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.

Chapter 9 of “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch: “The Facts About College Graduation Rates” – Our ongoing review!

In Chapter 9 of her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch challenges the assertion of many that “Our economy will suffer unless we have the highest graduation rate in the world.” Ravitch says there is no evidence for this claim. In this Ravitch is correct.

Ravitch is also correct to wonder whether college degrees “obtained under pressure to reach a target represent real learning or will they be reached by credential inflation, credit recovery, and other schemes that devalue the meaning of the diploma.”

This has certainly been the case with high school graduation rates and diplomas.  The attention on graduation rates and test scores distracts us from the more important question, “what are our students actually learning?”

It is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue about some of these issues when Dr. Ravitch and I are in such disagreement over the existence of a crisis in public education. Meaningful dialogue requires that there be a common premise, somewhere. I continue to assert that we need to stop defending public education and start defending our schools and teachers. The problem is not schools and teachers but rather an educational process that does not allow teachers to do what we need them to do and that does not meet the needs of a majority of American children. We cannot fix something until we are willing to acknowledge its inefficacy.

Is there any doubt that the world marketplace is an economic competition on a grand scale? Are not the results of any competition, irrespective of scale, contingent upon the relative performance of the competitors? Is not performance a function of the level of skill, knowledge, and preparation of the performers?

The generation who emerged from the Great Depression and led us through World War II understand that the US has not always been the dominant economy in the world marketplace. Their children and grandchildren, on the other hand, have never lived at a time when the US was not the dominant economic force on the planet. We have come to take American economic power for granted.

Any student of history should be able to tell you that America’s rise to economic preeminence came at a time when the playing field was anything but equal. In the aftermath of World War II, while the American industrial and commercial capabilities were in full bloom, having been ramped up during the war, the economies of Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union were faced with the challenge of rebuilding in the aftermath of a devastating war. The economies of China, India, South Korea, other Pacific-rim nations, and the Middle East were either non-existent or embryonic.

Not only was the US production process in full gear following the war but our employers, thanks to the American systems of public education, were able to draw on the most highly educated workforce in the world. This was also a time when the nation had great confidence in itself, when there was great clarity in values, and when the populace was highly motivated to insure that their children would not be subjected to the deprivation they experienced during the Great Depression. Just as importantly, American society was not yet confronted with the series of social challenges that would commence with the civil rights movement and, soon thereafter, the anti-war movement.

In the ensuing five-and-a-half decades, while the United States was beginning to believe that its economic supremacy was a God-given right and while we were also becoming more and more distracted by our nation’s social challenges, the world was in the midst of transformational change. The rest of the world, led by Western Europe, Japan, and the other emerging economies of Asia and Eastern Europe were working furiously to catch up with the US. As we approach the last half of the second decade of a new century these nations have pretty much caught up and are, in some cases, threatening to surpass the US in economic production and wealth.

Many of these nations, but certainly not all, have less poverty, offer better healthcare, provide a comparable level of personal liberty to their people, and are also challenging us with respect to the effectiveness with which we education our children. That they are doing this at a time when we are destroying our systems of public education with nonsensical reforms has frightening consequences.

The American people, immersed in their many social and political challenges, are only beginning to understand the ramifications of what can only be described as a re-balancing of global economic power; with the loss of jobs and devaluation of the dollar the most obvious examples. The future consequences of a reality in which the largest percentage of ownership of America’s economic assets is in the hands of foreign investors cannot yet be fully envisioned.

So, Ravitch is correct in saying that there is no evidence that U.S. college graduation rates is connected to our success in the world marketplace. Unfortunately, it is a pointless issue and we are asking the wrong questions. The appropriate questions begin with whether or not our high school and college graduates are able to utilize, in the real world, the knowledge, skills, and level of understanding about the world that will be necessary to keep the U.S. in the game, economically. This question must be followed with “Are we teaching our children what they most need to know?”

We cannot answer the second question until we are able to identify the fundamental purpose of an education. This, however, is a topic for another day.