Bad Days and Grumpy Moods – we all have them both Teachers and Students

A friend on Facebook recently posted a meme, published by Miramir.com, quoting author Rebecca Eanes.

“So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes.  Yet, we adults have them all the time. None of us are perfect. We must stop holding our children to a higher standard or perfection than we can attain ourselves.”

-Author, Rebecca Eanes, posted at Miramir.com

It is a terrific message and should be read by all. Having, “grumpy moods, bad days, . . .” is a universal human characteristic. We are all like that, even kids. When kids have that kind of day at school or at home, however, they usually get into trouble. This is especially true in school because the education process demands conformance, obedience, and “respectful tones.” Anything else disrupts the classroom and interferes with the work of teachers and classmates.

Because of the way our education process is structured, we leave no room for our students to do the very things we will likely do when we get home because the behavior of students led to a bad day, left us in a grumpy mood, and feeling short-tempered. Hopefully, at home, our families and friends will back off and give us space to work through the frustration we feel. Good friends and good families are like that. They are people who love us and have no expectation that we be perfect, in fact, they love us with all our “perfect imperfections,” as John Legend’s song describes them. And, at home, we typically have places where we can get away from everyone, even if only for a moment or two.

At school, even for good teachers, it is not so easy. Good teachers care but are not allotted enough time to help students work through the frustrations that flow from dealing, in some instances, with problems at home that we can hardly imagine. There are just too many kids, too much to do, and nowhere near enough time. So, we discipline students and even send them to the office if their frustrations and acting out cause too much disruption. It’s a last resort for teachers but their responsibility extends beyond the individual child, to a classroom full of other students.

The problem isn’t just that we give kids a reprimand, time out, or trip to the office—all of which brand the child as a discipline problem–the most significant consequences that flow from such actions are related to the fact that they lose time. They miss out on lessons that are being taught and practice time that is being given, and opportunities to get in-class assistance from their teacher. Most significantly, they fall ever further behind and this this only exacerbates their situation and fuels the frustration that got them in trouble to begin with.

The combination of their frustrations from the challenges at home, combined with the hopeless feeling of falling further behind, academically, and being viewed as “a problem student” or “bad kid” pile up until a student feels overwhelmed. When kids begin to feel hopeless and powerless to extricate themselves from bad situations, the risk is that they may choose to give up and stop trying.

Think about how you feel when you have had ”meltdown” incidents. For many of us, what we feel is helplessness and hopelessness. When the episode passes, as they always do, they may have created some inconveniences with which we must deal, but we are still able to get back in the game. For our students, in similar circumstances, the game clock is ticking away and there are no timeouts as in an athletic contest, where the whole game pauses to let participants catch their breath.

The academic standards that drive teachers and classrooms function like a conveyor belt. Once a child falls off, it is difficult for them to get back on the belt, even with our help. If they get back on, they can see how much further behind they have fallen, relative to their classmates.

Those academic standards are tied to an external, arbitrary timeline that may be totally out of sync with a child’s unique internal timetable. We all know how difficult it can be to get back in sync with all that is going on in our lives, but for many children, particularly disadvantaged kids, getting back in sync seems next to impossible. Their internal and external timetables are like an event horizon in which the child finds him or herself on the wrong side, with no way to get back on track.

What I have striven to do in the education model I have developed—The  Hawkins Model©—is  to eliminate external timetable so that students are never at a place in time that is out of sync with their unique developmental path. Even when schools must teach to a set of academic standards, these represent an outline of what policy makers have determined all children need to learn. We need to ask ourselves what is most important: that students learn these things, even if it takes some children longer than others, or that we strive to get them all from point to point in perfect cadence?

If we accept the premise that the two most essential variables in education are relationships and learning, what are arbitrary timetables? Are they not a “constant” that regulates relationships and learning? If we eliminate the constant variable of time, relationships and learning become independent variables that are not compromised by extraneous forces? We need an education model—education process—that ensures that such forces do not impede a child’s progress down their unique academic path.

We need a model in which the teacher is able give each student the time he or she needs to learn. Teachers often tell me, “this is not possible, there just isn’t enough time.”

Within the context of the existing education process, they are correct. This does not mean that creating time is impossible, only that the existing process and structure does not provide for it. If we are willing to alter the process and structure, we can design it to produce the outcomes we want based on the unique needs of each of our students. It all depends on how we sort our priorities and whether we are willing to question the validity of our structure and process.

In The  Hawkins Model© giving students time they need to learn and work through their frustrations, bad days, and grumpy moods is more important than keeping all students moving at the same pace down the arbitrary timelines that complicate academic standards. The fact that they may need to be separated from the class so as not to disrupt, need not impede their progress, it just delays things a bit.

Do We have the Will to Bring About Transformative Change: A Message of Hope and a Call to Action!

We have the power, intelligence, and imagination to envision a better America and we have, in our possession, a new idea about how we can bring that vision to life. It requires that we challenge our assumptions about how we go about doing what is every society’s most important job: preparing our children for the future. Ultimately, the question is: “Do we possess the will to bring about transformative change?”

Public education need not be under attack! Public schools can be successful. Teachers need not flee the profession. Children need not fail. Teaching need not be stressful and frustrating. Learning can be fun. All kids can learn and be excited about learning. Parents can be effective partners with teachers to help their children get the best possible education. The American dream can be real for every child. People need not be poor and do not need to be entrapped in the cycle of poverty and failure, nor do they need to live under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness.

There is no requirement that our prisons be full. Black men and women need not be afraid of being shot by the police, white Americans need not feel threatened every time they see a black man in an unexpected place, Hispanics need not face anger and resentment when they speak Spanish to their children—besides, isn’t being bilingual something to which we should all aspire? Immigration need not be considered a threat to prosperity or democracy. Children of immigrants need not be separated from their parents. Children born in America must not be denied citizenship, whatever the status of their parents. Everyone must be free to worship according to their faith. None of the worlds great religions must be singled out for disdain or preference and their worshipers need not be subjected to prejudice.

America can, indeed, be great again, in fact, greater than it has ever been, and we need not be a divided people. The very things that divide us are, in truth, the things that keep the reality of America from matching our vision. Prejudice and bigotry impede rather than enhance the quality of life in America. We need not deprive our citizens of access to healthcare services or see the costs of healthcare become prohibitive. We need not place our environment at risk to have a strong economy or strip away regulations that were established to protect our citizens from abuses from those who would sacrifice our safety and well-being for the sake of profits.

Considering America great again does not depend on restricting the freedom of the press; questioning the integrity of our electoral process; or branding an entire race, ethnic group, or religious faith as unworthy of freedom and justice. Our greatness as a free people is not enhanced by withdrawing from the world community any more than our economy is enriched by protectionism. Like it or not, the future of the United States of America requires interdependency and the same can be said for the future of the world community.

America’s strengths and weakness are a reflection of what the American people have learned rather than a representation of who and what they could be.

All the problems facing American society and threatening the future of our participatory democracy are rooted in the historic ineffectiveness of our system of public education. Neither the interests of American society nor the world community are enhanced by ignorance, illiteracy, innumeracy, gullibility, or closed-mindedness. We need our young people to leave school with solid academic foundations, portfolios of a broad range of skills, and the ability to think exponentially (outside the box) with creativity and imagination. We need them to be able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. We need for them to provide for themselves and their families, to understand the cogent issues of our time and to participate in their intelligent discourse. Ultimately, we need our young people—all our citizens, in fact—to be able to make thoughtful choices in the face of the extraordinary challenges that await us in balance of this 21st Century.

We cannot have citizens who are so poorly informed about critical issues that they will follow, blindly, high profile dilettantes based on jingoistic platitudes and outdated dogma on whatever side of the political spectrum they reside. We need our people to be sufficiently informed that they can distinguish between real and fake news, the latter of which is poorly disguised propaganda.

We want to create an abundance mentality in which everyone believes they can participate in the American dream because, if we work together, there is enough of everything for everyone. This is an enormous challenge, I know, but it is one that is possible if every American possesses a quality education. There are, indeed, deep prejudices in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and we cannot legislate an end to bigotry and resentment. What we can do is ensure that all Americans, regardless of their race and/or ethnicity are able to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, which, in turn, increases the frequency and quality of our interactions with one another. If we live and work in closer proximity with one another our similarities are magnified relative to our differences.

This can be an accurate representation of our society, but it requires that we abandon an obsolete education process that has allowed millions of our children to fail, has driven hundreds of thousands of qualified teachers from the profession, has created extraordinary anguish on the part of a significant percentage of the rest, and has left huge populations of men and women unable to participate in the American dream.

We must replace an education process that is structured like a competition to see who can learn the most the fastest. It is an education process that fails children on both ends of the academic achievement continuum. Children who had the misfortune to start from behind are pushed ahead before they are ready, placing them at an even greater disadvantage when success on subsequent lessons requires the application of knowledge and skills they were not given time to learn. This sets up children for failure, particularly disadvantaged children. A disproportionate percentage of these disadvantaged children are black or other minorities, and kids who come from homes in which English is not the mother tongue.

The incessant repetition of this practice erodes the diligence of educators and conditions them to tolerate some level of failure. It also inures teachers and educators to the tragic consequences with which their students will be forced to deal. Sadly, policy makers and government officials are so far removed from the suffering to which they contribute they are oblivious and learn nothing from it. These powerful men and women have not learned the lessons from “systems thinking” that help us understand how our own behavior contributes to the outcomes that do us harm. (Systems thinkin is a concept introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990).

At the other end of the performance continuum, high achieving students are asked to slow down and wait for classmates to catch up. This is also tragic because when confronted with boredom and impatience, learning ceases to be fun, leaving hungry young minds to look to social media, video games, and even more harmful diversions for excitement, intellectual stimulation, and mindless distractions. When they get to high school, these students may be diverted into honors or advanced-placement programs but what happened to them in elementary school has diminished their enthusiasm for learning.

One of the dysfunctionalities of our existing education process is that it is brittle and unadaptable thus providing teachers with neither the opportunity nor the authority to differentiate between the divergent needs of their students.

As much as I admire teachers and administrators, only a minute percentage ever see the struggles faced by students, whom they proudly declared ready for graduation, when these young men and women find themselves woefully unprepared for the demands of the workplace, institutions of higher learning, or the military.

Every employer witnesses the tragedy when they turn away young men and women who lack the essential academic foundation and skills required of the jobs for which they have applied. Even those employers that offer remedial instruction to help new hires overcome their functional illiteracy and innumeracy, find these young people unmotivated to learn and unwilling to work hard. Even job candidates with impressive academic credentials are often found to be unmotivated and unimaginative. Employers are mystified when they discover that the “book smarts” of the men and women they recruit do not translate well in work situations. On the other side of the equation, these young people are frustrated to discover that what they have learned does not meet the expectations of their employers.

In many of my blog posts, I have shared stories about the difficulty young men and women have, typically recent high school graduates and second-semester seniors, when striving to pass the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to qualify for enlistment in the military services. They may have been able to pass a test or meet some other criteria to qualify for a high school diploma but a few months later they are unable to apply what they had been expected to learn to the real-life challenge of achieving enlistment eligibility. When these enlistment candidates fail to achieve the minimum score for enlistment, they can retake the exam a second time, after a thirty-day period; a third time after another thirty-day period; and, a fourth time after an additional six months. Even with the use of study materials, few of these young adults ever achieve a passing score. Cramming for exams does not give one the mastery required to be able to utilize what one needs to know in life; mastery requires that we know it.

[to be continued]

Racism Places our Future at Risk!

The more diverse a population the more important it is that people learn, play, work, and live in an integrated environment. Racism is a horrible and complicated aspect of American society and it threatens the very principles of democracy. One of the great certainties of the 21st Century is that our population will become increasingly more diverse. If we are going to preserve our liberty, we must find a way to set aside our prejudices and work together. Diversity is our nation’s greatest strength. The danger occurs when we do not embrace it as such. The best way to promote diversity and end racism is through public education.

The differences in skin color are there for all to see and when all of the white kids live over here and all of the black kids live over there, it is we versus them. Rarely do the two worlds come together. Simply by changing their physical proximity between us, we create opportunities to get to know one another, up close and personal. The differences still exist and are every bit as problematic, but when we are close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes (a characteristic that is shared by human beings everywhere) we also begin to see the similarities. This is the great value of integrated public schools.

As important as it is, however, integration in our schools, public or private, is not a magic elixir that will eradicate the performance gap between white students and minority students and bring an end to racism.

Fort Wayne Community Schools provides a perfect example. This school corporation is the largest in the state of Indiana, has a highly respected black superintendent, and three of the other seven senior leadership positions are filled by black men and women. The district’s student population is 53 percent non-white and there are many minority teachers and principals throughout the district. Just as importantly, most of the schools, particularly at the middle school or high school level, have a diverse population of students. They are integrated but in spite of all of the good things this district and its professional educators do, performance gap issues remain one of its great challenges.

If academic parity is our objective, then we must do more than strive for integrated schools and classrooms. We must make accommodations for students with an “academic-preparedness disadvantage” much like we do for those who have physical, visual, hearing or emotional impairments.

We do not, for example, bring students with physical, visual, or hearing impairments into a school and expect them to find their way around like their unimpaired classmates. We find ways to make accommodations so that these children can take full advantage of their opportunity to strive for a quality education.

Why is it, then, that we bring academically disadvantaged children into our schools along with children who have no such disadvantages and hold the former to the same standards of academic performance as the latter?

It is one thing to establish academic standards that outline all of the things we want our students to learn before they graduate from high school. If we want all of our students to learn the same things and we want them all to be successful we must recognize that they are not all beginning at the same point on the academic preparedness continuum.

What we can reasonably hope to accomplish and what our objective must be is that every student arrives at the best possible destination with respect to his or her unique talents and capabilities. This is a realistic goal if we treat all children as unique individuals and place them on an academic path that is right for them and is tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses. In every other learning environment with which I am familiar, the speed with which learning takes place is the least important factor. What is important is that children do learn.

If given sufficient time and attention, most children who start off from behind will begin to catch up. If, however, we push them along a common path with no accommodation for their “academic preparedness disadvantage,” they will begin to experience failure. Over time, the failures will begin to accumulate and each failure gnaws at a child’s self-esteem. This, we cannot allow.

The biggest problems with current educational reforms and their focus on standardized testing, charter schools, and vouchers is that they are creating more separation between various demographic groups. This may or may not be the intent of the proponents of such reforms but it is clearly the outcomes that flow from such reforms and it can only increase disparity. It is the disparity in opportunities to live the American dream that keeps us separate and apart and that keeps racism alive.

Preserving public schools that bring all components of society together is critical to the future of our democratic way of life but racism will not yield to our will, easily. We must challenge our conventional wisdom at every opportunity, every step along the way. We must also rid ourselves of our obsession with the idea that poverty is the problem. Every time we blame poverty there is a part of our mind that shuts down and we tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about poverty.

We have spent fifty years blaming poverty and declaring war on it and what has it gotten us? No one disputes that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for men, women, and children but being poor does not keep human beings from pursuing a dream. What keeps people (parents and their children) from pursuing a dream is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty; it is when they have given up and no longer dream of a better life for themselves or for their children.

Individuals may not be able to do anything about poverty but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one child, one family, one teacher, one classroom, and one school at a time. To do so we must shake ourselves out of our lethargy and latch onto that which is in our power to do.

One last word about segregated schools. Many of our nation’s most challenged public schools are segregated on the basis of race and each year they perform poorly on state competency exams. We tend to look at these schools and brand both the schools and their teachers as subpar, as failures. This is a gross misjudgement. Many of the teachers at these unfortunate schools are remarkable men and women who are committed to doing the absolute best for the students in their classrooms.

Unlike many of their former colleagues, who ran out of these schools screaming and hollering, these public school teachers return every fall and arrive for work every day to make a difference in the lives of as many of their students as possible, even if it only a handful. These men and women deserve our thanks and appreciation as they are true American heroes. Even more than our thanks and appreciation, these teachers need our help. They need us to stop blaming them for the problems in their classrooms, in their schools, and in the neighborhoods they serve. They need us to support them in what they do rather attacking them and stripping away the limited resources with which they strive to do their important work.

Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them!

This is the 3rd segment of our series of articles on education, racism and the performance gap.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law, who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have three grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, golden brown skin, and a smile that lights up the world. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match, who has his sister’s smile, and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest grandchild is the biological child of my youngest daughter and her husband. She is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. She is also beautiful with a smile that is second to none.

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

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. From the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little boy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

We shuddered after reading such powerful articles as “I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had a Black Child,” which you can find on Rosebelle’s Blog; and more recently, “7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children” by Terrell Jermaine Starr on the website Alternet.

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 can produce such hatred and mistrust.

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 equal under the Constitution.

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. 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 kids to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All were African-American. While I was responsible for the 30 to 40 different boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who chose to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised.

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 9 and 17. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children.

What I learned 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.

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 love and affection with love and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or when bullied.

They all have the ability to learn; they all are 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. That we give up on them only adds to the tragedy.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions all of which add beauty to the world. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation.

They all deserve the absolute best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of them fail provides irrefutable evidence that they are not getting our best and that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

Whether we are teachers, principals, 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. Such incidence of failure is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and their black and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is the result of the fact that they are the people in the best position to identify and remediate this flawed educational process but 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 succumbed to the belief that they are powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice. They are equally free to choose to be both hopeful and powerful.

The over-riding truth, as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century, is that we need each and every one of these kids just as desperately as they need us.

Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of us, black, white or any of the colors of the rainbow. We will no longer live in a world where being an American is something of which we can be proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The final segment of this series will be devoted to showing professional educators one way in which we can irrevocably alter the reality of public education in America.

How Do We Stop the Runaway Train of Misguided Educational Reforms?

The educational reform initiatives that threaten to destroy public education in America are like a runaway train and cannot be stopped by the complaints of teachers, individually or collectively. Complaints are the useless weapons of the weak and the unimaginative. What teachers must believe is that, by banding together, they have the power to alter this untenable reality in education, but only if they open their hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about the educational process in which they have been immersed for so long.

The principles of positive leadership suggest that, rather than complain, powerful leaders offer constructive alternatives. In the case of education, that alternative cannot be a return to the status quo. We must acknowledge that the one and only thing about which corporate and government reformers have been correct is that the existing educational process is not meeting the needs of Twenty-first Century American children.

These reformers are wrong about everything else. They are wrong that teachers are to blame and that if we hold them accountable on the basis of student performance on annual competency examinations it will magically alter the outcomes. Such a strategy will not produce the outcomes we seek because teachers control only a small portion of the forces that are leading so many American children down the precipitous path to failure.

The reformers are wrong to think that privatization, financial incentives, charter schools, and removing our schools from the control of the communities they exist to serve will reverse the hopelessness and the powerlessness of a growing percentage of Americans who have lost faith in the American Dream.

These reformers are wrong to think that entrepreneurial principles and state-of-the-art technology can mitigate the value of trained and committed professionals in our classrooms. These reformers are wrong because they are pushing the wrong business principles; they are wrong because they have forgotten that, no matter how sophisticated it might be, technology will never be more than a powerful tool in the hands of people who know how to effectively and productively utilize it; and, they are wrong because they are blind to the reality that American public school teachers are victims of the same educational process that victimizes their students.

What educators must recognize is that the power that drives these reformers is a function of the public’s loss of faith in professional educators, in American public schools, and in an educational process that has left millions of American men and women bitter, resentful, and disillusioned.

It is not too late for American educators to re-establish themselves as our nation’s leaders of choice as we work to reinvent the American educational process. Time has become a commodity in short supply, however. We dare not waste another day, week, or month before we recognize the challenge before us come together to face it. If we wait a year we might as well throw in the towel because our envelope of opportunity will have re-sealed itself.

In this eleventh hour we need a comprehensive blue print for reinventing the American educational process and I offer my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-first Century America (REHAD) as a starting point.

The next couple of posts will be devoted to re-presenting the action strategies offered in the book (REHAD) into a strategic action plan that requires only a definitive decision to act. That decision to act is the responsibility of the professional men and women who preside over teacher associations and unions; over associations for principals and administrators; over the boards of entities established to promote education in the U.S., and over school districts and corporations, whether public or private.

As an author, I have no illusions that my strategic action plan, as comprehensive as it may be, will be the final iteration of a new vision for education in the U.S. but it is a place to start. What must follow is an analysis on the part of a diverse population of professional educators working diligently for ways to improve and enhance this initial blueprint.

Professional educators must harbor no illusions that they can pare this vision back until it is no more than the current reality, in disguise. Any such pretense will be quickly recognized and rejected and there will be no second chances.

Response to the Column on Culture and Poverty by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post

Bravo for the rejection, by @eugenerobinson of the @washingtonPost, of Rep. Paul Ryan’s assertion that culture is to blame for poverty in the U.S. It is what I have been trying to say in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, but Robinson has said it better. Such proclamations do, indeed, provide an excuse for doing nothing. Such thinking also provides fodder for corporate reformers of education who want to privatize our schools and minimize the amount of influence a local community will have over the schools their children must attend.

Ironically, when traditional educators challenge such corporate reform agendas they make the same excuses by claiming that poverty is the cause of the problems with public education in America and, yes, I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Blaming poverty gives educators license to lower their expectations because “there really isn’t anything of significance we can do until our government effectively addresses the problems of poverty.”

I wish I could go back and add Robinson’s comment on culture, in the section of my book where I say that the problem with education in America is not poverty, it is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty. That hopelessness and powerlessness also contribute to a cultural devaluation of education on the part of a growing population of Americans; citizens who have become effectively disenfranchised and have given up hope that a quality education can create a better life for their children.

I wish I had done a better job of saying that the problems of poverty and educational failure are not the result of the many subcultures of American society; whether African-American, Hispanic-American, or other ethnic groups.

Why can we not recognize that this cultural diversity is not a weakness of American society but rather a strength that adds rich textures, flavors, sounds, and perspectives to a pluralistic democracy.

Blaming poverty for the problems in education, like blaming culture for the existence of poverty, is convoluted logic that blinds us to pragmatic solutions and is nothing more than an excuse for continuing to make the same mistakes we have been repeating for generations. Until we change this thinking our schools will continue to chew up and spit out huge numbers of American school children.

Even though this cultural devaluation is prevalent in many African-American communities in cities and poor rural communities throughout the U.S., it transcends race and exists anywhere that people have given up hope and no longer believe that they can exert control over the outcomes in their lives.

Poverty and the problems with education in America are symptoms of the same pathology as is the cancerous, cultural devaluation of education. They are all functions of hopelessness and powerlessness. The operative question becomes, “why don’t we attack hopelessness relentlessly.”

In my book, I suggest that education not only provides a barometer with which we can measure the severity of the problem, education also provides our society with the best opportunity to alter this reality. Make no mistake, if we continue to allow the spread of hopelessness it has ominous implications for the future of America. This is particularly true given the emergence of whole new economies that are challenging American supremacy in the dynamic and highly competitive world marketplace of the Twenty-first Century.

We must transform the educational process in America from a system that is focused on failure to one that acknowledges the cavernous disparity with respect to the level of motivation and preparation that young children carry with them on their first day of school. We must have a system that puts teachers in a position to help their students learn how to be successful rather than the current system that sets up huge numbers of children for failure and humiliation. And, then, we wonder why they begin to lose hope that an education provides a pathway to better opportunities.

We must urge Americans of all backgrounds and economic circumstances to believe that we are anything but powerless to change the outcomes that flow from our society’s shortcomings.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, offers a blueprint for change that outlines thirty-three specific action strategies for transforming American public education and also for infusing hope and faith in the American dream in the hearts and minds of every American man, woman, and child.

Disenfranchisement and Hopelessness

What does it mean to be disenfranchised? What does disenfranchisement have to do with Hopelessness?

The most common use of the term disenfranchised has been associated with the right to vote. People who are disenfranchised are not permitted to participate in their own governance. More generally, it could refer to the loss or denial of any of the civil liberties to which a free people are entitled, under the law. Typically, when we say that someone is disenfranchised we are talking about people from whom something has been taken away.

We have chosen to expand the term to include people who have essentially disenfranchised themselves. These are individuals who no longer believe that what they do, think, or say matters to their community, their nation, or society. In this case, disenfranchisement is a voluntary abdication of one’s responsibility to participate in one’s own governance. This type of disenfranchisement flows from hopelessness.

Human beings experience hopelessness when they no longer believe they have control over their own destiny or over the outcomes in their lives. Literally tens of millions of people, in this great nation of ours, have lost hope. They no longer believe that the American people, as a whole, care about them. They no longer believe that anyone is interested in listening to their complaints of woe let alone take action to address those complaints. They no longer believe in the “American Dream.”

It is easy for the rest of us to shout out in pious righteousness that these people need to do something for themselves but, literally, these people do not see anything they can do. That’s what it means to be powerless. Hopelessness and powerlessness are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.

We tell them to get a job, but there are no jobs for them that will enable them to support their families. They can work somewhere for minimum wage but no employer is going to give them a sufficient number of hours per week that would obligate the employer to offer benefits. They can make a better living on Welfare. The argument that Welfare offers no advancement opportunities is meaningless to people who cannot envision something better. We must be able to envision if we are to believe.

When faced with serious injury or illness of a family member, the disenfranchised know that the American people are prepared to let them suffer. They know that every other developed nation in the world, apart from “the land of the free and the brave,” has addressed this issue of access to healthcare. Americans, however, steadfastly refuse to provide healthcare to all Americans. Even when the President of the United States has pushed through healthcare reform legislation in the form of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), however imperfect, the opposition attacks it relentlessly. The message that the disenfranchised hear, loudly and clearly, is that the majority of Americans “do not want us to have quality medical care for our families nor are they willing to pay for that care.”

Mainstream Americans are frustrated that so many people have become dependent on the government for welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. We cry out, “What more do you want?” We do not understand why these people express resentment rather than gratitude.

When, in the face of our staggering national debt, all the disenfranchised hear from those in power are proposals to cut food stamps, welfare benefits, or other entitlement programs; why would they feel anything other than resentment?

What Americans need to wake up to is the idea that this reality with which we are confronted is a consequence of decisions we have made over the last seventy years. We created this monster called welfare. It was intended to make sure that poor mothers could care for their children but the reality is that it succeeded only in trapping huge populations of Americans in a reality that is little more than second-class citizenship.

It used to be that even the poorest of the poor would see an education as a ticket out of poverty and as a stepping stone to the American Dream. In most urban communities, the disenfranchised no longer believe in education as a ticket to anywhere other than free day care. What they know is that huge percentages of their children are failing in a school system that is also second class. When we offer voucher programs to help families put their children in better schools we are sending a subtle but powerful message that America has given up on urban public schools.

The fact is that the only parents that take advantage of vouchers are people who still cling to hope and some vestige of the American Dream. The other significant fact is that unless the parents who opt to take advantage of vouchers are also willing to accept responsibility as partners in the education of their children and ferociously encourage their sons and daughters to work hard at school these kids will be no more successful in their new schools than they were in their old ones. Many “charter schools” and other schools that admit “voucher children” to their classrooms are finding this out as they see their school’s declining scores on state competency exams.

So, let’s think about this for a moment. We have an expanding population of poor Americans who:
• Are third- or fourth-generation beneficiaries of welfare
• Cannot gain access to anything more than the minimal level of healthcare for their children and little or no healthcare for themselves,
• Who cannot find jobs that pay better than minimum wage and that offers enough hours to qualify for benefits,
• Who see their children fall so far behind in school that “failure” seems inevitable, and
• Who hear elected officials and policy makers demand that we cut entitlement programs rather than increase taxes paid by the wealthy and the middle class.

Why in the world would we expect these men and women to believe in an American Dream that is nothing more than an illusion for them and an empty promise for their children?

Welfare and other programs that teach people to be dependent rather than independent and interdependent are a cancer that is eating away the heart and soul of our nation.

We must acknowledge, as we move further into the Twenty-first Century, that the policies that got us into this mess are incapable of getting us out. We desperately need new ideas and new solutions. We need to think exponentially and challenge all of our assumptions about the way our society provides for the poor, takes care of the sick, and educates our children.

How much longer can we expect working men and women of our nation to continue to carry the burden of a burgeoning population of poor and disenfranchised people on one end of the productivity continuum, and population of retirees that is growing at an unprecedented rate on the other? What happens to our status as the leader of the free world when our economy buckles under the oppressive weight of the retired and the dispossessed?

In a few weeks, I will be introducing my latest book entitled, Re-inventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of the Twenty-First Century. It is a book that offers a strategic action plan to address major components of the dilemma in which we find ourselves. In this book, I suggest that our systems of education, both public and private, offer the best hope for attacking the problems we face as a society and for bringing the disenfranchised back into a game in which their contributions are desperately needed.

My book Radical Surgery: Reconstructing the American Health Care System, published in 2002, already offers a solution for providing universal healthcare and prescription drugs at a price that we can afford; and, in a way that relies on free market forces, not government, to drive quality, cost, and accountability.

Many people have branded Radical Surgery, sight unseen, as just another proposal for socialized medicine. If they would set aside their prejudices and open the book they would learn that Radical Surgery rejects socialized medicine and offers another alternative. It is an alternative, however, that requires that we open our minds to a whole new way of thinking about healthcare.

Implementation of the very specific strategies offered in these two books, Re-Inventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream and Radical Surgery, will provide a realistic opportunity to re-engage the disengaged members of our community. The consequence of seeing this population continue to grow will be nothing short of apocalyptic, which is what my novel, Light and Transient Causes, has been written to illustrate.