A Holiday Wish for American School Children!

It does not seem all that significant when a child in the early grades is asked to move on to the next lesson before he or she has mastered the current one. It happens slowly at first and teachers strive to give each child the help they need. Once a student has fallen behind the first time the odds that he or she will fall behind a second, third, or fourth time, increases. Gradually, as they are compelled to keep the class moving the frequency with which it happens inures teachers to the tragedy unfolding in their classrooms.

With each such incident the probability grows that falling behind will become a recurring theme. Very quickly students find themselves on the precipitous path to habitual failure. It is the slipperiest of slopes and it is a rare student who his able to climb out of the vortex.

The reader is urged to sift through your own memories for a time when you fell behind, even if only briefly. Do you remember the panic of falling behind or not understanding? Most of us do remember such experiences because they were traumatic. Imagine how you would have felt had academic failure become a recurring pattern in your life; day after day, week after week, semester after semester, and year after year.

Look up the standardized test scores for public schools in your area. Pay particular attention to the standardized tests that are utilized in high schools to determine qualifications for graduation. In Indiana we call these End of Class Assessments (ECA). Passing the ECAs in key subjects is an essential qualification for graduation. How many schools report that 20 to 30 percent of the 10th graders failed to pass one or more of their ECAs? How many schools report failure rates of greater than 30 percent?

Many of these students will still graduate because they will have subsequent opportunities to take their ECAs after remediation classes. Others will be granted waivers in which other measures have been utilized to determine eligibility for graduation. Their graduation notwithstanding, most of these young men and women will find that they are qualified for only the most menial and low-paying jobs in their communities. They are limited to such choices because they are unable to demonstrate even the most rudimentary levels of literacy and numeracy.

Although these students are a diverse group, demographically, a disproportionate number of these young adults are poor and/or black. Where do you think they will end up? If we are honest with ourselves we know they face a bleak future and will likely produce children with bleak futures. Many will spend their lives in poverty and some will be in and out of correctional facilities.

Once a week, I test young men and women who want to join the military. Week after week, anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of these young people who take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) fail to get the minimum score necessary to be eligible for enlistment.

When I hand them the envelope, as they leave the testing room, I am thankful that I am unable to see their faces when they read their score. I can only imagine how dejected they must feel as this window of opportunity, for which they had such high hopes, slams shut in their faces. Most who fail will return in 30 days to do a retest.

“I think I will do better, this time,” they tell me. “I have really studied!”

It is almost impossible to make up, in 30 days of cramming, what the rest of us have learned over our 12 years of primary and secondary education and the vast majority of the retest candidates see little if any improvement in their scores. After another 30 days they can take the ASVAB a third time, and after another 6 months they can take it for the fourth time. Rarely are these efforts rewarded.

One young man actually asked me, one evening, “How are we supposed to know this stuff?” And, he asked it not with sarcasm but with a look of utter despair. Think about his question. I checked his information and this young man was listed as a high school graduate. It is a cruel trick of nature that, so often, we are called upon to make important decisions that will impact the rest of our lives well before we have gained the maturity to decide wisely.

We call these kids failures and we blame poverty, racism, and segregation but we are horribly wrong. These children—our students—fail because the educational process we make available to them is neither designed nor structured to give them what they need and what they deserve.

We also blame teachers but in this we are also terribly wrong. The overwhelming majority of teachers do the absolute best they can under the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. Any culpability they must bear is not because they do not work hard or lack commitment. Rather it is because they do not step back and challenge the reasons why we keep doing what we do in spite of the consistently disappointing outcomes for so many students.

The best, and also the saddest, thing of all is that it does not have to be this way. All that is required of us, if we truly wish to change the reality of public education for so many of our nation’s children, is to accept responsibility for challenging our assumptions about what we do and why.

What a wonderful gift it would be if we would refuse to accept failure and pledge to give each and every student the time and patience they need to progress from one lesson to the next at the best speed of which they are capable; without regard for the performance of their classmates.

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.

Why is the educational process structured more to support earning grades and standardized test scores than it is to support learning?

In business, we know that organizations are structured to get the outcomes they produce. This is certainly true with the educational process that drives public schools all over the nation. The educational process is structured to support the objectives of earning grades and producing test scores.

In the case of grades, it is not so much a matter whether the grade is an A or an F rather that there is a grade to report. This suggests that we have completed our job for that grading period or semester and now it is time to move on. What do we know at the end of this process? We know that some students learned the material and some did not. We also know that there is a big group of students in the middle and we simply cannot be sure whether they have learned or not.

The fundamental question public school teachers and other professional educators must ask is, “are grades and test scores the outcomes we really want for our students? Most educators will respond that, “no, our true objective is to help kids learn.” The more astute educators, after taking a moment to think about what their job should be, would add that their goal is not only to help students learn but also to help them learn sufficiently well that they will be able to apply what they have learned in the face of real-life situations throughout the balance of their lives.

Those real-life situations might be applying what they have learned in past lessons or classes to subsequent lessons and classes throughout their rest of their academic careers; whether primary, secondary, vocational, or post-secondary. The real life situations might also be the application of the knowledge and skills individuals have mastered to earning a living; to fulfilling one’s civic responsibilities; to helping society find solutions to a never-ending stream of economic, ecological, political, and sociological challenges; to the mastering their unique crafts; to exploring the mysteries of science, theology, or philosophy; to finding joy through our relationships with other people; or, ultimately, to the never-ending quest for wisdom.

If educators could all agree that their purpose should be to help their students learn and master subject matter sufficiently well that they can then utilize what they have learned, the next question would be is the educational process structured in such a way that it will support us in that shared mission?

Questions we might ask would include:

Should the educational process be structured so that it starts every student off from the same point of embarkation or should we identify a unique starting point based upon the level of preparation and motivation that the child brings with them on their first day of school?

Should all students be guided to a common destination or should their destinations be determined by their unique talents and interests, along the way?

Should all students be expected to move along an academic path at the same velocity or should each be guided down the path at their own best speed so that no child is forced to move forward until they are ready and no child is asked to wait, idly, while others strive to catch up?

Should the educational process be structured in such a way that kids are evaluated against the performance of their classmates or should it be structured to support our efforts to evaluate them against their own progress?

Should the educational process be structured in such a way that some kids must, inevitably, fail or should it be structured in such a way that kids are taught that success is a process that all can learn?

Professional educators can, no doubt, add to this list so that we can determine whether or not the existing educational process is acceptable within the context of our mission, vision, and values.

If we were to determine that the current educational process is unacceptable, our attention should immediately shift to questions about how can the process be re-engineered to produce the outcomes to which we have all agreed and committed? In other words, what do we intend to do about it?”

Educators must also understand that if we default to passively accept a reality that is less than we feel we want or deserve then we are also accepting responsibility for the status quo and we need to stop complaining. Ultimately, we have the power to either accept or alter the reality in which we live. In the case of altering the educational process, no matter how daunting the challenge may seem, it is simply a matter of choice. Not someone else’s choice! Our choice!