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.

What the Data Tells Us

The following graphic speaks eloquently about the problems in public education in America; problems that exist in spite of the heroic efforts of teachers.

Fort Wayne  and South Bend are two of Indiana’s greatest cities and both have many cultural, educational, business, and recreational resources to offer to their citizens. As is true in so many medium- to intermediate-sized communities (populations of 100,000 to 300,000), both communities have diverse populations. What is also characteristic of such communities is the existence of  urban, suburban, and rural public-school districts. Both Fort Wayne Community Schools and the South Bend Community School Corporation, within their district boundaries, have a high proportion of children of color; children from families that are on the lower end of the income continuum, regardless of color; and, the largest percentage children for whom English is a second language. By virtually any criteria, in diverse communities, both have the highest percentage of kids that could be thought of as disadvantaged students.

Both school districts are led by some of the most highly educated and experienced administrators in the State of Indiana. They are staffed by a diverse faculty of teachers who have been educated in the nation’s finest colleges and universities and who are represented by the same unions and associations as their colleagues from Indiana and around the nation. Teacher salaries are within the same range as other area school districts that compete for qualified teachers and typically exceed teacher salaries the community’s parochial schools offer.

These school districts also offer a variety of programs for students with a broad range of special needs. And, so there are no misunderstandings, they teach to the same academic standards as must teachers in every other school in their state. They also continue to make the best investments in their school buildings and equipment as their constituents will permit.

Both cities have been my hometowns in major parts of my life, and I am proud to have lived in South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana. I graduated from one of the two districts, as did all three of my younger siblings, and I spent the greater part of my life and career in the other. All three of my children attended and graduated from Fort Wayne Community Schools and went on to earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees in their chosen fields of interest. There, I also spent ten years as a substitute teacher.  Although my wife and I are in the process of moving from Fort Wayne, that decision had nothing to do with the quality of life offered by the community. We will always love Fort Wayne.

We have the greatest possible respect for the dedicated teachers and administrators of both school districts. We also have a family member who is a principal in one of the school districts and who strives, every day, to make a difference in the lives of his students.

The graphic is offered to illustrate how the combined student bodies from these fine school districts struggle, academically, despite the heroic efforts of public school teachers, not because of them. In this post, I will provide only a few highlights of the data and what I believe they tell us . My new book will allow readers to delve more deeply in the data.

These two school districts are like a thousand other school districts of comparable size and demographics and this just begins to reveal the sheer size of the crisis in public education in America. If we take the total number of students that are struggling in these two districts, divide that number by two, and then multiply it by the estimated one thousand school districts in America of comparable size and demographics, we are talking about eight million school children. Let me repeat that number: approximately 8,000,000 kids.

Add numbers from the roughly fifteen thousand other school districts in the U.S. that are smaller, larger, richer, poorer, and more segregated and the numbers are both staggering and compelling. Anyone who denies that we have a crisis in public education in America must be challenged to take another look and, yes, the degree to which the validity of state competency exams is questioned, is understood.

            The only reason to question the validity of state competency exams is that they are utilized to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of teachers and public schools and this author shares the conviction that their use for that purpose be categorically rejected.

            What educators dare not reject, however, is that, with all the imperfections of standardized competency exams, they are still a measure of the ability of children to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter set out for them by academic standards of their state.

            MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, THESE RESULTS ARE A MEASURE OF THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE EDUCATION PROCESS WITH WHICH TEACHERS AND SCHOOLS ARE EXPECTED TO EDUCATE OUR NATION’S DIVERSE POPULATION OF STUDENTS. I CHALLENGE ANY PROFESSIONAL EDUCATOR, WHO DISPUTES THESE DATA TO LOOK INTO THEIR OWN EYES IN THE NEAREST MIRROR AND TELL, FIRST THEMSELVES, AND THEN THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, THIS IS THE BEST WE CAN DO.

            The essential purposes of this work is to show that this is nowhere near the best we can do for our nation’s children, and to offer a solution. It is a solution engineered to give every child a quality education to develop the knowledge and skills they will need to identify and then pursue their dreams and aspirations. Equality in education is the categorical imperative of our time.

            The other essential purpose of this work is to give the millions of men and women who have chosen to serve our nation and its children as educators, an education model that will allow them to become the teachers they envisioned when they chose to enter this demanding profession. They chose teaching because of their desire to make a difference in the lives of kids and in their communities and we must enable, not just allow, them to do their jobs to the absolute best of their ability.

It is this author’s sincere belief that there is nothing we can do as a society that will have a greater impact on the quality of life of the American people, both individually and collectively, than creating an education process that will prepare all our young people to meet the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of this 21st Century will present.

Work on my new book is well underway and it will lay out the education model I have created in great detail. In the interim, the reader is invited to view the latest version of my education model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

You will also find a copy of the white paper written to lay the logical foundation for the model. Please read not in search of reasons to reject rather so you might envision what it would be like to teach in such and environment. Please share it with your friends and colleagues.

Political Commentary by a Concerned American and Supporter of Community Public Schools!

Differentiation is the most vital of the missing ingredients in public education in America and merits a serious discussion; a discussion that will follow this commentary in a subsequent post.

The way academic standards are written; the way curricula are designed to teach to those standards; and the way high-stakes testing is geared to measure performance against those standards and hold both teachers and schools accountable shape the function and character of the education process in America. The result is an education process structured like a conveyer belt that moves students from point to point down the list of academic standards without regard for the unique requirements, academic preparedness, strengths, weakness, and personalities of these children from five years of age to eighteen.

Teachers do the best they can to differentiate with respect to the diverse needs of their students. Because teachers are not encouraged to deviate from the curriculum, however, there are only so many exceptions even the most accomplished and innovative teachers can carve out of their daily lesson plan and classroom-management responsibilities. The more challenging the classroom the more difficult it becomes to personalize our approach and the more adverse the consequences of not doing so.

That so many of our public schools and their students seem unable to rise to these standards should prompt us to challenge the effectiveness of the education process and, probably, the academic standards, themselves. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, critics of public education have opted, instead, to question the effectiveness of public schools and their teachers rather than challenge the efficacy of the process within which our teachers are expected to teach.

If we were responsible for managing a production or assembly process that consistently fails to meet our expectations, most leaders would start by questioning the capability of their people. While our people are where our problem-solving effort should begin, however, its focus should not be poking fingers of blame rather it should strive to understand where the process impedes rather than supports the efforts of our people.

With rare exceptions, we are most likely to conclude that giving our workers more training and asking them to work harder will not help them overcome the challenges of a flawed process. The one thing my 45 years of leadership experience has taught me is that most people want to do a good job if we give them the support they need to do so. It is when they are unable to excel, no matter how hard they work, that they become discouraged and stop trying. Such workers, professional or blue collar, are very much like struggling students in underperforming schools.

Astute positive leaders do not hesitate to overhaul or completely reinvent a flawed process that produces disappointing outcomes and that discourages rather than serves their people. The impact of their decisive action is almost always transformative. In the private sector, that willingness to act is driven by the demands of customers. In the public sector, it is driven by our commitment to the people we serve and to those who do the work.

In response to the disappointing outcomes of many of our public schools, however, critics have been content to place the responsibility for those outcomes on the shoulders of our teachers. They seem unwilling to question the efficacy of the process. I believe this is because they don’t know any better.

By not vigorously disputing that teachers and schools are to blame, leaders of public education have issued a de facto invitation to private investors to compete for public dollars, as prospective educators, based on their assertion they can improve the quality of education simply by running their schools the way they run their businesses. That they rarely offer innovative education models, methodologies, and approaches should leave discerning Americans scratching their heads. We have allowed American school children to be treated like commodities.

We say American school children are our nation’s most precious assets and yet we funnel them, like livestock, through a sorting process that separates them by how well they negotiate the complex path we chart for them. It’s one thing to single out the best performers but to accept and, then, send low or non-performers out into the competitive pasture that is American society, unprepared for its rigors, makes no sense.

This suggests, to this observer, that education reformers, public officials, and many policy makers have written off low-performing public schools, their teachers, and students as lost causes, unworthy of our time and attention. Instead, we place our hopes on a solution that, purportedly, over an undefined period of years or even decades, will gradually draw enough students to its promise that our nation’s education system will be transformed. Has anyone contemplated the social cost of such unverified assertions?

Under the banner of “choice” the education reform movement has become a powerful political force. The very word, “choice,” plays on the emotions of Americans who have been conditioned to believe that consumerism and their idealized perception of a “free market system” are synonymous; that, indeed, consumerism is at the core of America’s greatness. Too many of us are oblivious to the fact that consumerism is driven, more, by the sophistication and appeal of innovative marketing campaigns than by the ability of producers of consumer products and services to deliver the goods.

It is interesting how this same phenomenon has become the primary driver of election outcomes. Elections are crucial to a participatory democracy and our leaders should be focused on instilling confidence in that process. Some leaders, however, are now casting doubt about the integrity of the election process. This is a dangerous strategy that poses a very real threat to our democratic principles. Democracy requires that people believe government serves the will of the people.

Think about how we go about choosing our elected officials. Successful election campaigns are driven less by thoughtful debates about cogent issues than by the effectiveness of a candidates fundraising strategies and marketing campaigns. Strategies that include brazen attacks on one’s opponents by the candidates, themselves, or by interest-based, political action groups have become the preferences of choice. Equally effective are shameless proselytizing of voters with sweeping promises and jingoistic platitudes.

Like consumerism, the American voter, inundated by voluminous rhetoric, must choose whom they are willing to believe. And, once one has chosen whom they wish to believe, otherwise intelligent men and women seem compelled, by some misplaced sense of loyalty, to believe every claim of their leaders. Call an opponent a crook at every opportunity and your followers will choose to believe, however scant the evidence and contrary to the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” That leaders who make such accusations will turn around and use that principle to defend their friends and supporters is the least subtle of ironies.

Could it be that the gullibility of an uninformed citizenry is a consequence of an ineffective education process? We will explore that question in our next post.

Let the Positive Leadership of LeBron James and Akron Public Schools Lead the Way

However the controversy plays out, of athletes kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL football games, I want to go on record as a supporter of these talented and courageous men. Besides, when did kneeling with one’s head bowed become a sign of disrespect. I would encourage participants in any performance venue to take similar action.

Contrary to what many critics suggest, these are not spoiled, selfish millionaires showing disrespect for the American Flag. Rather these are Americans who are using the platform they are blessed to have been given to speak out against injustice in America; a nation that has not yet risen to the level of greatness to which it aspires. The American flag is a beautiful symbol of our democratic principles, but its symbolism is only as relevant as the principles, themselves. What is disrespectful is the presentation of the colors by people whose actions demonstrate a disdain for those principles.

Whether it is:

• attempts to prevent minorities from exercising their constitutional right to vote in our local, state or national elections;
• separating children from parents who have sought to immigrate to this “nation of immigrants” to escape religious, political, racial, or other forms of persecution much as our own ancestors have done;
• discriminating against men, women, and children because of their religious faith or nations of origin; or
• denying the right to the same presumption of innocence to which the rest of us are entitled, by profiling and unjustifiably shooting black or other minority suspects of criminal behavior, or even acts of civil disobedience.

These and many other injustices are far more disrespectful of the principles of liberty and justice delineated by the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Amendments that we refer to as the Bill of Rights; than kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner,” our National Anthem. Every American not only has the right to take a stand or a knee on behalf of those for whom the principles of liberty and justice are being denied, we have a sacred duty to do so.

A few months ago, I wrote that “the movie Black Panther, has a compelling message for all Americans, but particularly to successful men and women of color.

“It is a call to action with an unequivocal message that it is not acceptable to isolate oneself from the problems of society when one’s successes, discoveries, and genius can make a . . . difference.”

NBA star LeBron James has set a marvelous example of giving back to one’s community with the creation of his I Promise School, in partnership with Akron Public Schools. We must all accept responsibility for ending the failure of millions of disadvantaged children, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black or other children of color, in so many public schools as well as charter schools, or parochial.

I challenge successful men and women of color—and every other socially-conscious American man or woman—to come together as powerful positive leaders to transform public education in America, similar to what the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools are striving to do.

I would ask these positive leaders, however, not to delay intervention until children are in the third or fourth grade. Instead, start on the first day they arrive for Kindergarten to help them not only overcome their disadvantage but help them catch up and develop their unique talents and abilities so they can become the best version of themselves.

Can you think of anything that would do more to make America great, than creating a reality in which every single young man or women, upon finishing grade twelve, is literate, numerate, and in possession of a portfolio of knowledge and skill that, in conjunction with a healthy self-esteem, will give them choices about what to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning; to be full members of our participatory democracy.

I offer an innovative education model that changes the way we prepare our nation’s children to fulfill their God-given potential. I believe this education model, which you can examine at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ can and will transform public education, with your help. All it requires is a willingness to open your hearts and minds to a new way of educating our nation’s children and that you abandon the long tradition of incremental improvements; a tradition that has brought us to the point at which we find ourselves today.

Through our utilization of the principles of positive leadership, we have the power to end the failure of disadvantaged children and all other kids, for all time. What are we waiting for?

Black Panther, the Movie: a Call to Action!

 

To this white viewer, the movie, Black Panther, has a compelling message for all Americans, but particularly for successful men and women of color. It is a call to action with an unequivocal message that It is not acceptable to isolate oneself from the problems of society when one’s successes, discoveries, and genius can make a meaningful difference.

In the fifties and sixties, civil rights leaders had a clear and all-consuming purpose. They were driven to ensure that people of color be granted equal protection under the law. They achieved their purpose with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other subsequent legislation.  Now, however, 50 years later, our society remains separate and unequal with respect to black and white Americans and other minorities and that separation is being perpetuated by the performance gap between black students and their white classmates in our nation’s schools. The dream so eloquently envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and for which he and the other heroes of the civil rights movement sacrificed so much, has not been realized.

 Black Panther, the movie, is a call to action to address the civil rights issue of the 21st Century, public education. Take a moment to think about public education in America.

There are many men and women of color who have enjoyed success and accomplishment in every conceivable venue including being elected to the American presidency. Look at what so many men and women of color have achieved in the last half century. Look at your own accomplishments. Your successes did not come easily. For each of those successes you worked hard to overcome the formidable obstacles of bigotry and discrimination. How were you able to overcome discrimination?

The key was a quality education that provided you with a portfolio of the knowledge, skills, and understanding you needed to seize opportunities. You did it, also, because you were blessed to have people in your lives who helped you develop a strong self-esteem, self-discipline, and the determination needed to overcome discrimination.

Now, consider the millions of men and women of color who languish in our nation’s poor urban and rural communities, entrapped in a maelstrom of poverty and failure. These Americans have not been successful in acquiring a quality education and neither have they been able to acquire the strong self-esteem and self-discipline necessary to render themselves impervious to discrimination.  As a result, they have spent their entire lives living under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness, vulnerable to those who look upon them with suspicion and derision because of the color of their skin.

The sons and daughters of our nation’s poor communities, a disproportionate percentage of whom are children of color, now populate the same public schools in which their parents struggled. In poor urban and rural community school districts around the nation, the data is indisputable. An unacceptable number of these children are failing. It begins in the early grades when these boys and girls arrive for their first day of school with what I call an “academic preparedness deficiency.”

In many school districts, by the time these kids reach middle school, the percentage able to pass both the math and English language arts components of their state’s competency exams may be 20 percent or lower. The performance gap between black students and their white classmates is as wide if not wider than it has ever been.

It is vital that we understand that this lack of academic achievement is the result of an obsolete education process and not because of bad teachers and bad schools and not because disadvantaged kids cannot learn. Our public school teachers are dedicated men and women who do the best they can to make an obsolete education process work for their students.

We must also understand that the “school choice” movement with its focus on high stakes testing and privatization through the establishment of charter schools is not the answer. The performance of charter schools is often no better than the public schools they were intended to replace, and this should come as no surprise. Except in rare circumstances, these charter schools rely on the same obsolete education process as our public schools. Just moving kids to a different building with different teachers will not change outcomes. Teachers in public, private, parochial, and charter schools are all trained in the same colleges and universities.

Most public-school educators and policy makers insist that public education is better than it has ever been and that the performance gap between black and white and rich and poor kids exists because society has not been successful in addressing the issue of poverty in America. I suggest an alternate explanation.

The truth is that our nation has done something about poverty in America. Our state and federal governments, over the last century, have spent trillions of dollars building public schools in every community and hiring public school teachers trained in our nation’s finest colleges and universities. That children are still failing does not mean they cannot learn or that our teachers cannot teach. It only means that what we have been asking teachers to do, does not work for disadvantaged students.

If what we are doing does not work, it is not okay to give up and say we tried. We must keep searching for new ways to do what we do until we find something that does work.

I challenge successful men and women of color and white Americans who share my belief that diversity is and has always been our greatest strength as a democratic society, to join forces on a mission to transform public education in America. This is the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.

Based on my 40-plus years of combined experience in working with kids, in organizational leadership, as a leadership and organizational development consultant, as administrator of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and as a substitute teacher in a public-school corporation, I have developed an education model that rejects failure and is focused on success.  It is a model that:

  • determines the level of a child’s academic preparedness when they arrive for their first day of school;
  • tailors an academic plan based on the unique requirements of each child;
  • creates an environment in which teachers are expected to develop close, enduring relationships with each student;
  • strives to pull parents into the process so that they can be partners sharing responsibility for the success of their sons and daughters;
  • Expects teachers to give students however much time and attention they need to learn from their mistakes and be able to demonstrate that they can use what they learned in real-life situations, including future lessons;
  • Enables teachers to use whatever innovative methodologies and technologies they deem necessary to help their students succeed; and,
  • Celebrates each student’s success so that they can gain confidence in their ability to create success for themselves.

 

Please take the time to examine my education model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

The only justification for ignoring this call to action is if one chooses to believe that disadvantaged children and children of color are incapable of learning.

If you believe that these kids can learn, how long are we going to wait and how many children will we permit to fail before we say enough is enough? Until we refuse to allow these children to fail, the schoolhouse to jailhouse track will remain a super highway to the future for far too many young people.

Unlike the civil rights heroes of the 50s and 60s, we need not sway Congress or even state legislatures. The changes we propose will not alter anything other than the way we organize students, teachers, and classrooms and what we do inside those classrooms. We will still teach to the same academic standards and will still be subject to the same accountabilities.

We need only convince a handful of superintendents of school districts with low-performing schools to test my model in one of their struggling elementary schools. If it works as I believe it will, those superintendents will be compelled to expand the model into all their districts’ schools and other public school corporations will be compelled to follow suit.

Imagine a future in which every child leaves high school with a full menu of choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning in life and provide for themselves and their families. This future can be realized if you choose to accept Black Panther’s call to action.

What If We Were Starting from Scratch?

For the past few years I have been suggesting that if we are not getting the outcomes we need from our public schools—if too many kids are failing—it is time to go back to the drawing board. This is, also, what Chris Weber (@webereducation) has written about, when he suggests the question we should all be asking is:

“How would we design schools, classrooms, teaching, and learning if we started from scratch?”

Starting from scratch is what I have done to create an education model that I believe will enable us to give each child the quality education they deserve. In the white paper that accompanies my education model and that provides the logical foundation for it, I wrote:

“What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.”

And,

“Through the utilization of the tools and principles of systems thinking, positive leadership, and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.”

The new process we create must be engineered to facilitate, in every conceivable way, the specific components we determine to be essential if we are to teach the whole child.

Since I have been active on Twitter the number of times educators—teachers, administrators, principals and superintendents—have been talking about the importance of building relationships with students has increased exponentially. Particularly in the aftermath of the most recent school shooting, everyone has been stressing the importance of conveying to kids that they are loved. When some students are unable to form close relationships with their teachers and other students they are at risk of becoming isolated, picked on, bullied, or even ignored. These are the kids who may feel driven to do desperate, dangerous things.

Now, think about your own school and classroom and examine where the responsibility for building warm nurturing relationship with students falls on your priority list. Think about how much of your time are you able to allocate to this activity that we understand to be so vital.

Also, think about the 5 and 6-year-old students who arrive for their first day of school. Where on their first teacher’s priority list do we find “work to develop warm, nurturing relationships with each child” and how much of that first-year teacher’s time is allocated for that purpose? Is it 100 percent? Is it 50 percent? Or, is it somewhere below 25 or even 10 percent? How does that percentage change as class size increases from 20 to 25 students or even to 35 students?

How much of a teacher’s time can be allocated to winning the trust and affection of each child? How do we find time to do all of the other things demanded of us as teachers?

As it turns out, the relationships, themselves, are key to accomplishing all that is demanded of us. If we have the relationships it makes everything else easier. Most important of all is that once we have built the relationships, everything else we do reinforces and helps us sustain them.

After we have worked so hard for an entire school year to build and solidify our relationships with our students, and have worked to lay the foundation for learning does it really make sense to sever those relationships. Is it truly in the child’s best interests to say goodbye to their favorite teacher and ask them to start all over in the fall, with a teacher who may be a complete stranger? Is this really how we teach the whole child?

If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that the existing educational process was not created for this purpose and it can only be bent and stretched so far.

So, what is the answer? If we truly believe that forming these special relationships with our students is of vital importance, how do we give it the priority it deserves? And, how do we do all of the other things that our students need if they are to succeed?

The answer, today, is that we cannot do it all because the existing education process is neither tasked, structured nor supported to give the whole child what he or she needs to learn and grow.
What we must do is reinvent, re-engineer, or redesign the process in such a way that its priorities are clear.

Effective systems do not just happen, and rarely can a dysfunctional system be sufficiently repaired to do what we need it to do. Systems, organizations, and processes are designed with great attention to detail to ensure that purpose and objectives are clear and that the structure is created to support that purpose. They are complex systems of human behavior and students of the disciplines of organizational leadership have worked to understand their inner dynamics. We cannot just hope the organizations and processes we create will accomplish their purpose and produce the outcomes we are seeking. We must ensure that every activity undertaken exists to support our purpose and mission and we must provide relentless positive leadership to sustain our effort.

The education model I have created has been designed to do this and more? I urge the reader to take the time to examine the model, not it search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather with the hope that it might. It is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

All Kids Can Learn but Many Are Sure to Fail If We Fail to Help Them

Every day that we delay addressing the problems of public education in America more kids give up on themselves because they have fallen so far behind their classmates that they have no hope that they will ever catch up.

I see these young men and women as seniors in high school or shortly after they finish high school when they show up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). They are hoping to find a way to make a life for themselves by enlisting in the Armed Services. At the end of the test session, they walk out of the room with an envelope in their hands and their heads hanging low. In the envelope are the results of their ASVAB that show they have scored below the minimum score of 31 out of a possible 99, which is the threshold for enlistment eligibility.

So far this year, 25 percent of the candidates to whom I have administered ASVAB have scored below 31, and half of those score below 20. A score of less than 20 indicates a high probability that individuals are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Two-thirds of the young people who scored below 31 were African-American. Not only do these young American men and women not qualify for enlistment, they will also fail to qualify for all but the most menial and lowest-paying jobs in their community. In all likelihood, the young African-American men will return to their poor urban or rural communities where many will to turn to gangs, crime, and or drugs. Some will be killed during commission of a crime or as a result of black on black violence. Far too many will end up in a state penitentiary. The young woman will most likely get pregnant and begin raising their own children in the same cycle of failure and poverty in which they were reared.

All of the young men and women who scored below 31 are victims of flawed educational process in which they started out behind and found it impossible to catch up with their classmates. The sad truth is that they never had a chance and they are left with very few choices in life. There are millions of other young children in public schools all over the U.S. who are destined to the same fate.

Our systems of public education are like any other system that has lost focus on its purpose and has been allowed to deteriorate over time. Somewhere along the line, as the society-at-large became exponentially more complex, our systems of public education began to view accelerating levels of failure as normal and acceptable.

We must stop blaming poverty and recognize that poverty is a consequence of our flawed educational process not the cause of it. We must stop blaming our teachers and schools that are doing the best they can under a flawed educational process that is neither structured nor tasked to help children who show up for school with a range of “academic preparedness deficiencies.” It is a system that allows an unacceptable percentage of students to fail while contributing to the burnout of a growing population of teachers; men and women who have lost faith in the profession they chose with youthful enthusiasm and lofty purpose.

We must stop educational reformers who have no clue about the damage they do when they siphon off tax dollars of which our most challenged schools, teachers, and students are in desperate need. We must not allow them to further weaken the ties between our public schools and the communities they exist to serve, while destroying the hope of students and teachers, alike.

In their defensive postures, professional educators like to scoff at the results of the Nation’s Report Card, presented by the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), which provides documented evidence that public education in America is in a state of unacceptable crisis.

The irony is that professional educators would be well-advised to embrace the findings of the Nation’s Report Card as verifiable proof that the educational process, with which teachers are asked to do their important work, is fatally thawed.

Here is a quick summary of the NAEP’s findings for 20131, showing the percentage of American students whose performance is measured to be below or above “Proficient.” The Achievement Levels identified by the NAEP are “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.

NAEP defines “Basic” as: “denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade assessed.”

NAEP defines “Proficient” as: “representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

1 The italics are mine. NAEP data can be accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/stateprofiles/sresult.asp?mode=full&displaycat=7&s1=18

Average Scale Scores
8th grade math: 67% Below Proficient; 33 Proficient +
8th grade reading: 71% Below Proficient; 29% Proficient +
8th grade science: 73% Below Proficient; 27% Proficient +
8th grade writing: 69% Below Proficient; 31% Proficient +

For purposes of this article, the author identifies “Proficient” as the minimum acceptable level of achievement for our students for the simple reason that if a student has achieved only partial mastery of the subject matter and is unable to apply what they have learned to real-world situations they our job is not finished.

Clearly, the goal of education must be that students be able to “demonstrate competency” over the subject matter and they must also be able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations,” which would include subsequent lessons within a subject area.

How long do we allow roughly 70 percent of American students, a disproportionate percentage of which are black and other minorities, to be less than “proficient” before we say this in unacceptable? How long can we allow public school educators to claim that American public education is better than ever? How long can we allow the educational reform movement’s focus on privatization and standardized testing to abandon our nation’s most vulnerable students and school districts and hurt these kids, their teachers, and their communities?

It does not have to be this way! Through a straightforward application of “systems thinking” and organizational principles we can alter this reality for all time.

For an overview of my book and its recommendations, I invite the reader to check out my blog post of October 26, 2015, which is a white paper entitled, “Breaking Down the Cycles of Failure and Poverty:
Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin.”

At the end of this post, I have provided an implementation outline that will show just how simple it would be reinvent the educational process at work in American public schools. It is a model that requires no legislative action and can be implemented by local school districts, acting on their own authority.

Finally, the reader is also encouraged to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America and my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure

Submitted by: Mel Hawkins, BA, MSEd, MPA

April 18, 2016

Discarding the Past

We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.

It understood that most public school teachers and schools believe they work hard to make sure that every child learns and that no child gets left behind. The reality, however, is that each year children are moved from grade to grade who are behind their classmates. Each and every year thereafter they fall a little further behind until they lose all hope that they can ever catch up.

That this occurs is not the fault of teachers rather it is a flaw in a structure that does not provide each teacher with the time and resources they need to teach and does not provide each and every child with the time and support they need to learn. We cannot alter those unfortunate outcomes until we alter the internal logic of the educational process and also the structure that exists to support that process.

What we offer is a new reality that can benefit every child in America and that can transform public education.

Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose

The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a wide menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance, and be able to make informed choices with respect to the important issues of the day.

Note: An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them that success is a process. Success and winning are not accomplishments rather they are a life-long process of getting the most out of one’s life.

Step 2 – Objectives and Expectations

Our objective as educators is to help children learn as much as they are able, as fast as they are able, beginning at that point on the learning preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. Our schools must be a “No Failure Zone!”

It is our expectation that:

• Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn each and every lesson;

• We teach children that success is a process that must be learned and that all of our students can be successful;

• That success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;

• That we will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;

• That students will learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations

• That there are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule.

Note: Education is not a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of failure. Our task is to create a model of an educational process that rejects failure and where the only thing that matters is that children learn.

Step 3 – What do children need In order to truly learn?

Children Need:

• To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;

• A close personal relationship with one or more teachers;

• Our patient time and attention;

• A stable and safe environment for the long term;

• To learn that mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities that come only when we extend ourselves beyond our zones of comfort;

• To learn how to be successful and they need to know that success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way on the basis of what they learn from their mistakes.

• To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win:

• An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements.

• The involvement and support of their parents or guardians.


Step 4 – Where do we begin?

We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted districts and use them as a test case.

Note: Our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and all of the action items are presented with that assumption. If a school district’s commitment to this model is sufficiently high, however, there is no reason why we could not, similarly, organize students in the higher elementary grades in the same manner. Doing so creates additional challenges because the farther along children have been pushed, the further behind they will be. If we commence with these older children, it still requires that we know where they are in terms of their academic development in each subject area, and then that we tailor a plan to begin the process of starting over with that unique student. Teachers will have less time to help these kids play catch up but, clearly, these students will need all the help they can get before they move on to the middle school phase.

Step 5 – Organization and structure

We will eliminate references to grades k through 12 as well as any other arbitrary schedules in the educational process and replace those grades with three phases of a child’s primary and secondary education:

• Elementary/or Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)

• Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)

• Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)

Note: We chose Kindergarten rather than first grade for our starting point because the sooner we intervene in the lives of our students, the better. Part of the problem in disadvantaged communities is that children live in an environment in which intellectual and emotional enrichment opportunities are few in number. The longer a child is left in such an environment the further behind they will be.

Step 6- Teaching teams

We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15

Note: Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of high levels of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance or commitment than management. In large work groups, marginal performers and those with low levels of commitment are able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person his held accountable by the team.

Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with any individual student, another member of the team can step in. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents.

Teams also provide much more stability. If one team member is off due to illness or other reasons, the team is still able to maintain its equilibrium, even given the insertion of a substitute.

If a school has teacher aide slots for this age group, we will recommend that the funds allocated for such positions be redirected to paying for additional teachers. Striving to optimize teacher resources is a top priority and if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose.

Step 7 – Duration and stability

Students will remain together as a group and will be assigned to the same teaching team throughout their full elementary/primary academic phase.

Note: Close personal relations with teachers and other students, in a safe environment, can best be accomplished by keeping them together over a period of years. Why would we want to break up relationships between teachers and students because the calendar changes. Sometimes it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have it brought to a halt at the end of a school year.

This type of long-term relationships also enhances the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers.

Step 8 – Reaching out to Parents

Reaching out to parents must be a high priority.

Note: We know that students do better when they are supported by their parents and when parents and teachers are working together as a partners behind a united front. We also know that when we form close relationships with parents we also get to know their families. This creates a real opportunity to intervene if there are younger children in the home to help insure that they enjoy improved enrichment opportunities.

Step 9 – Assessment and tailored academic plan

Select an appropriate assessment tool and utilize it to determine the level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school. We will then utilize what we learn from that assessment to create a tailored academic plan for each and every student based on where they are and pursuant to the academic standards established in that state.

Step 10 – The learning process

From their unique starting point, we will begin moving our students along their tailored academic plan, one lesson module per subject at a time. The learning process will be:

• Lesson presentation

• Practice

• Review

• Mastery Quiz (MQ)

• Verification Master Quiz (VMQ)

Note: Teachers can spend as much time as necessary on any of the steps in the process and can even go back to re-present a lesson using other methods and resources. Each review gives teachers the opportunity to help children learn from the mistakes they made on practice assignments and on unsuccessful quizzes. When the student’s success on practice assignments suggests they are ready, they can move on to the MQ. If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success can be celebrated and they are ready to move on to the next lesson. If not, the teacher can recycle back through all or part of the learning process until the student is able to demonstrate mastery.

Step 11 – State-of-the-Art tools of success

Provide each student and teacher with a personal tablet with which to work.

Utilize technology to help teachers teach, and kids learn with the Khan Academy’s program as but one example. The tool must also help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels. Students are all on a unique path even though they may often be parallel paths. Software must be able to:

Keep attendance records,
Manage various subject areas,
Help teachers and students through lesson presentations,
Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative,
Permit teacher to enter qualitative results generated by them,
Identify areas that need review and more practice,
Signal readiness for MQ,
Grade and record results of quiz and direct student on to next lesson module or back for more work on current module,
Celebrate success much like a video game,
Signal the teachers at every step of the way,
Recommend when it is time for VMQ, and
Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record.

Note: The purpose of the software is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed on their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction may also include time spent with students’ parents.

Whenever it is deemed advantageous, we believe there is also great value in group learning sessions, projects and interaction.

Step 12 – No Failure and No waiting

No student is to be pushed to the next lesson until they have mastered the current lesson as success on one lesson dramatically improves the readiness for success on subsequent lessons. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated that they are ready to move on will be asked to wait for classmates to catch up. Every student moves forward at the best speed of which they are capable.

The beauty of this approach is that students can progress at their own speed, even if that means charging ahead with teachers rushing to keep up. It also means that no student will feel pressured to move faster than they are able nor will they experience the humiliation of failure.

Step 13 – Verify and document mastery

The Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) will occur a few lessons later as the purpose is to assure that the child has retained what they have learned and are able to utilize it on future lessons. Ultimately, if the child cannot utilize what they have learned in real-life situations they have not learned it and, therefore, our job on that lesson is not completed. Once verified, mastery is documented as part of the student’s permanent record.

Step 14 – High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be obsolete. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them. If students are truly learning, their ability to utilize what they have learned will be reflected in competency exam results. Such exams are, after all, nothing more than a real-life opportunity to apply what one has learned.

Note: Ask yourself “Who would we predict to perform better on a competency exam given in the second semester of what we currently refer to as the 5th grade?

The child who has fallen further and further behind with each passing semester and simply has not learned a significant portion of the subject matter on which they will be tested?

Or,

The child who may or may not be on schedule as determined by state academic standards but has actually mastered the material they have covered and who are demonstrating an accelerating pace of learning?

I think we all know the answer.

Step 15 – the Arts and Exercise

We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must still be given the opportunities to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:

• Develop relationships with other teachers;

• Exercise their young bodies; and,

• Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art.

Step 16 – Stability and adaptability

We will not concern ourselves with arrival of new students or the departure of students during the process or with teachers who may need to be replaced for whatever reason. These things will happen and we will deal with them when necessary. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind that there are no perfect systems but the best and most successful systems are the ones that allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.

Step 17 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment

Finally, we must stress that winning organizations are driven by operating systems in which every single event or activity serves the mission. When we tinker with bits and pieces of an operation out of context with the system and its purpose, we end up with a system that looks very much like the educational process we have today. It will be a system that simply cannot deliver the outcomes that we want because there are components that work at cross purposes with the mission.

Note: We are creating an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is considered to be inconsequential in the long run and in the big picture, much like it is inconsequential if it takes a child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her playmates. Once they learn to ride they all derive equal benefit and joy from bicycling.

Step 18 – Special Needs

Anywhere along the way, from initial assessment and beyond, if a child is determined to have special needs they will be offered additional resources, much as happens in our schools, today.

Summary and Conclusions:

All children can learn if given the opportunity and if they feel safe and secure. The fact that we have clung for so long to an ineffectual educational process that sets kids up for failure and humiliation is unfathomable. If we refuse to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality it is inexcusable.

Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes we want, the model can be implemented in each and every school in the district.

An Invitation to Read: “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream”

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, challenges both the conventional thinking about why so many American children fail and many of the education reform initiatives that are sweeping the nation including the focus on standardized testing, blaming teachers, privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and the corresponding abandonment of our most challenged rural and urban public schools.

The book was inspired by my ten years as a substitute teacher for a public schools district; my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; and, by over thirty years of leadership development and consulting experience in organizations where I was responsible for hiring, training, and then both leading and holding the employees of my organizations accountable. Most importantly it was inspired by my experience in applying a “Systems Thinking” approach to understand why systems and processes fail and then to reinvent them to produce desired outcomes. I have Masters Degrees in both Education and Public Affairs and have written four books.

Because we are asking the wrong questions in our search for meaningful solutions to the problems of public education, current reforms are woefully misguided. The correct question is “what are the characteristics common to children who succeed,” not “why children fail.” We need to understand why children fail but we must build our solutions around things that work.

In public schools all over the US, there are examples of children from impoverished families who find a way to excel academically. Whether white or black, from intact or fractured families these children share a common advantage. They are supported by parents who cling to hope that an education offers a way out for their sons and daughters. These mothers, fathers, and often grandparents are relentless in the expectations they hold out for their children. They take responsibility for their children’s success and they partner with their children’s teachers. Unlike so many of today’s students, the children of these parents arrive for their first day of school well-prepared and well-motivated.

While poverty creates tremendous disadvantages, it is not the reason why children fail so often. A fundamental premise of this work is that the problem with public education in America is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty and that permeates so many communities throughout the U.S., irrespective of race. I suggest that it is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that contributes to the burgeoning population of parents who have given up on the American dream and on education as a way out for their children. We declared war on it a half century ago but poverty is so huge and amorphous that we feel powerless in its wake. We can do something about hopelessness and powerlessness, however. I show how we can attack that hopelessness, relentlessly, even if it is only one family, one school, or one community at a time.

The other main problem with public education in America is an educational process that is, essentially, early 20th Century technology that has not been substantially modified in over a century. It is an obsolete system that is structured to produce the outcomes it gets and is simply inadequate to meet the needs of Twenty-First Century America and its children. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets children up for failure and humiliation while actually impeding the ability of teachers to do what our children so desperately need them to do and what they so desperately want to do. The system has left generations of adults bitter and resentful and is the cause of teacher burnout on an unacceptable scale. Ironically, it is system that also does a disservice to the thirty to forty percent of the student population who seem to perform well.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream offers thirty-three interdependent action strategies to transform public education in America. They are interdependent because incremental changes and half-measures will not work. The first nineteen strategies are focused on reinventing the educational process to one that is focused on success and subject mastery. It offers specific recommendations to structure the system to produce the outcomes we want by focusing on the relationship between teachers and students. This new model will help teachers teach and foster the ability of teachers to develop long-standing, nurturing relationships with their students and parents. I offer an educational process in which children can learn that success is a process that all can master.

The remaining fourteen action strategies are focused on attacking hopelessness and powerlessness in the community and speaks specifically to the problem of the performance gap between white students and their black and other minority classmates. This performance gap is the most destructive aspect in all of public education. If public education is going to work we need to re-engage parents as critical partners in the education of their children.

I believe that business practices can make a significant and meaningful contribution to the challenges facing public education but I am not talking about principles from the boardrooms with which so many reformers and politicians have become enamored. The business principles to which I refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer; structuring an organization to serve its purpose; leadership development; problem solving; teamwork; integrating quality assessments into the educational process; and, giving teachers, administrators, and their staff the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

It has been two years since Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream was released and, like most authors, there are things I wish I had said differently. If I were re-writing the book today I would minimize, if not eliminate altogether, the discussion about PISA results and comparisons with other nations as I have come to believe they are meaningless.

That being said, it is vital that we understand that the U.S. is being challenged by existing and emerging players in the international marketplace and our supremacy, both economically and politically, is at risk. I am convinced that this makes finding a solution to the challenges of public education the most important item on the American agenda.

Improving the quality of education for every single child in the U.S. is the only way to meaningfully address the problems of poverty and racism that threaten to undermine our democratic traditions.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions at amazon.com and melhawkinsandassociates.com.

“Just Let Me Teach” Is What Teachers Hope and Pray They Will Be Allowed to Do!

“Just Let Me Teach” is not only the title of a great radio program, hosted by Justin Oakley on IndianaTalks radio, it is the perfect tagline for a movement to save public education in America.

Implicit in the definition of the word “teach” is that someone “learns.” If learning does not occur then we have not really taught.

The fundamental purpose at the outset of public education in America was two-fold. On the one hand, the purpose was to help kids learn the basic knowledge and skills that they would need to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. On the other, our objective was to give kids choices in life by helping them develop their unique talents and abilities to the optimum level while also arming them with the strong self-esteem they will need to deal with life’s challenges and control most of the outcomes in their lives.

The mechanism for fulfilling our purpose in education was to place children under the tutelage of trained teachers and, from the outset, the most effective teachers were the ones who were able to form close, personal, nurturing relationships with their students. The idea was to create an environment in which we place teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn.

As we have said in a previous article, the relationship between teacher and student is where real and sustainable learning takes place. Relationship trumps everything.

After over a half-century or more of misguided reforms and a profusion of secondary agendas we find ourselves with a structure that prevents teachers from doing what society and their students so desperately need them to do and what teachers, themselves, so fervently want to do.

• When did it become our purpose to prepare kids for standardized competency exams?

• When did it become our purpose to see how students measure up against the performance of their classmates rather than focus on their own progress?

• When did we decide it was a good idea to push kids ahead to new material when they still struggle to comprehend?

• Whatever possessed us to set some kids up for failure and humiliation while we celebrate the accomplishments of their high-performing classmates?

How do these activities serve our fundamental purpose to let teachers teach and students learn?

Why is it so difficult for teachers and administrators to shout “whoa!” and acknowledge that what we are doing does not work for a growing population of American kids and we are not just talking about poor and minority children, although they are clearly over-represented in this population? The evidence is there for all to see!

The world has always been full of distractions but the powerful allure of “social media” and the ready availability of a full menu of multi-sourced media have had a supercharging effect on peer pressure. The result is that it is exponentially more difficult for parents and teachers to capture and sustain the attention of our nation’s children.

If, today, we were given the opportunity to reconstruct the educational process to achieve our fundamental purpose is there anyone out there who believes we would we choose to do any of the nonsensical activities that dominate the time and energy of modern-day teachers, a few of which we have identified above?

Instead, teachers would ask for more time to teach; more time for kids to keep trying until things begin to make sense and they begin to gain confidence that they can do it; more support from parents willing to share responsibility for the education of their children; and, less time devoted to unproductive busy work and recordkeeping, all of which the business community has learned to automate.

We know teachers everywhere look in the mirror, every morning, and offer up a wish or a prayer in which they say each day, “just let me teach.” If we work together, beginning today, we will create a reality in which teachers leave for school each morning with full confidence that teaching is exactly what they will be both allowed and expected to do.

What If We Change the Way We Keep Score for Both Teachers and Students?

In this last segment of our series of articles in examination of the performance gap we will shift our focus to taking action.

A year or so ago, actor Michael J. Fox put out a poster that challenged educators. It said:

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

We do not like to think of our classrooms as hostile environments, as envisioned by legal scholar Randall Robinson (see Part 1 of this series). Teachers work hard to make their classrooms as welcoming and interesting as possible.

The hostility Robinson describes is a function of a competitive environment in which we expect children, who arrive with any number of disadvantages, to compete on equal terms with children who have been primed for academic competition. We start all students off from the same point of departure even though the level of readiness of the students can only be described as cavernous.

That this disparity has a significant impact on the ability of some students to keep pace with others is a fact that we all know, intuitively, but are programmed to ignore.

Recall “5 Things Well-Meaning White Educators Should Consider If They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap,” by Jamie Utt, published at his website at www.changefromwithin.org (see part 1).

The fifth thing Utt suggested that must be done, which we have modified, is:

“Envision and Create Schools Where People of Color are Centered (And Whiteness Is Not) and Where All Children Are Centered for Who They Are As Unique Individuals, Irrespective of Color, Language of Birth, Religious Tradition, Relative Affluence, or Sexual Orientation.”

This is far and away the most vital of the “5 Things” because this is one that is well within our power to control whether we are a school superintendent, school principal, or even a single teacher in a classroom.

One of the easiest ways this can be accomplished is by changing our expectations of teachers and the things for which they are held accountable. Rather than evaluate teachers on the percentage of children who achieve passing scores on annual standardized competency examinations, what if we were to evaluate them on the percentage of students who score 85 percent or better on short mastery quizzes following individual lesson plans?

The goal is that 100 percent of each teacher’s students achieve 85% or better on mastery quizzes following every individual lesson plan they are given. It does not matter whether every student earned 85% or better the first time they took a quiz or even the second or third. What matters is that they achieved mastery, that the student’s accomplishment is celebrated and rewarded, and that the teachers’ efforts are formally acknowledged.

Neither does it matter if some students, within a given grading period or semester, achieved mastery on two, five, ten or more lesson plans. What matters is that a student is not permitted to move on to a new lesson within a given area of subject matter until they have mastered the preceding lesson. Each lesson mastered is a success and each success is tallied and valued equally with every other success.

The single most powerful driver of the number of lessons a student is able to master is the level of confidence they have gained through repeated success, absent even the hint of failure.

Even within the current educational process, where we move everyone along the same path and test them on the same material each year, we have learned that by the time they finish the 12th grade they will all be at different levels of accomplishment. Some are off to college, some leave school illiterate or barely literate and are destined to a life of poverty or crime—probably both—and also a life of virtual disenfranchisement, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Whatever their destination, what distinguishes graduates from one another is the strength of the foundation upon which their charted destinations are constructed.

What is better? Is it a student who was given 1000 lessons but failed 80 percent of them and is proficient in only 10 percent? Or, is it that they are proficient in each of the lessons they were given whether 100, 200, 500 or a thousand?

Even though we want to downplay the value of standardized testing as much as possible, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) definitions bring the matter into brilliant focus. The NAEP defines “proficient level of academic performance” as:

“. . . solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The crucial variable is that kids must be able to apply “such knowledge to real world situations. . . .” Ultimately their ability to utilize what they have learned is the only thing that matters. If they cannot use it effectively, they haven’t really learned it.

It is when students are unable to apply the knowledge and skills we strove to teach during 12 years of school that they are doomed to a life separate and apart from mainstream America. We like to blame poverty for this separation but poverty is the inescapable outcome that burdens adults who were unsuccessful in acquiring the skills necessary for life as a productive American citizen.

The fact that most of these kids and the adults they ultimately become are poor, black, or other minorities is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are folks for whom English is a second language or are illegal immigrants. The educational process is poorly designed to meet the needs of this fastest-growing population of American children.

The glaring and tragic truth is that these young people are set up to fail. It is bad enough that they are victims of a flawed educational process. Worse is the fact that the teachers into the hands of which these kids are entrusted are inadequately prepared, under-resourced, poorly supervised, and are held accountable for outcomes that are counter to the best interests of their students.

This is a reality that must be altered before it is too late. It is already too late for millions of Americans who were the victims of a dysfunctional system and every day we delay, more kids are lost.

All that we need to in order to change this reality for all time is to step back and evaluate the American educational process as an integral whole, re-examine our purpose and assumptions, and make a few structural changes in what we do on a daily basis the most important of which is nothing more than changing the way a game is scored.

As soon as we change the way we score success, players and coaches (teachers and principals) will begin developing strategies and structural designs to support the new objectives. There is nothing magical or mystical about this process. It is simply the way systems function within the context of organizations.

What stands in our way of bringing about such transformational change to education in America, whether public or private? Other than our intransigence, not one damn thing!

The reader is invited to read my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, where I offer a blueprint for bringing about the systemic changes we have discussed. The reader is also invited to check out the rest of this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream for a full discussion of how we can overcome the challenges of public education in America. I am not suggesting that the reader will find all of the right answers in my book and blog but they will find many of the right questions.

Both the blog and book can be found on my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com.