Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin.
Setting the Stage
Over the last 150 years, the educational process at work in our systems of education, both public and private, has evolved slowly through a steady stream of incremental reforms. During those same 150 years, American society has changed exponentially. A combination of a growing population; increasing diversity; immigration, both legal and not; advancements in technology that would have seemed unimaginable even two decades ago; a crumbling infrastructure; a more competitive world marketplace; a fragile and demanding ecosystem; and, a far more complex political environment place great pressure on a democratic form of government.
Democracy depends upon our public schools to prepare young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive members of society but, given the dynamic world in which we live, the American educational process is ill-equipped to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population of children. If we were creating an educational process from scratch, given what we now know, that process would look much different than it does today. It would be structured to produce the outcomes we want.
In order to alter this reality, we must start by clarifying the purpose of public education in America. As simply as we can state that purpose, it is to prepare our nation’s children for the responsibilities of citizenship and to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and tools they will need to become productive citizens. We must work to help each child maximize their talents and abilities so they will be able to enter adulthood with a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find happiness and meaning. We also want them to be able to create value and add wealth to society. Of equal importance is that they be able to carry out their civic responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy. This requires that they have sufficient understanding of the complex issues facing our society to make thoughtful decisions.
We want their education to be well-rounded to include language arts and mathematics skills; a solid understanding of the natural world (science); a grasp of history in hopes that they can learn from our mistakes; and, finally, a full appreciation of the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences. We need to teach them that diversity is our greatest strength as a nation.
During the balance of this Twenty-first Century, the world will continue to undergo unprecedented changes that will challenge the ability of our planet’s diverse population to live together in peace. We must address the issues of hunger, health, and economic welfare while protecting our natural habitat. We must do all of these things in the midst of the hatred some people have for others and in spite of the horrible violence people do to one another.
As a nation, we cannot be successful bickering among ourselves and neither can we meet our objectives if we must continue to support an ever-larger segment of people who live in poverty. Add caring for the steadily aging baby boomer generation and the burden will soon be overwhelming.
A significant emphasis of conservative right Americans is that it is time to cut off those who depend on government assistance. The problem, of course, is that these millions of Americans who are dependent are not going to slip away into oblivion and let the rest of the population do their own thing. We must, somehow, re-engage the poor as full and productive citizens.
We also need the millions of immigrants who have fled to the U.S., whether legally or illegally.
We must stop thinking of these people as a liability or as a danger. This population will prove to be an invaluable asset to our country and all they ask in return is the same freedom and opportunities that Americans should be able to expect.
We must also recognize that there will be a shift in political power over the balance of this century. According to the projections of the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2060, the population of non-Hispanic whites is projected to decline from 62 percent, today, to an estimated 44 percent of the total US population. Any illusions white Americans may have that they will continue to rule the roost into the latter half of this century are pure fantasy. If we are committed to the preservation of the great American democracy, we must invite the poor and the non-white to become full and equal partners. For the poor and the non-white, it is time to take charge of one’s own destiny.
What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.
Through the utilization of the tools of systems thinking and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.
Today, our educational process, whether employed in a public, private, or parochial setting, is not structured to see that each child learns as much as he or she can, as quickly as he or she is able. Rather, the process is structured to move children, grouped by chronological age, along a path outlined by academic standards that are established by each state. Standardized tests are utilized to assess whether children are where the academic standards say they should be at predetermined points in time.
What the current educational process does is ask teachers to guide children down that path as if it were a race and to keep score to see who learns the most, the fastest. As children fall out along the way from ages 5 or 6 to 18, we let them accumulate along that path, much in the way a 1950s assembly line would produce a scrap pile of discrepant material. Because these children have not been successful in acquiring even a basic portfolio of knowledge and skills, they congregate in the poorest neighborhoods and communities in both urban and rural America and they begin creating a whole new generation. They congregate in these poor communities because they have nowhere else to go with the possible exception of our jails and prisons.
Reformers who push for privatization of education; standardized testing as a tool to hold teachers and schools accountable and promote charter schools and vouchers are wrong in their assertions about why so many American children are failing in our schools. In their drive to apply what they refer to as “proven business practices” they are doing great harm to our most vulnerable children, their schools and communities, and also to the public school teachers on whom so much depends. These reformers proceed with such arrogance that they never consider the possibility that they might be wrong.
These reformers are correct, however, about the need to apply proven business principles but we are not talking about the principles that come from the boardrooms with their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The business principles to which we refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective in a business environment. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer, structuring an organization to serve its purpose, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.
Public school teachers and other educational professionals, while unfairly blamed for the problems in our public schools, are also wrong. They are wrong to defend an educational process that fails to meet the needs of so many of our precious children. It is my assertion that the educational process, with its focus on failure, does a disservice to even the children who appear to excel academically.
Reforms of the last two decades have attacked them to such a degree that our teachers’ defensiveness is understandable but that does not make their intransigence defensible. We need fresh insight into this vital issue. It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.
If your find merit in the following pages, I ask that you read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (CreateSpace, 2013) and the companion blog at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com. The book is available in both Kindle and paperback format and can be ordered through Amazon.com or through my website.
Reinventing the American Educational Process and our Public Schools
For as long as anyone can remember, children at the ages of 5 or 6 have arrived for their first day of school where they, as a class, have been placed on a path from Kindergarten and first grade to twelfth grade, although not all make it to grade 12. There have always been children who fail or perform poorly in school and, over the decades, the number of failures has multiplied as one generation after another has sent its sons and daughters off to school. We now have multiple generations of families who have always failed at school and who have always been poor. With each generation, the hope in the minds of parents that an education provides a way out for their children has eroded as has their faith in the American dream.
These mothers and fathers, and sometimes grandparents and other family members, raise their children in poverty. They still send their children off to school but for many, the purpose of school has been downgraded to free daycare, five days a week, 9 months of the year. With but the fewest of exceptions, these parents and guardians no longer teach their children that an education is a ticket to the American dream, nor do they make sacrifices to help prepare their children for school or support their kids’ teachers.
These youngsters show up for their first day of school with minimal motivation to learn, little if any academic preparation, and little parental support. Often, the parents’ biggest concern is a fear that their children will be picked on by their teachers and be forced to endure other forms of discrimination, so minimal is the trust of schools on the part of many of these parents. The seemingly inevitable outcome of these realities is that each generation of the poor and the failing is even more likely to remain entrapped in the cycles of poverty and academic failure.
For decades, educators and educational policymakers have responded to this cycle of failure with a bevy of incremental reforms and initiatives and have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to fix what is wrong with public education. In their frustration with their inability to put an end to the cycle of failure, educators and policymakers alike have declared that such pervasive failure is a consequence of poverty. They suggest that we will not alter the outcomes in our schools until we do something about poverty. At no time have these educators considered that what they do contributes to the crisis or that the educational process, itself, is flawed.
The rest of us nod our heads in bewildered agreement because what else could it be? The fact that this population of the poor and the uneducated is disproportionately black or other minorities is declared to be a consequence of segregation and discrimination. Sadly, an embarrassingly large segment of mainstream America, a society still scourged by the bitterness and resentment of bigotry, believe that such outcomes are the best we can expect from children of color or for whom English is a second language. Crime and violence are viewed as inevitable outcomes. Sad commentary for a nation that boasts that it is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world and a beacon for freedom and human dignity.
These beliefs play a significant role in the tendency of some whites and some police officers to profile blacks, young men in particular, as a threat, thereby elevating the tension in even routine interactions and confrontations. This is all part of a complicated web of interdependent forces that adversely affect American society; a society comprised of unequal components. The growing number of successful, well-educated blacks and other minorities is viewed as nothing more than an anomaly by many white Americans.
The poor and minorities are becoming angrier as they find more and more doors of opportunity closed to them. Meanwhile, mainstream Americans are angrier because they resent having to support a population of men and women whom they view as unwilling to pull their own weight. They greatly resent what they view as an entitlement mentality.
The wider the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” the greater the threat to a democratic form of government that depends on the ability of reasonable men and women to work together. This ever-widening chasm contributes to a growing desire of some Americans for a more authoritarian style of leadership, a phenomenon that has been studied by such people as Marc J. Hetherington at Vanderbilt University and Jonathon Weiler at the University of North Carolina. The reader may also wish to check out an article on the subject on March 1, 2016 in Vox by Amanda Taub, and a column by Colbert I. King in the Washington Post on March 4th of this year.
It is within this context that the battle for the future of public education is being fought. On the one hand, we have business people with incredible wealth who have generously pledged huge chunks of their personal fortunes to reform education in America. These people, and those who support them in both government and in the private sector, are tired of waiting for professional educators to “clean up their act.” These education reformers are motivated by years of frustration with the difficulty in finding capable, well-educated men and women to work in their companies. They are emboldened by their absolute belief that the wealth and jobs created by their corporations are the fundamental backbone of the American economy.
These reformers have declared that if professional educators cannot fix public education “they need to get out of our way and let us run their schools like we run our businesses.” In their zeal to hold schools and teachers accountable, they have placed great emphasis on standardized competency examinations. They suggest that schools that cannot improve their performance should be taken over or closed and their teachers let go.
Their other point of emphasis is privatization through the creation of charter schools that provide alternatives so families can “choose the best available school for their children.” The words “choice” and “school choice” and derivatives have become an effective if misleading tagline for reformers and political candidates who portray themselves as “champions of public education.”
These politicians profess to be committed to the idea of “choice,” and they charge forth ignorant of both the true issues facing public education and of the harm they do. They are also proponents of voucher programs as a tool to subsidize charter and other private and parochial schools with tax dollars.
This sounds promising but it is the shallowest of promises. The problem with such strategies is not that charter schools are inherently bad rather that these reformers are abandoning our most challenged public school districts and their students and teachers. If one steps back and examines this movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”
We must not allow public education to be considered “triage” where we pick and choose to whom we will guarantee opportunities.
We seem to have lost sight of the original vision with respect to charter schools which was that such schools would become laboratories for innovative techniques and approaches that, once proven, can be rolled out for the benefit of all schools. Given the fact that many charter schools seem to do little more than replicate the traditional educational process, it should come as no surprise that few charters are outperforming their public school counterparts and that some are underperforming.
Teachers unions and associations have also been targeted by reformers who believe these entities, through their advocacy on behalf of teachers, have become obstacles in the path of educational reforms. The reality is that these corporate reformers and their conservative political supporters are against unions, irrespective of venue.
All of these reform initiatives, including “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” evidence no real understanding of the reasons why so many American children are failing. In the interim, these education reform initiatives and their proponents are a powerful force doing horrific damage to our public schools, their students and teachers, and also to the communities public schools strive to serve.
On the other side of the battle for the future of public education, we find American teachers and other educators who proclaim that our public schools are not failing. It is disappointing that teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, are so busy defending themselves from critics that they cannot translate what they see in their own classrooms into meaningful advocacy. The things they complain about in the faculty lounge or at association and union gatherings are the exact same problems to which I refer in my book.
One can only wonder how an educational system that fails nearly a third of its students can be considered to be a success. If we examine the findings of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that data suggests that 60 to 70 percent of American students perform below “proficient.” NAEP defines “proficient,” among other things, as a student being able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations.” That we can claim the system is working, when more than half of its students are unable to apply what they have learned in response to “real-world situations,” stretches credibility.
These professionals insist that poverty is the culprit and throw up their hands in figurative despair that they are powerless to overcome the impact of it. Ridding the nation of poverty, these advocates suggest, is the responsibility of our government and of society as a whole. Educators also point to the re-segregation of our poor urban and rural public schools as a causal factor. In spite of the poverty and other challenges, these educators insist that our public schools are better than they have ever been.
There have, indeed, been many advancements in education over the years but we can only judge a system or process by the outcomes it produces, no matter how hard people are working or how well-meaning they may be.
The truth about the generations of the uneducated who live in poverty is that they are victims of a century’s worth of ineffectual government policies and an obsolete educational process that works at cross purposes with the efforts of teachers and sets children up for failure. No one can dispute that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for children but it is because of the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty that parents have given up on education and have lost faith in the American dream.
Instead of blaming poverty, we need to attack hopelessness and powerlessness, relentlessly. We need to take this logic a step further and suggest that rather than poverty being the cause of the challenges in public education, poverty is, in fact, an outcome of the crisis in public education. It is a “chicken v. the egg” conundrum, to be sure.
Poverty exists because a huge population of American men and women—the overwhelming majority of whom attended public schools—lack literacy, numeracy, and the other knowledge and skills essential to full participation in the American enterprise and in our democracy. These Americans are trapped in a maelstrom of failure and poverty and are virtually powerless to alter that reality. This fact is indisputable and to disclaim any and all responsibility for such outcomes further damages the credibility of educators. We are at a critical point in our nation’s history and being in denial serves the interests of no one.
Let us be blunt. Poverty does not keep children from learning and our insistence that poverty is to blame for the problems in public education obscures the truth and bars the path to meaningful reform. Throughout our nation’s history there are countless examples of children from impoverished families who have excelled, academically, and have escaped the clutches of poverty. This is also true, today. We have known this but because we have been asking the wrong questions, the significance of these success stories eludes us. Rather than asking “why do so many children fail?” the question we should be asking is “what are the characteristics of the children who succeed in spite of the incredible disadvantages they face?”
As it turns out, the answer to the “correct question” is the key to unlocking the secrets of both the cycles of failure and of poverty. Only when we understand the real forces at work will we be able to develop a strategy to fix public education, attack poverty, and begin transforming American society.
The reason why some kids find success in a landscape of deprivation is, first, because they are supported by a parent or guardian who, in the face of incredible odds, somehow clings to hope that an education can provide a way out for their children. Many of the educated black men and women who are reading these words know that what I say is true from their own experience. These adults owe everything to a parent or guardian who refused to let them fail.
These parents and guardians are fiercely determined that their child is going to learn and they do whatever it takes to help. They make sure their child is prepared, academically; that they are motivated to learn; that they work hard; and, these caregivers accept responsibility for their child’s education through committed partnerships with their children’s teachers. Unfortunately, these parents are the exception to the rule but that does not diminish the significance of what we can learn from their success.
The lessons we can learn from these incredible caregivers must be central to every effort to reform public education. A committed parent who believes in the American dream for their children, if not for themselves, is formidable force in the life of a child. When those parents are willing partners with their children’s teachers their power and that of the teachers is magnified. Amazing success follows.
What this means for educational reform is that, somehow, we must find a way to convince parents that an education will be the difference in the lives of their children. This is no easy task when those parents have spent a lifetime on the outside looking in and have been victims of as many as 150 years of failed promises. These parents are part of multiple generations of men and women who have been chewed up and spit out by an educational process that is focused on failure. They neither believe in the importance of education nor the integrity of teachers and other educators. These Americans are drowning in a sea of anger and despair and they do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.
If we are going to convince people, we must be able to show them that we have something new and powerful to offer that will benefit their children. There is nothing in marketing as powerful as having something new and innovative to sell. Parents and guardians must be convinced that their child will not be subjected to the cycle of failure; something they know well from their own school experience.
It is imperative that we understand that this flawed educational process threatens the very principles of democracy. Unless we act quickly, with purpose and commitment, the adverse consequences for our society will be as certain as the impact of unrestrained use of fossil fuels on our planet. These generations of American were not destined to fail, rather they were permitted to fail and until we accept responsibility for that failure, the consequences will haunt the great American democracy for generations to come.
We turn, now, to the educational process at work in schools, both public and private, throughout the U.S.; first to understand and then to figure out what must be done. What is it about this process that is having such a devastating effect on so many of our nation’s most vulnerable children, thus placing our society at risk? We need to think about what happens, today in 2016, in elementary schools throughout the nation.
The disparity in academic preparation, motivation to learn, and parental support of the children who arrive at our door on their first day of school is cavernous. The disadvantage created when a child is bereft of these essential supports is every bit as great as a child with a visual, auditory or any other type of recognized disability. The impact is probably greater for the children with “academic preparedness” impairments because these other disabilities are not always accompanied by such high levels of hopelessness and powerlessness. We have known what to do for the former group of children for a long time and so we just do it.
Since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) we have made all manner of accommodations to mitigate the disadvantages of those with physical, visual, auditory, and emotional impairments and we have spent billions of dollars toward that objective, as well we should. We have done the same for children with clearly identifiable learning disabilities.
We have had no idea what to do with students with an “academic preparedness deficiency” and so we have done next to nothing other than rely on teachers to do the best they can. Very often these children come from low-income families and live in the midst of hopelessness and powerlessness. Many are children of color or those for whom English is a second language. These children deserve the same level of accommodation as other children with impairments.
Teachers, particularly in the lower grades, do the best they can for these students within the context of the current educational process and its associated expectations. Teachers recognize that many children are faltering and they reach back and help as much as time permits. What we must understand is that educational process is not structured in such a way that helping these kids is a priority or even an expectation and this is not activity against which our teachers’ performance will be measured.
The primary focus of the educational process, rather, is on preparing the whole class for the standardized competency exams that loom in the near future. It is on the aggregate performance of the class, on such exams, that the performance of both teachers and their schools will be measured and for which they will be held accountable.
It is understood that not all children will perform well on such tests and about this educators do feel remorse. It is a numbers game, however, the essence of which is that there is a certain percentage of failure that we have learned to tolerate. A school’s performance is measured against both state averages and its own past performance.
In other words, the process is designed to view a certain level of failure as acceptable. The educational process is not perfect, we tell ourselves, and it cannot be expected to solve the problems of society that contribute to the failure of so many children; most notably poverty.
If we stop and truly think about the implications of this mindset it is difficult to fathom or justify.
Why would we ever be willing to accept the failure of a child? Why would we ever judge a child’s performance against that of his or her classmates?
Although we possess the tools and expertise with which to perform a comprehensive assessment of the extent of a child’s disadvantage when they report for their first day of school, how many schools do this? Had we made the effort to do such an assessment, we possess the know-how to design a unique instructional plan to mitigate the disadvantage of every single child who arrives at our door. This is no different than making any other type of accommodation.
While we could make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children with an academic preparation deficiency by performing such assessments and creating tailored instructional plans, even this is insufficient if we do not also address the fundamental flaws in the educational process. It is a process that expects teachers to move students forward, as a class, even when some students are not ready. Every time a student is expected to move on to a new lesson before they are ready reduces the odds that the child will be successful on the next lesson. As this pattern plays out the one lesson kids are learning is that they are not able to keep up with their classmates. Sooner or later these kids will give up on themselves.
Sometime around the year 2007, I had an epiphany. I began subbing for Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2002 and for the first couple of years I was so overwhelmed by the challenges of subbing that I rarely found the time or the presence of mind to really think about what was happening around me. In this respect, I was much like the teachers for whom I was filling in. This changed when I accepted a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher. I wrote about that experience and it is one of six vignettes that I included in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream (CreateSpace 2013). I have reproduced that vignette here:
Vignette #1 – Fort Wayne, IN – Middle school Math – Substitute Teacher
It is not very often that a substitute teacher actually has an opportunity to teach. One of the few occasions when I was able to teach was in a week-long assignment for a middle school math teacher. After two days of work on material having to do with prime factoring, rules of divisibility, and reducing to lowest terms, the students in three separate classes took a quiz, which the teacher had prepared in advance. It included twenty-five problems; all very similar to the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which we had been working. This particular teacher went to great lengths to insure that his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had acquired interlocking boards that were about twenty-four inches high for the purpose of dividing the table into four equal sections. Prior to every quiz or exam, the students would retrieve the boards from behind a cabinet and would set them up. As a result, it would be difficult if not impossible for a student to copy off of a classmate without being seen.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, I had high expectations, believing the students would do well on the quiz. To my surprise and disappointment, the results were that better than fifty percent of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and 75 percent of the students scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two out of the 85 students scored better than 95 percent. In other words there were 43 Fs, 21 Ds, 13 Cs, 6 Bs, and 2 As.
The next day, prompted by my surprise at the results, I spent the entire period reviewing the same material. I did not return the quiz to the students, however, and chose not to review the actual questions from the prior day’s quiz. We worked problems as a class on the whiteboard and I worked one-on-one with the students who appeared to need that level of attention. Great care was taken to avoid doing the work for them.
The following day, I had all three classes retake the quiz. In advance of the retake they were told, in broad strokes, how poorly the class had done, although no one had access to their own results. They were also assured that this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. The hope was that this opportunity would motivate the students to improve their scores while alleviating performance pressure.
Figure 1 – Comparing 1st and 2nd Quiz Scores
The new scores showed dramatic improvement by all but a handful of students. Better than ninety percent of students earned higher scores on the second quiz with several improving by two, three or more letter grades. A few students improved from failing grades to As and Bs. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or better and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Figure 1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude that their scores on the second quiz represented a substantially higher level of mastery.
While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, the level of improvement certainly was not a result of pure chance. The operative question is: Is it worth an extra two days to get such a dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery. I’ll let the reader decide for themselves.
The epiphany occurred for me when I realized that I had witnessed something that happens to students every day, in every class, year after year. Had I not attempted to try something different, the scores from the first quiz would have been recorded in the teacher’s gradebook and I would have moved on to the next lesson and we would have repeated the same process of presentation, practice, review, quiz, and final review. For both students and teacher this process has become a ritual.
The question that kept nagging at me was, how would the 64 students who had received Ds and Fs have fared on the next lesson module, had I not taken the extra time on the lesson? For that matter, how would the 13 students have fared who had received Cs? It struck me, then, that for the students who struggled—90 percent of the students of this teacher and classroom—this was a microcosm of their academic life; probably from beginning to end. We have placed these children in an environment that we have structured as a competition in which there are both winners and losers. If that were not bad enough, we accept the failure of these students as if we are powerless to do anything about it. The logical progression of this thought process was, “how much failure can a child deal with before they become so discouraged that they stop trying?”
In the above vignette, even though there was great improvement after the second quiz, two-thirds of the students were not yet able to achieve a score of 85 percent, but many were close. It probably would not take more than one more review and the majority of the class would be ready to move on to the next lesson module. Another sad fact in this story is that the students who had achieved 85 percent or better after the first test were forced to wait for others to catch up. In the ideal scenario, these students would have been encouraged to charge ahead at their best speed.
How much failure can any of us endure before losing hope that we will ever be successful? The reader is encouraged to think back on their own experience of a time where you were struggling to keep up with your classmates; or about a task you could never quite get right; or, about a game you could never win. How did you feel? How long did it take before you began avoiding such situations?
It was at this point that I began to think about the educational process as a system. Let us summarize the existing educational process:
In spite of the great variance on the academic preparedness continuum of the children arriving for their first day of school, for generations we have asked individual teachers to do the best they can for each child. We have laid down this challenge to our teachers, however, within the context of a specific set of expectations. Those expectations are that the results of their efforts will be measured not on the basis of each student’s progress on a unique educational path but rather on the basis of how an entire population of children at the same age perform as measured against state academic standards for children of a given age.
In Indiana, for example, we do this beginning with the second semester of the third grade, and then multiple grades thereafter, until high school, using ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of a standardized competency examination. Once in high school, the purpose of the testing shifts to graduate qualification in certain subjects.
Imagine that you teach at a school where only 20 percent of the students who arrive at your door are well-prepared for academic success. On standardized competency exams, how would the performance of your students compare to the students in a school across town where 80 percent of the kids arrive well-prepared? Would you feel that you were being fairly compared? More importantly, would your students have the same chance for success?
This is the reality of the American educational process for teachers and students in schools, both public and private, in communities throughout the United States. Teachers are expected to move their entire class, in sequential order from step-to-step as established by state standards for each subject area. Teachers must do this lesson-to-lesson, chapter-to-chapter, semester-to-semester, and grade-to-grade. While teachers have some latitude to help children along, slowly, at least during Kindergarten and first and second grades, the older the students get the more pressure is felt to move everyone along at a steady and comparable pace.
That ISTEP+ or other competency exams loom in the not too distant future is a cold reality for schools and teachers. If students do not perform well on these exams both the school and its teachers face consequences. From this point onward, the pressure to keep students moving along a common path becomes nothing short of relentless.
The fact that a great variance exists with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support is given virtually no consideration. Teachers must present subject matter according to the lesson plans that they have developed in conformance with state standards and that have been approved by their administration. Although they strive to give each student as much time and attention as possible, patience is a luxury not often available to teachers. The situation is complicated by the reality that anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of a teacher’s students miss most if not all of the questions or problems on practice assignments, quizzes, and tests. The time allotted for help and review is usually sufficient for students with a few mistakes but it is never enough for those who have made many.
The unvarnished truth is that the students who did poorly have been allowed to fail. The grades also become part of the student’s academic record and, not too gradually, begin to have a labeling effect. Children begin to identify with the grades they are given,
Very often, the next lesson requires that students be able to apply all or some of what they learned on previous lessons so that the student who is struggling is now at an even greater disadvantage and a greater risk of failure. Recall that according to NAEP results, 60 to 70 percent of American students “are below proficient.” They have not attained a level of mastery sufficient that they can utilize that knowledge “in real world situations,” which includes subsequent lesson modules.
Repeated failure chips away at a child’s confidence and self-esteem as these students recognize, very clearly, that they are not keeping up with classmates.
Now, think about this process within the context of teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. Some children learn quickly and are riding well before the end of the day. Other children fall down, cry and, for days, suffer skinned appendages and bruised egos. We keep encouraging them, however, because we know they can and will learn—they just need more time and our patient attention, which parents have the ability to give.
Within a few days, all are riding with comparable proficiency. Even bruised egos heal under the canopy of success and the joy of riding with one’s friends. After a couple of days, the fact that some kids took longer to learn than others becomes totally inconsequential to both the child and the community. Imagine, however, having to learn how to pop wheelies or perform other advanced riding skills before we have mastered balance, steering, and braking.
When kids fail in our schools it is not because they are incapable of learning and it is not because our teachers are incompetent. Children fail because our educational process is not structured to give each child however much time and patient attention they need. Learning quickly, or at least as quickly as one’s classmates, has become more important than whether or not a student has actually learned. This is proven, daily, throughout the nation whenever teachers must move on to new subject matter knowing full well that many of their students do not understand the previous one. Is it any wonder that kids give up on learning, stop trying, and begin acting out simply because they were permitted to fail?
This is the reality for the overwhelming majority of students who struggle and often fail, every day and in every class in virtually every school in America. Whether these struggling students represent 5 percent of their school’s population or 80 percent, the consequences are tragic for both the children, their teachers, and our nation. The fact that they do not get the time and attention they require is not because it is beyond our capability rather it is because this is not the expectation we lay out for teachers and because the educational process upon which we rely is not so structured.
Consider an alternative reality in which students are not permitted to fail; a reality in which they are always given the time and patient attention they require. When children who start from behind begin to realize that they can learn and when they have an opportunity to enjoy the success of learning, everything changes. We all want the same thing. When we sample a taste of success—of winning—we want more. The more kids learn, the more confident they become and the more confident they become the better able they are to control the outcomes in their lives. The more control young people have over outcomes, the stronger their self-esteem. Before long, the speed at which these children learn accelerates and they begin closing the gaps between themselves and the classmates with whom they have never been able to compete.
In a discussion with a teacher about this very process, he said “But they will never really catch up.” My response was a blunt “so what!” It does not matter whether they catch up with everyone else because we have no expectation that every student who completes high school will have chosen the same destination. We want them to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. We want them to have choices based upon their own unique skills, knowledge, and interests. If a child leaves school at the age of 18 or younger and has no choices available to them because of their poor academic performance, who has failed? Is the student or is it the American educational process?
We must begin with the simple idea that every child can learn and we must commence their formal education at the specific point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. The fact that our community needs to begin intervening in the lives of these children earlier and more aggressively does not change the job of the school and its teachers. With one exception, we can accept responsibility only at the point at which children pass through our door.
The exception is that when we find, through our assessment, that a child has any kind of impairment the first question we need to ask is “are there other children in the home who are at risk?” If so, we need to do what we can to connect that family with whatever kind of early intervention programs might be available in our community. We must, then, turn our full attention to the child who stands before us. Each of them both needs and deserves our best and most patient effort. They must not be allowed to fail, under any circumstances, as we begin moving them at their best speed from point to point on the unique academic plan we have tailored for them.
We are not just teaching colors, letters, numbers, words or other academic skills, we are teaching them that they can be successful, that they can learn, that learning can be fun, and that success will be celebrated. As the child moves along the path, one success at a time, the speed with which they learn will gradually begin to increase. Our job is simply to help them get as far down their unique academic path as they are able during the time they are our responsibility.
There is one more job that we must do, however. We must make it an ongoing routine to communicate with the child’s parent or guardian, whether or not they initially respond to our overtures. Gradually, most parents will begin responding when they see or hear that their child is making progress; when they begin to see the evidence of that progress in the eyes, hearts, minds, and behavior of their sons and daughters. Success and winning are as contagious as any infectious disease, even for those watching from the sidelines. Every time a parent is lured by their child’s success we have gained another foothold in the community.
What is important are two fundamental benchmarks that should be applied to every child. The first benchmark should be applied at every step of the way down each individual’s unique academic path. The second benchmark should be applied at strategic points along the way and once again when they finish high school.
The first benchmark is “can the student apply what they have learned in subsequent lessons or in responding to real life challenges.” If a student is unable to utilize what they have been taught, they have not really learned. And, if they have not really learned, then our job as educators is not done with respect to that child on that lesson. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable.
The second benchmark to be applied when kids finish high school and at other strategic points along the way is “on the basis of what they have learned, do students have meaningful choices to make.” Kids who cannot utilize what they have learned are almost always left with default decisions, which amount to no choice at all. The whole point of an education is to insure that kids have choices as adults.
We do a great disservice to a child who is pushed along to a second lesson before they have learned and mastered the first. We also do a great disservice to students who are at the top of their class when we ask them to slow down and wait for their classmates to catch up. Students should always be allowed to move forward at the best speed of which they are capable and that speed should never be influenced by the learning velocity of their classmates. To ask a student who excels, academically, to slow down will only diminish the joy of learning and add unnecessary boredom and frustration. When students are bored and frustrated they begin looking to friends, social media, and video games for their intellectual stimulation. The last thing we should ever want to do is dampen the joy of learning for any child, at any time.
In business, there is a principle that an organization is structured to produce the outcomes it gets. What outcomes do we covet? Do we want every child to learn and be able to utilize what they have learned and experience success; or, do we want a system that is satisfied to determine which kids learn the most, the fastest and in which only a few get to experience the joy of success? Do we want a process that allows children to enter adulthood without the knowledge and skills they will need in order to accept the responsibilities of citizenship?
The standard should be that every child is expected to achieve a level of mastery that is at least 85 percent on each and every lesson module and that no child should be allowed to fail. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable. This raises questions of what is possible and practical.
Is it even possible for teachers to give kids as much time and patient attention as they need? Is it realistic to think that all kids can achieve 85 percent mastery in every subject?
The answer is “no” when we try to do it within the context of the existing educational process and the incumbent expectations on both teachers and students. When we challenge our assumptions, alter those expectations to match our newly identified objectives, and then restructure the educational process to support those expectations, however, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” It is nothing more than a human engineering problem that will yield to the application of the human imagination and relentless determination.
My book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a specific blueprint for a practical solution that achieves our objectives and more. This is not science fiction, it is real-world problem-solving that will change the reality of public education for millions of American children and, in the process, will transform American society. It will also make the American dream an achievable reality for all people.
We will discover beyond a reasonable doubt that poverty is not the cause of the academic failure rather it is the other way around. Poverty is the outcome our current educational process is structured to create because it not only permits students to fail, it sets them up for failure.
We cannot continue churning out young adults and continue to grow the population of American men and women who lack the levels of literacy, numeracy, and other academic knowledge and skills necessary to be productive players in the American enterprise. We cannot accept the outcome in which young people are unable to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to make informed choices. These men and women do not believe in the American dream and they do not teach their children that a quality education is a ticket to that dream. Instead they live in poverty under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness and they bequeath the same tainted heritage to future generations of their offspring. This is untenable and unnecessary.
Our nation’s poor urban and rural communities are now full of several generations of Americans with a common experience. Whether white, black, or minorities of other ethnic heritage matters not. The longer a culture has been forced to endure the cycles of failure and poverty, however, the more likely they are to accept their circumstances with passive resignation. It has been engrained in them so deeply that few are able to envision anything different. If we cannot envision a better life for ourselves or our children, we cannot create it.
The performance gap between white and black students is the most gaping because African-Americans have been forced to endure the equivalent of lower class citizenship for a hundred and fifty years and that does not include the centuries of slavery. In some respects, African-American culture has evolved in isolation from mainstream America and is very much separate and apart. The exceptions are those who, with the help of parents and teachers, have enjoyed academic success and have carved out a place for themselves as educated men and women in mainstream society. If they were to speak candidly, many highly educated African-American men and women who are successful professionals or who occupy high level positions would acknowledge that they often have a sense of being separate and apart from poor blacks in urban and rural America.
Poor and uneducated adult Americans have minimal trust in mainstream/white society and its promises. For them, the dream is a failed promise and it is no more real for their children. Breaking down that mistrust is incredibly challenging so it is vital that we have unveiled a new educational process and can demonstrate that it will work for their children. When the barriers have been overcome, black children are every bit as capable of high academic achievement as any other child. This is true for all children, whatever the demography.
I urge the reader to take the time necessary to read my book and blog. Public education is, after all, an issue of such importance that we can afford to leave no stone unturned in search of a solution. What a bonus it will be if, when we solve the problems of public education, we learn that we have also set in motion the systematic abolition of poverty.
I offer one last caveat. There is a tendency to back off from sweeping systemic change and to latch onto bits and pieces of a newly designed proposal or system. This never works and is no more effective than the routine incremental changes that have effected public education for a century. What we have today is a product of that way of thinking. Systems are complex human organizations and/or processes with many interdependent people, parts, and forces. For a transformational change to work as envisioned, all of the components must support the system’s mission. When we only tinker with complex systems we inevitably discover that some components work at cross purposes with the mission. This must not be permitted.
Everything starts with purpose or mission and in the case of public education the purpose is to help every child gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for them to have a full and productive life and to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship.
Next, we must identify the key components that create the absolute best chance that we can provide each and every child with that kind of educational experience:
1. We must perform an assessment for each child who arrives for their first day of school so that we can develop an academic path tailored to his or her unique needs;
2. We must create an environment that fosters close personal relationships between students, teachers and parents as this gives each child the absolute best opportunity to be successful. We want each child to have the same type of special relationship with their teacher that many of us remember when we think back to our favorite teacher(s) and we want the parents to be an integral part of that special relationship;
3. During Kindergarten, first, and second grades we need to increase the resources dedicated to helping these youngsters lay a solid foundation for success and learning. Some kids start from way behind and we must do everything within our power to see that they progress from their unique starting point;
4. We must give each child the time and the patient instruction they need to begin moving down the unique academic path we have created for them at the best speed of which they are capable with the expectation that the minimum subject mastery score is 85 percent;
5. We must eliminate even the possibility of failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is critical to academic success but mistakes and failure are two entirely different things. If a child cannot demonstrate mastery on a given lesson then our job is not complete;
6. We want an environment in which all children are allowed to progress at their own best speed. They must not be required to wait on those who learn more slowly and they must not be pressured to keep up with students who had a head start.
7. We also want to create an environment in which students feel safe and secure and are able to develop strong, positive relationships with their peers irrespective of the speed with which they learn;
8. We want to give each child as much stability as possible with respect to both relationships and environment, for as long as possible, and, finally;
9. We must also provide teachers with clear expectations consistent with our new mission and we must equip them with tools and technology to help them optimize their performance.
On the foundation of these core objectives we can construct a new educational process that will be structured to produce the outcomes we seek. In my book, I offer nineteen action strategies to create such an educational process. These illustrate exactly how this new educational process will be structured and how it will work. I then offer an additional 14 action items that are designed to take this message to the people and engage parents as full partners.
As an addendum to this white paper, I have attached a model implementation plan to illustrate how manageable would be its implementation.
We must then reach out to organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advocacy on behalf of the poor, of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other minorities and demographic groups. With the assistance of these organizations, the intent is to take a new educational model to public school corporations that are struggling in the aftermath of the national movement to “reform public education.”
These corporations will be given the opportunity to employ this new model in one or more of elementary schools in their district with the poorest records of performance. Once the performance of this model has been demonstrated and well-documented, we can begin rolling the model out in each and every public school in that school corporation and then throughout the U.S.
Only when this has been accomplished will we be prepared to meet the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges that the balance of the 21st Century will bring.