Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how many of these remarkable professionals seem unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole, from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they lack the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These education reformers, policy makers, and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve.

As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level. I am seeking superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education, we leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

In Case You’ve Missed Me!

Haven’t heard a Tweet from me in a while?

At the conclusion of a wonderful holiday visit, my four grandchildren went home after generously sharing a variety of germs and viruses. Bless their little hearts. I would make the same trade again, gladly, because they are such a joy for their Grandmother and me. The exchange does not come without consequences, however, and even had I not had other commitments, it would have taken time to get my mind and body back into the rhythm of writing.

Those other commitments have to do with administering the ASVAB (Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery); a subject about which I have written on many occasions.

Let me tell you what is happening in Indiana.

For the 2018/2019 school year, the State of Indiana authorized the use of the ASVAB to high school students as an alternate pathway to graduation. Students who are unable to pass their ISTEP+ exams in English language arts and math, which are required for graduation, can now take the ASVAB. Whether they believe the ASVAB might be easier for students to pass than ISTEPS—which would amount to lowering standards and expectations—or is just more student-friendly, I do not know.

If students earn a score of 31or higher on the AFQT component of the ASVAB they qualify for graduation. Coincidentally, a score of 31 is the minimum requirement for enlistment in the military. The AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) is comprised of four of the eight ASVAB subtests currently offered to students: Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, and Mathematics Knowledge.

Although I have not seen data to verify that many of the students who could not pass ISTEPs are having success with the ASVAB, I do believe the AFQT score is a meaningful threshold. AFQT scores are percentile scores, which means that 30 percent of all the individuals who take the ASVAB are unable to qualify for enlistment. As I begin my fifteenth year as an ASVAB test administrator, I have come to view the AFQT score as a “world ready” benchmark. I believe it demonstrates that an individual has a basic, if minimal, academic foundation that will allow them to have choices; to find a place for themselves in society.

Students who score less than an AFQT score of “30,on the other hand, will have very few choices. Young adults who score 20 or below, and remember this is a percentile score so there are many young men and women with such scores, are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

What does it say about public education when so many schools have so many students unable to pass state competency exams that they must be provided with alternate pathways?

Yes, I agree that these large, standardized exams are a burden on students, teachers, and schools and should not be utilized to evaluate their performance. That we are using these tests inappropriately, however, does not mean these tests measure nothing of consequence. We need to learn from the results of this misguided practice.

What these tests tell us is that a significant population of students cannot demonstrate proficiency on subject matter that we have identified as essential to their future well-being. That point is corroborated by NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) assessments; the experience of employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified young people; and, from my own anecdotal observations of the performance of recent high-schools graduates on the enlistment version of the ASVAB.

High-stakes testing has pushed public schools to change the way they teach but rather than change the way we teach to meet the needs of students with disparate levels of academic preparation, we have changed the way we teach in ways that divert us from our mission. What is that mission? To prepare young people to make a place for themselves in society where they will have meaningful choices.

As education leaders and policy makers, we have learned the wrong lessons and we are asking our teachers to teach kids things that will not help them make a life for themselves. Teachers are being pushed to teach kids to pass a test rather than to learn and retain the knowledge and skills they will need in life.

Teachers know that what they are being asked to do does not work for some children, but many of their leaders are not listening. Some of the leaders who do listen cling to the belief that if we ask teachers to work a little bit harder and if we tried a few new techniques, things would begin to change. Such tactics will not alter anything unless we redesign the process.

When are superintendents and their school boards going to step back far enough to see that what we are doing is not working for vast numbers of the children they exist to serve? When will these leaders recognize that the biggest impact of the modifications they have implemented is that they have made teaching more challenging than it already is? Their choices are putting undue pressure on dedicated teachers in our classrooms and are driving thousands of these men and women from the profession they entered because they hoped to make a difference.

In the private sector, if providers of goods and services were to produce unacceptable outcomes, year after year, their customers would demand that they redesign the entire production or service delivery process to produce the outcomes those customers want. The truth to which all public school educators must open their hearts, minds, eyes, and ears to is that this is exactly what the “school choice” movement is striving to do: replace public schools. These reformers will not cease and desist until public schools begin to produce better outcomes. And, no, advocates of “school choice” are not ready to acknowledge that charter schools are not meeting expectations.

With respect policy makers, superintendents, and their school boards, their intransigence is placing public education at risk by refusing to challenge their assumptions about what they ask of their teachers and why. Because our society relies on public education to prepare young men and women for the responsibilities of productive citizenship, that intransigence is placing our democracy at risk.

It is the easy way out to conclude that our teachers cannot teach and that some students, disadvantaged kids in particular, are unable to learn but these conclusions are absurd.

Teachers can teach and they are committed to their students and to their profession, but they can only do what the education process allows them to do and for which it provides the structure and support. If we can craft the process around teachers everything will change.

Our students can learn if we take the time to understand and respond to their needs. Once they begin to gain confidence in their ability to learn, their motivation to learn and their pace of learning will accelerate.

Please consider an alternative approach to education. Please consider an education model engineered to meet the needs of students and their teachers by creating a process that exists to serve the important work they do rather than one that forces compliance and conformity. Check my model out at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

The impact all of this testing has had on me, personally, and has contributed to a reduction in Tweets and blog posts, is that the number of schools offering the ASVAB has more than trebled. In the past, I might have administered four to five schools a month, I am now testing three to five times a week and each test, depending on the number of students who will be taking it, requires significant pre- and post-test preparation time. This quickly erodes the amount of time I normally allocate for writing and drains my energy, particularly when my nose is dripping and I am coughing. Not counting the three enlistment test sessions I have administered in the first 10 school days of the new year, I have tested over five hundred students in six schools.

Over the balance of the month of January, which is nine school days, I am scheduled to test up to 500 more students in six schools, in addition to two more of my weekly enlistment tests. During the first few months since the start of the school year, and up until the holidays, I tested over 3000 students in twenty-four high schools in Northeast Indiana. Please note that I am only one of several test administrators who are testing in high schools both in NE Indiana and throughout the state.

Thanks for your inquiries, and I hope to be writing more, soon!

An Important Message to our Nation’s Heroes!

To my heroes in public education and to my heroes who are leading advocates for people of color, make sure you take note of a new piece of legislation being introduced in Congress.

What does it say to you when one of our elected representatives to Congress does not believe our public schools are good enough for the children of our heroes who serve in the Armed Services of the United States?

One of the lead stories, this morning, on the front page of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, reports that US Representative, Jim Banks, Republican from the 3rd Congressional District in Indiana, has introduced a bill that:

“. . . would let active-duty military families tap public funds to send their children to private schools.”

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette also reported that “Banks wrote an op-ed column about his legislation that was published this week in the Wall Street Journal under the headline ‘Military Families Deserve School Choice.’”

It is time that our public school policy makers, administrators and teachers accept the indisputable fact that a growing percentage of the American people, led by conservative politicians and corporate reformers who are advocates of “school choice,” have given up on public education as the best solution for preparing our nation’s children for the future. These powerful men and women seem perfectly content to let public schools in affluent communities go about their business, but they view public schools serving disadvantaged children and their families as a lost cause.

To our heroes in the Armed Services of the United States. We understand how you feel about your children because we feel the same about all children, but, is this the America you are fighting to protect? An America where not every child counts?

It is time for advocates for people of color and the poor to acknowledge that these same supporters of “school choice,” whether conservative Americans and their political champions or powerful corporate reformers, are willing to abandon your children and their schools, teachers and communities. They consider you and your children to be part of Governor Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent of American voters who are dependent on government” and do not matter.

How long are we going to sit by and let this happen?

To public school educators I ask you to consider that all the protests, marches, rallies, and teacher strikes in the world will not alter the reality that disadvantaged children in America, a disproportionate percentage of whom are blacks and other minorities, are failing in our most challenged public schools, by the millions. Teachers may not deserve the blame for creating this reality, but they will be blamed until they are willing to accept responsibility and declare to the world that what they are being asked to do in our public schools does not work for disadvantaged children.

Teachers have not shown a willingness to say it out loud, but you know in your hearts that the existing education process does not work for children who arrive for their first day of school with minimal academic preparedness, little or no motivation to learn, and less parental support.

You know this to be true every time a student shows up in your classroom who is so far behind that catching up seems impossible. Teachers know this to be true every time you are required to record an “F” in your gradebook and move your class on to a new lesson when many of your students are not ready. You know in your hearts that these kids need more time to learn but the education process does not allow you to give them that time. You do your best to help these kids when there are only one or two of them in your classroom but when the kids who need more time represent 25, 50, or 75 percent of the students in your class, it is impossible to give them the help they require.

For advocates for people of color who are still working hard to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream a reality, surely you know that had it not been for the heroes of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, we might still be waiting for meaningful civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other such legislation was passed only because the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored.

Today, in this second decade of the 21st Century, public education is the civil rights issue of our time. I challenge advocates for children of color and advocates for public education to come together as a united front to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids, once and for all. Imagine a world, 10 to 13 years from now, when every single graduate from high school is armed with a portfolio of knowledge, skills, and confidence to enter mainstream America with real “choices.” All we need to do is go back to the drawing board to reinvent public education.

Here is the good news:

1. I have already gone back to the drawing board to reinvent public education and have developed an education model focused on success and rejecting failure. Use it as a starting point. If you think it will work, run with it. Or, it may inspire a better idea from one of you. You can examine my model at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

2. Solving the problems in public education for all children, not just the disadvantaged, does not require an act of Congress. It does not require an act of your state legislature. All it requires is that we find a handful of public school superintendents willing to test this new education model, whether mine or yours, in just one of the lowest performing elementary schools in their district. Once proven to work, it can then be expanded to every school.

3. Implementing an education model that works for all children will also render irrelevant, the corporate reform and “school choice” movement.

Whatever you do, please don’t just sit there. There are millions of children who are desperate for your help, now.

It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend, and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.