Understanding Education as a Process and Our Schools as Organizations: and a Shout Out to Ted Dintersmith

There are many new and exciting things happening in some schools: innovative education methodologies, ever more sophisticated technologies, and curricula that are being challenged and re-examined.

Recently, our friend @tracyscottkelly shared a teacher’s ( @HJL_Greenberg ) enthusiastic Tweet about Ted Dintersmith’s book, What School Could Be. Kelly acknowledged, as have many of us, that @dintersmith has provided a wonderful compilation of innovative education programs in real American schools.  It is a great read and if you haven’t done so, put it at the top of your reading list.

Let us not lose sight of Dintersmith’s title, What School Could Be, however.The book is not about “what all schools are.”

Dintersmith’s book offers  examples of public schools and school districts that are producing exciting results for their students. These schools and their programs provide shining examples that give hope to teachers and other educators who are feeling overwhelmed by their own challenges and those of their students.  

Let us, also, not forget that Ted Dintersmith traveled through all fifty states to find these innovative education programs, approaches, and methodologies.It is vital that we acknowledge theses schools are the exceptions and do not represent the reality that is public education in many of the other schools in those same fifty states.

Think about how we arrived at present day with respect to public education.At some point in the distant past, schools may have been established to enable teachers to meet the unique needs of children, but over the decades, schools have devolved into one-size-fits-all service delivery providers.  Schools in the U.S. are organized for operational efficiency, based on financial constraints. That the unique needs of our nation’s children have never been as complex as they are now, creates a recipe for failure for millions of kids.

No matter how hard they work or how deep their commitment, teachers cannot alter the aggregate reality that is public education in America and they must not be blamed.

Each of the noteworthy programs from around the nation exists because of the extraordinary efforts of educators willing to step outside the boundaries of education tradition; often against the forces of doubt.  Sadly, these schools are not the norm and millions of American children do not enjoy the benefits of such programs nor are they likely to benefit, any time soon.  We can only hope that as more educators and school administrators are inspired by the examples of “what could be,” they will step out of their comfort zones and take a paradigm leap.

In my education model, my 2013 book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, and my upcoming book with a working title, Reinventing Education One Success at a Time: The Hawkins Model, I have examined our schools from the perspective of an organizational leadership consultant asking the question, “are schools structured to produce the outcomes we so desperately need?” Most often, the answer is that they are not.

The paradigm leap that is needed, if we are to transform public education in America and restore the American dream, is a willingness to remind ourselves that schools are human organizations incorporating an “education process” designed to deliver a service.

If we are dissatisfied with the quality of the service our education process is producing, we must take a giant step back to a point from which we can examine the education system as an integral whole.We must, then, stop looking for someone to blame and, instead, challenge every single one of our assumptions. Only then can we start from scratch and reconstruct an education system—both structure and process—to produce the outcomes we want and need.

What is it that we want and need from America’s public schools? We need an education model or process in which our dedicated teachers can help every child have more than just equal opportunities—they must have the wherewithal to develop their own dream, envision their futures, chart their own paths, and seize those “equal opportunities.”

At the root of every problem facing American society—whether social, political, economic, technological, ecological, or criminal justice—is the fact that far too many young Americans are not equipped with the understanding, knowledge, skills, self-esteem, and self-discipline to seize the opportunities to which they are entitled, constitutionally.It all comes down to the efficacy of our education process as a whole and not whether a few schools might be succeeding.

The Education Process Should Support and Empower not Constrain!

So many schools and teachers are doing wonderful things with their students and yet million of children fail, particularly disadvantaged kids. That teachers continue to work hard is a testament to their commitment and to how much they care.

Employing innovative ideas, methods, and approaches should not require extraordinary effort on the part of teachers. Why should teachers be forced to jump through hoops and overcome obstacles to give each student the unique amount of time and attention they need to learn and grow; to experience success in the classroom? No matter how hard they work, the current education process is not structured to allow teachers to meet the needs of each child and this is especially true in public school districts that serve a diverse population of children, including many disadvantaged kids.

The current education process in place in American private and public schools, has not changed materially in decades while the world in which we live has changed exponentially. An effective education process would be engineered to enable, facilitate, and empower teachers to go, virtually, to unlimited lengths on behalf of their students with full confidence that the education process would support them at every step along the way.

It helps to consider that the education process on which we rely was not created by educators striving to find a way to optimize a teacher’s ability to teach and a student’s ability to learn. The education process has evolved over a period many generations and is based more on tradition than functionality. The education process is like a software application that has been subjected to so many minor modifications and fixes that it has degraded over time and no longer performs the tasks and functions for which it was created.

The education process has grown obsolete and no amount of tinkering will make it work the way our children and their teachers need it to. Neither will incremental improvements allow the education process to meet the needs of 21st Century America. The process we have today is, in fact, a consequence innumerable incremental changes, jury-rigged fixes, and being stretched and pulled in every possible direction to accommodate new methodologies and approaches that never quite seem to fit. It is time to think about how we would construct an education process, today, if we were starting from scratch.

So many great educators tell their stories on Twitter; inspirational stories about their successes in the classroom. I love the messages about the importance of connecting with our students on a personal level, responding to their needs for supportive care, safety, and affection. So many of you talk about how important it is that our students do not give up and stop trying; that making mistakes or falling down are not failure. You talk about how important it is that children learn how to be successful and gain confidence in themselves.

The education process, however, is not structured to facilitate the efforts of teachers to make our students feel special nor does it permit teachers to give students however much time and attention they need to learn each lesson. Often, teachers must go above and beyond to achieve these things. The process is not designed to treat each child as a unique individual. Teachers might be told that this is the expectation but the expectation against which their performance is measured is something else, entirely. The “real” expectation is a function of the evolution of high-stakes testing.

States do need academic standards and they must rigorous. Where we go wrong is that the focus is on moving an entire classroom full of 20 to 35 students down a path, as a unit, in conformance to state academic standards. Teachers know there is great disparity in the level of academic preparedness of the students who arrive in their classrooms on the first day of the school year, especially in schools serving a high percentage of “disadvantaged students.” They understand that students do not start from the same place on an academic preparedness continuum nor do they learn at the same pace. We do not even expect them to arrive at the same destination.

Think about how the process deals with student performance. We give our students tests on each lesson and record both passing and failing grades in our gradebooks before moving on to a new lesson. Teachers might find time to give extra help to a small number of students who struggle but when failing students represent 25, 50, 75 percent, or more of the class there is not enough time.

If the process was structured to help each child down their unique path, our students would not be pushed on to a new lesson for which they are unprepared. Rather, the expectation would be that we let each student move on to a new lesson when they are ready and that teachers take however much time is needed to help them get ready; to help them understand. Student’s should not be expected to keep up with classmates and neither should students be asked to slow down until others catch up.

Students must be able to experience success and they must learn that they possess the ability to create their own success. They must learn that success is a process and we must help them master that process. When students give up and stop trying it is because they no longer view success as possible; as something that is within their power to achieve. Whenever we accept failure—and that is what we do when we record a failing grade—and tell students time is up and, then, push them ahead, we are depriving them of the opportunity to experience and master the process of success.

It does not matter if our leaders tell us that we are dedicated to the success of each child. As in everything else in life, what matters is not what we say, it is what we do. What matters is what happens to kids within the context of an obsolete education process. What matters is the degree to which that process constrains teachers and children and how it impedes our important work. What matters is how we keep score.

Think, also, about how well the process helps teachers form warm, nurturing relationships with each of their students. Teachers have one school year to bond with anywhere from 20 to 35 children. For some kids it happens quickly, for others it may take the entire school year, and for some it may never happen. At the end of the school year those bonds we worked so hard to form are severed as kids move on to the next grade in another classroom with another teacher and start all over. At least the kids with whom we have bonded will be able to hope that their new teacher will like them. What will be the expectations of the students with whom we were unable to bond? Some children have no idea what it would be like to have a special relationship with a teacher because it has never happened to them.

There are many kids who progress all the way through elementary school who never experience the kinds of special relationships that can change their lives and it is not for lack of effort on the part of teachers. The education process is structured in such a way that forming special relationships is a hope but not an expectation.

When our students perform poorly on state competency exams it is the teachers who receive the blame. No one even considers that it is the education process that is the problem. Because we never give such consideration, nothing is ever done to address the reality that the process has become obsolete. Most teachers have not even noticed that the process is obsolete but they do know it doesn’t help them do what needs to be done; they have a sense that things are not as they should or could be.

So many of your twitter, Facebook, and blog posts say that we need to teach the way children learn. Why don’t we start now?

Over the last ten years I have worked to develop an education model that I believe is teacher/student centered. It was developed through the application of 45 years of experience: working with kids; providing and teaching organizational leadership; reinventing production and service-delivery processes that produce unacceptable outcomes; and, walking in the shoes of public school teachers while working as a substitute teacher, part-time, over a period of ten years. The model is also as result of the application of the principles of positive leadership, organizational development, and systems thinking.

You will find the model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with an accompanying white paper.

I also encourage you to browse the 150+ articles on this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

For those teachers who work in high-performing schools and who have confidence that what you are doing works for your students, consider that what you are doing does not work in every school or for every student. Also think back on your experience and recall those occasions when you thought, “if only we could do this, or that.”

For those of you teaching in schools where many of your students struggle, consider that it doesn’t have to be this way. Think about how nice it would be if you could give your students the time, support, and attention they deserve. Think about how nice it would be if you could go home and feel good about what you have accomplished, every day. Consider that both you and your students deserve better.

Ask yourself, “if we could go back to the drawing board and create, from scratch, an education model that applied everything we have learned over the last half century or more, what would it look like?” Also, ask: “what would our nation be like if every high school graduate walked off the graduation stage with sufficient knowledge and skills to give them a whole list of choices of what to do with lives?”

Let’s not waste any more time. I know that most of the men and women reading these words are not happy with the way things are going in America.

Did you know that you are among the very few people who can actually do something about it?