A Letter to Superintendents & Advocates for Equality in Education for Children of Color and for the Disadvantaged!

I am asking for the help of superintendents, advocacy organizations and individuals in seeking one, two, or three public school districts with superintendents who are sufficiently frustrated with the lack of meaningful improvement on the part of their students that they would be willing to examine a new education model. It is a model designed for any school but is particularly suited to meet the extraordinary challenges faced by underperforming elementary schools. My model is designed to focus on success and stop the failure in public education.

Consider a single disadvantaged child, age 5 or 6, maybe black but from a family entrapped in the cycles of poverty and failure. Consider that he or she will be likely to register for Kindergarten in a public school, this fall, in which a significant majority of elementary students are unable to pass both the math and English language arts components of their state’s standardized competency exams. Consider further that, in many such school districts, the percentage of middle school students able to pass both math and ELA components of standardized competency exams is likely to be even lower.

How would you rate the odds of this child emerging from the 12th grade with the knowledge and skills needed to give him or her real choices about what to do in life?

Imagine the difference if we could place that same child in a classroom, free from things that distract teachers from doing what they know their students need them to do:

• Connect with the child on an emotional level;
• Pinpoint what the student has learned and where the child lags;
• Create a tailored academic plan to help that child build on what he or she knows;
• Refuse to let the child fail by providing however much help, time, and patient attention a student needs to learn each and every lesson;
• Help students learn to use their imaginations and creativity;
• Help the student discover that academic success is “a process of learning from one’s mistakes and growing in confidence that he or she can create success for themselves” and,
• Reach out to the child’s parents or guardians so they can help celebrate their son or daughter’s academic success.

An environment my education model is intended to create cannot exist given the manner in which our public schools are configured, today, or in most of our private, parochial, and charter schools; no matter how hard teachers work. It cannot happen because this is not what is expected of teachers and because the education process within which they strive to teach is not structured to support such objectives. Instead, it is structured to keep score based on who learns the most, the fastest, as students progress, as a class, down a path outlined by state academic standards. Such scores/grades will color both the child’s perception of themselves, and society’s perception of them, for the rest of their lives.

Is there any doubt in your mind that children would flourish in a positive learning environment such as I have described, and would far out-pace children who will be attending struggling elementary schools in a neighborhood or community near you? As a superintendent, you have spent time in the classrooms in underperforming elementary schools and if you are an advocate, you need to visit a few, if you have not done so, already. Ask yourself if what you observe gives you hope that a solution is just around the corner? Or, did you walk away thinking these kids deserve better and that, surely, there must be a better way?

We can create an environment in a public elementary school that will provide this kind of learning experience for every student? I listen to teachers and administrators every day and what I hear is how hard they strive to create the very things my model is intended to provide. One can sense their frustration that doing what they know they should be doing requires an extraordinary effort within a structure that is not designed to support those activities. For all their commitment, sacrifices, and heroism these educators find it difficult to step outside of their frame of reference and observe what is happening around them, objectively. They need a paradigm shift.

If you believe that some of the many programs, curriculum changes, methodologies, and technologies that have been introduced in the last few decades, and about which many teachers are excited, will transform public education then I understand your desire to cling to hope. I only ask you to do one thing. Ask yourself how many of these innovations will work in a classroom with 20, 30, or 35 disadvantaged students who are so far behind that it seems impossible to think they will ever catch up? Would it not be better if we were able to keep them from falling behind in the first place?

Search your own heart. If you believe one child could succeed in the type of environment I have described, then it is not too much of a stretch to believe every child could be successful if this was the kind of public-school classroom they will enter this fall. And, if such a model proved itself, how long would it take before other public school districts would follow suit?

If you are a superintendent in a school district serving a poor and diverse population of students, you know what the numbers say and you know they have not changed, appreciatively, in decades. You have an opportunity to provide leadership in a venture that will change the lives of your students. I also believe that the changes necessary to implement my education model are within the scope of authority of you and your school board.

If you are an advocate, you and your organization may be one of a very few that are positioned to make an enormous difference for disadvantaged kids, if only you would help find a superintendent willing to test a new idea. Imagine a new world where all children are equipped with the tools to they need to have choices in life. Children of color must also possess the tools and strong self-esteem needed to overcome the obstacles of bigotry and discrimination, much as many of you and your colleagues have done.

Join me in promoting a new vision that will transform public education for our children, the world’s most important and most vulnerable resource, by examining my education model. Look not in search of reasons why it will not work rather seeking reasons why it can and what you can do to help. Subscribe to my blog with over 200 articles about the challenges facing public schools, their administrators, teachers, and students at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/blog/ and follow me on Twitter at @melhawk46.

Millions of disadvantaged children are desperate for someone to take the lead in doing something different.

Inequality and Education, Part 2 – One of the Two Most Important Questions in Education

Below is the 2nd in my series of videos on “Inequality and Education” in which we answer one of the two most important questions in Public Education: “Why do so many kids fail?” (the text of the video is available below the link)

In my next post we will answer the second of the two most important questions in public education: “How do some students succeed in spite of the tremendous disadvantages that they face?

Hi, I’m Mel Hawkins with Part 2 of my series on inequality and education.

Today we answer one of the two most important questions in public education.

Why do so many kids fail?

Is it because they can’t learn?

It’s sad how many people expect kids to fail, especially children of color. Most of us, however, believe all kids can learn if we give them the time, and attention they need.

This begs the question:

So, why haven’t we given failing students what they need? Do teachers not care? Are teachers not competent?

Visit an underperforming classroom and you will see frustrated teachers, working hard to make a difference; frustrated because they do care and because the education process doesn’t work.

If two teachers exchanged classes, one high performing and the other not, we would see little or no change in outcomes. All are trained in the same universities, some just have more challenging students.

Kids have been failing for generations.

Ironically, testing to high quality academic standards makes it worse.

Don’t get me wrong! Rigorous academic standards are essential and we must never lower the bar!

It’s one thing, however, to outline what must be learned in school and quite another to dictate the pace of learning for students with different abilities.

High stakes testing places teachers under relentless pressure to move kids along, ready or not and this leads to failure.

When recorded in a grade book, failure becomes part of the academic record and teachers begin to view kids as slow learners.

Worse, it colors a child’s perception of themselves and impedes the development their self-esteem.

When teachers complain, leadership blames the testing like we are powerless.

Maybe we can’t stop the testing but we can make giving kids our time and attention our top priority and never something to be compromised under pressure, which is what happens whenever we say it’s time to move on.

Over the years, new methods and approaches have not lived up to expectations.

These new approaches are like new wine stored in old wineskins that sours from within that which we’ve worked so hard to create.

The only thing that matters is that students learn, not how fast they learn.

Why not stop the failure before it begins by creating a process that gives every child what they need to learn from day one?

Please read my model and white paper, at my website, to see how easy it would be to reinvent the process to focus on success and stop the failure.

Please share this video with everyone you know and ask them to join you in a crusade to transform public education!

Millions of kids are waiting for you to do something! Why not this?

Making sure all children learn is the most important thing you can do for the future of our country.

Remember, “It’s all about the kids!!”

Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure

Discarding the Past

We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.

It understood that most public school teachers and schools believe they work hard to make sure that every child learns and that no child gets left behind. The reality, however, is that each year children are moved from grade to grade who are behind their classmates. Each and every year thereafter they fall a little further behind until they lose all hope that they can ever catch up.

That this occurs is not the fault of teachers rather it is a flaw in a structure that does not provide each teacher with the time and resources they need to teach and does not provide each and every child with the time and support they need to learn. We cannot alter those unfortunate outcomes until we alter the internal logic of the educational process and also the structure that exists to support that process.

What we offer is a new reality that can benefit every child in America and that can transform public education.

Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose

The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a wide menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance, and be able to make informed choices with respect to the important issues of the day.

Note: An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them that success is a process. Success and winning are not accomplishments rather they are a life-long process of getting the most out of one’s life.

Step 2 – Objectives and Expectations

Our objective as educators is to help children learn as much as they are able, as fast as they are able, beginning at that point on the learning preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. Our schools must be a “No Failure Zone!”

It is our expectation that:

• Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn each and every lesson;

• We teach children that success is a process that must be learned and that all of our students can be successful;

• That success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;

• That we will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;

• That students will learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations

• That there are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule.

Note: Education is not a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of failure. Our task is to create a model of an educational process that rejects failure and where the only thing that matters is that children learn.

Step 3 – What do children need In order to truly learn?

Children Need:

• To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;

• A close personal relationship with one or more teachers;

• Our patient time and attention;

• A stable and safe environment for the long term;

• To learn that mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities that come only when we extend ourselves beyond our zones of comfort;

• To learn how to be successful and they need to know that success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way on the basis of what they learn from their mistakes.

• To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win:

• An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements.

• The involvement and support of their parents or guardians.


Step 4 – Where do we begin?

We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted districts and use them as a test case.

Note: Our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and all of the action items are presented with that assumption. If a school district’s commitment to this model is sufficiently high, however, there is no reason why we could not, similarly, organize students in the higher elementary grades in the same manner. Doing so creates additional challenges because the farther along children have been pushed, the further behind they will be. If we commence with these older children, it still requires that we know where they are in terms of their academic development in each subject area, and then that we tailor a plan to begin the process of starting over with that unique student. Teachers will have less time to help these kids play catch up but, clearly, these students will need all the help they can get before they move on to the middle school phase.

Step 5 – Organization and structure

We will eliminate references to grades k through 12 as well as any other arbitrary schedules in the educational process and replace those grades with three phases of a child’s primary and secondary education:

• Elementary/or Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)

• Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)

• Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)

Note: We chose Kindergarten rather than first grade for our starting point because the sooner we intervene in the lives of our students, the better. Part of the problem in disadvantaged communities is that children live in an environment in which intellectual and emotional enrichment opportunities are few in number. The longer a child is left in such an environment the further behind they will be.

Step 6- Teaching teams

We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15

Note: Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of high levels of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance or commitment than management. In large work groups, marginal performers and those with low levels of commitment are able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person his held accountable by the team.

Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with any individual student, another member of the team can step in. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents.

Teams also provide much more stability. If one team member is off due to illness or other reasons, the team is still able to maintain its equilibrium, even given the insertion of a substitute.

If a school has teacher aide slots for this age group, we will recommend that the funds allocated for such positions be redirected to paying for additional teachers. Striving to optimize teacher resources is a top priority and if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose.

Step 7 – Duration and stability

Students will remain together as a group and will be assigned to the same teaching team throughout their full elementary/primary academic phase.

Note: Close personal relations with teachers and other students, in a safe environment, can best be accomplished by keeping them together over a period of years. Why would we want to break up relationships between teachers and students because the calendar changes. Sometimes it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have it brought to a halt at the end of a school year.

This type of long-term relationships also enhances the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers.

Step 8 – Reaching out to Parents

Reaching out to parents must be a high priority.

Note: We know that students do better when they are supported by their parents and when parents and teachers are working together as a partners behind a united front. We also know that when we form close relationships with parents we also get to know their families. This creates a real opportunity to intervene if there are younger children in the home to help insure that they enjoy improved enrichment opportunities.

Step 9 – Assessment and tailored academic plan

Select an appropriate assessment tool and utilize it to determine the level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school. We will then utilize what we learn from that assessment to create a tailored academic plan for each and every student based on where they are and pursuant to the academic standards established in that state.

Step 10 – The learning process

From their unique starting point, we will begin moving our students along their tailored academic plan, one lesson module per subject at a time. The learning process will be:

• Lesson presentation

• Practice

• Review

• Mastery Quiz (MQ)

• Verification Master Quiz (VMQ)

Note: Teachers can spend as much time as necessary on any of the steps in the process and can even go back to re-present a lesson using other methods and resources. Each review gives teachers the opportunity to help children learn from the mistakes they made on practice assignments and on unsuccessful quizzes. When the student’s success on practice assignments suggests they are ready, they can move on to the MQ. If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success can be celebrated and they are ready to move on to the next lesson. If not, the teacher can recycle back through all or part of the learning process until the student is able to demonstrate mastery.

Step 11 – State-of-the-Art tools of success

Provide each student and teacher with a personal tablet with which to work.

Utilize technology to help teachers teach, and kids learn with the Khan Academy’s program as but one example. The tool must also help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels. Students are all on a unique path even though they may often be parallel paths. Software must be able to:

Keep attendance records,
Manage various subject areas,
Help teachers and students through lesson presentations,
Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative,
Permit teacher to enter qualitative results generated by them,
Identify areas that need review and more practice,
Signal readiness for MQ,
Grade and record results of quiz and direct student on to next lesson module or back for more work on current module,
Celebrate success much like a video game,
Signal the teachers at every step of the way,
Recommend when it is time for VMQ, and
Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record.

Note: The purpose of the software is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed on their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction may also include time spent with students’ parents.

Whenever it is deemed advantageous, we believe there is also great value in group learning sessions, projects and interaction.

Step 12 – No Failure and No waiting

No student is to be pushed to the next lesson until they have mastered the current lesson as success on one lesson dramatically improves the readiness for success on subsequent lessons. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated that they are ready to move on will be asked to wait for classmates to catch up. Every student moves forward at the best speed of which they are capable.

The beauty of this approach is that students can progress at their own speed, even if that means charging ahead with teachers rushing to keep up. It also means that no student will feel pressured to move faster than they are able nor will they experience the humiliation of failure.

Step 13 – Verify and document mastery

The Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) will occur a few lessons later as the purpose is to assure that the child has retained what they have learned and are able to utilize it on future lessons. Ultimately, if the child cannot utilize what they have learned in real-life situations they have not learned it and, therefore, our job on that lesson is not completed. Once verified, mastery is documented as part of the student’s permanent record.

Step 14 – High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be obsolete. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them. If students are truly learning, their ability to utilize what they have learned will be reflected in competency exam results. Such exams are, after all, nothing more than a real-life opportunity to apply what one has learned.

Note: Ask yourself “Who would we predict to perform better on a competency exam given in the second semester of what we currently refer to as the 5th grade?

The child who has fallen further and further behind with each passing semester and simply has not learned a significant portion of the subject matter on which they will be tested?

Or,

The child who may or may not be on schedule as determined by state academic standards but has actually mastered the material they have covered and who are demonstrating an accelerating pace of learning?

I think we all know the answer.

Step 15 – the Arts and Exercise

We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must still be given the opportunities to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:

• Develop relationships with other teachers;

• Exercise their young bodies; and,

• Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art.

Step 16 – Stability and adaptability

We will not concern ourselves with arrival of new students or the departure of students during the process or with teachers who may need to be replaced for whatever reason. These things will happen and we will deal with them when necessary. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind that there are no perfect systems but the best and most successful systems are the ones that allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.

Step 17 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment

Finally, we must stress that winning organizations are driven by operating systems in which every single event or activity serves the mission. When we tinker with bits and pieces of an operation out of context with the system and its purpose, we end up with a system that looks very much like the educational process we have today. It will be a system that simply cannot deliver the outcomes that we want because there are components that work at cross purposes with the mission.

Note: We are creating an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is considered to be inconsequential in the long run and in the big picture, much like it is inconsequential if it takes a child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her playmates. Once they learn to ride they all derive equal benefit and joy from bicycling.

Step 18 – Special Needs

Anywhere along the way, from initial assessment and beyond, if a child is determined to have special needs they will be offered additional resources, much as happens in our schools, today.

Summary and Conclusions:

All children can learn if given the opportunity and if they feel safe and secure. The fact that we have clung for so long to an ineffectual educational process that sets kids up for failure and humiliation is unfathomable. If we refuse to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality it is inexcusable.

Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes we want, the model can be implemented in each and every school in the district.