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.

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.

“Street Smart” Translates to Every Other Kind of Smart!

When working with kids, outside of a classroom setting, their level of “street smart” is easy to recognize. What “street smart” tells us is that these kids can learn anything that is important to them. The fact that so many do not learn in school is because it is not important to them. If their families, from their own negative school experiences, do not value education we can be certain child will not. The operative question, therefore, is how do we make learning at school important to all our students?

The key is relationships but given how many people of color and other disadvantaged Americans are suspicious of teachers, especially white teachers, it is not easy to break through. This is particularly true when skeptical parents tell their kids, “don’t let the teachers treat you unfairly” and this is a common occurrence. As a juvenile probation officer almost every mother I spoke with expressed concern about their child being treated fairly at school. What I also discovered was that listening to them works better than talking, and if they feel they are being interrogated, they will clam up quickly. If I was patient and just engaged in a normal dialogue with them, they would become more forthcoming with info about themselves and their families.

For a white teacher with children of color, this is most true and I am confident that most teachers know this. It is so easy when we are busy, however, to revert to interrogation and giving orders. When they begin to learn that you have a genuine interest in hearing what they have to say—hearing their story—they become much more open. Nothing convinces them they are important to you better than paying attention to them.

The way we win the parents over is by winning their kids over. When they start talking to parents about their teacher as being nice, a parent or guardian’s natural curiosity becomes an ally.

Especially early, as teachers work to form relationships with new students, the kids will be quick to pass judgment on their teacher. It is ironic that so many teachers and parents think their children never listen to them. Whether or not they appear to be listening, I can assure you that they hear and see everything you say and do. And, when what you say does not jive with what you do, your integrity is diminished. You won’t know this, unfortunately, until you feel them pulling away from you, emotionally.

It is an oversimplification, I know, but things we wish to teach them in school are not important to them until they become convinced that they, the students, are important to us. I also learned that as suspicious as they may be, they hunger for closeness with adults. They will not open themselves to a teacher, however, until they begin to trust.

In the summer of 1966, in Philadelphia, I supervised a churchyard recreation program. The church sat on the border between the territories of two gangs and our purpose was to offer a sanctuary for kids—no gang recruiters allowed. All I did was play with the kids, ages 8 to 16, and listen to them, rarely offering advice, not that I had much advice to offer at age 20. My goal was to keep them coming and on any given day we would have between 15 to 30 kids on the grounds, some days even more. The only evidence that I was making a personal connection to them as individuals was 1) the fact they came every day, and 2) they began to share more intimate details about their lives.

The summer after my time in Philadelphia, I was in the Army, stationed in Maryland. I went back for a weekend, not knowing whether I would even be remembered. When I walked into the churchyard, the teenagers were aloof, at first, but the young kids charged me and dragged me to the ground. If you have ever been mauled by a litter of puppies, you can appreciate how I felt. Never had I felt more loved than I did wrestling under that pile of kids. The teens quickly came around, as well.

While I choose to believe that teachers care deeply about their students I do not believe enough of them take the time to listen to their students and then demonstrate that they care through their actions. Like anything else, we need to sell them on our commitment to their success. When we have accomplished that, parents become so much more accessible.

One more story, this one from my first year of subbing, and then I will get on with my point.

It had been 36 years since my summer in Philadelphia and almost 25 years from my last day as a probation officer when I subbed for a 3rd grade class. I had only been subbing for a few weeks After the first 20 minutes, I noticed a young black boy was following me around the classroom. When I gave a teacher a questioning glance she said, “he won’t stay in his seat. We can’t get him to listen to or do much of anything.” For the entire day, he was my shadow. He let me help him with his assignments; read to him; and, when we marched to art class, to lunch, or recess, he held my hand. Again, the teachers were astonished and told me he never let anyone get close to him.

I was only at that school for one day. One of the most difficult things about subbing is that you may never see the same kids again and rarely get an opportunity to build on even the smallest foundation of the occasional connections you make. To this day, I am ashamed to say that I did not stay in touch with that little boy, whether as a tutor, or “big brother,” or some other way. My only excuse was that, in addition to dealing with a couple of personal issues at the time, I was a rookie substitute teacher and was feeling overwhelmed by what I was experiencing, every day. I think of that child, often, and wonder how he is doing. He would be in his late twenties by now.

Back when I worked closely with kids I would have responded to this child’s need for affection, instinctively. In that summer in 1966, on Germantown Avenue, and when I began work as a juvenile probation officer a few years later, I learned far more from my kids than they learned from me. The most important lesson of all was that it is all about caring.

Teachers are just people and there are times when all are distracted by personal issues. Somehow, teachers must have sufficient strength of character and relentless commitment to their purpose, however, that they are able to set their personal issues aside when they walk into their school each morning. If you treat each student as if he or she is your number one priority; listen to them empathically and are able to convey through your words and actions that they are special, you gain a tremendous amount of leverage with respect to your ability to influence them in a positive way.

If you have any experience at all you know that you can never let up because they will test you almost every day, to reassure themselves that your concern for them is genuine. This lesson had quite an impact on me as a father and I think the lesson applies to teachers and parents, alike.

“It is every bit as important that we pass the tests our kids give us as it is that they pass the tests we give them.”

How often we pass their tests and demonstrate unconditional love and concern has a profound effect on our ability to make a difference in their lives. It is imperative that we not wait until they are 16 before we begin working to form the kind of connections that, truly, will transform lives. We need to recreate the education process so that its over-riding priority must be to help teachers form close, personal bonds with their students beginning on their first day of school. The structure must be engineered to support this purpose, time must be fully allocated, the ratio of teacher to student must be sufficient, and teachers and students must be allowed to remain together for more than just one school year.

From the first day a 5 or 6-year old child arrives at school, our focus must be to treat each boy and girl as a beautiful, unique child of creation. For some children it will be easy but there are some who will test us, severely. They are the children about whom my grandmother was referring when she told me that the “child who is the hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

Their first few weeks of school may the most important period of a child’s academic life. Making certain they feel special and are not being pushed beyond their cusp of knowledge and understanding must be our absolute priority. Thereafter, the education process must be a place where they feel special, where they discover that learning is a process they can master and where their successes are celebrated. The powerful self-esteem that comes from feeling special, combined with the confidence that they can create success for themselves will ensure that they will have choices in life; real choices.

The way our schools and classrooms are structured today and the misguided expectations we place on our students and teachers do not allow us to give our students what they need most. Nothing we can do, incrementally, will be enough. The process must be reinvented to fulfill its purpose. A process exists for no other purpose.

We can create a process that helps us provide our students with a solid foundation upon which they can build a future for themselves. What we discover is “street smart” translates to every other kind of “smart.” If we accomplish this for our students we will have also created a process that provides teachers with the sense of personal and professional fulfillment that comes when we help another human being create a life for themselves,

We have the power to create such a process. Time and children are being wasted while we tinker with this or that. Working together, educators like you and advocates like me have the power to reinvent the education process. All it takes is our imagination, courage, and determination to accept nothing less than the best for our students and nothing less than the best for ourselves.

While writing this post, today, I saw a tweet from and Jimmy Casas, an educator, (@casas_jimmy) who tweeted:

“Let’s not hide behind the standard line “I don’t have time.” We determine what we have time for & what we don’t. When something matters a great deal to us, let’s find a way to make it happen. . . .”

It fit perfectly with the theme of this post. It helps when the structure and process are created to focus on purpose. If our purpose is that all kids learn then the process makes providing that time its priority. The proper response is not “I don’t have time” rather it is “that’s what I’m here for!”

Please take the time to examine my education model at http://bit.ly/2k53li3 not in search of reasons why it cannot or will not work rather looking with hope that it might work. Also check out some of the 150 or more articles posted on my blog.

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?

Challenging Assumptions in Public Education: Do Grades 1 Through 12 Really Make Sense?

Grades 1 through 12 have been around for as long as anyone can remember. One of the first assumptions we need to challenge is whether or not this is the best way to organize teachers and students in our schools and classrooms. Does the structure support our objectives as educators? Is it consistent with our purpose?

When we ask such questions, we must always take a moment to remind ourselves of our primary purpose because the way we organize our resources must support that purpose. It is amazing how many organizations discover, after asking such questions, that one’s purpose has evolved but the organizational structure has remained static.

In primary and secondary education, whether in public schools or private, our essential purpose as educators is to help students master the academic subject matter we have selected for them to the best of their ability.

Toward this purpose, individual states have established academic standards that designate what academic subject matter is to be presented, in what sequence, and at what age. These academic standards include clearly delineated check points along the academic path so that we can verify, through annual standardized testing, that the students are progressing on schedule.

Most educators would agree that the best way to achieve that purpose or objective is to:

• Create a warm, nurturing environment in which teachers and students are able to bond;

• Maintain the lowest possible ratio of teachers and students; and,

• Pull parents in as partners, sharing the responsibility for the education of their children.

What we strive to do is help each student learn the subject matter well enough that they can demonstrate mastery. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “to master” as:

“to learn (something) completely; to get the knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand (something) very well.”

It is important that we ask ourselves whether helping students achieve subject matter mastery is what we do.

I would assert that what we do, how the process is structured and how teachers and students are organized do not support our purpose. What teachers do, today, what they are asked to do, is something entirely different. Think about the way it works:

1. Academic material is presented to students in a series of lessons or modules that are to be presented in a specific sequence and at a given time in the academic calendar;

2. Teachers do their best to help students understand;

3. We give students opportunities to practice;

4. We attempt to help them learn from the mistakes they make;

5. We test them to assess how well they learned (mastered) the subject matter of each lesson;

6. We record outcomes in the gradebook, typically on the basis of an A to F grading scale; and,

7. We move the entire class on to the next lesson.

The breakdowns typically begin to occur at step #3 of the process. As much as they might like to spend more time helping struggling students learn from the mistakes they made on both practice assignments and assessments, teachers can do so only as long as it does not slow the class down.

While there is no expectation that teachers will spend extra time with struggling students, most recognize that the need exists and do their best to make time, even if it requires that they invite the student to stop in after school.

For even the most dedicated teachers, however, there is a limit to how much time they can give to each of the students who need extra help or tutoring. The reality is that the numbers are large and most kids who need that extra attention will not ask for it nor will they sacrifice their own time to get it.

So, teachers do the only thing they can do and that they are expected to do and that is move the class on to the next lesson, whether or not all of their students are ready. For the kids who struggle, the consequence of the choices teachers must make are significant and the students find themselves predetermined to continue their struggles and, ultimately, to fail. Eventually, failure becomes the inevitable outcome and the kids who were pushed ahead before they were ready begin to lose hope.

Given the way the process is designed and the way teachers and students are organized within individual classrooms it is incredibly difficult to avoid losing students who have given up on themselves.

The current structure also has an adverse impact on the quality of the bonds teachers are able to forge with their students. Some teachers are better at this than others and some students are more difficult to engage. The reader is asked to consider the adage, which I first heard from my grandmother, that

“The child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

At the end of the school year, kids move on to other classrooms and unfamiliar teachers while teachers prepare to greet twenty to thirty new students, the majority of whom they have never met. Then, the entire process begins anew.

For many students, the special relationship many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers never happens. Of equal significance is that the number of parents who have bonded with their child’s teacher by the end of a school year will be fewer, still.

The structure of the Grade 1 through 12 model has been around for so long it has become granite-like. Few educators even think about it. It has become an unalterable given in our minds.

The truth is that the Grade 1 through 12 structure is nothing more than a logical construct that was once believed to be the most efficacious way to organize teachers and students within our brick and mortar classrooms. The physical structure of individual classrooms has been questioned somewhat more than “Grade 1 through 12” but it is still the predominant reality in public schools all over the nation and also in private and parochial schools.

There have been a few initiatives to alter the structure with an “open classroom” setting as one example but few have endured. Many times, such experiments were abandoned not so much because it was a bad idea rather because there were no corresponding changes to the expectations placed on teachers working in an open-classroom setting. As a result, there were no significant changes in outcomes.

We need to remind ourselves that just because an idea does not work the first time we try it does not mean it was a bad idea.
We need to consider alterations to both the physical environment and our expectations of teachers and students.

Consider this one idea. You are also encouraged to formulate an idea of your own.

Beginning with first grade, what if:

1. We were to cut two doors between adjacent classrooms in our school and ask the two teachers to work together as a team with the same 40 to 60 students?

2. We replaced classroom aides with an additional teacher to form a team of three teachers?

3. What if we kept those same 40 to 60 students together with that same team of three teachers for a five year period and stopped referring to classrooms as first grade, etc.?

4. What if we changed our expectations so that:

a. No student is permitted to move on to new subject matter until they are able to demonstrate mastery (85
percent) over the material?

b. No student is required to wait for their classmates to catch up before moving on to their next lesson?

c. Teachers are expected to make sure that every one of their students has bonded with at least one of member of
the teaching team?

d. Teachers are also expected to engage the parents of each of their students as partners in the educational
process?

e. And, we replaced annual, standardized competency exams with small quizzes given to verify subject-matter
mastery, one lesson at a time.

What we would have, after implementing such changes, would be an environment with close personal bonds between teachers, students, and parents and in which all students succeed, albeit at their own best speed. It would be a learning environment in which there is no failure and in which all students begin to gain confidence that not only can they learn but also that learning can be fun. We would also see that the speed with which kids learn would increase, steadily.

What a different world public education would be.

Seem impossible? The truth is that making such changes is a simple, human-engineering problem that private and public school districts could begin implementing at the beginning of the coming school year. Most important of all is that the outcomes that would result would be astonishing.