“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.

Time is a Variable in the Education Equation, not a Constant

In our current education process within which teachers and students must do their important work, time is a constant component in what we might think of as the education equation.  Think of the education equation as you would any other algebraic equation used to illustrate the relationships of the components that work to produce desired outcomes. In the case of public education, we identify our desired outcome as student learning.

Time plays a significant role in the existing education process. We structure our classrooms according to age, which is a function of time. Students progress from Kindergarten or first grade through grade twelve on a year-to-year basis. Time, also, is integral to academic standards. Not only do those standards delineate the things children are expected to learn, we have also set time frames that are coordinated with student grade levels. These suggest where students should be in various skill development and subject areas at pre-determined points in time.

These time components are constants in that neither teachers, administrators, nor public school districts have been given the latitude to alter those time frames. They are part of the framework within which all are expected to work and are utilized to establish the basis on which outcomes are measured; specifically, student achievement . This suggests an underlying assumption that has far-reaching, adverse consequences for our nation’s children. It suggests all children learn and develop according to the same time schedules.

This plays out in the classrooms where students of a certain age are assigned to the same grade level and move from one grade to the next at the end of a calendar school year. Grades designed to measure and report student achievement are recorded by school year, semester, and grade period.

Within classrooms, students are expected to move from lesson to lesson and chapter to chapter as a group. Teachers develop lesson plans with time frames to which classes march in cadence, moving students from lesson to lesson. After allowing time for practice assignments, lesson plans have some time allocated for helping students learn from both their successes and mistakes. Within that framework, teachers do the best they can, responding to students with disparate needs and outcomes, but many  teachers would say it is never enough to meet the needs of every student, particularly those who struggle.

The reality is teachers are given little or no latitude to stop the march of time and make certain every child understands. When it is time, students are given chapter or unit tests and then must move on to next lessons and topics, ready or not.

When standardized tests are given, results are reported in relation to grade levels, as established by academic standards. When individual students are unable to pass these assessments in key subject areas, they are considered below grade level. In other words, they are not doing well when their performance is compared to students of the same grade and age.

This practice reveals significant flaws in our thinking about how students learn. We fail to consider that students start from the different points on an academic preparedness continuum. It also assumes that the appropriate way to gage a student’s progress is by comparing their progress to classmates.

Consider two students who arrive for school at the same time and age. One starts at point “zero” on a theoretical  “academic preparedness continuum,” while the other may have begun ten points ahead on that same preparedness scale.  Let’s assume, one year later, the first student has progressed from point zero to point six, while the second student has progressed from point ten to point fifteen. If the expectation is that students, at that age and grade, should have progressed to point fifteen, the second student is at grade level and the first is not.

Had we taken a closer look at the data, we would see that the first student actually made more progress than their classmate. With this data in hand, which student would we say accomplished the most? Is keeping up with a classmate truly more important than making significant individual progress? Most of us would say it is not, yet this is the way we assess performance.

This is an over-simplification, to be sure, but it is representative of what happens in classrooms across the nation for millions of children. The consequences of such things can be staggering in the life of a child. Consider that the first student, working hard to catch up and making progress, is viewed by the system as behind, based on test scores. In these situations, do any of these students begin to acquire the label of being below average or slow? We say this does not happen, but we all know it does.

We also say that the expectations for such students are never lowered but do we believe that? What happens to the child for whom expectations are lowered? How do they ever get back on track? They same is true at the conclusion of each lesson. How do students fare who are pushed ahead before they fully grasp the subject matter?   

The key to resolving these types of inequalities is to make time an independent variable, rather than a constant; giving teachers and administrators the latitude, first, to see that kids who are behind, for whatever reason, are given more time and attention so they might catch up; and, second, to measure each child’s performance against their own progress rather than on the basis of an arbitrary schedule of expectations or the performance of others.

Time can be an extraordinarily powerful tool  to enable teachers to help kids sustain their progress and be recognized as a “striving learner” rather than as one of the slow kids in the class. Presently, time is an extraordinarily negative force, constraining teachers and impeding student progress. This is just one example of how the education process is structured to function contrary to the best interests of both students and teachers.

The education model I have created was designed to mold the education process, including time, around the needs of teachers and students. The Hawkins Model© is engineered to empower teachers to utilize time as a resource to help students experience, celebrate, and be recognized for their progress; for their success. Consider how an environment is transformed when both students and teachers enjoy success. Confidence grows with each successful step taken. Once a child’s confidence and self-esteem begin to soar, who knows how much they may accomplish, someday. If you are a teacher, imagine what such an atmosphere would mean to you.

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.

The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!

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.

A CALL TO ACTION: A New Civil Rights Movement Focused on Public Education!

Education is a civil rights issue of our time just as education and segregation were in the 1950s. Back then, the challenge was breaking down the barriers that prevented black children from attending public schools.  Thanks to the civil rights leaders of 50s and 60s, all children are permitted to attend public schools, but not much else has changed. Academic performance of many poor and minority children, blacks especially, still charts well below classmates.

Poverty still pervades the black communities and those of other minorities, and they are populated with multiple generations of men and women who have always failed in school. Far too many of their sons and daughters fill the seats of the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse express to overflowing; adding “criminal justice reform” to the list of civil rights issues.

Shutting down the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a point on everyone’s priority list, but all the talk and pledges in the world will not alter our current reality until we begin to alter the forces that drive that reality. Even then we cannot change, overnight, that which has taken generations to evolve.

The problems are systemic, and we must address the inherent imperfections of systems, not treat the symptoms of those imperfections.

The issue of criminal justice provides a useful example. For people who have not worked in the criminal justice system, the reactive nature of the system is often misunderstood. Our courts do not go out and seek people to load up their dockets nor do corrections facilities recruit inmates. Each institution must deal with the people delivered to its door.

Our police departments respond to complaints, patrol to deter crime, and act when witnessing evidence of illegal activity. Abuses of their power are not part of law enforcement training protocols, they are aberrant behavior; whether resulting from prejudice, poor training, or breaches of policy.

Although founded on the principles of democracy and on the rights and responsibilities protected and expected under the U.S. Constitution, the criminal justice system, like all systems of human design, are imperfect. When these systems are inundated, both the imperfections of the systems and the prejudices of some of its people are exposed. It is such aberrations that destroy trust between law enforcement and the communities they exist to serve and protect.

The criminal justice system is inundated because the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is overflowing. We will not be effective in improving the efficacy of the criminal justice system until we address the social problems that overload its circuits. We must understand why the pipeline exists and the simple and convenient answers of poverty and discrimination are not very helpful. 

If we have learned anything over the last 60-plus years, it is that  we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices and enmity in the hearts of man. We cannot wish away the social realities that devastate the lives of so many people.

While necessary, protesting the injustices in society will not alter the social realities of our communities.

The only way to protect blacks and other minorities from discrimination and the imperfections of the justice system is to reduce the flow of people entering that system.

The only way to keep young black and other minority men and women from entering the system is to help them become impervious to discrimination by giving them a menu of meaningful choices.

The only way to provide them with meaningful choices is to make meaningful changes in the education process that was intended to provide them with those choices.

The only way to ensure a quality education for every child is to alter an education process that, historically, has not served the interests of society’s most vulnerable children; whatever the genesis of that vulnerability.

Like poverty and discrimination, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline is a consequence of something that is not working the way our society needs it to work. That something is the “education process” at work in our schools, both our public schools and private. Whether they will admit it or not, virtually every educator understands that what they are being asked to do does not work for many children. Our education process has been obsolete for generations.

From the perspective of this observer, when the growing population of students demanded a reconfiguration of the process, in the early years of public education, the mounting cost and the need for operational efficiency obscured the essential purpose of education. We must redefine that purpose, which was to ensure that the unique needs of individual students are met.

Far too many of the young men and women leaving high school, today, with or without diplomas, are bereft of meaningful choices of what to do with their lives to find joy and to provide for themselves and families. When they leave school, this population of students opts for the only choice available to them: return to the communities from which they came, unprepared to participate in what the rest of us think of as the American dream.

Clearly, the education process is not meeting the needs of these young people. Unfortunately for society and educators alike, we blame our schools and teachers for the flaws of the process rather than the process, itself.

The consequence for society is that the education reforms, innovations, and initiatives of the last half century or more were like seeds planted in barren soil. Even the best ideas in the world will not take root in an environment unable to provide the nutrients necessary for germination, let alone blossoming.

A special report published, just this morning, in EdWeek UPDATE illustrates my point. The report notes that there is “no measurable gap between charters, traditional public schools on national tests.”

The charter school movement has not fixed what is broken in our schools because they still rely on the same education process as other schools. Just changing names, buildings, and teachers doesn’t change that which does not work.

In the interim, notwithstanding the litany of education reforms, American society has seen significant erosion of its faith in our public schools and teachers, never quite comprehending that teachers are as much victims of flawed education process as the students and communities they were employed to serve.

Americans are left with an education process that is the functional equivalent of a maelstrom in which children, communities, teachers, school, administrators, policy makers, and elected officials have become entrapped. It is an education process that cannot be fixed from the inside out.

As difficult as it may be, everyone involved in or who has a stake in the American education system must fight their way to the shore, climb out of the maelstrom, and examine the process from a new perspective. They must be challenged to take a paradigm leap and seek solutions outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

For that purpose, I have developed an education model that has been created to serve no purpose other than meet the unique needs of each one of our children. The Hawkins Model© is designed to allow teachers to focus on relationships and to ensure that every student has as much time and attention as they need to learn as much as they are able, at their own best pace. Only in such a learning environment can teachers help children develop their intellectual, physical, and emotional potential and begin discovering their special talents, interests, and aspirations.

The one thing educators dare not do, after fighting their way to the shore, is to dive back into the maelstrom where they will be engulfed in hopelessness; powerless to alter the destiny of our society and our participatory democracy.

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.

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?