Quadrilateral Pegs through the Round Holes of Public Education

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 so many seem to be 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 in at least a half century and clearly 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 many consider me an outsider because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, making it easy for them to make light of my education model. 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 minds to a new idea.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. On my own I have been a student of leadership for over forty-five years and have written a book to share what I’ve learned about the power of positive leadership. Also, I have been a student “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.

I have had an opportunity to both participate in and observe what happens in public school classrooms from the perspective of a substitute teacher over a period of ten years. I have worked with some of my communities most challenging children as a juvenile probation officer for the first nine years of my career. I have spent 30 years of my career in organizational leadership and consulting where I designed from scratch or reinvented service delivery and other processes to produce acceptable outcomes for the customers of my organizations or for my clients’ organizations. I have both taught and counseled CEOs, managers, and supervisors how to be effective positive leaders of their organizations and its people. I have been both the designer and instructor of multiple employee training programs.

What I have 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 has not been significantly altered since I started school in the fall of 1951.

If you can imagine, even for a moment, 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 on the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids are the future men and women who must be prepared to 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 are without 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 reformers 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 that 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.

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. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We just need to change the way we teach these kids and the way we support both teachers and students as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes will be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting today’s transportation needs. It is the education process or system that is obsolete.

Over the past few years, I have worked 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 a superintendent of a public-school district willing to test my education model in one of its underperforming elementary schools. You know the numbers and, therefore, that what you have been doing has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way. Why not consider a novel approach?

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with over 200 articles on public education on my blog. I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time. Are your students worth at least that much given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

We often blame poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why these children 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 are the ones who discriminate. What we are doing has not worked for the last sixty-five years and it will not work for the next sixty-five years. When we let them fail we render them defenseless against discrimination.

Our goal must be to arm these young people with the skills and knowledge they 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.

“Something Incredible is Waiting to be Known!”

Recently, Chuck Canady (@chuckcanady) tweeted a quote from Carl Sagan, who said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I believe something incredible is waiting to be known and it will happen within the next 10 to 13 years. The incredible event we will witness, will be that every single student who walks across a stage to collect their high school diploma, will have received: a quality education; will have a portfolio of skills that will enable them to have choices about how to find joy and meaning in their lives and to provide for their families; will have sufficient knowledge and understanding to participate in their own governance as citizens of a democratic society; and, will have gained a sufficient understanding of the important issues facing our planet and its people to make informed choices. They will also be able to add value to our society rather than be dependent on it.

If we began this fall, implementing an education model focused on success, relationships, giving kids time to learn, and eliminating even the idea of failure, in thirteen years every one of that first group of five and six-year-olds would be ready to graduate. I believe these young people will alter the job market by injecting millions of people, who formerly were destined to be poor, into the market to become taxpayers and strengthen the economic health of society. This will create revenues that will help society address the issues of replacing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and address the consequences of climate change. We can only hope that this new group of young Americans will help us narrow the differences between us so that we can work together.

If we start, this fall with all K-5 kids, we will immediately begin to see magic happen in the classroom as relationships blossom and little brains begin to work. The older students in this group will present a challenge, but we will begin to see a real difference when they graduate in the next 7 to 12 years. From that point on, every single child will have never known anything other than a school environment in which they can be as successful as any of their classmates. And, no, we are not saying everyone will learn as much and advance as far because all of us have different potentials. What it will mean is that more people will fulfill their potential which almost always results in the discovery that they have far more potential than they ever imagined.

These young Americans will be the most diverse group of American citizens in the history of our nation and will begin to erode the deeply-entrenched racism that has plagued our nation for generations? We see it all the time. The attitudes of people who have never known a person from another race, religion, or nationality will gradually begin to change when they find themselves working side-by-side with them. The more diverse our neighborhoods, the more children of diverse backgrounds will play together in their neighborhoods and sit next to one another in a classroom.

I believe these new generations who will spill out of our systems of private and public schools, year after year, will have grown more tolerant of the differences between human beings. They will have learned that, like the color of our hair and eyes, the color of our skin is nothing more than a different shade of beauty. They will have seen more mixed-racial and multi-cultural relationships and families, more multi-racial children, more alternate lifestyles. This will help us move closer to a reality in which everyone can be accepted for who they are.

Because citizens will be growing more tolerant of the differences in people they will be learning that what we see on the surface of the people in our lives, like the color of our skin, is not the measure of a man or woman. Our hope is that they will become less afraid of people who look, talk, and worship differently than themselves. Because they will feel less threatened, they will be less prone to resort to violence to settle disputes between people, nations, and religions.

We cannot legislate an end to the prejudices in the hearts of mankind, but we can begin to transform a society to one in which minorities are no longer defenseless against discrimination and in which it is more difficult for others to justify those prejudices. It will be more difficult to justify their prejudices because they know these people. We will no longer be separate and apart.

They will be the generation, who because of their education and employability, will witness the shrinking and eventual elimination of poverty and illiteracy in this country.

They will have sufficient knowledge, understanding and wisdom to see that the policies of the past—whether conservative or liberal, democrat or republican—are not able to provide solutions to the new and yet unimagined challenges of the future. They will know that, as we progress into the mid to late decades of this 21st Century, that we will be challenged to seek new solutions that work for every man, woman, or child in every conceivable corner of the planet Earth.

All these incredible things will have happened because we will have replaced an obsolete education process with a new model for teaching children. It will be a model that focuses on building and sustaining positive relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and between students and their peers.

It will be model that recognizes the extraordinary diversity of people and thus will be prepared to deal with what will, initially, be great disparity with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support. It will be a model that gives every student that special relationship with a teacher that many of us recall with such fondness when we think back on our favorite teacher. Unlike the rest of us, this new generation will have enjoyed the security and benefit of such relationships for more than a single school year.

Through this recognition, the model will enable us to treat every student as a unique individual with a different starting point on the academic preparedness continuum, with a different pace of learning, with unique skills and talents, and with different dreams to fulfill. Each child will be on a tailored academic path that will give them more time to learn if they need it and more freedom to burst ahead to ever higher levels of academic exploration when they feel inspired; even if it means teachers must rush to keep up. No child will be judged against the performance of his or her classmates.

It will be an education model that recognizes that the power of the peer group, in this world of almost unlimited access to social media, will be stronger than ever. The structure of the model will create small communities of children who will remain together for a sufficient length of time that they will bond with one another and look out for one another. We will be working to create an environment in which, if they must disappoint someone, our children will choose to disappoint their peers rather than their teachers and parents with whom they feel closer than ever. They will be developing the strength of character to be the best version of themselves, regardless of what others think.

Because the relationships between students, teachers and parents will be stronger and long-lasting, we will be able to focus on the whole child; helping them develop their unique talents and interests, learn the self-discipline that is necessary to enjoy success; and develop a healthy self-esteem strong enough to endure the challenges of an increasingly more complex world where the rate of change will out pace anything adults of present day have experienced.

Finally, our children will learn that success is a process where learning from mistakes and building on one success after another, and will eliminate even the idea of failure. Our children will be internalizing the idea that success is a process in which there are only different velocities of learning. Gaining this understanding also helps human beings develop an abundance mentality and learn that win-win solutions and outcomes are by far the best solutions and outcomes.

Children will be learning that losing a competition in which they have given their best effort is only a loss within the context of such competitions and does nothing to diminish their self-esteem, their worth as a child of creation, or the meaning in their lives. None of us will win every time no matter how talented or brilliant we may be. We will be learning, instead, that because we strive to do our best we are winners in life, no matter the outcomes in small episodes of life. We will view those disappointing outcomes as wonderful opportunities to learn and grow.

This vision is every bit as achievable as exploration of space or phenomenal advances in science and technology. All it requires is a willingness on the part of educators and policy makers to open their hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about how we teach our children, and to challenge their assumptions about how we organize, structure and support teachers and students within our schools and classrooms. If a process does not allow an optimal level of learning, growth and development, then it is time for change.

I ask you to examine my education model and white paper because they offer a first step toward the future I have described https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I hope it is a vision that we can all share.

The elegance of the model is that it is just a point of embarkation; that it empowers teachers and administrators to be continually reinventing the education process to meet the ever-changing needs of their students, communities and society. Who knows where the future may take us but if we remain focused on putting teachers in a position to teach and students in a position to learn it will be a great adventure of discovery.

A Minefield of Distractions or a New Education Model

In a recent exchange on Twitter, I made a comment that “Relationships put teachers in position to teach but too often the process gets in the way. [The] Process can be designed to clear the way, so teachers are always able to seize those moments. The existing education process is a minefield of distractions.”

A good athlete or team will put themselves in a position where they can win a game. That doesn’t mean they win every time, but they give themselves a chance to win. There are no certainties in athletic competitions just as there are no certainties in classroom teaching. In many ways, teaching is like the practice of medicine. Public school teachers and physicians are craftspeople working to apply an uncertain science to help people. Good teachers, like good physicians, are always working to develop their craft and they never run out of things to learn and new things to try.

What I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing is the last part of the sentence, “relationships put teachers in a position to teach but, too often, the process gets in the way.”

For going on six years I have been striving to make the point to public school teachers that the education process within which they work gets in their way. The existing process truly is a minefield of distractions. I have yet to find the correct words to explain myself in a way that resonates with teachers, however.

Public school teachers have been teaching within the same structure and education process for their whole careers. It’s the same education process within which their own teachers had to work and the same one within which their teachers’ teachers had to work. The current education process and structure have become an “unalterable given” in the minds of public school educators and it does not put them in a position to win/teach very often. When it does put them in position, teachers must often make an extraordinary effort to accomplish their objective with a student or class. It is an extraordinary effort of the type that only the most dedicated teachers are inclined to make.

Think about how an operating room is constructed to serve every need of the surgeon. It has been engineered to assure the surgeon has whatever he or she needs, within easy reach. It is designed around the way a surgeon works and thinks and the way they have been trained to react to unexpected events and crises.

One can even see this process of “designing to specifications” on state-of-the-art assembly lines in a manufacturing venue; even to the detail that when the worker needs a cap screw or nut, all they do is turn and reach, knowing it will be there. It is applied ergonomics where the environment and all physical resources are designed and organized to optimize the capability of the physician or production worker.

Why would we not want to create the same work environment for teachers? Is there any job in society more important than teaching? Is there anything in society more important than our children? How would our children grow up to be doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers or other professionals if were not for our teachers?

Teachers work with a population of students that is diverse to the extreme; each student has a unique set of needs and abilities to which the teacher must respond; and each subject area offers multiple strategies to convey content and concepts to their students. Teachers must, however, practice their extraordinarily complex craft within the context of a brittle structure, regimented to the nth degree, following an inflexible set of academic standards, while working within the confines of an arbitrary schedule.

We all understand how important it is for teachers to form close, nurturing relationships with their students, but the education process is not designed in a way that supports teachers and students through that relationship-building activity. There are too many kids for too few teachers with too little time, and no backup systems to help teachers spend extra time with the children with whom it is the most difficult to connect. Then, whatever progress is made in forming those relationships is scrapped at the end of a school year when kids move on to the next grade where they will start, anew, with another teacher with whom they may or may not be able to bond.

We all understand how important it is to pull parents into the process as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their sons and daughters, but there is no well-developed strategy integrated within the daily activities of teaching for accomplishing this objective.

We all know kids arrive for their first day of school with cavernous disparity with respect to academic preparedness and motivation to learn, but we make no formal effort to assess their state of readiness, so we can formulate a strategy that optimizes our ability to attend to their unique requirements.

We all believe that every child needs time to learn and that the best way for most children to learn is to get concentrated help to understand their mistakes and then have an opportunity to try again and apply the lessons learned. We do our best, of course, but the age-old process very quickly prompts us to move the class on to a new lesson, knowing that there are any number of students who are not ready. We don’t like it, but this is the way the process is designed to work and we all feel the burden of competency examinations looming in the future. We are asked to conform to the arbitrary structure, process, and schedule rather than expecting these things to conform to the needs of our students and teachers. How does this improve academic preparedness and motivation to learn?

It is just common sense that when we stop a lesson before a child understands, because time is up, that they will be that much less prepared to succeed on the next lesson, which may well require that they apply what they have already learned. Kids cannot effectively apply knowledge they’ve been unable to gain because an arbitrary schedule was the priority.

Almost everyone understands that it is through our successes, and the celebration of them, that we gain confidence in ourselves, thus improving the odds for a student’s successful mastery of future lessons.

When we record a failing grade, the research has long concluded that this has a labeling effect that colors their teachers’ perception of a child’s ability to learn, diminishes the student’s self-esteem, and makes it easy for them to believe what they hear when their classmates refer to them as one of the dumb kids.

How many more examples do we need to offer before educators begin to see that the existing education process has grown obsolete and truly is a minefield of distractions from their purpose. It is not created to make their job easy or to make learning easy and fun for students, or to help them develop a powerful motivation to learn. The process is not teacher/student focused.

Why don’t educators and education policy makers go back to the drawing board and start from scratch to create an education process that utilizes applied ergonomics to help teachers bond with their students; pull parents in as partners; makes sure every child is able to start from the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where they were when they arrived at our door; that is structured in a way that helps us tailor an academic path to meet the unique requirements of each child; that gives each student however much time they need to learn a given lesson because a teacher’s job is not done unless the child can utilize what they have learned.

From about the middle of 2006 until late in 2013, creating such a teaching/learning environment has been my focus. I started by striving to make sense of what I had witnessed as a substitute teacher from 2002 through 2012. I had retired from my positive leadership and organizational development consulting business to pursue my lifelong dream of writing books and chose to sub to earn some extra income. As I began to observe the challenges faced by both teachers and students, it seemed natural to begin applying my experience in positive leadership and organizational development consulting to address a process that was clearly dysfunctional.

One of my specialties was evaluating the production and service-delivery processes of clients who were frustrated that their outcomes were unacceptable. My job was to analyze the process and then modify it to produce better outcomes or, far more often, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes. It was simply a process of making sure the internal logic and activity of the process were perfectly aligned to serve its purpose. It involved organizing the activity of the people doing the work to make sure they remained focused on that purpose and ensure that the process was engineered in a way that every action and resource existed to support the work people were asked to do; to help them do their jobs to the highest standards of quality.

The result of my work on the education process was reported, first, in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: the Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, which includes the initial version of a new education model. After the book’s publication, in 2013, I continued to work to refine the process and published those results on my blog, first in a white paper that was written to lay the foundation for the education model and then present the model, itself. During this time, I also published over 150 articles on the challenges facing teachers and students in the public-school districts of America. They were written to challenge teachers to break out of their conventional boundaries and undergo a paradigm shift.

My intention was to create a system much like what I outlined above; an education process molded around the relationship between teachers and their students, putting teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn. And, then defining purpose and objectives, creating a structure to support the efforts of people, and the other components of an effective service delivery process. I continue to revise the model as I learn things from you, the professional educators with whom I interact on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Email, and through my blog.

I invite you to look at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. What do you have to lose? Imagine what it would be to work in an environment that was conceived and constructed to support you in your work in every conceivable way.

Like An Old Pair of Shoes!

Recently, I described the American education process as being like an old pair of shoes that you feel comfortable wearing, but don’t dare run in, at least not too fast. In other articles, I have used the parable of storing new wine in old wineskins to compare the process with which we teach our children in most private, parochial and public schools in America.

Public school teachers and administrators have long grown comfortable with the current education process, but it does not always produce the outcomes they seek. Teachers do their best and in some classrooms, in some schools, nothing seems amiss. Those teachers feel good about what they do. In other classrooms, sometimes in the same school, and certainly in many other schools, things do not go so well. Not every student is successful and some who eventually achieve success, do so only after an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and parents. Most teachers have at least one student who represents a challenge and requires that level of effort.

In other public schools and classrooms, most students struggle and in some, all but a few, struggle. For many students, success rarely happens. Are these teachers not as good? Is their something wrong with the school building? We know the students attending such schools present a different challenge but is that the only reason why outcomes are so disparate?

What if you were asked to trade students with a colleague who has a challenging class? Would the performance of that teacher’s students turn around, remarkably, once they spent time with you or would you likely face the same difficulty as your colleague? How would the students from your classroom perform with the other teacher?

If you are one of the fortunate teachers to have only one struggling student, imagine what it would be like if more than half of your students presented such challenges. What if the exception in your classroom was one student who is successful? How different would your experience be? How good would you feel about your students, classroom, and school?

The problem is not just the students and it is neither the teachers nor the school buildings. Rather, the problem is a brittle and inflexible education process that has been in place longer than many of you have lived? It seems to work okay for some children but the evidence that it does not work for all children is compelling and irrefutable.

There are millions of children who struggle in our nation’s most challenging public schools. If your classes are performing well, does that mean that you need not concern yourself with the challenges that other teachers face? Most often, the teachers in these low performing schools are just as capable as you; work just as hard, received the same education and training. Some of them might even be former classmates of yours.

If teachers in high performing schools choose to ignore the challenges of their colleagues is it okay? Is it okay for you to turn your head and be thankful that you are in a better place? Or, is that leaving your colleagues hanging out to dry. Do not all teachers and all students deserve better? Are you not comrades-in-arms in a noble profession?

If the only thing that is different between your high performing classroom and the low-performing classroom of your colleagues is the academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support, what does that tell us about the effectiveness of the education process. If the process is incapable of adapting to the unique needs of its students, how can it serve the best interests of the American people and their sons and daughters?

The wonderful news is, “it need not be this way!” We can reinvent the education process to support every single teacher, in every single classroom, for every single student. And, no, it does not matter that all will not succeed at the same level. What our expectation can and must be is that we help each child learn how to be successful so they can be the best that they can be. We can ask no more of our children, their parents, or their teachers. We want every teacher to be the best of which they are capable, and we want each of your students to grow up to be the best men and women they can be.

The education process in place in our public schools and in most of our private and parochial schools is not capable of meeting the needs of a diverse population of children, no matter how capable their teachers, no matter how innovative their methodologies, and regardless of the level of sophistication of our tools. When taxed beyond its limits the education process will break down just as will that old pair of comfortable shoes. It does not allow teachers to adapt to the unique needs of their students and this is unacceptable and unnecessary. How can our nation compete in an ever-more challenging global marketplace and political arena if our children do not rise to their potential?

Once again, unless you have already done so, I ask that you review my education model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ Examine it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather in hopes that it might.