An Open Letter to Jason Riley at The Wall Street Journal

Thank you for your column in the Wall Street Journal, “Do Black Students Need White Peers?” There are several issues in your column to which I want to respond.

The direct answer to your question is, “No, But.”

Black students do not need to have white children in their schools and classrooms in order to learn and I will elaborate on this point, below. The “But” part, however, is that all children benefit from being in in schools and classrooms with a diverse population of children. I believe diversity benefits every human being, whatever their age or venue.

The second point to address is the “Choice” movement with its focus on charters schools and vouchers. While I have nothing against charter schools, it is a myth that they always perform at a higher level than public schools. The data shows that while there are many successful charter schools, there are many that underperform when compared to the public schools they were intended to replace.

My biggest problem with the education reform movement focused on “choice” is that it is suggested that this is the solution to improving the quality of education in America; that it will end the performance gap between black and white children; or, that it will improve our nation’s ability to compete in the world marketplace. None of these assertions are true.

Having the best product or service in the world means nothing unless you are able to deliver it to customers. Any solution must be logistically feasible and it is simply not feasible to believe that we can solve the issue of the quality of American education with a handful of charters schools scattered in communities throughout the U.S. It would take us generations to create a sufficient number of charters schools to meet the needs of millions of American children and we cannot wait that long.

Besides, we already have school buildings in every community in the nation, all staffed with qualified teachers, trained in the same colleges and universities in which most charter school teachers were educated. The problem with both private and public education in America is that the education process that is utilized to teach our children has been obsolete for most of our lifetimes.

It is not the school building that makes the difference and it is not the teachers that are the problem. The only thing that makes a difference is what we do in our classrooms–what we ask of our teacher–wherever it is located. The sad but undeniable truth is that the education process in place in American public schools has not changed, materially, for as long as anyone can remember while the world into which our children are born has changed exponentially. The education process does not work for disadvantaged children and I believe the current education process does a disservice to even students on the upper end of the performance continuum.

The failure of the education process is not because teachers are incompetent and not because they do not care. The vast majority of American public school teachers are unsung heroes striving to do a difficult job under nearly impossible circumstances. My only complaint of teachers is that they have been blamed for the problems in our schools for so long that they have grown defensive when they should be banging on the table and yelling that what they are being asked to do does not work.

The real problem in our schools is that education leaders whether principals, superintendents, college professors, or policy makers are not under the same pressure, as their counterparts in a business environment, to relentlessly challenge their assumptions and to question whether they are meeting the needs of their customers.

The longer we delay fixing this obsolete education process the more young Americans will be forced to endure failure. We cannot afford to waste a single child and neither can our nation afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these children represent. Public education is the civil rights issue of our time and is at the root of all of our nation’s social and political problems. That so many people are so poorly educated that they are unable to bear the responsibilities of citizenship is why so many other Americans have grown bitter and resentful. The bitterness and resentment in the hearts of people for whom the American Dream is not real burns every bit as deeply.

The irony is that reinventing the education process to meet the needs of every American child is a relatively easy thing to do if education leaders, advocates, and policy makers would simply open their minds and hearts to the idea that their might be a better way.

As I have written, so often, the education process is no different than a production, assembly, or service-delivery process in the business world. Neither is it different than an application software. It is simply a logical process designed by human beings to produce a desired outcome. Such processes are altered, reinvented, and re-engineered with regularity in the private sector because businesses must respond to the dissatisfaction of their customers and to the dynamic changes in the expectations of those customers. Reinventing a process to produce a better outcome is a routine necessity in the private sector. In public education, and in many other public venues, such reinventions seem to be beyond the imagination of our leaders.

There is an axiom in operations management that if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are then the process is flawed and must be replaced. We must go back to the drawing board. Just as in any other venue, a process must be focused on its purpose to such a degree that every single activity must be judged on the basis of how well it serves that purpose and how well it supports the people on whom one relies to do the job. The same is true for teaching kids.

In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond makes the same point when she wrote:

“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”

In American public education we have not reinvented the education process in generations, and no, just providing new and more sophisticated tools is not sufficient. The education process is not focused on the needs of students and it sets them up for failure and humiliation.

When young children show up for their first day of school the disparity in terms of their academic preparedness is cavernous. Yet teachers are expected to move kids along, from year to year, marching to the beat of a given state’s academic standards—common core or not—at relatively the same pace. As children begin to fall behind because they need more time to learn a given lesson, they are pushed ahead, ready or not. The teacher records a low or failing score in their gradebook and it’s off to the next lesson. In many subject areas, the child’s ability to learn a new lesson requires that he or she be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. As a result, the probability that a child who has fallen behind will fail, yet again, increases.

If you examine state competency scores in any state you will find that by the third grade, only about a third of disadvantaged students can pass both the English Language Arts and mathematics components of those exams. By the time those students reach middle school the percentage of those same kids who are able to pass both ELA and math exams has dropped to 25 percent or less. What we are teaching these kids is how to fail. School districts may boast of high graduation rates but an unacceptable number of those diplomas are worthless pieces of paper.

As it happens, I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to young men and women who wish to enlist in the military. Most of these young people who take the ASVAB for enlistment purposes are recent high school grads or high school seniors. The minimum score for enlistment eligibility in the Army, for example, is a percentile score of 31, meaning that 30 percent of the candidates are not eligible for enlistment. (Some services have higher eligibility requirements).

ASVAB scores for blacks and other minorities mirrors the performance of middle school students on state competency exams that I referenced above. If one is unable to qualify for even the least desirable jobs in the military, for how many civilian jobs will they be qualified? So much for 80 to 90 percent graduation rates. It’s not the diploma that matters it is how one can apply in the real world that which they learned in school.

The sad but compelling truth is that this has been going on for more than a half century and, as a result, our poor urban and rural communities throughout America are filled with multiple generations of men and women who have always been poor and who all failed in school, diplomas notwithstanding. Many are dependent on their government, to the great resentment of other Americans. Why, because the education process has never been designed with the same rigorous focus on the needs of its students or to support teachers in meeting those needs.

It doesn’t need to be this way but no one wants to listen. We can alter this reality for all time as easily as we can alter a production process at a manufacturing facility or re-engineer the software of a computer application.

I invite you to check out my website where you will find an education model I have developed at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

I, also, invite you to check out my blog, “Education, Hope, and the American Dream” where I have posted over 150 articles on the subject of public education and the challenge of meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other children of color.

For nearly 5 years I have been seeking a public school corporation willing to test my education model in just one of its underperforming elementary schools to demonstrate that we can teach every child to be successful and insure that no child fails. I have had no takers.

Since it takes 13 years to get a new Kindergarten student through high school, every year we delay creates a whole new generation of young Americans with no choices of what to do with their lives to find joy, to support a family, or to participate in their own governance as a well-informed citizen of a democratic society.

How long are we willing to accept an avoidable tragedy that destroys millions of young lives and that jeopardizes the future of our society?

Relationships Are an Indispensable Variable in the Education Equation!

Recently, I have heard many very smart people trash such ideas as “personalized learning” and “digital learning.” While I have great respect for all of you, I ask you to consider the question, “what if you are wrong?”

Just because “Education Reformers” who are attacking public education are misusing these concepts does not mean they are bad ideas! Clearly, education reformers are wrong to think that the future of public education will be realized by kids working independently on computers, going their own way, and not needing the help of teachers. Anyone who thinks that would be a good thing and would increase the quality of education our children receive does not know much about working with children.

Those of us who have worked closely with children, especially kids as young as 5 and 6, know that relationships matter more than anything. And make no mistake, relationships are every bit as important to preteens and teenagers. Think back on the kids with whom you had the most success and it will almost always be the students with whom you had the best relationships. Also, think back on those times when you were successful in your own endeavors. More often than not, in those special times in our lives, we were working closely with a favorite teacher, boss, or mentor.

When working with children of any age, not only do relationships matter, they are paramount. Relationships are an indispensable variable in the education equation.

“De-personalized learning” is what kids are getting, now, and it is tragic.

Every year, young children who arrive for their first day of school and who are starting at a disadvantage are placed in a race with other students in their classroom. It is a race in which these children are totally unprepared to compete. When they begin falling behind, we act surprised when they give up on themselves, stop trying, begin acting out, and maybe even drop out of school before graduating.

In the hands of qualified teachers whose minds and hearts are open to new ideas, “personalized learning” can be a powerful strategy. When a child is beginning from his or her own unique starting point on an “academic preparedness continuum” and is being given the time he or she needs, the child will begin to learn and will progress at his or her own best speed. As kids begin to discover that they can learn, they will gain confidence and gradually increase the pace at which they learn. Once kids discover that they can learn, successfully, learning becomes fun!

It is my belief what children need is learning of the most “personalized” kind, from capable and qualified teachers with whom they feel a close, personal connection and who have at their disposal the most sophisticated tools and resources.

Dissing “digital learning” is another example of educators reacting with Pavlovian predictability to neutral names and labels that have become pejorative words and phrases. Just because reformers over-value digital tools does not reduce their potential as tools for capable teachers. And, the fact that they undervalue teachers and the relationships between teachers and students creates a real opportunity for those of us who are against high-stakes testing, privatization, charter schools and vouchers.

It creates an opportunity to demonstrate how effective public schools will be when they employ an education process or model that:

• Optimizes the power of positive relationships between teachers and students;

• Pulls parents into the equation as partners in the education of their sons and daughters;

• Identifies an appropriate starting point for students based upon where they are on an academic preparedness continuum when they arrive at our door for their first day of school;

• Tailors an academic plan to meet the unique requirements of each student, in conjunction with academic standards;

• Expects students to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed;

• Expects teachers to give each child the time and attention they need to learn as much as they are able;

• Expects teachers to help kids learn from mistakes even when it takes multiple attempts and then celebrate each success like the special achievement it is.

• Equips teachers and students with the best tools and resources available, including cutting edge digital tools and learning technology; and,

• Expects students to achieve a sufficient level of mastery of subject matter that they can apply what they have learned in the real world and where nothing less is acceptable.

With such a model, public schools will outperform charter schools and other experimental classrooms at every level.

Champions and heroes of public education, at every level, are asked to take a step back so that your passion does not overshadow your wisdom. The job of public school educators is not to blame poverty and segregation for the failure of so many of our disadvantaged children. Rather it is to accept responsibility by acknowledging that what we are doing does not work for everyone and not giving up until we find a solution that will work.

Public school educators have been blamed for so long for the problems in public education that they will not listen to just anyone. It is for that reason that the champions of public education whom teachers have come to admire and respect are in the best position to influence public school educators at every level. Having the respect of teachers comes with certain responsibilities the most important of which is to provide positive leadership.

I have applied all that I have learned from over thirty years of organizational development and leadership experience to examine and strive to understand all that I witnessed during the 10 years in which I worked as a substitute teacher for an urban public school district. My objective, initially, was to understand why so many children are failing and I very quickly realized that I also needed to understand why some children manage to succeed in spite of all of the disadvantages they face. Once I felt I had a solid understanding, I began applying the skills I developed while working with my clients as an organizational development and leadership consultant.

I was guided by an axiom from operations management that said “if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and should be replaced or reinvented. In almost every instance, giving hard working people a process that works proved to be empowering and led to unprecedented success.

In every project the objective and methodology was the same. Apply the principles of systems’ thinking, organizational development, and positive leadership to clearly identify mission and purpose and then design a process that is tasked, structured, and resourced to produce the outcomes my clients were seeking. The outcome of my effort with respect to education was a process or model designed to empower teachers and meet the needs of all students, even the disadvantaged children.

I invite you to examine the model and accompanying white paper at
https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. I then ask for your help in finding at least one superintendent and school district willing to test my model in one of its lowest performing elementary schools.

It’s all about the kids!

A to F Grading Makes No More Sense for Our Children than It Does for Public Schools!

When we grade schools “A to F” on the basis of standardized test scores like ISTEP+ in Indiana it is as “Absurd” at one end of the grading continuum as it is “Farcical” at the other. This is especially true when the powers that implemented the “A to F” measure envisioned that so-called “failing schools” would be gradually shut down with the kids shuttled off to charter schools from which they could expect immediate turnaround.

If that logic is not “Absurd” I do not know what is and most professional educators concur.

It was also envisioned that the failing schools could be transformed by getting rid of bad teachers and their unions, replacing them with less-educated teachers trained to embrace the use of more sophisticated technologies that would, again, transform the quality of education.

If that logic is not “Farcical” I do not know what is and most professional educators agree.

Most of those same educators would be just as critical of “A to F” grading for the students in their classrooms but the “A to F” mindset has been in place for so long that it has become engrained. It has become one of those fundamental assumptions that defy logic.

Many schools corporations have experimented with other grading methodologies, particularly at the primary level. As far back as the early 1950s, my local school district began using a “V to U” grading system which was essentially the same.

Today, the overwhelming majority of report cards that are sent home to parents throughout the U.S. utilize “A to F”. Is it our intention that we will shut down the children who are given “Fs” and are considered failing?

Of course it is not, but what we are asked to do with these kids is not much more effective. As they move from grade to grade (the word “grade” has become part of our lexicon and subtly shapes our thinking even here) we struggle to know what to do with “F” students. Holding them back is believed to have negative emotional and psychological consequences but moving them along with their classmates is just as problematic.

For generations, most of these children would become drop outs before high school graduation and enter the society as adults poorly prepared to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. In more recent times, our schools have worked hard to keep these young people in school but the ultimate outcome of being poorly prepared is still the norm for far too many of these kids.

This is the reality that the critics of public education point out, with great passion, and it is the driving motivation behind the corporate reform movement that began in the business community and has been aggressively sold to federal and state government through one of the most powerful and effective “lobbying” strategies in history.

The problem is that it is all based upon an erroneous, rarely challenged assumption about what it is that kids need, today. Whether poverty, hopelessness on the part of parents, diluted values, the unprecedented power of the 21st Century peer group, or some combination of the above what these kids need cannot be provided by privatized schools with teachers who are trained rather than educated, and using the wonders of modern technology.

Modern technology can play a powerful role in the hands of a qualified teacher if we took the time to understand what we need it to do for us. Simply distributing tablets and IPads and using digital learning tools will not magically cure what ails 21st Century education.

What kids need are more time and attention from people who care and who have the time to develop trusting and nurturing relations with them. They need us to treat them as unique individuals coming to us at a unique point on their physical, emotional, and intellectual developmental continuum. They need us to teach them how to learn, successfully, which takes longer for some than others, and they need our protection against the failure and humiliation that diminish self-esteem.

And, they need even more from us. The absolute best chance a child can have is when parents and teachers work together as partners on a child’s behalf. When parents do not embrace such relationships with their children’s teachers it is not sufficient to put our heads down and think we can do it on our own.

We must do more to close the distance between our teachers and schools and parents and their communities. We need to sell them on the idea that their child can grow up in a world where they have a menu of positive choices from which to choose that will not only provide a good life for them but will also help them fulfill their civic responsibilities.

Reaching out to the disenfranchised to pull them in is a formidable challenge, indeed, but it is nothing more than a human engineering problem that has a solution that is within our power to achieve.

In the interim, we cannot allow a single child to fail on a single lesson.

We have no expectation that every child that enters kindergarten will arrive at the same destination at the end of their thirteen years of schooling but yet public school teachers are asked to work within a structured educational process that forces them to move students down comparable paths at relative speeds. Our job must be to make certain that students learn as much as they are able within the time they are under our protective wings and that they can use what they learn effectively on the next lesson module and as they face the challenges of citizenship.

Many teachers cannot envision how this could happen within the current structure and they are correct; the structure of the educational process must be altered if we wish to alter its outcomes. Making such alterations is not all that difficult if we are willing to step back and view the process objectively. The truth is, particularly at the primary level, we could start doing things differently, almost immediately; with little or no cost.

Forget “A to F” and shift our focus to an expectation that nothing less than an A or B is acceptable (85 percent or better mastery of subject matter). Let us remember that intellectual development is only one aspect of a child’s development and it works interdependently with their emotional and physical development. Public education must not degenerate into force-feeding content into a child’s brain like they are a computer that just needs more data to process; which is pretty much where we seem to be heading.

What our children and their parents need is that special relationship that many of us had with a favorite teacher whose care and affection we could trust, absolutely.

The educational reforms that are sweeping the nation will destroy us as surely as Mother Nature will punish us if we continue to abuse our environment. Current educational reforms are like a powerful tug boat pulling a safe harbor ever farther away from a dock that has broken loose and is drifting from shore. It is a dock that is full of people who have become separate and apart from the whole and who have become hopeless and powerless. Every time we send a child out into this sea, unprepared, what is left for them but to scramble on to that already over-crowded dock?

The one thing of which we can be sure is that the farther apart we drift the more tragic will be the consequences for the future of our society.

Reject “A to F” for schools, teachers, and children and reinvent our educational process. My book. Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, will show exactly how this can be accomplished.

In our public schools we need to change the way we keep score, Part I

In any game, the strategies of the participants are driven by the manner in which the game is scored.

We evaluate student performance in the classroom by assigning a letter grade to the quality of work the student completes during a grading period or semester. We evaluate teacher performance, and also school performance, on the basis of their students’ performance on annual, standardize competency exams.

Public school teachers are rebelling against the heavy reliance on state competency exams as a measure of their performance. “It forces us to focus on test preparation rather than real learning,” they say. Teachers assert that how well a student performs on such standardized testing is influenced by much more than just the quality of instruction they were given by their teacher(s).

Teachers are correct that exam scores are an unfair assessment of the quality of effort teachers put forth because the exams do not take into account the myriad of problems with which teachers must contend. They are asked to accept responsibility for a diverse population of students with a wide variance with respect to academic readiness; motivation to learn; and ability to conduct themselves civilly. That variance extends to the level of support teachers receive from parents and the students and their family’s relative position on a poverty-affluence continuum. Some educators also argue that test results are an unfair comparison when their school is being compared against other schools with fewer special needs children.

All of these criticisms of the utilization of standardized competency examination results as a basis for school and teacher accountability are correct. These educators are absolutely correct when they say that the reliance on test results shifts focus to test preparation and away from real and sustainable learning.

Standardized competency examinations provide little if any benefit in improving the quality of education for the students who are taking the tests. With the exception of such tests that, in Indiana, are called End of Class Assessments (ECA) in English and algebra that must be passed before a student is eligible for graduation, there are very few formal processes to provide remediation for students who perform poorly on annual exams. Students unable to pass ECA exams are given one or more opportunities to retake the exams, often after having spent time in remediation classrooms that we often call math and English labs. If still unable to pass, students are given the opportunity to obtain a waiver by providing other evidence demonstrates their readiness for graduation.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I point out that annual, standardized competency exams are like quality inspections of an earlier era. I wrote that:

“Formerly, inspections were done at the end of an assembly line to insure that only output of the highest quality would end up in the hands of a customer. By the time the inspections were completed, however, the damage was already done and the discrepant material would only provide clues to indicate what had gone wrong, when, where, and, why. In the interim, production would continue producing both good and bad product and the scrap pile of discrepant material would grow, along with its cost.”

One could make the point that the English and math labs are the Twenty-first Century education equivalent of a 1950’s scrap pile in a manufacturing plant. The cost to the taxpayers of our communities is staggering; the cost to the lives of our children is a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations. We have taught them how to fail when our job was to teach them that they can learn.

From the 1960s until present time, manufacturing and assembly plants have developed sophisticated quality systems and companion performance management systems so that such problems can be identified at the time of production and then remedied to insure the highest possible quality of product while minimizing production costs.

The only thing preventing us from integrating quality and performance management systems into the traditional American educational process, much as we have done in industry, is our intransigence. In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, I show exactly how to assure a child’s success and how to integrate quality into the educational process.

Excerpt #9 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream – The Introduction

The True Challenge

This author suggests that the two major problems in education are 1) the level of motivation of the students and the corresponding commitment of their parents. It takes exceptional teachers to overcome the lack of student motivation and parental commitment, and 2) an educational process that is obsolete and poorly designed to meet the needs of students and to place teachers in a position to be teach effectively.

Bringing about the necessary cultural transformation and returning education to the top of the American priority list is a formidable but not impossible challenge. Public education is the single most important issue on the American agenda and we must declare it as such. This is an issue on which our entire future depends. It is my sincere belief that if we do not turn this situation around, in fifty years, China will be coming to the United States for its supply of cheap labor.

What differentiates this book from the many others that have been written about education in the U.S. is 1) that its focus is outward on the growing cultural disdain for education; 2) that it is focused on taking action by proactively engaging parents as full partners in the educational process; and, 3) that the specific educational reforms it proposes are the result of a systems-thinking approach that challenges our conventional wisdom and traditions.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream has been written from the perspective of an organizational leadership consultant rather than that of a social scientist or professional educator. I am convinced that we must take a pragmatic business approach if we are to effectively address the problems plaguing public education, which, not coincidentally, are the same problems that plague our society as a whole. If we can fix education we will also, to one degree or another, be addressing poverty, hopelessness, drugs, gangs, violence, and the very roots of our socio-economic foundation.

This project was motivated not only by my experiences as a substitute teacher in a public school system but also as a result of my experiences as a manager responsible for hiring new employees for my organizations and also for training them. Also contributing was my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my professional career and, more recently, while administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) which serves, among other things, as the entrance exam for prospective enlistees in the Armed Services of the United States.

Other authors proceed with critiques of public education’s declining performance followed by prescriptions for training better teachers, reorganizing schools in creative ways, making preschool more accessible, for improving curricula, and tailoring instruction to the unique needs of children, revamping assessments, and building true accountability. All of their focus is internal as if the cultural forces that relentlessly devalue the primacy of education and the corresponding decline in the motivation of American children are unalterable givens.

These are the realities that are having a devastating impact on the quality of education and we go about our important business as if we are powerless to address them. Like so much of American society and its government, we have acquired, over the last half century, a misguided belief that we have all the answers; that we can solve everyone’s problems for them; that we bear full responsibility. Possibly, we have forgotten that ensuring that children receive a quality education is a shared responsibility. Possibly we have come to believe that it is politically incorrect to call parents out; to get in their face and demand that they accept their responsibility as partners in education. We behave as if the poor and the nonwhite are too pathetic to take responsibility for their own futures. Possibly, poor people and minorities have written us off because they feel powerless to affect the outcomes in their lives. This is a reality Americans must alter at all cost.

In Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream we will provide vignettes from my own experience as a substitute teacher in the classrooms of the middle and high schools of Fort Wayne Community Schools. The focus of each will be to provide the reader with a glimpse of what takes place in the classroom and also to illustrate the importance of parental commitment and participation. Also included will be a vignette from a first-year teacher’s experience in an inner city elementary school in Washington DC. We believe these anecdotes provide compelling evidence of the mounting disdain for education and for our assertion that parents are abdicating their responsibility as indispensable partners in the educational process.

The “action focus” of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream will be divided into two sections. Before we can challenge the American people to begin changing the cultures and subcultures of American society we must demonstrate that “we mean business.” It is not enough to make empty promises because empty promises are all many Americans believe they have heard, each and every day of their lives. We need to speak with our actions, demonstrating that we are making real and substantive changes in the way we will teach their children. We want parents to be able to look at the changes we have made so that they can truly believe that we will be giving their children the education they will need to make the American dream a reality. We want them to believe that this new educational process will truly empower their children to take control of their young lives and to seize an array of opportunities, from a huge and diverse menu, according to their unique talents, interests, and abilities. We want parents to want the best for their children even when they have given up hope for themselves.

Only when the parents of our nation’s children can reach out and touch these things can we reasonably expect them to believe in a new reality; and, only when they believe in the reality of this new educational process can we ask them to begin, once again, to have faith in the American dream and to have real and meaningful hope in a better future. Only when we are able to give American men and women a realistic hope for a better future for their children can we begin asking them to change the way they live, think, and feel.

As we turn our focus to the process of education in America, we will begin by comparing the way children learn during their pre-school years whether at home, in daycare, pre-school or head start programs with what we offer them when they arrive for their first day at school. What the reader will see, in this simple analysis, is that our educational process seems to work at cross purposes with the way the natural learning process functions. The result is that the fun of learning is soon replaced with a stress-filled, esteem-damaging process that sets many children up for failure.

We will also examine:

• Compulsory education and the fact that unmotivated students are allowed to be a disruptive influence on students who want to learn and teachers who are striving to teach;
• Teacher accountability and the trust between teachers and parents;
• The way we structure our schools and group children in classrooms, together;
• The way we identify an educational path for our children and then direct them down that path;
• The way we utilize teachers and facilitate their ability to teach and interact with students and their parents;
• Our current educational system’s focus on failure;
• Protecting children from humiliation;
• Homework, practice, and the manner in which we deal with the mistakes our students make;
• The way we assess a student’s level of competency over the subject matter within the context of educational standards;
• The allocation of scarce resources to serve our mission to the optimal advantage; and,
• The effectiveness with which we utilize the technology of the Twenty-first Century.

After re-thinking our assumptions about the educational process, we will present nineteen specific action strategies that will enable us to re-invent the educational process in order to better meet the educational needs of our children and to prepare them for the unprecedented challenges of the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

Through the implementation of these nineteen action strategies, we will show how we can structure the educational process in such a way that the structure supports and facilitates our teachers and students as they go about their important work. We will show how we can create real trust between parents and the teachers of their children in order to engage them as full partners in the educational process. We will illustrate how we can shift the focus away from humiliation and failure, focusing instead on teaching children that success is a process that all can master within the context of their individual talents and abilities. We will show how, utilizing Twenty-first Century technology, we can integrate the assessment of student competency and mastery into the educational process very much like industry has integrated quality systems within the production and assembly process.

It is a national tragedy that so many students reach a point in their academic careers where they have given up on themselves. It is a national travesty that we have given up on them. It is imperative that we place teachers in an environment in which they can make a real difference in the lives of the children in their classrooms. We want our teachers to be developing rich and nurturing relationships with our children and their families; relationships that will endure and that will be remembered with the same warmth that all of us feel when we think back on our favorite teachers. We want to eliminate the meaningless activity in which so many teachers become entrapped so that their time and energy are focused not only on helping children learn how to be successful but also helping them remember how much fun learning can be. We want teachers to re-discover how much fun it is to teach.

Simply by changing our thinking we can irrevocably alter the current reality of education in America and help our children develop the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in an ever more complex international arena. We believe we can show, emphatically, that all of these things are well within our power to accomplish if only we open our hearts and minds and view them without prejudice.

Few if any of these first nineteen action times will require an act of the legislature. They can almost all be implemented by individual school corporations acting within the parameters of their legislated authority.

After we have presented our blueprint for the reinvention of education in America, we will shift our focus to the formidable challenge of changing our culture to one in which every American has faith and hope in the American dream, for their children if not for themselves, and where we are each committed to a portfolio of shared values constructed on the principles of freedom and democracy in which “. . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . .”

We will begin by examining what takes place in our public schools, particularly in urban America. We will also look at the vital role education has played in the development of American society as we have evolved into the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

We will examine the results from state competency exams, using Indiana as our example. These data clearly illustrate that the performance gap between white students and blacks and other minorities is as real as it is disturbing. What we will also see is that all students in urban public schools, whites included, underperform when compared with students in private and parochial schools and in rural and suburban public schools. That we misinterpret the reasons for this underperformance places our future in jeopardy.

It is also vital that we understand how American culture has evolved to present day and we will take an in depth look at the impact this cultural evolution has had on education in America, both public and private. We will show how several cultural phenomena, beginning after the Great Depression and end of World War II, transformed our nation and society in such a way that the core values that contributed to our nation’s greatness became obscured.

We will take a particularly close look at the culture of African America because the most significant and alarming performance gap in all of education is the chasm that exists between the educational performance of white children and their black classmates. This reality demands direct, unapologetic attention. That discourse will involve a close look at the work of John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America . Dr. McWhorter suggests to us that the problem is a culture in which it has become a symbol of “black authenticity” for African-Americans to shake their finger at “whitey” for institutional racism and degradation that no longer exist to any relevant degree, and to flip a certain other finger at education and the other responsibilities of citizenship. These responsibilities are essential to the ongoing viability of a democratic society. We hope to dispel, irrevocably, even the notion that there is an entire race of people who are predisposed to academic failure, and replace it with a challenge to African-Americans and other minorities to take their rightful place as full partners in meeting the economic, social, and political challenges facing our nation. That challenge must come with the commitment that parents can count on the partnership of their children’s educators.

We will also devote time to a discussion of “entitlement mentality.” Typically, when people feel entitled to something they do not believe they should be required to do anything to earn it. We believe this is part of the problem with public education; that we have come to view education as an entitlement for which we should not be required to be responsible. Today, our entire society spends too much time talking about rights and entitlements rather than talking about responsibility. Aided by the literal eruption of electronic communications and computer technology, the power of the peer group has become more powerful than at any time in the history of our nation and now threatens to replace the family, church, and schools as the dominant socio-cultural force.

We will suggest that changing our culture is the categorical imperative of our time. Talk is cheap, however and we will offer a strategic plan of action designed to bring about massive and comprehensive cultural change. We will suggest that, as formidable as this challenge may seem it is nothing more than a sales and marketing plan of enormous size and scope. Because sales and marketing are two of the areas in which the U.S. is unsurpassed, this challenge is within our power to overcome.

Our action strategy to alter the culture of America will commence with a clear statement of purpose followed by a focus on the utilization of the principles of positive leadership , and will be manifested in fourteen specific action items directed to the community.

We will show how educators and other community leaders can reach out into the community and pull parents in. We will show how we can parlay one of President Barack Obama’s early campaign challenges to parents to accept responsibility for their children into a nation-wide initiative to rally the American people, across all cultural boundaries, to the idea that education is the ticket to a new, Twenty-first Century version of the American dream. Somehow, we have to sell Americans on the idea that the American dream still exists. We need to re-instill hope in the hearts and minds of men and women from across the entire spectrum of the American panorama that the dream is both real and achievable. For those who are poor and disadvantaged, we need re-ignite the hope and belief that they can make it real for their children and that a quality education is a pass of admission to the dream. Education has become something that these youngsters do not value and it is imperative that we alter this reality. The reader is urged to understand that this is not something that would be nice to accomplish; it is something that must be accomplished or our children and grandchildren will find themselves in an entirely different world where being an American is not something about which one can feel proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The reader is encouraged to believe that each of things is possible if only we will proceed with an open mind and hold on to the idea that anything man can imagine, man can do. Educators must be encouraged to believe that these things are possible if only they will challenge their biases and assumptions and, most of all, if only they will accept responsibility for finding a solution. You will hear this axiom, in one form or another, again and again as you proceed through this book, as it is central to our purpose:

Instead of blaming other people, our government, or the world for our problems, it is only when we accept responsibility for those problems that we begin to acquire the power to solve them.

The bottom line is that the problems facing American society and the problems facing our systems of education are the exact same problems and they cannot be solved by educators working unilaterally. We must involve the entire community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt #3 from the Preface of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream

[Opposite the corporate reformers are] Advocates who support traditional, community-based public education and who oppose the forces of privatization, Common Core, reliance on standardized testing to hold schools and their teachers accountable, expansion of voucher programs and charter schools claim that while our schools are far from perfect, they are not failing. These advocates suggest that the quality of education being provided to American children is higher than it has ever been. They insist that poverty is the biggest problem in public education and that we should attack poverty and the disadvantages it creates for our children while protecting our educational traditions.

The purpose of this book is to show that both sides of this debate are terribly wrong and that both sides grossly misjudge the efficacy of education in America, both public and private. We suggest that both sides misinterpret the role of poverty and the other forces that contribute to the educational failure of an unacceptable number of Twenty-first Century American school children. It is the cultural equivalent of spending all of our resources on new and improved thermometers and fever reducers at the expense of attacking the cause of the elevated temperature. In the interim, the infection festers, unabated, while we poison the educational process with our intransigence.

How our nation responds to these challenges of the Twenty-first Century will determine the future of the American way of life, not to mention the American dream. Parents of children that we now refer to as baby boomers were fortunate to live in the world where there was great clarity with respect to core values, and at a time when the external forces that compete with the influence of parents and families were relatively insignificant. In each succeeding generation, parents have seen diminished clarity with respect to core values while the power and sophistication of external forces have grown, exponentially. Today, in this second decade of the Twenty-first Century, the external forces that compete for the attention of our children are unprecedented and of a power and magnitude that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

That these internal challenges come at a time when emerging economic powers, with laser-like focus, are working to challenge American economic and political supremacy places our future in grave jeopardy. It is vital that Americans understand that competition is a bad thing only for the player who has lost his or her ability to compete. Healthy competition brings out the best of all competitors. If we continue to slog down the same path, the health of our society and our ability to compete effectively will deteriorate at an accelerating pace.

The beauty of our situation as members of an ailing society, however, is that our educational system, both public and private, in addition to being the barometer with which we are able to identify and measure the severity of the crisis, also provides the most viable point of attack in quest of a solution. It is viable, however, only if we come together as one people, in all of our diversity, and work to restore our competitive advantage with the same sense of urgency that our competitors demonstrate. This crisis demands action and meaningful action requires that we challenge our fundamental assumptions and expand the boundaries of conventional wisdom.