“Social welfare programs? – A Conundrum”

In a recent gathering, someone remarked that the last things we need are more social welfare programs.

He was correct in implying that such programs do not fix dysfunctional systems. Social welfare programs almost always treat the symptoms of such dysfunctions, not the underlying problems; they are damage control. Unfortunately, until we address the underlying causes of our nation’s problems, we will continue to need damage control.

Social programs help support people who are damaged, in some way, by society’s dysfunctional processes, the most significant of which is the education process within which teachers and students must work.

What we need is a systems’ thinking approach that drills down to the proverbial root causes of our society’s challenges so we can begin to develop strategies to address them. Systems’ thinking not only helps us understand why systems are dysfunctional; it also helps us recognize the forces that influence human processes and organizations. Just as importantly, systems’ thinking helps us understand how we contribute to the problems that concern us; problems that plague our planet and our society.

As we noted above, our single greatest “systems’ failure” is public education. This is despite the heroic effort of America’s several million teachers. It is this observer’s assertion that every other social problem that exists is a product of that dysfunction, to one degree or another.

Because it is structured like a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, the education process creates populations of winners and losers, along with a huge group of people in the middle. That latter population of people in the middle may not be losers but rarely do they experience satisfactory success. They are left wanting.

Because this population of men and women has not acquired a quality education, they have not learned the science of critical thinking or the art/science of creative problem-solving. This gives them little or no control over most of the outcomes in their lives. Although they cling to hope, they often feel powerless to elevate themselves to point from which they can achieve the level of affluence to which they aspire. Instead, these Americans hover in a netherworld of resentment and disappointment, never quite understanding the forces that play havoc with their lives or how their own behavior and beliefs contribute to their plight.

Such people are likely to resent the affluent, whose lives seem out-of-reach to them; and, even more, they resent when the tax dollars they so begrudgingly pay are expended to support the dependency of the less fortunate. That this population of the less fortunate includes a disproportionate percentage of people of color and those for whom English is a second language, creates another layer of complexity.  It validates, in the minds of many, the prejudices acquired from their families and subcultures. Such prejudices are socially destructive.

What our society requires of its education system, is that all children learn as much as they are able from their unique starting point, at their own best pace. Such an environment transforms the experience of young children, beginning at ages five and six. Because they are progressing along a learning continuum, they experience success not failure; in fact, one success after another.

What happens to any of us, while we are learning a skill, is that one gets better with practice. The better one gets the more confident one becomes. The more confident one becomes, they more often he or she succeeds in what becomes a perpetual growth process; a growth mindset, if you will. It is not long until students begin to expect success. As the success continues, the rate of learning begins to accelerate and the limits that have constrained these youngsters for generation begin evaporate.

Consider how different a teacher’s challenge would be if, rather than a classroom of students who are pushed ahead before they are ready and are experiencing disappointing outcomes, routinely; that teacher found him or herself in the midst of a classroom of students who expect to be successful and are enthusiastic about learning.

Which students are most likely to perform well on dreaded high-stakes, state competency examinations

If such outcomes became the norm in public schools, how quickly would the need for programs that provide public support to the poor, begin to diminish? How long before high-risk testing would be rendered irrelevant? How quickly could our teachers be able to shift the focus of students from learning answers to questions on state competency examinations to critical thinking and creativity?

This is the world we could envision if superintendents of districts with struggling elementary schools chose to utilize The Hawkins Model©.

We would have an education process designed to produce the outcomes the American people and society need if they are to flourish and also compete in the global marketplace?

Making Transformational Change

We all know how hard it is to change things that we’ve been doing  for what seems like forever. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, start exercising, or one of a thousand other things, you know inertia can seem almost insurmountable.

Sometimes, however, we cannot get the need for change out of our head. It eats away at us and we might even lose sleep because we can’t stop thinking about it! Deep down we know something is wrong and we also know someone must do something about it. Why not let that someone be you?

Usually, we are only one among many who suffer the consequences of someone else’s inaction.  In the case of public education, everyone suffers because we seem to be stuck in time.

It is even harder when people are bashing us, always telling us we need to do something about this habit or that. No one likes to feel nagged into doing something and we don’t want to be blamed for it.

There is a part of us, however, that just wants to dig in and resist. Often, it is simply a matter of not wanting to admit that the other person might be right, especially when they are right for the wrong reasons; or to suffer what we feel is a blow to our self-esteem; or, just feel the need to defend ourselves from being unfairly blamed.

So, what do we do when there is a crisis and the need for a dramatic transformation is compelling? How do we overcome the monumental power of inertia and, often, self-defense?

Many teachers and administrators are experiencing all these things. They know public education is in crisis and they are sick and tired of taking the blame. They know many of their students are struggling and nothing we do seems to change that fact. Of course, even in struggling schools and classrooms, we do help some of our students but, often, there are just too many of them.

Teachers also know that all the attention they are asked to pay to high-stakes testing  only makes it worse, not better. The seemingly incessant focus on preparation for high-stakes testing just makes it harder to find the time to do the things we know are more important. We also have learned to resent the data from testing and how the numbers have been weaponized to attack teachers and the public schools to which we are so fiercely dedicated.

The truth is, teachers don’t need test scores to understand the problems in public education, because they see them every day in their schools and classrooms. The education system, however, is like a runaway train and all educators feel a sense of powerlessness to slow it down, let alone bring it to a halt.

Even teachers in high-performing schools and classrooms know, deep down, how fortunate they are to be teaching in district, school, or classroom where students want to learn. But for the grace of God—or good fortune–they could be laboring in a classroom where students who want to learn are few.

I challenge all public-school educators to take a step back and acknowledge that something is wrong and that the education process within which we are asked to teach offers no solutions.

I also challenge teachers and administrators to understand that legislators and policy makers cannot fix what is broken because they are too far removed from it to comprehend the full breadth and scope of the challenges facing our public schools.

It is imperative, also, that public school educators understand that education reformers; with their focus on charter schools, teacher- and union-bashing, and voucher programs; cannot fix public education because not only do they not understand how to fix it, they even fail to comprehend how much damage they do with their criticisms and misguided reforms.

The truth is that the only people who can fix what is wrong in so many of our schools and that harms so many of our nation’s precious sons and daughters, are the teachers and administrators who are up to their gills in challenges. What these teachers and educators must be willing to consider is that the answers cannot be found in the trenches.

It is the trenches, however, where professionals learn what is not working and they must feel compelled to utilize what they witness, daily, and what they have learned from those experiences as powerful motivations to embrace transformational change.

We must take back to the laboratories and drawing boards that which we learn in the pits, and then utilize the principles of systems’ thinking, of organizational development, and of positive leadership to create and entirely new way to structure, organize, task, and resource our schools. Only then are we ready to take these new solutions back to our community schools and classrooms.

Have no illusions. The only place we can fix public education in America is in our communities where men, women, and children live, learn, work, and play; and, the only people who can fix it are the teachers, administrators, and the parents of our students.

The key to transformational change is not in complaints, protests, demonstrations, and labor actions—as necessary as they might, sometimes, be.

The key to transformational change will come when professional educators and the communities they serve unite as positive advocates for a new and innovative idea. It must be understood that the sweeping changes that will be required will not be found in incremental changes, new approaches, methodologies, and new technologies, although each of these things will find a home in a new and well-conceived, 21st Century education process.

I respectfully offer an education model  I have developed as a point of embarkation. I call it The Hawkins Model© only to claim the right of authorships. If implemented, someday, my model will be available for free to any public, parochial, or private not-for-profit school that wants to utilize it. The Hawkins Model© was developed from all that I have learned after forty-five years of working with kids, leading organizations, solving problems, working as an independent organizational development and leadership consult, and of walking in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute teacher in the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms of a diverse, urban public school corporation.

Please take time to investigate my model. It may prove to be the solution we need. The very worst that can happen is that it will spark a better idea in the minds and imaginations of a few of you who are reading this post. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share it, widely, and open a dialogue.

Time is a Variable in the Education Equation, not a Constant

In our current education process within which teachers and students must do their important work, time is a constant component in what we might think of as the education equation.  Think of the education equation as you would any other algebraic equation used to illustrate the relationships of the components that work to produce desired outcomes. In the case of public education, we identify our desired outcome as student learning.

Time plays a significant role in the existing education process. We structure our classrooms according to age, which is a function of time. Students progress from Kindergarten or first grade through grade twelve on a year-to-year basis. Time, also, is integral to academic standards. Not only do those standards delineate the things children are expected to learn, we have also set time frames that are coordinated with student grade levels. These suggest where students should be in various skill development and subject areas at pre-determined points in time.

These time components are constants in that neither teachers, administrators, nor public school districts have been given the latitude to alter those time frames. They are part of the framework within which all are expected to work and are utilized to establish the basis on which outcomes are measured; specifically, student achievement . This suggests an underlying assumption that has far-reaching, adverse consequences for our nation’s children. It suggests all children learn and develop according to the same time schedules.

This plays out in the classrooms where students of a certain age are assigned to the same grade level and move from one grade to the next at the end of a calendar school year. Grades designed to measure and report student achievement are recorded by school year, semester, and grade period.

Within classrooms, students are expected to move from lesson to lesson and chapter to chapter as a group. Teachers develop lesson plans with time frames to which classes march in cadence, moving students from lesson to lesson. After allowing time for practice assignments, lesson plans have some time allocated for helping students learn from both their successes and mistakes. Within that framework, teachers do the best they can, responding to students with disparate needs and outcomes, but many  teachers would say it is never enough to meet the needs of every student, particularly those who struggle.

The reality is teachers are given little or no latitude to stop the march of time and make certain every child understands. When it is time, students are given chapter or unit tests and then must move on to next lessons and topics, ready or not.

When standardized tests are given, results are reported in relation to grade levels, as established by academic standards. When individual students are unable to pass these assessments in key subject areas, they are considered below grade level. In other words, they are not doing well when their performance is compared to students of the same grade and age.

This practice reveals significant flaws in our thinking about how students learn. We fail to consider that students start from the different points on an academic preparedness continuum. It also assumes that the appropriate way to gage a student’s progress is by comparing their progress to classmates.

Consider two students who arrive for school at the same time and age. One starts at point “zero” on a theoretical  “academic preparedness continuum,” while the other may have begun ten points ahead on that same preparedness scale.  Let’s assume, one year later, the first student has progressed from point zero to point six, while the second student has progressed from point ten to point fifteen. If the expectation is that students, at that age and grade, should have progressed to point fifteen, the second student is at grade level and the first is not.

Had we taken a closer look at the data, we would see that the first student actually made more progress than their classmate. With this data in hand, which student would we say accomplished the most? Is keeping up with a classmate truly more important than making significant individual progress? Most of us would say it is not, yet this is the way we assess performance.

This is an over-simplification, to be sure, but it is representative of what happens in classrooms across the nation for millions of children. The consequences of such things can be staggering in the life of a child. Consider that the first student, working hard to catch up and making progress, is viewed by the system as behind, based on test scores. In these situations, do any of these students begin to acquire the label of being below average or slow? We say this does not happen, but we all know it does.

We also say that the expectations for such students are never lowered but do we believe that? What happens to the child for whom expectations are lowered? How do they ever get back on track? They same is true at the conclusion of each lesson. How do students fare who are pushed ahead before they fully grasp the subject matter?   

The key to resolving these types of inequalities is to make time an independent variable, rather than a constant; giving teachers and administrators the latitude, first, to see that kids who are behind, for whatever reason, are given more time and attention so they might catch up; and, second, to measure each child’s performance against their own progress rather than on the basis of an arbitrary schedule of expectations or the performance of others.

Time can be an extraordinarily powerful tool  to enable teachers to help kids sustain their progress and be recognized as a “striving learner” rather than as one of the slow kids in the class. Presently, time is an extraordinarily negative force, constraining teachers and impeding student progress. This is just one example of how the education process is structured to function contrary to the best interests of both students and teachers.

The education model I have created was designed to mold the education process, including time, around the needs of teachers and students. The Hawkins Model© is engineered to empower teachers to utilize time as a resource to help students experience, celebrate, and be recognized for their progress; for their success. Consider how an environment is transformed when both students and teachers enjoy success. Confidence grows with each successful step taken. Once a child’s confidence and self-esteem begin to soar, who knows how much they may accomplish, someday. If you are a teacher, imagine what such an atmosphere would mean to you.

The Process of Success: another Lesson for Positive Leadership

Another of the key attributes of Positive Leaders is that they possess an understanding of the process of success along with a commitment to the relentless utilization of that process; a commitment to action.

People dream about success and about doing great things, often. Many young people fantasize about winning the lottery or making millions of dollars as a professional athlete or recording star. Few of these young people know how to convert their dreams to plans to action. Many adults think that success is a state of perpetual affluence. These men and women do not realize that affluence is nothing more than a possible consequence and not the essence of success.

Many of you who are reading this page have the ability within you to succeed right where you are, just by doing things differently, by learning the process of success and by rededicating yourselves to positive values. You can improve your performance on the job, enhance your career, have a more satisfying marriage, and get more joy and meaning out of life. These things can happen, now! Success can be personal, interpersonal, or organizational but it is always tied to clearly delineated objectives, a willingness to act, and is always measured through our relationships with other people.

What, then, is this process of success? It includes a mission in life, rooted in positive, life-affirming values; a positive attitude and approach; passion; a vision of how things can be; specific goals and objectives; an implementation plan; and finally, a commitment to action. It is that simple, but it does not stop there.

Action creates change. Change requires that the vision be re-examined, that the progress is measured, that the goals and objectives are adjusted, that the action plan be re-engineered, and that our actions themselves are modified accordingly. The process is repeated until we have converted the dream to reality; until we are satisfied. But satisfaction does not come easily if it comes at all.

The more we accomplish, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more we imagine. What is vital is that our values, those core principles that sustain us, are not altered but remain rock solid.

It is a positive leader’s propensity for action that distinguishes him or her from men and women who simply manage. Positive Leaders make things happen. These individuals are at the peak of their art or craft. How do they do it? Well, of course, they have talent—but then many people have talent. The world is full of talented people who think back on opportunities in their lives and say, “with a little good luck I might have made it!” But, many talented people do not make it and good fortune may or may not deserve the credit for their outcomes. We all have good luck but not everyone is prepared to capitalize on it when it comes.

It is said that winners make their own breaks and this we have found to be especially true. Those of us who blame everything on bad luck are not accepting responsibility for our outcomes. Remember, it is not until we accept responsibility for the challenges we face that we acquire the power to overcome them.

If we reflect on the opportunities that have come our way, we discover that they came unexpectedly, often catching us off guard and unprepared. We might say it was bad luck that good fortune, in the guise of opportunity, called upon us when we were not ready. Often, bad luck is little more than lack of focus, readiness, and preparation for action.

Understand your purpose and mission and re-examine them routinely. Establish goals and objectives for yourselves. Make a commitment to those goals and objectives and dedicate yourself to doing everything in your power to facilitate them. Work hard to develop your skills and discipline yourself to a regimen that will maximize your talents and energies toward that end.

Be persistent despite the obstacles that present themselves and the setbacks that befall you. Know that all the work and effort you put forth is preparation for the time when opportunity knocks. When opportunities do present themselves, take positive action using all the skills and abilities in your arsenal and all the energy at your command.

Action is the key. Even the ideas of an Einstein or a Jefferson have little value until they are acted upon or communicated.

Positive Leaders rarely complain about things because complaints are powerless and are little more than a form of whining. Positive Leaders offer alternate solutions—what can we do differently to produce more desirable outcomes? If we think back to our fundamental definition of positive leadership, it is acceptance of responsibility for increasingly more desirable outcomes; for relentless improvement. This is what Positive Leaders do.

The process of success is crucial for addressing the challenges facing public education in America. Educators have every right to deflect the blame for the disappointing outcomes of so many students but that does not excuse them from accepting responsibility for seeking better solutions. The outcomes in public education demand action.

Does utilization of this process guarantee success? No! There are no guarantees. It does, however, improve the odds of successful outcomes so dramatically in one’s favor that success moves from possibility to probability. Teach yourself the process and make success a probability in your life!

Differentiating Control and Influence with Respect to Student Achievement

Thanks to @StevenSinger3 for his comment that “student achievement and growth are things teachers do not control. His other point is that “lawmakers need to understand this & stop trying to hold us accountable for things out of our control.”

Of course, he is correct. Teachers can no more control the achievements of their students than leaders can control the achievement of their people. What teachers can and must do, however, is influence their students. How we differentiate control and influence has much significance in addressing the challenges facing teachers and public schools.

To be able to adapt to the needs of their students, teachers must possess some level of control over the education process; empowering them to exercise discretion. This brings an important question into focus. “Does the education process exist to serve the needs of teachers and students or do teachers and kids exist to serve the process.” See my earlier post entitled: A Square Peg in the Round Hole of Public Education.”

The existing education process is rigid and un-malleable. It functions to ensure that what students are to be taught conforms to academic standards and timeframes. It is not designed to provide teachers with the flexibility they need to differentiate with respect to student needs.

We have carved out exceptions for children who have been identified as having a recognized disability and this works reasonably well. Little has been done, however, for the children whose deficiency is academic preparedness, whatever its genesis. The fact that children of color and those for whom English is not their mother tongue are disproportionately represented in the population of students with an academic preparedness deficiency has enormous adverse  consequences  for all aspects of American society.

How can we expect our teachers, unsung heroes all, to have a significant positive influence on these disadvantaged children if they cannot differentiate?  

In many schools, disadvantaged kids are the rule not the exception.  It is imperative that teachers be able to deviate from rigid structure of the education process for any student who struggles; and this is especially true during a student’s first few years of school. If we cannot get kids on a positive learning path when they are 5 and 6 years old, they are likely to have given up by the time they are fifteen and sixteen? It is incredibly difficult to remediate the learning patterns of young people who have spent as many as ten years learning that it is pointless to try.

The brains of normal newborn babies are programmed to learn. Babies soak up the world around them through their sensory apparatus. Because of their innate curiosity, kids are motivated to learn but that motivation must be sustained. When they arrive for their first day of school, we can help sustain or, if necessary, re-ignite that motivation with positive reinforcement that is most powerful if it is provided within the context of a nurturing relationship with people who care about them. Positive reinforcement from parents or other caregivers and teachers, who are both able and committed to giving kids time and attention, can be a powerful  force. It works best when the providers of that reinforcement are working in concert, as members of a team, but often, it will be left to teachers. Hence, it is imperative that teachers are given latitude.

Think of that positive reinforcement in terms of affirmation, acknowledgement, and celebration of success. Affirmation is reinforcement of an individual’s inherent value. It is letting kids know that they are important, that we like and care about them. It instills a sense of belonging. Think about how many of the students who have engaged in acts of violence against their classmates and teachers  appeared to exist on the fringes of their in-school communities; who felt no sense of belonging. That sense of being a part of a community, team, or family not only helps develop a healthy self-esteem, it helps nurture and sustain one’s motivation to learn.

Acknowledgement and celebration of success are essential to learning. Success must be experienced before it can be acknowledged and celebrated, however. If the education process neither authorizes nor facilitates the ability of teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn, not only are students deprived of the opportunity to master subject matter, they are denied the opportunity to celebrate success, which reinforces the learning process and their motivation to learn.

Recall, always, the learning process is, itself, learned behavior.

It is true they do not control student achievement, but teachers have power to influence that achievement, provided they are able to exercise discretion and exert some level of control over the education process.  If the education process does not accommodate that freedom of action, on the part of teachers, it must be replaced.

The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!

NAEP and Other Standardized Tests Have Been Weaponized.

This a break in my series on positive leadership in order to respond to a recent post on our colleague @StevenSinger3’s outstanding  blog. Gadfly on the Wall.

The reaction of public-school educators to the results of standardized tests, whether state-based or national is very much like the reaction to more lessons and tests in their classrooms on the part of struggling students. When one feels victimized by something, having an aversion to it is a natural thing.

The genesis of high-stakes testing is irrelevant when public school educators feel beaten down by such exams and by the blame that is so often attached. In essence, standardized tests have been weaponized and are used to attack the very existence, not to mention credibility, of public-school teachers and administrators, and the public schools in which they teach. It should not be surprising that these educators go on the defensive at the mere mention of high stakes testing.

This is no different than a student who fails lesson after lesson with such repetition that they feel hopeless. By the time they reach middle school, struggling students have given up on learning. Some of them have given up and stopped trying by the time they reach the middle elementary grades three, four, or five. While the  demographics of these children cover the full spectrum of American society, a disproportionate percentage of them are poor, have skins that are varying shades of brown, or live in households where English is not their mother tongue.

It is no different than a person or a dog that has been beaten by a cane. After a while, they begin to react, viscerally, to the very sight of the cane. Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with the cane other than it is being utilized in a manner other than its intended purpose. If the child’s parent or grandparent, or a pet’s owner, picks up the cane and uses it to help themselves walk across the room it is serving its true purpose and is inherently good. The child or pet that has been beaten by that same cane will shy away from it, nevertheless.

The problem in public education is not high stakes testing rather it is that they are being utilized as a weapon to attack public education as a whole, and teachers and their schools, more specifically.

Neither is there anything inherently evil about the results of such exams other than the fact that they are being used for reasons other than their purpose. Because they trigger a negative emotional response, educators have discounted the value of what we can learn from them. It is probably more accurate to say that educators have rejected the value of the results, altogether.

This is unfortunate because those results validate what we learn by examining the gradebooks of public-school teachers. The results confirm what our military services are dealing with when a significant percentage of our nation’s young men and women are unable to score well enough on the ASVAB[1] to qualify for enlistment. They correlate with the experiences of employers who want to hire these young men and women but find them unqualified. The results of all these assessments corroborate the reality that the men and women who populate our prisons were, at one time, our struggling students.

Having been one of those employers I can attest to the frustration when so many candidates for vacant positions lack basic math and reading skills essential to the jobs they would be asked to perform; even entry-level production or warehouse positions. For a brief period, before a change in our ownership, we provided basic math and reading skills instruction for these candidates. Even then, the results were disillusioning. Many struggled and some quit. My interpretation, then, was that they felt traumatized by the classroom.

I saw this while subbing, particularly in middle school classrooms, when students appear to be afraid to try. This triggered recollections from my years as a juvenile probation officer when my probationers seemed afraid when encouraged to talk about school experiences.

I challenge public school teachers to imagine how kids feel when, week after week, lesson after lesson, they  perform poorly on practice assignments and fail both quizzes and chapter tests. Imagine how you would feel if the evaluations from your principals were negative, time after time. After a while, being instructed to “work harder” is as demeaning as it is unhelpful.

I know teachers agonize over these kids and I know they do the best they can in the environment in which they are asked to work. I tell myself that these teachers, whom I have come to respect, must know in their hearts that something is not working; that, somehow, the process is flawed.

High stakes testing has become a pivotal issue for educators on both sides of the debate on the future of public education in America. It is worth looking at the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) testing because the results confirm that what is happening in our schools is not confined to a few unfortunate communities or school districts but occurs nation-wide. What is important about NAEP assessments is the way they define the “Proficient” level of performance.

The vital component of that definition is that it attempts to measure the ability of these youngsters to utilize what they were expected to learn in real life situations. Ultimately, this is the only measure that counts. I have no illusions that the instruments of assessment are perfect. Yes, they are culturally biased; yes, multiple choice questions are limited in their utility even though we have been using them in our classrooms for generations; but, it seems that the results are the same however we measure them. Even the chapter tests that are given in almost all classrooms, routinely, bring us to the same conclusion.

It does not matter what teachers and other educators think their students have learned; and neither do graduation rates matter. Similarly, the piece of paper with which graduates walk away that says they have completed a portion of their formal education is meaningless if they cannot apply useful skills and knowledge in real life.

Whether young people can apply what they were expected to have learned when they go out into the world and strive to make a life for themselves is the essential question and the basis on which the performance of our education process must be measured. And let us make it perfectly clear that it is the efficacy of the education process that all forms of assessment measure, not the effectiveness of public school teachers, public schools, or public education as a whole.

No matter how hard they work, how qualified they may be, nor how dedicated public-school educators may be, they cannot make an obsolete education process give us outcomes it is poorly designed and structured to produce.

My message to public school teachers is that I am not here to blame you. You are my heroes. I have subbed in classrooms that have shown me the challenges you face, daily. I have experienced what it is like to strive to teach in a classroom where the distractions of student behavior make it seem impossible. I have felt the dread of walking into a classroom every day, after having to gird myself for the challenges I was certain to face. I have at least sampled the frustration of professional men and women who are unable to do what they were trained to do; who are unable to experience the satisfaction of helping kids learn and grow—the very reason why they chose to become a teacher in the first place.

Teachers and principals: you are not to blame. I do not question your commitment or professionalism. I do not dispute how hard you work or how valiantly you strive to give your students what they need to learn. The education process that has been at work in our schools for as long as any of us can remember does not work for a significant percentage of our students, and it does not work for teachers. I would assert, also, that it does an injustice to even the students who appear to be performing well because it inhibits their ability to achieve at their full potential.

Both teachers and their students deserve better.

The challenge is, we cannot create better outcomes until we analyze what contributes to the struggles of our students and are willing to let go of the traditional methods and approaches with which we have grown comfortable. For most of you, it is the only way you have ever known.

Our students are not struggling because of bad teachers and bad schools. Neither are they struggling because they are poor, because of the color of their skin, because of the language of their birth, or because they are genetically incapable of learning.

I want to convince you that poverty is as much a consequence of inequality in education as it is a cause of that inequality.

I want you to understand that we will never get better outcomes for your students—our nation’s most valuable assets—until we go back to the drawing board. We will not get better outcomes until:

  • We assess the level of academic preparedness of each student when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.
  • We tailor what we do to meet the unique needs of each student;
  • We create an environment in which they can form enduring relationships with teachers who will provide the constant emotional, physical, and academic support they require;
  • We ensure that every child has at least one teacher with whom he or she can bond, even the kids who are hardest to love,
  • We discontinue the practice of severing relationships between students and a teacher on whom they have come to rely;
  • We stop treating education as a competition in which some kids win, and others lose;
  • We stop pushing kids ahead to “next lessons’ before they are ready—before they have mastered and understand their previous lesson in each subject area;
  • We stop asking students who “get it” to sit by patiently until their classmates catch up;
  • We stop marching to the tune of arbitrary schedules and time frames;
  • We stop measuring the performance of students against the performance of their classmates;
  • we free teachers from the unnecessary distractions that prevent them from giving each child the time and attention they need to feel safe, to feel special, and to learn at their own unique pace;
  • We give teachers the freedom to utilize whatever approaches, methodologies, media, or technology that will help a given student learn;
  • We recognize that our students are not all preparing for the same destinations and aspirations and that no one destination is more important than others;
  • We allow our students to discover the best versions of themselves and chart out their own goals and ambitions;
  • We ensure that every child learns that success is a process of learning from our outcomes and experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, and that it is a process each of them can master;
  • Until together and with enthusiasm, we have celebrated all their successes along the pathway to whatever destiny they have chosen for themselves;
  • They have developed the powerful self-esteem they will need to face the unprecedented challenges in the balance of this 21st Century; and,
  • They have sufficient strength of character and the tools to withstand the slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination with which so many of them will be subjected.

Answer the following question for your own benefit, not for mine:

“Is the education process in which you are asked to teach structured to provide students with each of these essential components?”

My purpose as an advocate for an education model designed to provide all these things, is to recruit you to rally around a positive idea that can transform public education in America.

I am an advocate for public education in community schools that are accountable to the residents of those communities. I am an advocate for teachers, whom I consider to be unsung heroes who have one of the most important jobs in all of society.  

I encourage you to ask yourself: “What if there is another way to teach our nation’s children?” What if there is a way that gives all children, not just a lucky few, the quality education they deserve while giving teachers the career you dreamt of when you chose the field of education?

What if there is a way to ensure that you will make a difference, every day, without the distractions and complications that have led so many of your colleagues to leave teaching?

Why not sneak a peek at a new education model, The Hawkins Model©; a new way to teach your students? What do you have to lose?

Remember that it is a quality education on which the future of our nation’s children depends, and it is on those same children that the future of our nation depends.


[1] Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the instrument used by the Armed Services to determine eligibility for enlistment.

The Second Most Important Lesson of Positive Leadership.

The most important lesson for those who aspire to be powerful, positive leaders is that it is not about you. The second most important lesson is to focus on one’s purpose and, almost always, that purpose/mission is to satisfy one’s customer.

In the private sector, focus on customers is easy because it is the customer who buys goods and services. Dissatisfied customers can act immediately to take their money and seek out other suppliers. If that dissatisfaction spreads, the enterprise is at risk of losing their ability to compete.

In the public sector, of which public schools are a part, there can be a disconnect between leadership and dissatisfied customers.

Unlike buyers of consumer goods and services, the end-users of public education (the community, parents and employers) are faced with limited choices. Rarely can they take their money and seek out other providers of education services. With no consequences with which to deal, leaders of schools and other public institutions  are under minimal pressure to alter what they do. In the absence of choices and meaningful responses from educators, the dissatisfaction of the community festers.

It is this author’s belief that striving to replace our nation’s public schools with a smattering of uninspiring charter schools is a classic example of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Contrary to the perception of many public-school educators and advocates, however, education reformers—with  their focus on charter schools, vouchers, and digital learning—are driven by neither a greed for profits nor for a reliable pipeline of automatons to work in their factories. Just the opposite is true.

An over-supply of unthinking workers is the very thing employers are unhappy about.  And, while reformers may want their charter schools to make money, profits are not the motivation. There are much easier ways to make money.

The true motivation for creating charter schools, in present day, is to create an environment where dissatisfied parents can take their money and seek out a better school for their children; to have a choice. Having such choices puts pressure on providers to produce better outcomes.

It is this observer’s assertion that reformers are not out to do harm rather they are misguided. Just changing the name on the door does nothing to differentiate charter schools from public schools. Different teachers working in different facilities matters little if they teach in the same way. And, no, it does not matter that they rely more heavily on digital tools. Varying media does not alter the essential nature of the learning environment.

It is a positive environment that fosters learning and it is the quality of relationships that create positive environments.

What superintendents and local school boards must understand is that it is not enough to believe their schools are effective nor does it matter how hard their teachers and principals work, or how dedicated they may be. Neither does it matter that the societal issues of poverty, crime, discrimination, and segregation make it difficult for educators to do their jobs. These are excuses. The only thing that matters is whether a school’s outcomes are acceptable to their communities.

The challenge for leaders of public education—their essential purpose—is to accept responsibility for the outcomes with which one’s customers are disappointed and find solutions that work for all kids. Societal issues do not diminish the need for change, they make it more compelling.

In public education, or any other setting, innovative solutions must be sought outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Finding them requires that we go back to the drawing board and challenge our assumptions about what educators do, and why.

Throwing out the bathwater of public education but not the kids is a formidable challenge. Professional educators must take the lead and would do well to invite corporate America to join them in addressing this most significant challenge for 21st Century America. Only by working together and rallying around innovative solutions can educators and corporate America marshal the resources necessary to transform the American educational system.

The education model I have developed is an example of just such a solution and I invite superintendents and corporate leaders to examine it at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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