are bereft of meaningful choices of what to do with their lives to find joy and to provide for themselves and families. When they leave school, this population of students opts for the only choice available to them: return to the communities from which they came, unprepared to participate in what the rest of us think of as the American dream.

Clearly, the education process is not meeting the needs of these young people. Unfortunately for society and educators alike, we blame our schools and teachers for the flaws of the process rather than the process, itself.

The consequence for society is that the education reforms, innovations, and initiatives of the last half century or more were like seeds planted in barren soil. Even the best ideas in the world will not take root in an environment unable to provide the nutrients necessary for germination, let alone blossoming.

A special report published, just this morning, in EdWeek UPDATE illustrates my point. The report notes that there is “no measurable gap between charters, traditional public schools on national tests.”

The charter school movement has not fixed what is broken in our schools because they still rely on the same education process as other schools. Just changing names, buildings, and teachers doesn’t change that which does not work.

In the interim, notwithstanding the litany of education reforms, American society has seen significant erosion of its faith in our public schools and teachers, never quite comprehending that teachers are as much victims of flawed education process as the students and communities they were employed to serve.

Americans are left with an education process that is the functional equivalent of a maelstrom in which children, communities, teachers, school, administrators, policy makers, and elected officials have become entrapped. It is an education process that cannot be fixed from the inside out.

As difficult as it may be, everyone involved in or who has a stake in the American education system must fight their way to the shore, climb out of the maelstrom, and examine the process from a new perspective. They must be challenged to take a paradigm leap and seek solutions outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

For that purpose, I have developed an education model that has been created to serve no purpose other than meet the unique needs of each one of our children. The Hawkins Model© is designed to allow teachers to focus on relationships and to ensure that every student has as much time and attention as they need to learn as much as they are able, at their own best pace. Only in such a learning environment can teachers help children develop their intellectual, physical, and emotional potential and begin discovering their special talents, interests, and aspirations.

The one thing educators dare not do, after fighting their way to the shore, is to dive back into the maelstrom where they will be engulfed in hopelessness; powerless to alter the destiny of our society and our participatory democracy.

The Primacy of Relationships and the Challenge of Peer Pressure – Part 2

Part of the focus on relationships that is central to The Hawkins Model©, is to ensure that, not only do  students have close and enduring relationships with their teachers, but also that they develop and sustain healthy bonds with their classmates. Such relationships play an important part of healthy development and can ensure that peer pressure can be a positive influence on kids, of any age, and not just a negative force that distracts and diverts young people from their values and purpose. Positive peer influence can be a powerful force that can strengthen relationships, minimize the incidence of bullying, and provide positive role models for kids.

When my family moved to Indiana during the middle of my junior year in high school, I had an opportunity to witness the positive power of peer influence alter the behavior of many of my classmates. In this case, it was a small thing, but it demonstrated the ability of a popular student to influence the behavior  of his peers as a positive role model.

As a new student who didn’t make friends easily, I was thrilled to be invited to hang out with one of the nicest and most popular juniors in the school. His name was John and he was a trend setter; not only in fashion but also in other ways. He was the first guy to reach out to me with an offer of friendship.

One day, we all arrived at school in a driving downpour and, as was the case in my prior high school, there were no raincoats, boots, or umbrellas to be seen on any of my male classmates. Guys were willing to arrive drenched rather than appear uncool. Then, along came my friend John, using an umbrella. He was the only guy who left a dry path, that day, as he passed through the halls and classrooms.

The very next time it rained, a few days later, there must have been a dozen or more guys, myself included, who arrived at school using an umbrella. By the end of the school year, seeing a guy in the rain without an umbrella was the exception, not the rule.

Our friend John, with his powerful self-esteem demonstrated how much of a difference one person can make just by setting a good example. To his credit, this was not the only way John exerted a positive influence on his peers. He was a genuinely good person who treated all other students–no matter who they were–and teachers with kindness and respect. He would have been a perfect candidate for membership in a 1960s version of @melanie_korach’s #starfishclub.

As I thought back about the other students with whom I shared a classroom over thirteen years of school, I began to recall others boys and girls who contributed, quietly but meaningfully, to help create of a positive peer environment.

It was a sad day, more than twenty years later, when  I searched for and found John’s name etched on the black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I felt a keen sense of loss and was unembarrassed to shed a tear for a guy who befriended me when I was the new kid in school; a young man who made a difference with his positive values, commitment to his community–whether a high school class or his country–and by being both confident and kind.

How many schools and classrooms, of which you are aware, make it a point to create a positive culture for all students, not just the most popular kids. It is my assertion that we can create a classroom environment that fosters this kind of positive peer influence, intentionally. It is one of the subtle but powerful things The Hawkins Model© can help create just by changing the way we structure the education process. Why not check it out?

The Primacy of Relationships and the Challenge of Peer Pressure – Part 1

Relationships are everything to human beings, as we have discussed in earlier posts. What we do not spend enough time discussing is the power of peer pressure and how it affects relationships, learning, development, and self-esteem of our students.

All human beings are subject to peer pressure and this is especially true of school-aged children. This was true when I was a kid but, today, that pressure is magnified by the ubiquitous nature of social media. Has it ever been more powerful than it is in present times? We will come back to that thought.

One of my all-time favorite teachers was Mrs. Swartz, my seventh-grade social studies teacher at Johns Hill Junior High School, in Decatur, IL. The fact that I remember so much of what Mrs. Swartz said and taught should illustrate how much of an impact she had on my life. She was my favorite teacher and I truly believed that I was her favorite student. I looked forward to 4th period every single day.

One day she began a period by sending one of the class’s best students to the library for a pre-arranged visit to pick up literature of some kind. As soon as our classmate left the room, Mrs. Swartz drew five lines on the black board. Four of the lines were the same length and one was noticeably shorter. She then proceeded to explain to the class what we would do when our classmate returned from the library. No doubt, some of the teachers reading these words have conducted the same exercise.

Mrs. Swartz explained that the purpose of the exercise was to test the power of peer pressure. She asked us to say yes when asked if the lines were the same length. She also asked us to predict what our classmate would do when it was his turn. Would he report what was obvious to see, that one line was shorter than the others or, would he succumb to peer pressure and go along with his peers?

Because he was one of the smartest and most popular students in our grade, my classmates and I were almost unanimous in our belief that he would say that one line was shorter. We all watched with growing anticipation as Mrs. Swartz worked her way around the classroom and we observed as each kid announced, without a moment’s hesitation, that all five lines were of equal length.

When, finally, it was the turn of the subject of our experiment, we were stunned to hear him say, as did we all, that the lines were of equal length. As we sat in disbelief, our teacher finished her trek around the classroom so that every student had an opportunity to respond.

Taking care not to embarrass our classmate, Mrs. Swartz proceeded to explain peer pressure, noting that it has the power to affect everyone, even one of the most intelligent and independent students in our class. She asked our classmate how he felt during the exercise and he said he was confused when, one after another, we all announced the lines were the same length. He said, “it didn’t make any sense, so I just kept staring at the lines, trying to understand why I was seeing something different than everyone else.”

As she questioned him, he described being pulled in opposite directions. Part of him wanted to say “ we were all crazy and that line number five was clearly shorter than the others. Another part of him felt pressured to go along with the crowd.”

He then laughed and we all laughed with him, but his was loudest of all.

Even in such simple situations, kids feel pressure to conform to the ideas and behavior of their peers and it is this writer’s assertion this has never been truer than it is today. All educators and parents are aware of this pressure but how many formal strategies exist to help protect kids from this incredible force that diverts and distracts them from their priorities? The answer is that very little is done to deal with the power of the peer group.

There is an interesting side note to this story from 1959. It  was not until the next year, when my friends and I were talking about how much we missed having Mrs. Swartz as our social studies teacher, that I was stunned to learn that every single one my friends truly believed that he or she was Mrs. Swartz favorite student. It  made us love and miss her even more.

What if we could give every child a Mrs. Swartz and allow him or her to keep her as their teacher for 3 or even as many as 5 years? What kind of an impact would that have on a child’s emotional and learning development? What if we could help more young people develop a powerful self esteem that would enable them to make sensible decisions and stay focused on their priorities, even in the face of negative peer pressure? Providing such an environment is one of the purposes of The Hawkins Model©.

Understanding Education as a Process and Our Schools as Organizations: and a Shout Out to Ted Dintersmith

There are many new and exciting things happening in some schools: innovative education methodologies, ever more sophisticated technologies, and curricula that are being challenged and re-examined.

Recently, our friend @tracyscottkelly shared a teacher’s ( @HJL_Greenberg ) enthusiastic Tweet about Ted Dintersmith’s book, What School Could Be. Kelly acknowledged, as have many of us, that @dintersmith has provided a wonderful compilation of innovative education programs in real American schools.  It is a great read and if you haven’t done so, put it at the top of your reading list.

Let us not lose sight of Dintersmith’s title, What School Could Be, however.The book is not about “what all schools are.”

Dintersmith’s book offers  examples of public schools and school districts that are producing exciting results for their students. These schools and their programs provide shining examples that give hope to teachers and other educators who are feeling overwhelmed by their own challenges and those of their students.  

Let us, also, not forget that Ted Dintersmith traveled through all fifty states to find these innovative education programs, approaches, and methodologies.It is vital that we acknowledge theses schools are the exceptions and do not represent the reality that is public education in many of the other schools in those same fifty states.

Think about how we arrived at present day with respect to public education.At some point in the distant past, schools may have been established to enable teachers to meet the unique needs of children, but over the decades, schools have devolved into one-size-fits-all service delivery providers.  Schools in the U.S. are organized for operational efficiency, based on financial constraints. That the unique needs of our nation’s children have never been as complex as they are now, creates a recipe for failure for millions of kids.

No matter how hard they work or how deep their commitment, teachers cannot alter the aggregate reality that is public education in America and they must not be blamed.

Each of the noteworthy programs from around the nation exists because of the extraordinary efforts of educators willing to step outside the boundaries of education tradition; often against the forces of doubt.  Sadly, these schools are not the norm and millions of American children do not enjoy the benefits of such programs nor are they likely to benefit, any time soon.  We can only hope that as more educators and school administrators are inspired by the examples of “what could be,” they will step out of their comfort zones and take a paradigm leap.

In my education model, my 2013 book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, and my upcoming book with a working title, Reinventing Education One Success at a Time: The Hawkins Model, I have examined our schools from the perspective of an organizational leadership consultant asking the question, “are schools structured to produce the outcomes we so desperately need?” Most often, the answer is that they are not.

The paradigm leap that is needed, if we are to transform public education in America and restore the American dream, is a willingness to remind ourselves that schools are human organizations incorporating an “education process” designed to deliver a service.

If we are dissatisfied with the quality of the service our education process is producing, we must take a giant step back to a point from which we can examine the education system as an integral whole.We must, then, stop looking for someone to blame and, instead, challenge every single one of our assumptions. Only then can we start from scratch and reconstruct an education system—both structure and process—to produce the outcomes we want and need.

What is it that we want and need from America’s public schools? We need an education model or process in which our dedicated teachers can help every child have more than just equal opportunities—they must have the wherewithal to develop their own dream, envision their futures, chart their own paths, and seize those “equal opportunities.”

At the root of every problem facing American society—whether social, political, economic, technological, ecological, or criminal justice—is the fact that far too many young Americans are not equipped with the understanding, knowledge, skills, self-esteem, and self-discipline to seize the opportunities to which they are entitled, constitutionally.It all comes down to the efficacy of our education process as a whole and not whether a few schools might be succeeding.

Should All Students Be Required to Learn Algebra?

Many educators and education policy makers are questioning the value of algebra. Think about how often you hear people comment that they never use algebra and think taking algebra in high school was unnecessary and did nothing more than add stress to their young lives.

Removing algebra as a requirement for graduation from high school would be a decision that requires careful analysis.

One Website offers a definition of Algebra attributed to Syracuse University. It states that Algebra is:

“a branch of mathematics that uses mathematical statements to describe relationships between things that vary overtime.” Continue reading

Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how many of these remarkable professionals seem unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole, from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they lack the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These education reformers, policy makers, and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve.

As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level. I am seeking superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education, we leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

Teach to Kids, not Tests! [A Re-visit]

 

While I focus on writing my new book, rather than be a non-presence on Twitter, I will be reposting a few articles from my blog that seemed to be among the most popular. I hope you enjoy them.

In his many books, Stephen Covey often told the story about taking time to sharpen the saw and it is a good lesson for public school educators. As we work hard, cutting wood, the saw gradually loses its edge. If we don’t take time to stop and sharpen the saw, it won’t matter how hard we work; our productivity will begin to decline until we are accomplishing almost nothing.

The era of high-stakes testing has led public school policy makers and administrators to push teachers to work hard doing the wrong things when what they really need to be doing is teaching to their students and their unique requirements. Teaching to the test is nothing more than a sophisticated version of cramming with the same minimal, long-term retention.

It seems that no matter how hard dedicated teachers are urged to work toward our misconceived purpose, test scores rarely improve. When they do improve the gains are marginal.

From a child’s first day of school, at age five or six, our focus must be on identifying each child’s unique starting point. We need to know where they are on the academic preparedness continuum. Once we have identified what they know and where they are lacking, we can develop an academic path tailored to the unique needs of each child. The existing education process is not structured to facilitate such an objective, so it must be reinvented. My education model has been created for this very purpose.

Our goal is to help children lay a solid academic foundation on which they can build the future they are learning to envision for themselves. Once they have built that academic foundation, they can begin the wonderful and exciting journey of discovery of who they are, what they can be, and where they can go in life.

Their destination should not be based upon anything other than their own evolving sets of knowledge, skills, interests, and dreams. We are not teaching them to be successful in the world as we know it because that world will not exist by the time our students leave school as many as 13 years later. For our students, the pace of change in the world is accelerating faster than that which we perceive.

Think back on your own teachers. Could they have envisioned the world in which you are now asked to teach? If our deceased grandparents and educators were drop in for a visit, they would be overwhelmed by a world that is nothing like the one they knew.

Our task is to make certain our children are always moving forward from one stage of their individual development to the next, irrespective of what their classmates are doing. Our objective must not be to prepare every child for college because a two- or four-year degree is not the answer for everyone. The last thing we want to do is push them down a path on which they are likely to become discouraged, to give up, and to lose hope. We want them to be excited about their life and we must be excited to be helping them on that adventure as their teacher, guide, coach, mentor and friend. We must remind ourselves, however that it is their adventure, not ours.

If we help them acquire a solid academic foundation, they will be primed to go wherever their curiosity, interests, talents, and abilities will take them. They will be primed to thrive in a future we can barely imagine. It will be a different world where every aspect and institution in society will have had to adapt to accommodate whole new generations of motivated men and women. They will be citizens with both the hunger and wherewithal to make a difference, and with a dream to follow.

We cannot wait until kids reach middle school and have fallen so far behind that they have given up and lost hope. Certainly, we must help the students who have already reached this tragic point in their young lives, but our long-term focus must be on the success of children in grades K-5. We must shut down the pathway to hopelessness and powerlessness as surely as we must shut down the “schoolhouse to jailhouse” express.

The last chapter of my book,  Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (2013) was an attempt to envision how different the future might look if we help our children develop their full potential. Envisioning that future, I wrote:

“Post-secondary educational institutions have had to virtually reinvent themselves as the demand for more advanced mathematics, science, engineering, and information technology classes has exploded. The evolution of institutions devoted to a wide range of technical and vocational educational opportunities has been similarly phenomenal.”

 

My education model has been developed to allow such a future to evolve and I encourage you to examine it with an open mind. If you are inspired by what you discover, I urge you to join the small but growing number of educators who believe my model has the potential to transform education in America. Please share the model with as many colleagues as you can and, together, imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. Then, approach your district’s administrators and encourage them to envision a new reality,

Will that be difficult? Of course! It is amazing, however, what positive advocacy can accomplish as opposed to the futility of complaints and protests.

You will find my model and an accompanying white paper at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ 

Its purpose is to enable our students to take their place in a troubled world where their knowledge and imagination will be desperately needed.

 

My Motivation to Develop an Education Model that Works for All Kids!

My wife and I have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by the eldest of our two daughters and our son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden-brown skin. The second is a little boy, who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law, has skin that is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandchildren are the biological offspring of our youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, not yet three years of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

These four children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and like all grandparents we love them so much that it hurts.

These kids have magnificent smiles that light up our lives even more than the lights of the holiday season and laughter that warms us during the coldest of times. Such smiles have reminded me that throughout my whole life, whenever I have been blessed to see children smile, I am blind to any of the other features, that for reasons that are difficult to fathom, cause some human beings to pass derisive judgment. For me the smile of any child is a source of incalculable joy that is as common to the shared universal human experience as anything else in life.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color produce such extremes of enmity.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered to be equal under the Constitution.

In 1951, I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school that was twenty-five percent black. It was at school where I learned to be a friend and playmate with one of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friend that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friend, I was devastated. My black friend and I never played together, after that. At the time I did not understand whereas he probably thought to himself “I should have known better.” This was nothing new in his life. For me, innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for young children to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All these kids were black, save one. While I was responsible for the boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who came to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised. While my job was to keep them safe and be a mentor, I must confess that these youngsters taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of nine and seventeen. I also worked with their families. I have vivid memories of sitting at a kitchen table, having a cup of coffee with the mother of a young boy or girl—some white and others black—who was desperate to understand why her child was failing in school and seemed unable to stay out of trouble. “My kid’s not stupid!” they would often say. I had no answer for them, but I agreed that their sons and daughters were not stupid. In fact, their “street smarts” was apparent.

A decade later, I was one of the founding board members of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged, as a volunteer, to be around, play with, and serve a diverse group of children. When in an environment where these children felt safe and received unconditional affection, patience, and affirmation their joy and laughter was contagious. These kids were voracious learners, quick to listen to adults with whom they felt a special connection. They were anxious to soak up whatever lessons their adult leaders might offer. If they struggled with a lesson, they sought the help of their trusted friend.

Often, the adults would scratch their heads and wonder why so many of these children, so full of life and curiosity, were failing in school. I was only beginning to comprehend.

More than a dozen years later, when I decided to relinquish my leadership and organizational-development consulting practice to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teacher for my local public school district. In those high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, I was able to walk in the shoes of public school teachers and observe, first hand, the struggles of so many of these teachers and their students. Once I got over feeling overwhelmed by all that was swirling around me, I began to wonder why these classrooms were so different from the game rooms and playgrounds at the Boys and Girls Club or the churchyard in Philadelphia.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids and they can all learn from someone who cares about them if given a fair opportunity. Whatever their backgrounds there are more similarities than differences between them.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to warmth and affection with warmth and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents, feel disconnected in many of their classrooms, or when bullied by their peers.

All these boys and girls are capable of learning; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete in classrooms that never should have become competitive environments in the first place.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation. They all deserve the best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of these children fail provides irrefutable evidence that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

Despite the heroic effort of our teachers, it is here, in our elementary schools that we will find the roots of the problems that beleaguer us as a nation and society. Whether we are teachers, administrators, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education, we must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible.

The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. That children are failing is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and black kids and other minorities is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce. Like any other production, service-delivery process, or software application, our education process can be reinvented to produce the outcomes we want and need.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is that they are the people in the best position to identify the failure of this flawed educational process, yet they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have learned to perceive themselves as powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that, for professional men and women, powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

The Essential Purpose of School: Help All Kids Learn or Just Document and Accept their Success or Failure?

It is time for educators, at every level of the education process in America, to redefine and reaffirm their essential mission. For what purpose do they exist to serve?

 Is it to use their talent, skills, and all the resources available to them to help children progress along their unique developmental and learning path or is it to push them from one lesson to the next on an arbitrary schedule or calendar?

 Is it to teach children how to be successful and help them celebrate their successes as they learn and grow or is it to document their successes and/or failures after an unending sequence of arbitrary time periods? Is it to move students from one lesson to the next, in each subject area, ready or not, or is it to ensure that they are able to utilize what they have learned throughout their lives, in real-life situations, the least important of which are standardized tests?

 Critics of public education find it easy to point their fingers at teachers but that is a “cop-out.” It is always easy to blame someone else for our problems. Teachers can only do what their administrators tell them to do and they can only teach to the academic standards that have been established by their state government. They must teach the curricula they are given.

 It is also easy to blame teachers’ unions and associations that exist only for the purpose of representing the interests of their members and defending them from policy makers, government officials, and reformers who want to blame them for the unacceptable outcomes of the flawed education process in which they are asked to work. These critics have not taken the time walk in the shoes of the teachers they are so quick to blame.

 Perhaps if administrators and policy makers would acknowledge that it is the education process that is flawed and that teachers are their most important asset, they might find that teachers’ unions and associations would be willing partners in reinventing the education process. Imagine an education process that, truly, does function to serve teachers, students, and parents in the important work they do.

Even in our highest-performing schools, many teachers are frustrated. It is such schools, however, where the symptoms of the flawed education process are subtle. This leads many educators to proclaim “public education is better than it has ever been.”

 The best teachers, if they were to look deep inside their hearts, know that many students are not learning as much as they could, even in high performing schools. They know the process is moving students along an assembly line.  

 In struggling schools that perform poorly, as measured by state competency exams, the flaws are apparent. Teachers know their students are not getting the education necessary to enter adulthood with meaningful choices. Teachers know something is awry every time they are asked to move students on to a new lesson before they can demonstrate understanding of preceding lessons. Teachers know the education process is flawed every time a student arrives in their classroom who is so far behind that catching up seems improbable, if not impossible. Teachers know something is wrong every time they record a low or failing grade in their grade books. They know it is a sham when administrators seek innovative ways to justify the issuance of diplomas to students who have made little or no effort throughout four years of high school; young men and women who lack the academic foundation necessary to make a place for themselves in main-stream society.

 The fact that most of the schools that produce low test scores are populated by disadvantaged students is no secret. We all know this. How is it that we have become inured to the failure of these students? How can administrators and policy makers avert their eyes and pretend that the education process is working for all kids?

 The fact that a disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged students are children of color is also common knowledge. How can the leaders of public education not see that the education process is failing theses students? Have they convinced themselves that this is the best we can expect from black students and other minority children?

 Leaders of the black community and other minorities must surely be appalled by the academic performance of so many of their children? They know these kids deserve better and they know their own children are as capable of learning as any other child. Is it not obvious that something is broken? Why are the leaders of black community not marching in the streets to protest what is clearly the civil rights issue of the 21st Century?

 One can only judge a process by the quality of the outcomes it produces. This is true of assembly and manufacturing processes, of service-delivery processes, and it is true of the education process in American schools.

 Before we rush to join the bashers of our nation’s public schools let us state, unequivocally, that the same disappointing outcomes are being produced by many private, parochial, and charter schools.

The problem is not our public schools and it is not the teachers. Schools are nothing more than structures constructed of brick and mortar and our teachers are all trained in the same colleges and universities and are certified to the same standards.

 The problem is an education process that became obsolete a half century ago and no longer serves its essential purpose. The education process at work in American schools is not structured to ensure that every child gets the time and attention they need to learn. The education process is not designed to nurture our nation’s most precious assets. It is a process that honors stale traditions of a distant past and that suppresses the creativity and craftsmanship of teachers.

 The problem with the education process begins with academic standards. We must have academic standards to ensure that we are teaching our children the things they need to know to become healthy, confident, and productive citizens. Quality standards give us direction. What we must do, however, is challenge the fundamental assumptions upon which the current standards were established, beginning with the assumption that all children must develop and learn at the same pace.

 We know that some children learn to walk or talk earlier than other kids. Even within our own families, some of our sons and daughters reach the notable milestones of child development earlier than their siblings. A child’s brain is not software, programmed so that every step in the developmental process is scheduled to occur at a precise point in time. Child development research may have established broad guidelines, but they are only guidelines. Each child is unique in every conceivable manner or characteristic. When children arrive for their first day of school, they are not at the exact same point on the growth and development chart. Not only are they genetically unique but they come from households that are diverse by every conceivable measure.

 How is it, then, that the establishers of academic standards expect all students to move from grade to grade on the academic standards continuum, in unison? We do not expect children to reach puberty at the exact same age nor do we expect synchronous growth spurts. Are we striving for regimentation or are we seeking the optimal growth and development of each of our students; intellectually, physically, and emotionally?

 Let us step back and re-think the essential purpose of education and then construct an education process that is engineered to support that purpose. This is what I have labored to do with the education model I have designed. It is structured to help each child learn and grow at their optimal pace while also developing their unique interests, talents, and potential.  It is an education model engineered so that teachers can adapt to the individual and dynamic needs of their students with creativity and craftsmanship. I urge you to take an hour to read it at:

 https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

No one has ordained that we must follow the obsolete traditions of a past we have out-grown. Please open your hearts and minds to the simple belief that the creation of an education process that will help your students fulfill their inherent potential is within our power.