As Simple as 1-2-3-4-5-6

Let us make the solution to the challenges facing public education in America as simple as possible.

Providing a quality education to every child who arrives at our door is as simple as 1-2-3-4-5-6.

  1. Children need to feel special and experience what it is like to have one or more favorite teachers on whom they can depend for the long term;
  2. Students must start at whatever point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;
  3. Boys and girls must be able to depend on us to give them however much time and attention they need to learn from the mistakes they make, every step along the way;
  4. Kids must understand they are being asked to both learn and employ the lessons, principles, and discipline with which each of them can create success for themselves, throughout their whole lives; it is a process of success;
  5. Our children must be taught to celebrate their successes and the successes of the people in their lives, always; as success is an experience best shared; and,
  6. Educators must learn that it is the success of our students, not the promises we make, that will draw parents and guardians in as partners.

We must understand there is no one, perfect solution to the challenges of public education. Technology is but one example. Digital technology is  not the solution to the problems in education rather it is a tool, the value of which is measured by its utility to teachers and students.

We must reimagine how to ensure that everything teachers and schools are asked to do will support our mission.  The mission is to send every young adult out into the world with the knowledge, skills, and wisdom they need to find joy for themselves and their families; in pursuit of whatever meaningful goals they set for themselves.

To carry out this mission superintendents, administrators, teachers and policy makers must be willing to break from the traditions of the past. The Hawkins Model© is one example of how that might be done.

The logic behind these six objectives might be simple, but the work they will require of educators will be hard. These goals require that we embrace the notion that education is an uncertain science. It requires that we all work, relentlessly, to develop our craft.

What does a craftsperson do? They must apply all their knowledge, skills, and collective wisdom to discern the unique needs of individual children and then utilize an eclectic portfolio of tools and methodologies to instill success in the hearts and minds of those children. Not everything they do will work so they must keep striving until they find something that does. They must never stop learning and they must never give up. Teachers must never permit their students to give up and stop learning.

Our teachers must be free and willing to give fully of themselves, without fear of recrimination. Creating a quality education for all will require a level of effort, dedication, courage, and camaraderie comparable to that which our medical professionals, first-responders, and so many other men and women are demonstrating in response to Covid-19.

These men and women are heroes and the work they do saves lives and a nation. Teachers are also heroes and the work they do will save lives and, also a nation.

More Than One Kind of Hunger!

Our society is learning much from its experience with this pandemic, but as the Novel Coronavirus saga plays out, it is revealing so much more. The most obvious lesson to be learned is with respect to our level of preparation for a phenomenon that is proving to have an adverse effect on, not only our health, but almost everything people do. For educators, our concern is with the impact on our nation’s students when our schools are shut down.

In schools, whether public, private, or parochial, we are learning just how vulnerable our nation’s children are in times of distress. One of the first revelations, beyond “how do we deliver subject matter, remotely,” is learning how much our students depend on us. Not only are many students hungry when they cannot attend school, they are enduring more than just a lack of food. We are seeing families unable to insure their children are being cared for when they must go to work. Given the low wages on which many American families must live, many mothers and/or fathers must work forty or more hours per week to provide a decent living for their families. Some must work more than one job, which only exacerbates the hardship s with which their children must deal.

For many kids, when there is no school there may be few, if any,  breakfasts, lunches, or snacks. One would think any doubts people might have had about the prudence of providing meals for hungry kids should be resolved, What is more central to caring for our children than making sure they have the healthy nutrition they need to learn and grow?

The suspension of so many schools will bring many other issues into sharper focus. It is not just how much our kids depend on school for healthy nutrition but also for safety, for social/emotional support, and for physical exercise, in addition to their intellectual and academic needs. We must keep kids safe from Covid-19, but when they return to school, we need to acknowledge that those schools are more than just places of learning.

As I said, in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream[1], “schools  have become the social milieu in which young people live and endure.” Teachers must realize that they are more than just educators. Whether we like it or not teachers and schools are a support system for the whole child, and we must structure the education process to serve all these needs.

Some teachers have expressed reservations about the level of responsibility they would be asked to bear, under such an education process. They are encouraged to think about how much they enjoy working with their favorite students from over the years. Educators are invited to examine The Hawkins Model© that is designed to increase, for both teachers and students,  the number and duration of these special relationships. Might this not enhance the satisfaction of teachers?

We must embrace the coronavirus as the learning opportunity it has the potential to be. It is unlikely this will be the last crisis of such magnitude we will face in the span of most of our lifetimes.


[1] Hawkins, Mel, Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (2013), CreateSpace.

“Social welfare programs? – A Conundrum”

In a recent gathering, someone remarked that the last things we need are more social welfare programs.

He was correct in implying that such programs do not fix dysfunctional systems. Social welfare programs almost always treat the symptoms of such dysfunctions, not the underlying problems; they are damage control. Unfortunately, until we address the underlying causes of our nation’s problems, we will continue to need damage control.

Social programs help support people who are damaged, in some way, by society’s dysfunctional processes, the most significant of which is the education process within which teachers and students must work.

What we need is a systems’ thinking approach that drills down to the proverbial root causes of our society’s challenges so we can begin to develop strategies to address them. Systems’ thinking not only helps us understand why systems are dysfunctional; it also helps us recognize the forces that influence human processes and organizations. Just as importantly, systems’ thinking helps us understand how we contribute to the problems that concern us; problems that plague our planet and our society.

As we noted above, our single greatest “systems’ failure” is public education. This is despite the heroic effort of America’s several million teachers. It is this observer’s assertion that every other social problem that exists is a product of that dysfunction, to one degree or another.

Because it is structured like a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, the education process creates populations of winners and losers, along with a huge group of people in the middle. That latter population of people in the middle may not be losers but rarely do they experience satisfactory success. They are left wanting.

Because this population of men and women has not acquired a quality education, they have not learned the science of critical thinking or the art/science of creative problem-solving. This gives them little or no control over most of the outcomes in their lives. Although they cling to hope, they often feel powerless to elevate themselves to point from which they can achieve the level of affluence to which they aspire. Instead, these Americans hover in a netherworld of resentment and disappointment, never quite understanding the forces that play havoc with their lives or how their own behavior and beliefs contribute to their plight.

Such people are likely to resent the affluent, whose lives seem out-of-reach to them; and, even more, they resent when the tax dollars they so begrudgingly pay are expended to support the dependency of the less fortunate. That this population of the less fortunate includes a disproportionate percentage of people of color and those for whom English is a second language, creates another layer of complexity.  It validates, in the minds of many, the prejudices acquired from their families and subcultures. Such prejudices are socially destructive.

What our society requires of its education system, is that all children learn as much as they are able from their unique starting point, at their own best pace. Such an environment transforms the experience of young children, beginning at ages five and six. Because they are progressing along a learning continuum, they experience success not failure; in fact, one success after another.

What happens to any of us, while we are learning a skill, is that one gets better with practice. The better one gets the more confident one becomes. The more confident one becomes, they more often he or she succeeds in what becomes a perpetual growth process; a growth mindset, if you will. It is not long until students begin to expect success. As the success continues, the rate of learning begins to accelerate and the limits that have constrained these youngsters for generation begin evaporate.

Consider how different a teacher’s challenge would be if, rather than a classroom of students who are pushed ahead before they are ready and are experiencing disappointing outcomes, routinely; that teacher found him or herself in the midst of a classroom of students who expect to be successful and are enthusiastic about learning.

Which students are most likely to perform well on dreaded high-stakes, state competency examinations

If such outcomes became the norm in public schools, how quickly would the need for programs that provide public support to the poor, begin to diminish? How long before high-risk testing would be rendered irrelevant? How quickly could our teachers be able to shift the focus of students from learning answers to questions on state competency examinations to critical thinking and creativity?

This is the world we could envision if superintendents of districts with struggling elementary schools chose to utilize The Hawkins Model©.

We would have an education process designed to produce the outcomes the American people and society need if they are to flourish and also compete in the global marketplace?

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.

Differentiating Control and Influence with Respect to Student Achievement

Thanks to @StevenSinger3 for his comment that “student achievement and growth are things teachers do not control. His other point is that “lawmakers need to understand this & stop trying to hold us accountable for things out of our control.”

Of course, he is correct. Teachers can no more control the achievements of their students than leaders can control the achievement of their people. What teachers can and must do, however, is influence their students. How we differentiate control and influence has much significance in addressing the challenges facing teachers and public schools.

To be able to adapt to the needs of their students, teachers must possess some level of control over the education process; empowering them to exercise discretion. This brings an important question into focus. “Does the education process exist to serve the needs of teachers and students or do teachers and kids exist to serve the process.” See my earlier post entitled: A Square Peg in the Round Hole of Public Education.”

The existing education process is rigid and un-malleable. It functions to ensure that what students are to be taught conforms to academic standards and timeframes. It is not designed to provide teachers with the flexibility they need to differentiate with respect to student needs.

We have carved out exceptions for children who have been identified as having a recognized disability and this works reasonably well. Little has been done, however, for the children whose deficiency is academic preparedness, whatever its genesis. The fact that children of color and those for whom English is not their mother tongue are disproportionately represented in the population of students with an academic preparedness deficiency has enormous adverse  consequences  for all aspects of American society.

How can we expect our teachers, unsung heroes all, to have a significant positive influence on these disadvantaged children if they cannot differentiate?  

In many schools, disadvantaged kids are the rule not the exception.  It is imperative that teachers be able to deviate from rigid structure of the education process for any student who struggles; and this is especially true during a student’s first few years of school. If we cannot get kids on a positive learning path when they are 5 and 6 years old, they are likely to have given up by the time they are fifteen and sixteen? It is incredibly difficult to remediate the learning patterns of young people who have spent as many as ten years learning that it is pointless to try.

The brains of normal newborn babies are programmed to learn. Babies soak up the world around them through their sensory apparatus. Because of their innate curiosity, kids are motivated to learn but that motivation must be sustained. When they arrive for their first day of school, we can help sustain or, if necessary, re-ignite that motivation with positive reinforcement that is most powerful if it is provided within the context of a nurturing relationship with people who care about them. Positive reinforcement from parents or other caregivers and teachers, who are both able and committed to giving kids time and attention, can be a powerful  force. It works best when the providers of that reinforcement are working in concert, as members of a team, but often, it will be left to teachers. Hence, it is imperative that teachers are given latitude.

Think of that positive reinforcement in terms of affirmation, acknowledgement, and celebration of success. Affirmation is reinforcement of an individual’s inherent value. It is letting kids know that they are important, that we like and care about them. It instills a sense of belonging. Think about how many of the students who have engaged in acts of violence against their classmates and teachers  appeared to exist on the fringes of their in-school communities; who felt no sense of belonging. That sense of being a part of a community, team, or family not only helps develop a healthy self-esteem, it helps nurture and sustain one’s motivation to learn.

Acknowledgement and celebration of success are essential to learning. Success must be experienced before it can be acknowledged and celebrated, however. If the education process neither authorizes nor facilitates the ability of teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn, not only are students deprived of the opportunity to master subject matter, they are denied the opportunity to celebrate success, which reinforces the learning process and their motivation to learn.

Recall, always, the learning process is, itself, learned behavior.

It is true they do not control student achievement, but teachers have power to influence that achievement, provided they are able to exercise discretion and exert some level of control over the education process.  If the education process does not accommodate that freedom of action, on the part of teachers, it must be replaced.

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.

The Failure of So Many Public School Students and Poverty: Symptoms of the Same Pathology

(this is an updated version of a post published in the fall of 2013)

In a post on the Blog of Diane Ravitch, she talked about the assertion of Michael Petrilli[i] that education can solve the problem of poverty. [This post was published in 2013 but the issue is every bit as cogent, today.]

It is my belief that understanding the relationship between poverty and the problems of our systems of education is essential to fixing education.

Michael Petrilli’s suggestion that education can fix poverty is correct, but I believe there is more to it than that. The causal relationship between poverty and the problems in our public schools is not a simple thing.  It is my assertion that poverty and the poor performance of so many American children are interdependent. It is a chicken versus the egg conundrum.

In this blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream and in my 2013 book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I suggest that poverty, deteriorating neighborhoods, the failure of so many American children, low-performing schools, and burned out teachers are all symptoms of the same underlying pathology.

That we do not recognize the true nature of the relationship between poverty and the failure in our schools contributes greatly to the disappointment of education reforms over the past half century.

I, also, suggest that race has nothing to do with this failure, and the belief on the part of some American educators and many citizens that the academic performance of disadvantaged children, specifically children of color, is the best we can expect, also contributes greatly. The problem is not race; it is culture, with poverty playing an interdependent role.

There is an enormous population of multiple generations of American men and women who have always failed in school. These citizens, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, have lost faith and hope in the American dream. These Americans, living in poverty, reside under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness and no longer believe they possess control over the outcomes in their lives or that an education provides a way out for their children. This is a cultural phenomenon that leaves these children vulnerable to ravages of discrimination.

Consider what it would be like to be born into a family where your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have all failed in school. What is the likelihood that anyone reared in such an environment would be expected to be successful in school? What is the probability that an individual child in such a family would arrive for their first day of school with an expectation that they will be successful? What is the probability that these children will grow up to be productive citizens of a participatory democracy?

Add to this that such families are part of an entire community of men and women who have always failed in school and who have little or no expectation that an education will provide a way out for their sons and daughters.  What such an environment creates is a culture of hopelessness and powerlessness that transcends race. The youngsters from this culture are not just black students or other minorities. There are white students and their families immersed in the same culture of minimal expectations; the same cycle of failure and poverty.  

During the first nine years of my career, when I was a juvenile probation officer, I met many such children. I have sat at kitchen tables sharing cups of coffee with the parents of these children; families lamenting that they have few hopes for their kids. Believe me, these parents love their children every bit as much as any other American family.

Such families, whatever their ethnicity, are part of a culture characterized by a disdain for education. These men and women do not trust their schools and teachers, they do not teach their  children to value education, and do not provide a home  environment that fosters a strong motivation to learn. How do parents provide such an environment for their children when they have never experienced it themselves?

We live in a time when the American dream has become meaningless to  many and they no longer view an education as a ticket to the dream.  The children from these cultural pockets throughout much of urban and rural America, arrive for their first day of school with precious little motivation to learn and even less preparation. There, they are greeted by an education process that is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to respond to the challenges they present and they are greeted by teachers and administrators who are as much victims of that education process as their students.

With its focus on academic standards with arbitrary timetables and on testing to measure performance against those standard, our American educational process sets up for failure and humiliation, huge numbers of students. These kids who are our society’s most precious assets are, figuratively, chewed up and spit out by the education process despite the valiant efforts of dedicated and caring teachers. That we turn around and blame these same teachers for the failings of an obsolete education process is as unconscionable as it is unfathomable.

That educators and policy makers are bewildered that these children are disruptive, earn failing grades, and disappointing scores on state competency exams is, itself, bewildering. The pleas from teachers to parents for help and support are rejected by men and women who, themselves, are products of the same educational process. These mothers and fathers and grandparents do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.

In my book and blog, I reject the conventional wisdom about the reasons for the academic failure of a growing percentage of American children and offer an alternative hypothesis. I suggest that the problems with education in the U.S. are 1) this burgeoning cultural disdain for education on the part of parents and the resulting lack of motivation on the part of their children, and 2) an obsolete educational process that allows students to fail.

The very fact that children can fail contributes greatly to a reality in which so very many of them do. This will not change until we alter how we structure and organize schools and teachers and until we reinvent the way we teach. The Hawkins Model© is created to do just that.


[i] Michael Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Executive Editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States.

Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system or education process that demands a complete re-examination.

Think about how children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and, when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike, we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is that they do learn.

When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, we comfort them, give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again. When they finally get it, we celebrate their accomplishment just like we celebrate all victories. Victory is just another word for success.

What we don’t do is tally the number of times they fall, nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready.

If we are helping two children learn how to ride a bike, simultaneously, and one child catches on more quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling and tell them time is up. Neither do we push the second child to take off in pursuit. We certainly do not start teaching both children more advanced skills, rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.

We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly, nor do we celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one rides every bit as good as the other and has just as much fun. Once one masters a skill, it no longer matters, in the least, that one student took longer to learn than another.

Now, think about how we teach children in many of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we review the most common mistakes that students make to help them learn from their mistakes. We, then, require our teachers to do one or more of three things that are incomprehensible when you think about it.

The first is that we do not, routinely, give struggling students whatever extra time they need to understand their mistakes. If they are to acquire a sufficient level of mastery of the subject matter to demonstrate to us that they understand and can use the knowledge or skill, proficiently, they must have time to learn from all their mistakes, even the uncommon ones.

Secondly, teachers will either record the grades of their students’ practice assignments or give or withhold credit for those assignments. They, then, factor a students’ scores/credits into their final grade at the end of the grading period, which often influences their grades at the end of a semester or school year.

The third unfathomable thing teachers are expected to do is require struggling students to move on to the next lesson in a textbook or syllabus, ready or not. It is as if the designers of the education process did not consider that for students to understand many lessons, they must be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. Teachers are expected to let their students advance without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding they will need.

The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the education process and entire American educational system is that we move everyone along to make sure we cover, within arbitrary time frames, all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process.

It was not always this way. When we first began teaching children, in a classroom setting, the only thing that mattered was whether each child learned as much as they were able at their own best speed. How, along the way from the early days of public schools until now, did we gravitate away from a focus on individual student achievement to an environment where we judge schools and teachers based on whether their classrooms are on an acceptable pace with respect to academic standards?

We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A”  or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future, but that is what is expected of teachers. We ask teachers to shove aside their reticence and plunge ahead.

If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than their “C, D, or F” classmates. Certainly they enjoy more success. In fact, it does not take long before it becomes clear that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”

We observe this fully understanding that it is as much fun to learn successfully as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose? How can one learn how to be successful without experiencing success?

If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions.

The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire system of education.

If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions of your leaders and policy makers.

You are also invited to examine an education model in which all these issues have been examined and where the way we have structured teachers and classrooms, and the way we  teach kids, has been re-envisioned. The result is an environment where we give our students the time and attention they need to learn every lesson and we evaluate teachers on how well they focus on that priority. It is amazing how, when we expand our paradigms, the possibilities multiply.

Bad Days and Grumpy Moods – we all have them both Teachers and Students

A friend on Facebook recently posted a meme, published by Miramir.com, quoting author Rebecca Eanes.

“So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes.  Yet, we adults have them all the time. None of us are perfect. We must stop holding our children to a higher standard or perfection than we can attain ourselves.”

-Author, Rebecca Eanes, posted at Miramir.com

It is a terrific message and should be read by all. Having, “grumpy moods, bad days, . . .” is a universal human characteristic. We are all like that, even kids. When kids have that kind of day at school or at home, however, they usually get into trouble. This is especially true in school because the education process demands conformance, obedience, and “respectful tones.” Anything else disrupts the classroom and interferes with the work of teachers and classmates.

Because of the way our education process is structured, we leave no room for our students to do the very things we will likely do when we get home because the behavior of students led to a bad day, left us in a grumpy mood, and feeling short-tempered. Hopefully, at home, our families and friends will back off and give us space to work through the frustration we feel. Good friends and good families are like that. They are people who love us and have no expectation that we be perfect, in fact, they love us with all our “perfect imperfections,” as John Legend’s song describes them. And, at home, we typically have places where we can get away from everyone, even if only for a moment or two.

At school, even for good teachers, it is not so easy. Good teachers care but are not allotted enough time to help students work through the frustrations that flow from dealing, in some instances, with problems at home that we can hardly imagine. There are just too many kids, too much to do, and nowhere near enough time. So, we discipline students and even send them to the office if their frustrations and acting out cause too much disruption. It’s a last resort for teachers but their responsibility extends beyond the individual child, to a classroom full of other students.

The problem isn’t just that we give kids a reprimand, time out, or trip to the office—all of which brand the child as a discipline problem–the most significant consequences that flow from such actions are related to the fact that they lose time. They miss out on lessons that are being taught and practice time that is being given, and opportunities to get in-class assistance from their teacher. Most significantly, they fall ever further behind and this this only exacerbates their situation and fuels the frustration that got them in trouble to begin with.

The combination of their frustrations from the challenges at home, combined with the hopeless feeling of falling further behind, academically, and being viewed as “a problem student” or “bad kid” pile up until a student feels overwhelmed. When kids begin to feel hopeless and powerless to extricate themselves from bad situations, the risk is that they may choose to give up and stop trying.

Think about how you feel when you have had ”meltdown” incidents. For many of us, what we feel is helplessness and hopelessness. When the episode passes, as they always do, they may have created some inconveniences with which we must deal, but we are still able to get back in the game. For our students, in similar circumstances, the game clock is ticking away and there are no timeouts as in an athletic contest, where the whole game pauses to let participants catch their breath.

The academic standards that drive teachers and classrooms function like a conveyor belt. Once a child falls off, it is difficult for them to get back on the belt, even with our help. If they get back on, they can see how much further behind they have fallen, relative to their classmates.

Those academic standards are tied to an external, arbitrary timeline that may be totally out of sync with a child’s unique internal timetable. We all know how difficult it can be to get back in sync with all that is going on in our lives, but for many children, particularly disadvantaged kids, getting back in sync seems next to impossible. Their internal and external timetables are like an event horizon in which the child finds him or herself on the wrong side, with no way to get back on track.

What I have striven to do in the education model I have developed—The  Hawkins Model©—is  to eliminate external timetable so that students are never at a place in time that is out of sync with their unique developmental path. Even when schools must teach to a set of academic standards, these represent an outline of what policy makers have determined all children need to learn. We need to ask ourselves what is most important: that students learn these things, even if it takes some children longer than others, or that we strive to get them all from point to point in perfect cadence?

If we accept the premise that the two most essential variables in education are relationships and learning, what are arbitrary timetables? Are they not a “constant” that regulates relationships and learning? If we eliminate the constant variable of time, relationships and learning become independent variables that are not compromised by extraneous forces? We need an education model—education process—that ensures that such forces do not impede a child’s progress down their unique academic path.

We need a model in which the teacher is able give each student the time he or she needs to learn. Teachers often tell me, “this is not possible, there just isn’t enough time.”

Within the context of the existing education process, they are correct. This does not mean that creating time is impossible, only that the existing process and structure does not provide for it. If we are willing to alter the process and structure, we can design it to produce the outcomes we want based on the unique needs of each of our students. It all depends on how we sort our priorities and whether we are willing to question the validity of our structure and process.

In The  Hawkins Model© giving students time they need to learn and work through their frustrations, bad days, and grumpy moods is more important than keeping all students moving at the same pace down the arbitrary timelines that complicate academic standards. The fact that they may need to be separated from the class so as not to disrupt, need not impede their progress, it just delays things a bit.

The Primacy of Relationships and the Challenge of Peer Pressure – Part 2

Part of the focus on relationships that is central to The Hawkins Model©, is to ensure that, not only do  students have close and enduring relationships with their teachers, but also that they develop and sustain healthy bonds with their classmates. Such relationships play an important part of healthy development and can ensure that peer pressure can be a positive influence on kids, of any age, and not just a negative force that distracts and diverts young people from their values and purpose. Positive peer influence can be a powerful force that can strengthen relationships, minimize the incidence of bullying, and provide positive role models for kids.

When my family moved to Indiana during the middle of my junior year in high school, I had an opportunity to witness the positive power of peer influence alter the behavior of many of my classmates. In this case, it was a small thing, but it demonstrated the ability of a popular student to influence the behavior  of his peers as a positive role model.

As a new student who didn’t make friends easily, I was thrilled to be invited to hang out with one of the nicest and most popular juniors in the school. His name was John and he was a trend setter; not only in fashion but also in other ways. He was the first guy to reach out to me with an offer of friendship.

One day, we all arrived at school in a driving downpour and, as was the case in my prior high school, there were no raincoats, boots, or umbrellas to be seen on any of my male classmates. Guys were willing to arrive drenched rather than appear uncool. Then, along came my friend John, using an umbrella. He was the only guy who left a dry path, that day, as he passed through the halls and classrooms.

The very next time it rained, a few days later, there must have been a dozen or more guys, myself included, who arrived at school using an umbrella. By the end of the school year, seeing a guy in the rain without an umbrella was the exception, not the rule.

Our friend John, with his powerful self-esteem demonstrated how much of a difference one person can make just by setting a good example. To his credit, this was not the only way John exerted a positive influence on his peers. He was a genuinely good person who treated all other students–no matter who they were–and teachers with kindness and respect. He would have been a perfect candidate for membership in a 1960s version of @melanie_korach’s #starfishclub.

As I thought back about the other students with whom I shared a classroom over thirteen years of school, I began to recall others boys and girls who contributed, quietly but meaningfully, to help create of a positive peer environment.

It was a sad day, more than twenty years later, when  I searched for and found John’s name etched on the black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I felt a keen sense of loss and was unembarrassed to shed a tear for a guy who befriended me when I was the new kid in school; a young man who made a difference with his positive values, commitment to his community–whether a high school class or his country–and by being both confident and kind.

How many schools and classrooms, of which you are aware, make it a point to create a positive culture for all students, not just the most popular kids. It is my assertion that we can create a classroom environment that fosters this kind of positive peer influence, intentionally. It is one of the subtle but powerful things The Hawkins Model© can help create just by changing the way we structure the education process. Why not check it out?