Educators are as justified in their opposition as Indiana’s new pathway to graduation is essential!

I understand the point of view of teachers and other educators who have spoken out against Indiana’s proposed pathway to graduation. They are as justified in their opposition as the new pathway is necessary for the State of Indiana.

“How can this be?” you ask. “How can such divergent points of view have validity?

From the perspective of employers, our colleges and universities, and even our Armed Forces, a new and more rigorous graduation requirements are essential. The lack of academic preparedness of an unacceptable number of high school graduates is, well, unacceptable.

I saw it as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; as an employer, beginning nearly 40 years ago, I saw it as a substitute teacher for ten years, and I see it now as a test administrator for the Department of Defense, responsible for administering the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) for young men and women seeking to enlist in the military. I have also spoken to professors, who teach freshmen and sophomores in our colleges and universities, who are frustrated at the lack of academic preparedness and motivation of students.

In previous posts I have written about the ASVAB and how many high school graduates and seniors are unable to achieve a score of 31, which is the minimum score for enlistment eligibility. I have written how the performance of black and other minorities, on the ASVAB, mirrors what we see on state competency exams, and on data from NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress). It is interesting that achieving a score of 31 on the ASVAB is being proposed as one of the additional requirements for graduation under the new pathway but did you know that although a 31 is the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, that enlistment incentives are offered only to candidates who score 50 or higher. A score of 31 might make a prospective enlistee eligible but it does not make them desirable candidates.

The bottom line is that far too many of the young people graduating, today, are poorly prepared or motivated to be successful on the job, in the military, or in a university classroom. Certainly there are many students who graduate with excellent records of achievement but they are far from a majority. There are comparable percentages of students at the bottom of the academic performance continuum who are virtually illiterate and innumerate. Most disconcerting is that the large group of graduates in the middle of the continuum are not qualified to do the jobs that society requires of them if we are to compete in a global marketplace.

The impressive sounding graduation rates about which so many public school districts boast are essentially meaningless. An official looking piece of parchment is meaningless if the bearer cannot compete in the mainstream society. Being unable to compete means that these young men and women have very few choices available to them as adults and often end up being dependent upon government support rather than being contributors.

As disturbing as is the data, it pales in comparison to the disturbing nature of the denial on the part of public school educators. American public school teachers and administrators seem oblivious to the level of dissatisfaction that exists in the communities they serve and in the nation at large. They seem disconnected from the dissatisfaction of their customers and seem not to understand that education reforms are motivated by this dissatisfaction and not by the greed of corporate executives.

This is tragic because education reformers evidence no understanding of the challenges of teaching children and their reform initiatives do more harm than good. We cannot solve the problems in public education until public school teachers and administrators accept responsibility for the problem; and please note, I said responsibility, not blame.

I consider myself to be an ardent advocate for public schools and teachers. I view all public school teachers as unsung American heroes especially the ones who teach in diverse or segregated public school districts. They are being asked to do the impossible. They are being asked to provide a high quality education to our nation’s most vulnerable children within the context of an education process that was already obsolete 65 years ago when I arrived for my first day of Kindergarten.

I am saddened that so many of the educators whom I respect and admire will stop reading about now because they do not wish to hear what I have to say. They are seemingly unwilling and/or unable to pull their heads out of the sand and acknowledge that what they are being asked to do does not work. I understand the trepidation of high school teachers in Indiana when they feel overwhelmed by what these new graduation requirements will demand of them when they are already overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask them to do under the current requirements.

As necessary as more rigorous graduation requirements might be to the welfare of society, it is outrageous to expect public school educators to meet these expectations unless we are prepared to fix an obsolete education process that allows kids to arrive for their first day of the ninth grade as unprepared for the demands of high school as our twelfth graders are unprepared for the demands of the work force, of university classrooms, and military entrance requirements.

American society is as disconnected from what transpires in our nation’s most challenged public schools as our public school teachers and administrators are out-of-touch with the level of dissatisfaction of their customers.

Yes, I know that there are many of our nation’s finest school districts that will insist that they are doing an exemplary job with their students and that those young men and women leave high school well-prepared for life after high school. They too are wrong. They are wrong not because they are doing anything wrong and not because their students are incapable, rather because the education process, itself, impedes the ability of even our best students to strive for, let alone reach, their full potential.

The problems in public education are so huge and so pervasive that it is easy for us to feel overwhelmed in the face of its challenges. This is true only because educators are so immersed in the education process that they cannot view it as an integral whole.

The way we have structured our schools and classrooms and the way we have designed our instructional methodologies and the way we have organized our curricula, and the way we have allocated our resources are nothing more than components of a logical process. Like any other process, whether production, assembly, service delivery, or software application the education process at work in our schools, both public and private, can be reinvented, re-engineered, re-designed, re-tasked to do anything we want it to do, even things we have not yet imagined to be possible. It is time for us to step back and rethink what it is we do and why.

Is there anything more important for the future of our society in the uncertain times that are unfolding before us, than the way we prepare the children on whom that future depends?

It is time to take a few step back and examine the education process in place in our schools from a systems-thinking perspective. It is time to challenge each and every assumption we have made about what we do and why. It is time to redefine our purpose and then reinvent the education process to give our teachers the direction, structure, time and resources they require to give each and every one of our students the patient time and attention they need to learn every single lesson.

It is not enough to teach lessons, however, and we must do so much more. We must teach our children how to get along with one another; we must teach them how to question why we do what we do as a people; we must teach them how to think creatively and how to utilize their imaginations to find new and innovative solutions to the challenges we face in this ever-more complicated world; we must teach them to understand history not so that we can yearn to return to a simpler time because there will never be a simpler time. We must teach them history so that they can learn from our mistakes just like we want to help them learn from their own mistakes.

We must teach them how to be successful and I am not talking about being rich and famous. We must teach them that success is a process of learning from our mistakes, building on what we know, striving for ever-higher expectations, and learning the most important truths in life. The first of those truths is that there is no such thing as failure; there are only disappointing outcomes from which we can learn and grow. The second of those truths is that people are more important than things and that the value of everything in life is measured in terms of its utility to people. The third truth is that what got us where we are today will not take us to where we want and need to be tomorrow. Our success in meeting the challenges of tomorrow will come from the wisdom we have gained from the mistakes we have made and learning that there are no final answers. Every question answered raises a whole new set of questions, Our questions are the energy that powers our imagination and ingenuity.

Every problem facing American society today is rooted in the manner and success with which we educate our children. That makes public education the most important issue on the American agenda and the civil rights issue of our time.

I challenge teachers to believe that both you and your students deserve better. I challenge you to have the courage to accept responsibility for the problems in our schools and in the education process with which you are expected to work. I challenge you to shout out at the top of your voices when what you are being asked to do does not work and to draw upon your collective power to demand support for changing the reality of public education in America.

Raising expectations is a good thing only when we give ourselves the tools necessary to meet them. Our educators do not have the tools they need to meet current requirements, let alone the new ones, however much needed they may be. We must give them these tools.

Article by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg as shared by Valerie Strauss in her column “The Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

A huge thank you goes out to Valerie Strauss (@valeriestrauss) for sharing the article by Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), in her column, “The Answer Sheet” for The Washington Post. Pasi Sahlberg is the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland.

I encourage the reader to check out Sahlberg’s article “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. Schools?”

Sahlberg’s most important point is that there is no one approach or “silver bullet” that will solve the problems with education in America. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that addresses every aspect of a nation’s educational system from the way we prepare teachers for their professions, what we teach, how we teach it, and how we involve the entire community.

Our current focus on teachers as both the cause and the solution to the problems of public education in American is a prime example of how little our policy makers, our politicians, and even our business leaders understand about education as a system. We proceed as if the answer is holding teachers accountable on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized competency exams on the one hand and threatening dire sanctions against schools, including closure, if they fail to measure up on the other. Sahlberg’s reference to such a “toxic use of accountability” suggests that the approach itself is harmful to the system and to the children and communities that our schools exist to serve.

Our complementary focus on encouraging the establishment of charter schools and offering vouchers to entice motivated families to abandon their public schools suggests a presumption, on our part, that we expect our focus on accountability and testing to fail.

I share Sahlberg’s belief that teachers, while important, are only a part of the problems with education in the U.S. and, regardless of how effective they are, “schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty” and, I would add, the lack of both the motivation of students and support of parents. Sahlberg cites the need to “Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.”

My only criticism of Sahlberg is his not uncommon assertion that poverty plays the pivotal role in the problems of education in the U.S. As he suggests, however, the data seems to show that poverty plays a bigger role in the challenges facing American children than in most other developed nations. This is a fact that should shake Americans out of our complacency but we reject it because it does not fit into our rather exalted self-image.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (REHAD), I suggest that it is not poverty so much as it is the lack of hope on the part of the parents of our children that an education offers a way out of poverty. No one can deny that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for American children but the fact is that some children find a way to excel academically, in spite of the poverty they endure.

What we need to understand is “what are the characteristics that distinguish such children from the majority of their classmates?” I suggest that the distinguishing characteristic is that the children who succeed are supported by parents who somehow, in the face of all odds, cling to the hope that an education is a portal to a better life. These parents and guardians possess a relentless commitment to the education of their children and not a day goes by that they do not communicate the importance of education to their sons and daughters.

The problem is not poverty rather it is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so typically accompany poverty. While poverty is a condition that seems to defy our best efforts, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind about which we can do something. We may not be able to get our hands around poverty, but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one family, one school, or one community at a time.

Sahlberg’s message is that we need a comprehensive approach that addresses every facet of the problems of education in America. I call this a systems-thinking approach in which we step back, sufficiently, that we can view our educational system as an integral whole. It is only from such a vantage point that we can begin to see how the system is influenced not only by external forces but also by internal forces that represent the consequence of our ineffectual tampering.

We not only need to shift our focus from teacher effectiveness to school effectiveness, as Sahlberg suggests, we need to effect a paradigm shift of our focus to the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

“Careful quality control at entry into teaching;” regarding teaching “as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering;” rigorous “competition to get into these teacher education programs” is where Sahlberg suggests we begin. He talks about the effectiveness of leadership within the classroom and school and the important role that parents play. He also talks about the importance of a positive school climate where teachers can “use their skills, wisdom, and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning.”

We need a comprehensive plan of action that addresses every aspect of our complicated educational system and process and offering a blueprint for such a plan is the essential purpose of my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, (REHAD). Although I believe the solution I offer in REHAD is practical and effective it is offered as much as a catalyst to a profession-wide brainstorming process as it is a proposal for direct action.

Sahlberg closes out his article with a theoretical exchange of teachers with Finnish teachers coming to Indiana and Hoosier teachers going to Finland. He suggests that the Finnish teachers working in the context of the current American educational process would be able to deliver only marginal improvements in test scores. He suggests that, once acclimated, Hoosier teachers in Finland would begin to flourish.

Interestingly, in one of the drafts of REHAD, I posed a similar hypothetical experiment in which we would exchange teachers from model schools that exist along the fringes of the American educational system with those from our more challenged public schools. The results I envisioned as a result of such an experiment were virtually identical to those envisioned by Sahlberg.

Sahlberg strives, as do I, to challenge Americans to alter the way we think about education and expand the boundaries of conventional thinking. It is my hope that my modest contribution will help ameliorate the difficulty many Americans have in acknowledging that we can learn something from the experience of other nations.