Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch; the 3rd Installment of my Journaled Review

In her second chapter of this monumental work, Ravitch begins by providing an historical overview of Federal initiatives in response to what many believe to be an urgent need for massive reforms in our systems of public education,leading up to the George W. Bush administration. Under Bush’s administration the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation was introduced and it was to have a far-reaching adverse impact on our systems of education, according to Ravitch, many others in the field of education, and of this author/blogger. The NCLB declared that all students in grades 3 – 8 should be tested annually; that states were to monitor schools re: their performance; and, that “failing” schools were to be labeled and face consequences up to and including closure. She notes that, given the unreasonable standard many schools, even some of our very best, failed year after year. She also notes that schools with high proportions of poor and minority students “were the likeliest to be labeled as failing.”

Ravitch writes “Let’s be clear: 100 percent proficiency is an impossible goal.” She makes a wonderful comparison to applying this standards to an expectations that cities were to become crime free and that cities that failed to rise to such expectations would see the closing of police stations and the firing of police officers. She writes “the first to close would be the police stations in the poorest neighborhoods, where crime rates were the highest.”

As I stated in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream, referencing teachers, “it’s like blaming the soldiers for the war they were asked to fight.” What it shows is just how dreadful is the understanding of legislators and policy makers with the problems facing education in America.

What seems to most concern Ravitch is that NCLB demands utilization of testing to assess the performance of both schools and their teachers and also that it “opened the door to huge entrepreneurial opportunities . . . .” It also “encouraged the growth of the charter sector by proposing that charter schools were a remedy for failing schools.”

She notes that when the concept was first introduced, charter schools were envisioned as a way for teachers to find “innovative ways to ignite the . . . Interest in education” speaking specifically of “lowest performing students, the dropouts and the disengaged.” She points out that it was also envisioned that the lessons learned in charter schools were to have been applied to our most challenging public schools.

She notes that the earliest proponents of charter schools never “imagined a charter school sector that was 90 percent non-union or one that in some states presented profit-making opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

The federal government, Ravitch tells us, promoted the concept of charter schools as a way to “compete with neighborhood public schools for higher test scores. . .” absent any evidence that the concept would work.

What has resulted, she suggests, is that the “incessant” focus on testing, creative ways to incent and fund charter schools, the use of vouchers, and privatization have had and continue to have a devastating impact on our neighborhood public schools, the teachers that populate those schools and the most vulnerable population of American school children that is served by those schools and their teachers.

Ravitch argues that, just as “this unnatural focus on testing produced perverse but predictable results; it narrowed curriculum; many districts scaled back time for the arts, history, civics, physical education, science, foreign language, and whatever was not tested.” She cites the widespread cheating that we are seeing; wasting huge sums of money on test preparation and administration; and “teaching to test” by teachers who feel pressure “to save their jobs and their schools.”

As a substitute, I have seen this occur where teachers are introducing material as “these are the kind of questions or problems you are likely to find on ISTEPs (the State of Indiana’s student competency examinations).

Anyone who does not agree with Ravitch’s concerns about the fraud and mismanagement of funds as a result of the privatization of education should think for a moment about Medicare and Medicaid fraud where doctors (supposedly the most trusted professionals in all of American society) and other health professionals and institutions are being charged for manipulating the system for their own financial interests. When there are big dollars at stake it seems to bring the greed and larceny out of even the best of us, and as Ravitch shows, dollars amounts being utilized to provide incentives and grants for these reforms are enormous.

The election of President Obama, Ravitch suggests, raised hopes of new directions in federal education policy that were quickly dashed. She cites what amounts to little more than a feeding frenzy as states and others compete for huge sums as a result of Obama’s Race to the Top, Common Core, et al.

Ravitch writes, “By picking a few winners, the Race to the Top competition abandoned the traditional idea of equality of educational opportunity, where federal aid favored districts and schools that enrolled students with the highest needs.”

We have seen it in other venues where the sudden availability of incentives through federal funding has spawned spectacular growth in the number of consultants and other for-profit entities that carve out enormous chunks of scarce dollars that will never, ever be spent in the direct benefit of a single American boy or girl.

Ravitch is absolutely correct that “reformers support testing, accountability and choice.” and that this blind commitment to unproven ideas is leading to the destruction of the public school systems on which Americans have depended for generations.

She concludes this chapter by saying that “the debates about the role of schooling in a democratic society, the lives of children and families, and the relationship between schools and society were relegated to the margins as no longer relevant to the business plan to reinvent American Education.”

Her last line is an unfortunate choice of words, from the perspective of a writer who has entitled his own book about educational reform as Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream; The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America. I suspect that just the word “reinventing” has rendered my book as valueless in her mind, assuming she has even glanced at the correspondence I have sent inviting her to read the book or at the comments I have made in response to posts on her blog, as well as the posts on my own blog.

I agree with her completely that the direction of these national reform efforts is placing the very future of our nation and its children at risk. We seem to disag

The reinventing that I advocate is designed to come from inside of our schools reaching out to our community not the other way around. They are ideas that demand that the links between our schools and their teachers and the communities that they serve are strengthened rather than weakened. They are ideas that cherish the vital role that teachers play in the lives of their children and that are meant to improve the ability of those teachers to make a difference in those lives.

They are ideas that reject reliance on standardized competency assessments as a dangerous intrusion that not only distracts teachers from their purpose but puts emphasis on the “timed regurgitation of facts, figures, and formulas” rather than on sustained, meaningful mastery of subject matter that the men and women whom these children become will carry and utilize throughout their lives.

They are ideas that borrow from things we have learned, from an operational perspective, in a business environment and not from the boardrooms and their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The lessons from which I challenge educators to learn have to do with things like problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessment into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

They are ideas at risk of being branded as more of the same by the real educators who are being forced to defend themselves and the important work they do when, in fact, these ideas will empower educators rather than bind and restrict them.

The author and the readers of Reign of Error are urged to have faith that not all re-inventers are out to do them harm and to give Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream a chance to open their eyes to a new way of looking at what they do.

Commitment to Mission, Vision, & Values: The Third Attribute of Positive Leaders

There is a direct relationship between the efficacy of leadership and the level of passion positive leaders exhibit for the mission, vision, and values of their organization. This passionate commitment is the third attribute of positive leaders.

Whatever products and services an organization produces and whoever its customers may be, powerful positive leaders have a clear vision for the future of their organizations and an articulate and well-defined purpose or mission. Positive leaders convey that mission to the people of their organizations, relentlessly. There is a simple adage. If the people of an organization, irrespective of the position they occupy, do not know what their leaders are going to say before they say it, then the leaders are not communicating their message with sufficient frequency and effectiveness. Relentless is just another word for commitment.

Positive leaders never squander an opportunity to tell their organization’s story or share its mission, vision, and values. One of the distinguishing characteristics of winning organizations is that everyone in the organization, or at any link in the supply chain, can articulate its mission, vision, and values.

A mission statement is a concise representation of purpose: whom does the organization exist to serve and what needs of its customers does the entity exist to satisfy? The best mission statements also address the level of excellence to which the organization aspires, which is a measure of customer satisfaction.

At no time can anyone in the organization be permitted to lose sight of its mission or purpose. History teaches us that human beings are prone to diversions from their purpose in the midst of the natural and seemingly infinite distractions to which they are inevitably subjected. It is the commitment of positive leaders that keeps mission and purpose at the forefront of the organization’s consciousness.

The leader’s vision transcends mission and purpose, recognizing that these are fluid concepts in a dynamic universe. Vision addresses the organization’s standing in its marketplace and its future direction. Among other things, vision assures that the entity’s strategic plan is sufficiently future-oriented. What does the future hold? How will customer needs and requirements evolve? What innovations in product or service will be needed to assure the entity’s competitive advantage?

The values of the organization are the things its leaders consider most important and almost always include commitment to customer satisfaction and exemplary quality. Values must also include information that conveys esteem with which the people of the organization are held. An entity’s values are the moral benchmarks against which each and every action of the organization is gauged.

This focus on values is critical because one of the most common problems that keep organizations from optimal performance is that its actions are not in sync with the things its leaders say. A clear focus on and an unrelenting commitment to the values of the organization on the part of its leaders serves as preventative maintenance that retards the emergence of secondary agendas and counter cultures. Such commitments are nothing more than a demonstration of a positive leader’s integrity.

A member of a client organization once commented, after a discussion of values, that these sound like nothing more than time-worn platitudes. I prefer to think of them as the underlying principles that guide the leaders of winning organizations.

The Wide Disparity of Pricing for Healthcare Services is Just a Taste of the Problems Yet to Come

This past week, ABC News reported on the practice of the Northside Hospital System in Atlanta of charging outrageous prices for their services. They cited the bill of one patient where they did a line by line analysis of charges. What they found were many examples of line items for which the patient was charged exorbitant prices for things that the hospital could purchase through its suppliers for a tiny fraction of the cost. One of the most glaring examples was a pill for which the patient was charged several hundred dollars in spite of the fact that the hospital could purchase it for less than a nickel.

Hospitals across the country engage in such pricing strategies, to one degree or another, in order to make up for losses as a result of low reimbursement rates by health insurance, managed care companies, Medicare, and Medicaid and also as the result of the cost of doing business in a dysfunctional system.

This practice is considered a strategy of necessity by providers of many healthcare services simply because that is the way the fee-for-service, zero-sum billing game has evolved. Payers establish reimbursement rates that enable them to stay in business, which means making a profit. And, do not be confused by hospitals that claim to be not-for-profit for even these providers must be able make money if they want to stay in business. The only differences are the uses of the profits and the bank accounts into which the dollars must inevitably be deposited.

Every billable medical or hospital procedure results in high-stakes competition to determine where those dollars will end up. Health insurance, managed care companies and other payers set reimbursement rates and also make providers jump through hoops as part of the claims processing strategy to look for any reason to justify denial of the claim. This forces providers to develop coding and billing strategies to optimize their revenue generation and also requires them to file and refile claims. It is a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers in the competition for each and every healthcare dollar, not counting the patients who almost always are losers in the billing game.

What charges are not reimbursed by the various third-party payers are then billed to patients. Some of the money is eventually collected and much of it must be written off. Families burdened by outrageous medical and hospital bills is the single greatest cause for most of our nation’s personal bankruptcies. The write-offs necessitate new and more innovative charging and billing strategies. It is a vicious circle that drives up the cost of care enormously. Although we have seen some improvement, in recent years, in the rate of increase of aggregate healthcare costs, for at least two full generation the rates of increase have been substantially higher than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). There have been many years when the rate of increase has been double- or triple the rate of the CPI. Higher costs require providers to increase prices, which requires insurers to increase premiums on a merry-go-round that is anything but merry to the patients.

When we think about the number of healthcare dollars that never end up in the hands of providers of actual medical, hospital, or ancillary care, it can be a staggering amount. The insurance, managed care, and government payers always underestimate the percentage of dollars that are allocated to the administration process relative to those spent on direct care to patients. That cost is not just the cost of doing business for the private and public payers (which for the private payers must include profits) it also includes every dollar spent by providers for the purpose of coding, billing, claims processing, and management of receivables.

It truly is an outrageous process but it is the inevitable companion to the practice of fee-for-service (FFS) medicine in a market driven by health insurers and other third-party payers and processors.

The process is so complex that, in spite of claims on the part of health insurance and managed companies to the contrary, there is no accountability. Incompetent and inefficient providers pay no penalty for their poor performance and both the best and the worst providers survive no matter what the level of patient satisfaction.

Free market forces, in the true sense of the concept simply do not function in healthcare.

The biggest problems in healthcare in America, whether speaking of quality, cost, or access are the inevitable outcomes of a system driven by health insurance, Managed, care and other third-party providers; both public or private.

That Obamacare or, more correctly, the Affordable Care Act, (or more appropriately the Affordable Health Insurance Act) commits us to a health-insurance driven market is a recipe for continuing and escalating disaster. The motivation of Obama and the members of congress who finally chose to act was admirable if misguided. We have tried to fix a system driven by forces that even our smartest people seem unable to comprehend with a solution that can only aggravate an already tragic reality.

It is, truly, a national embarrassment that so many citizens of what we consider to be the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world must deal with illness and injury of themselves and their families without access to what we also describe as the highest quality healthcare on the planet.

What makes the situation most ludicrous is that it is our stubbornness and our prejudices that keep us from embracing a solution that will provide comprehensive healthcare and prescription drugs to every single American man, woman, and child, without relying on socialized medicine, at a cost that will save the American people trillions of dollars.

My book, Radical Surgery: Reconstructing the American Health Care System, lays out a healthcare plan that will give us everything we need, at a reasonable cost, without any of the things that the American people seem to fear, pathologically.

Don’t believe me? Check it out!

Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, A Journaled Review by Mel Hawkins, 2nd Installment

Ravitch’s Chapter 1 “Our Schools are at Risk”

Ravitch begins this monumental work by staking out the battlefield and categorically rejecting the assertions of “leading members of our political class and our media elite” that public education is broken.

They say that our children are not learning enough and that the “crisis is so profound that half measures and tweaks will not work. Schools must be closed and large numbers of teachers fired. Anyone who doubts this is unaware of the dimensions of the crisis or has a vested interest in defending the status quo.”

They are wrong, Ravitch says!

They say that teachers, principals, and teachers’ unions must “shoulder the blame” for low test scores. They must be held accountable on the basis of objective evaluations.” These reforms, Ravitch continues, insist that “Students must be given choices other than traditional public schools, such as charter schools, vouchers, and online schools.”
They consider themselves, Ravitch continues, to be “championing the cause of minorities . . . the civil rights movement of our day.”

She notes that these advocates appeal “to values Americans have traditionally cherished—choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government.”

Ravitch declares, emphatically, “There is only one problem with this narrative. It is wrong.”

“Public education is not broken.” Ravitch explains. “It is not failing or declining.” She adds that the solutions of what she terms as “the corporate reformers” are wrong. She explains that “our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.”

She says that “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.”

Ravitch continues her attack with such statements as, “strike at the heart of our nation’s most valued institutions.” “Liberals, progressives, well-meaning people have lent their support to a project that is antithetical to liberalism and progressivism. By supporting market-based ‘reforms’ they have allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education.” She sites, “implacable hostility toward the public sector” advocating “the transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering, fraud, and small entreprenuers.”

Let me say, emphatically, that the “reformers” she is attacking are absolutely right at the outset of what they say, when they identify as the scope of the problem and they are terribly wrong on the other. Public education is broken and it does threaten our very future as a society. It might work well for an elite component of the population of American children but it works counter to the best interests of a significant portion of our children, and is a disaster for the rest.

Let me add with equal emphasis that they are absolutely wrong in what they are asking us to do to fix it.
On the other hand, although Ravitch comes tantalizingly close, she misinterprets the reasons for the problems with public education, which just happen to be the same problems facing our society as a whole. As a result, what she would have us do is to continue to make the same mistakes we have made for the last half century or more.
Ravitch insists, as do so many others, that the problems with education in America are rooted in poverty and racial segregation and in this she is wrong.

Poverty is not a cause it is a symptom very much like the failures of public education are a symptom of underlying cultural forces sweeping across our society. Similarly, racial segregation is as symptom of those same forces. Segregation is no longer decreed by law rather it results from choices that are made by American men and women, no doubt by default, in the face of the cultural forces to which we refer.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I can say that those cultural forces transcend both race and affluence. The first of these destructive forces is a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness that is smothering a burgeoning population of Americans who are white, black, and every color in between. These men and women are poor to be sure but poverty is just a condition of their existence. It is the hopelessness and powerlessness that led them into poverty and that keeps them there. Sadly, they teach their children to feel hopeless and powerless and as a result, their children are unable to alter the condition of poverty in which they have been reared. Poverty is a condition, hopelessness and powerlessness are states of mind.

The second of the forces is that many American men and women, or more specifically, mothers and fathers, many of whom do not live in poverty have succumbed to a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness with respect to their ability to maintain control and influence over their children. The children of these people have fallen under the influence of their peers and of the powerful forces of a diverse menu of media that exert far more influence over the minds and attitudes of these young people than do their parents.

These kids can be found in any public school in the U.S. Just ask teachers to point them out for you. They are bright youngsters whose parents have thrown up their hands in figurative despair because they can’t make them behave, cannot get them to take school seriously, cannot get them to bed at a decent hour, cannot control whom they choose for friends, cannot control the amount of time they spend playing video games, surfing the net, or talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking, and sometimes even emailing their friends. When these kids get to school, the teachers, working without the support of the parents, struggle to get them to behave, pay attention, or take their school work seriously. Even though some of these kids earn passing grades, they perform so far below their potential that opportunity cost of what they should be learning has drastic consequences for the balance of their lives.

We have been striving to solve the problem of poverty for generations. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty to no avail. We have created welfare laws intended to provide the basics for families but instead created an entitlement mentality.

Concerned professional in all of the social sciences have spent enormous energy just as federal and state government have spent trillions of dollars trying to “extend the advantages” to the poor that are enjoyed by the affluent. This is exactly what welfare has been trying to do for generations, now, with disastrous results.

We all know an adage that has become so cliché they we ignore its wisdom. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It is absolutely imperative that we shift the emphasis of everything we do and every dollar we spend way from “extending advantages” and focus those resources, instead, on attacking the hopelessness and powerlessness that are the true root causes of poverty, racial segregation, the failure of our systems of public education, and of the violence that has converted many urban neighborhoods to war zones.

If Ravitch were to step back and re-examine her assumptions what a powerful force she could be given the platform at her command.

As we continue through Reign of Error, we will strive to point out what a difference this alternate perspective would make and what opportunities it would create.

The other noteworthy and troubling phenomenon that his occurring is that both sides of the great educational debate are engaged in a dangerous exchange of slogans and catch phrases that blind us to the truth. In following Ravitch’s blog which has so much traffic that I have had to create a separate location on my computer to store the emails announcing the latest posts and comments; what I am seeing is that the words “reform” and “reformer” are becoming what I like to refer to as “trigger bytes” to which Americans react with prejudice with Pavlovian consistency. It is similar to such words as “socialism,” “communism,” and “socialized medicine.” When people hear these trigger bytes used in the attack of an idea, their minds shut down with stunning abruptness, and they no longer listen to what those with a different point of view have to say.

We are faced with some of the most important choices in the history of our nation and we need to keep our wits about us if we hope to weather the challenges of the Twenty-first Century and beyond.

Understanding Organizations: The Second Attribute of Positive Leaders

Mastery of applied organizational theory is as vital to the success of leadership as knowledge of the piano is to the accomplished pianist. Organizations are the medium in which men and women function in society – they are the playing fields of life and business.

Positive leaders understand organizations in all of their complexity and are accomplished artists in both macro- and micro-organizational theory. Most managers possess, or at least utilize, only a rudimentary understanding of organizations. They are like novice personal computer users. They can stumble their way through a few application programs but their lack of in-depth understanding of the computer and its software keeps them from using more than a fraction of the machine’s capability. Occasionally they actually threaten or damage the system by utilizing it improperly or counter-productively.

At the macro level the positive leader is a student of organizational theory and devotes a significant amount of time keeping up with the literature of the field. At the micro level he or she is intimately in tune with his or her own organization, with its mission and vision; its products and/or services and the specific customer needs that these products and services fulfill; with its people, its personality and subcultures; with its supply chain; its metrics; and, with its informal power structures. The leader spends a significant amount of time out in the organization, and with its supply chain partners, listening, talking, and getting involved with people.

When confronted with the decision of choosing future leaders, from among its talented individuals, organizations must often choose between men and women with demonstrated leadership skills versus those with great technical knowledge and with familiarity with the local organization. Many people have technical expertise and local experience while only select few possess demonstrated leadership ability. Further, although leadership skills can be taught, it’s much easier to teach the technical and local aspects of an organization.

Organizations would do well to choose managers and supervisors on the basis of their demonstrated leadership ability. Organizations are also well-advised to make significant investments in the leadership development of its talented men and women, early in their careers. That being said, the most talented leaders will not achieve their optimal potential unless they make a relentless commitment to become masters of organizational theory and application at both the macro and micro levels.

Organizations typically promote their best workers to leadership positions. Just because an employee is at the top of the list of technical performers does not mean that they would make good managers and supervisors unless the organization has made an effort to prepare them for not only the role of leader but also for the transition from technical expert to formal leader. Often, people appointed to leadership positions on the basis of their technical excellence become unhappy and disillusioned with their new role. They were happier in a role in which they were valued for their technical expertise but rarely are they able to walk away. Often such promotions are the only way to move up the compensation ladder in an organization. Walking away from the disappointing leadership role may mean relinquishing the raise as well as losing face because they were unsuccessful.

If the organization has made an investment in leadership development of their best people prior to promoting them they will have identified those who will and will not be both happy and successful in a leadership role. For that reason, in addition to a focus on leadership development, the most successful organizations find a way to elevate the compensation of their technical stars to levels comparable to what they might have earned had they been given leadership responsibility. There is no rule that says that technical stars must not earn as much or more than their supervisors and managers.

One the other side of the equation, it is imperative that people who are appointed to leadership positions because of their demonstrated leadership ability rather than technical expertise make a commitment to ongoing development of their technical knowledge. They may not have to perform technical tasks as well as their technically-accomplished employees but the need to understand the technical aspects of the work every bit as much. They must also be able to teach new employees how to become technically competent.

Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, a Journaled Review by Mel Hawkins, Entry #1

This is the first installment of what will be a journaled review of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch; her latest and possibly most important work.

In her Intro, Diane Ravitch says that her purpose is to answer 4 questions:

1. Is American Education in crisis?
2. Is American education failing and declining
3. What is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states
4. What should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children?

Ravitch says that American education is in crisis “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education.” She adds that “these attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.”

This statement begs the question of why did the orchestrators of such attacks find it necessary to attack public education in the first place? While I agree with her that the evolving focus on privatization is a bad thing, there must be some acknowledgement of responsibility for the outcomes to which these unidentified forces are reacting.

While it is natural for educators to be defensive and feel unfairly blamed while in the midst of the criticisms raining down on them, claiming the criticisms to be unfair without addressing the outcomes about which the critics are concerned is simply not acceptable. Educators are no more able to fairly judge, unilaterally, the efficacy of their product than members of a production line in a manufacturing operation are able to judge the performance of the goods they produce outside the context of the customer who pays for those goods.

The only people who can fairly judge the value of education are the people who rely on the ability of public school students to perform in the marketplace upon completion of their schooling. As a former employer, I can tell you that it became increasingly difficult to find young men and women who have the minimal academic skills necessary to do the work for which we were prepared to pay them. Employers have a right to pass judgment on the performance of our public schools.

As an tester responsible for administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), I am in a position to judge the efficacy of an educational system that produces so many young men and women who are either unable to meet the minimum requirements for enlistment eligibility or who, if eligible, are able to perform the work required of them after induction in only the lowest career areas.

If teachers, particularly of middle and high school students, were able to set aside worries about who is to blame for the problem, they would be in a great position to tell us that far too many students are either unwilling or unable, either, to do the academic work on the one hand or display good citizenship on the other.

The question is not whether or not our systems of public education are in crisis, because it most surely is, rather it is what and who are responsible for the crisis.

Sadly, most of these critics assign responsibility for the poor performance of our public schools on the wrong things. We blame poverty, we blame racial discrimination and segregation, and we blame our teachers and our schools.

As was noted in my initial review of Ravitch’s book, as well as in my own book and blog, we misinterpret the causes of the disappointing performance of our public schools. Because of our incorrect assessment, we fail to see that teachers, rather than bearing the brunt of the responsibility for what is clearly a crisis in public education, are as much victims of the system as are their students.

As is always the case, if we are unable to come up with an accurate diagnosis of the problem, we are rarely able to identify meaningful solutions.

Were we able to discover and agree on the true causes of our educational crisis we would know, with a high degree of certainty that testing, privatization, vouchers and other tools to give parents more choices are not the solution to the problems of public education. These things make it more difficult for teachers and schools to do their important work rather than easier.

The true causes, as we have so frequently pointed out, are 1) a growing cultural disdain for the value of education on the part of far too many American parents and the resulting lack of a strong motivation to learn on the part of their children, and 2) that the educational process that has evolved, over the last century or more, is poorly designed and structured to produce the outcomes we so desperately need. The American educational process is the equivalent of early twentieth-century design and technology striving to compete in the Twenty-first Century. No amount of tinkering with the system with incremental modifications will work. The system must be reinvented to produce the outcomes we need from it.

Let us return to Ravitch’s purpose which was to answer her four questions. The American systems of public education are clearly in crisis and it is failing to meet the needs of both American school children and the society which will someday depend on their contributions.

As far as question number three is concerned, there is no evidence for the reform initiatives being promoted by the federal government and other policy-making forces as they are all premised on faulty logic. Any solution constructed on a faulty foundation must, inevitably, crumble.

The answer to question number four is that we must do nothing “to improve our schools and the lives of our children?” until we take the time to understand the root causes of the problems of public education in America. For that reason, finding the root causes is the categorical imperative of our time.

It was for this very purpose that my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America was written.

Ravitch, correctly, goes on to say that our schools are not “fine just as they are.” She then lists what she believes “American education needs,” and while none of these things are bad for our public schools, not a single one of them addresses the root causes for our system’s problems. As a result, they will not only make no appreciable difference, they will be harmful because of the opportunity cost they engender as they keep us from doing what we should be doing.

The sad thing is, that we already have the capability to fix public education in America even though it will be a formidable challenge.

Ravitch is absolutely correct, however, when she says that “The purpose of elementary and secondary education is to develop the minds and character of young children and adolescents and help them grow up to become healthy, knowledgeable, and competent citizens.”

She is also correct that the solution is to give schools and their teachers the resources that they need to do their jobs. We simply must rethink what those resources are.

Another area where Ravitch and other opponents of many of the “privatization” reform initiatives are wrong is in seemingly suggesting that schools and teachers should not be held accountable through the independent measurement of outcomes. As we will discuss later on, we need to develop an integrated quality system much like modern business organizations have done. What the skeptics will discover, if they make an effort to understand how such systems work, is that such quality systems actually help rather than hinder the worker’s ability to do his or her job. The same will be most assuredly true for teachers.

Dialogue with Russ Walsh, an educator and blogger

Below is the original blog post by Russ Walsh on his blog Russ on Reading which you can find at http://russonreading.blogspot.com/

What follows will be my comment to Russ, his response, and then my reply.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Chris Christie and the “Failure Factories”

Chris Christie is tremendously popular in New Jersey primarily because he casts himself as a truth teller and New Jersey tough guy in the Tony Soprano mode. In these days of wishy-washy politicians and an endless stream of political correctness coming over the airwaves, Christie’s in-your-face style resonates. He will likely skate to an easy re-election in a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the characteristics that make the Governor popular do not make him a good leader. Certainly in the area of education, Governor Christie is more demagogue than leader. The truth of this was brought home again by Christie’s recent characterization of 200 public schools in New Jersey as “failure factories.” This kind of rhetoric makes a good sound bite, but it does irreparable harm to the children, parents and educators of New Jersey.

Why would the Governor of the State of New Jersey demonize children and educators in this way? For political purposes, of course. Christie is anti-teacher union and pro privatization of education. He looks to increase the numbers of charter schools and push a voucher measure through the legislature. Both of these initiatives take money away from public schools and place it into private hands. If you are still under any delusions that charter schools are public schools, please read this from Anthony Cody of Education Week.

Of course, there is a major problem in the inner cities of New Jersey and doing nothing to improve the educational opportunities of children in these schools is not acceptable. But what would an actual leader do when faced with the daunting issues of turning around education in the State’s urban areas? Well, a leader might look around and notice that his State has the third highest educational achievement of any state in the country, behind only Massachusetts and Vermont. That must mean that many public schools in New Jersey are doing very well indeed. A leader might try to find out what these schools are doing right.

What that leader would find is many high achieving schools and school districts throughout the State of New Jersey. That leader would also find that virtually all of those schools had strong teacher unions, tenure and seniority rules, reasonable working conditions and competitive pay and benefits. The leader would also find a healthy mix of experienced and newer teachers, programs for continued professional development and a staff of teachers, support staff and administrators dedicated to student well-being and achievement.

The leader might notice that these schools had a rich curriculum that included lots of opportunities in the core subjects, but also in arts education, athletics and co-curricular activities. The leader might also note that the school buildings themselves were in good repair and had an adequate supply of educational materials, including well-stocked and well-staffed libraries, to support the teachers and children.

A leader might then conclude that unions, tenure and seniority are not what is wrong with the schools. That conversely strong unions, competitive salaries and benefits and good working conditions actually make a school attractive to a prospective teacher. The leader might further conclude that a bare bones curriculum, crumbling infrastructure and staffing reductions would not be in the best interest of a thorough and efficient urban education.

Finally, this leader would go back to the office and have some Department of Education minion bring him a socio-economic map of New Jersey. There he would see, in living color, the answer to school improvement. “Wow!”, he might say to the minion, “Did you notice that all the high achieving schools in New Jersey are in relatively wealthy areas and all the “failing schools” are in high poverty areas?”

“But poverty is no excuse for poor schools, Governor.” might squeal the minion. “No,” the wise leader might respond, “it is not an excuse, but it is a reason.”

A real leader could only then conclude that vouchers and charter schools were not going to change the calculus for the inner city child. Only through a combined effort to do something about poverty and to ensure that urban schools were properly funded could real inroads be made.

A leader would then try to move forward with a plan on two fronts.

What we get from Christie is not leadership, but demagoguery. We get a cynical appeal to our baser emotions and prejudices, instead of a visionary plan that might make a real positive difference in children’s lives. With his sound bite outbursts about “failure factories”, Governor Christie continues to throw urban children, parents and educators under the school bus.

Here is my comment on the blog post:

You and others are correct to reject the arguments of politicians like Christie and the many so-called business gurus who advocate privatization of education, vouchers, and reliance on testing to assess both student and teacher performance and who blame teachers and their unions for the problems with education in America. Critics of these initiatives are wrong, however, to cite them as examples of the danger in applying business principles to problems in our schools. These proposals have nothing to do with business principles.

These same critics are also wrong to defend the state of education in America as something less than a crisis. Administrators, educational researchers, and policymakers are poorly positioned to judge the performance of public education.

If you wish to know the truth about the quality of education in America, ask the employer who is struggling to hire people who can read, write, and enumerate with any level of sophistication. Ask test administrators like myself, who see only minimal improvements in the number of young people, over the past decade, who can earn the minimum score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gain eligibility for entry in to the Armed Services of the United States. Ask the middle school and high school teachers of our urban public schools who devote so much time to dealing with behavior issues in their classrooms that teaching has become problematic.

Draw your own conclusions when you examine the results of the performance of American children, as documented by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), when compared to children of other developed and developing nations.

Our systems of education in America derive no benefit when their advocates lash out at critics and pull their heads inside their shells while claiming that everything is getting better.

The crisis in education in America is real and we stumble along making the same mistakes that we’ve been making for generations and offering up the same excuses. It is poverty, they say as if the acknowledgement somehow absolves them of their responsibility.

The problem is not poverty and it is not racial discrimination or segregation; it is not bad teachers and schools; and it is not fractured families living in deteriorating urban and rural communities. I suggest an alternate hypothesis that the relationship between poverty and the failure of our educational systems, along with deteriorating urban communities, is not causal, rather that they are all symptoms of the same pathology. It is our unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about theses systemic issues that blinds us from the real truth.

When we look at the problem and study the children who are failing we are looking through the wrong end of the microscope and we are asking all the wrong questions. There is only one question that we need to ask and the answer to that one question will tell us everything we need to know to solve the problems of education in America, which, by the way, will lead to the solutions of poverty, and deteriorating communities. What is that one question?
That question is not “why do children fail?” rather it is: “what do children who succeed have in common with one another?” Or, re-phrased, what is the one characteristic shared by almost every single successful American primary and secondary education student?

We will be surprised to discover that it is not affluence because just as there are poor children who excel academically, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.
It is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.

It is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.
It is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.

Finally, it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst schools.

The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by one or more parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children with teachers and principals.

Think for a moment, about how this one distinguishing characteristics of successful school children changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.

The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries; and, finally, more often than not, they have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

We have two challenges if we wish to secure any semblance of a competitive advantage for the U.S. as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations.
2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it sets all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates.

The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children.

The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because each and every school corporation in America has the authority to change the educational process by decree. That we choose to continue our practice of stumbling around in the dark is nothing short of malpractice and it places our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

I invite you and your readers to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America. What you will find is a different approach to the challenge of identifying and then rectifying the problems with education. We offer a business approach but not in the way you might think.
What businesses do not do is rush headlong into the fray implementing unproven solutions to their most challenging problems. With their focus on customer satisfaction, businesses seek practical solutions to real life problems, aggressively but not recklessly. If we are not getting the outcomes we seek, we search for alternate solutions. To paraphrase the wisdom of Zig Ziglar, if “you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”

Businesses also understand that we must structure our production processes to get the outcomes we seek. Tinkering with a dysfunctional process will create nothing but disappointing outcomes. What is needed is a systems-thinking approach in which we examine the educational process as an integral whole, identify what it is we want to accomplish, and then re-design or, if you will, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes.

In Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream I walk the reader through this systems-thinking process, systematically.

I also invite you and your readers to visit my blog THE LEADer (Thinking Exponentially: Leadership, Education, and the America Dream). This blog was created to explore the cultural challenges we face as we strive to re-instill faith and home in the American dream.

And Russ Walsh’s thank you and response:

Mel,

Thank you for reading my post and for your thoughtful reply. I don’t believe I, or most of my colleagues blogging criticism of education reform, insist that we can do nothing about education improvement because of poverty. As I said in the post we need a two pronged approach: fight poverty and improve education through improved instruction, recruiting of top notch teachers and strengthened curriculum.

You sight success stories from impoverished areas and failure stories from affluent areas. The truth is you are citing outliers. I have taught in identified poverty areas and in affluent areas over a 45 year career. One of the advantages that affluent children have is parental advocates as you say. Parents who are not struggling against poverty have the time, energy and sense of power that allows them to be advocates. Disenfranchised parents do not live in a vacuum. They are disproportionately located in poor areas.

The schools in affluent areas where I have taught are preparing young people at a very high level indeed. One that is competitive against any nation in the world. I am not saying that the education system does not need improvement, but that it is clear that impoverished children face a disadvantage from the start.

And, Finally, my response to his response:

Russ,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. I enjoy the opportunity for dialogue.

I have great respect for your 45 years of experience as I do for teachers in general. Many are heroes and all are victims of a system that is poorly designed to allow them to do what is needed in a classroom. As a profession, teachers are unfairly blamed for the problems in education but they are not without culpability.

I believe the two most important elements in successful education are 1) parental support and encouragement and the motivation that flows from that support, and 2) the relationship between teachers and both students and their parents.

I have 44 years of experience and two masters degrees (Psychology and Public Affairs). My experience includes 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and ten years as substitute teacher. I began subbing after leaving a job, initially while striving to resurrect a consulting practice and while writing books. In the intervening 20-plus years, I hired, trained, and managed employees, often rejecting discouraged young men and women who were unable to pass our very basic screening exams in math and English.

During this period, I also developed expertise in the application of a systems thinking approach and problem solving. As a consultant, I could almost always walk into an operation and, with a fresh perspective, find practical solutions to the operational problems of my clients.

More recently I have also served as a part-time test administrator of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to both prospective enlistees and also to high school students as tool for guidance counselors to use in helping students plan for their future. It is disturbing to see how many high school graduates, current high school students, and young adults who earned a GED are unable to get the minimum score needed for enlistment eligibility (a 31 out of 99). Many more barely score higher than the minimum score and are considered qualified for only the least attractive military jobs.

You are correct that there are great schools in which the majority of students excel and there are many other schools with honors programs in which the schools’ best students flourish. The system works pretty well for students that have learned how to be successful, academically. The remaining students do not fare so well.

I also know about poverty and have spent many an hour sitting at a kitchen table (often a card table because that is all they have) consoling mothers and grandmothers of my probationers, striving to find a way to keep their children out of trouble.

Poverty creates terrible disadvantages but I have come to believe that the greatest contributor to the disdain for education on the part of many poor Americans, and the poor performance of their children, is the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that seems always to accompany the impoverished. Even in the poorest communities, a few parents cling to hope that their child can have a better life and, as a result, their children have a chance and often do well in school.

My daughter taught sixth grade at Garfield Elementary School in Washington DC. It was a distressing place to see. In a class of 30 students, she might have four kids who tried always to do their best, who earned good grades and were well-behaved in the midst of a chaotic atmosphere of disruption. The parents of these students would be the only one to show up for parent/teacher conferences and back-to-school night, or to respond to a call or offer to help out with something for the class. These families were not outliers. They lived in the same tenements and row houses as their classmates and their families.

It was the hopes these parents had for a better future for their children that were the difference makers for these students.

Poverty is a condition that we cannot change from where we work. Fifty years ago LBJ declared war on poverty and it is a war we have never come close to winning. Hopelessness, however, is a state of mind and something that we can attack relentlessly, even if only one family at a time. Hope is a powerful force and that creates an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together as partners. When you combine the motivation that children from such families bring with them to school with the partnership of parents and teachers, wonderful things can happen.

How many programs can you name, in any of the communities with which you are familiar, that focus primarily on pulling parents into the process as early in their children’s lives as possible? What percentage of local funding, federal funding, or grant monies are allocated to programs with such a mission? One rarely hears even a discussion about such programs. It is my belief that his should be the focus of every single reform initiative and the vast majority of the dollars we spend should be allocated for such programs.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I walk the reader through a systems-thinking process, much like I offered to my consulting clients, in which the educational process is examined as an integral whole. The result is a strategic action plan to address what I believe are the two most important aspects of education:

1) Pulling parents in to the process as partners to create a better future for their children, and
2) Reinventing the structure of the educational process to optimize a teacher’s ability to do what they do best, without the pressure of standardized tests, without arbitrary time lines or measuring a child’s success against the performance of their classmates.

What matters is that children learn as much as they can at the best speed of which they are capable and that what they have learned they can apply to future lessons, assessments, or to real life challenges and opportunities.
I encourage you to read, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream as I believe many of these ideas will make sense to you. The objective is also to prompt more and hopefully better ideas from accomplished and experienced professionals like you, simply by showing you how the systems appears to an someone with a different perspective.

Other than making better use of the technology that is available, today, to support what teachers do you will find no experimental approaches and a clear rejection of privatization, vouchers, profit incentives, and reliance on standardized competency examinations to evaluate the performance of either students or their teachers.

I welcome your thoughts and reaction and ask that you consider whether or not this work is appropriate for your colleagues and also the readers of your blog.

Here are a few comments from professional educators who reviewed the book, and also from a couple of professional book reviewers.

From professional educators:

-“As an educator, I see the truth in so much of the author’s ideas. It’s refreshing to see someone willing to buck the trend towards implementing “experimental” programs foisted upon our innocent children. Thanks, Mr. Hawkins.”
-“. . . it is something, particularly Part I, that should be read by a wide variety of audiences. In general, on a scale of one to ten, I would consider American Education (not Public Education as Mr. Hawkins identifies it) to be no more than a two. If totally implemented, Mr. Hawkins recommendations would move it up to at least an “Eight”. . . . his well-researched suggestions would advance our culture by light years.”

-“Chapter 6 entitled, “The Role of Culture” was one of the best, well-written/easily read overviews of the impact of the culture wars on the preparation of our young I have ever read. Not sure that there is anything new in this, but it is so comprehensive, yet so concise that the words literally jumped off the page at me.”

-“Every school staff should read chapter 1 and 2 and use them to evaluate their programs and attitudes toward young people and learning.”

-“The other tremendous positive is Mr. Hawkins point-blank, simple attack on the ridiculous system of placing young people in grade levels based upon age. In my entire professional life, I have never found any study which supports this. Every learning theorist I ever read gives a wide variance in brain/social/background readiness for every academic objective in every grade level. If learning were the true goal of schools, common sense would tell us to evaluate current status and build from there.”

-“This book is a timely message about critical concerns in education. Ideas or suggestions for change are outlined as agenda items and have prompted discussions between my colleagues and me. Mr. Hawkins emphasizes community support, parent involvement and positive leadership as critical to the future of education. He suggests changing the way we teach and urges teachers to teach for mastery.”

-“Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream conveys a strong message that needs to be heard and shared.”

From professional reviewers:

-“This is one of the more important books to be released this year and certainly MUST be read by all who have fears of the current status of our educational system. This book is a brilliant achievement.”

-“An invaluable resource for anyone with an interest or passion in improving education.”

-”Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America” is nothing short of brilliant. . . .”

-“Hawkins is brilliant- He is saying the hard things, he is opening eyes and he is doing it in a way that is logical, easy to understand and will incite a passion in you to change the way we view education and it’s important in this nation.”

-“A must-read for parents, teachers and all those involved in improving the state of education.”

-“. . . . Mel Hawkins, provides a critical look at the current state of education in America and follows through with innovative, inspired and crucial steps to reviving the standard of education in America. . . .”

What if We Are Asking the Wrong Question about Public Education in America?

When we talk about public education and the challenges it faces and when we talk about reform initiatives there is a question at the center of those discussions. That question is: Why do children fail? Or, “What are the characteristics of the children who perform poorly in school?” Or, more often, “Who is to blame for the failure of education in America?”

We then talk about poverty, racial discrimination and segregation, deteriorating urban and rural communities: and, we talk about bad schools and bad teachers, teachers unions, about giving people choices with charter schools and vouchers; about Common Core; about holding teachers and schools accountable and standardized competency examinations. In the last couple of decades we have begun talking about the privatization of education and other related issues having to do with taking education from the control of communities and making it more accountable much like businesses are held accountable.

What if “Why do children fail and who is to blame?” are the wrong questions? Maybe we are looking at the problems of education from the wrong perspective.

Returning to the challenges of education in America, consider a different question, for just a moment.
“Why do children succeed in school?” Or, more specifically, “what do successful students have in common and what can we learn from those common characteristics?”

We will likely discover that it is not affluence because, while there are many successful students who are affluent there are also poor children who excel academically. Conversely, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.

We will discover that it is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.

We will learn that it is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.

We will learn that it is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.

We will also discover that it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst performing schools.

The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility with teachers and principals for the education of their children.
Now, flip the question around and ask, what are the common characteristics of children who are failing in school? If we are honest with ourselves we will discover that the single most common characteristic of children who struggle academically is that they are not supported by parents who are determined that their children will receive a good education. Many parents of struggling children might vocalize that education is important but they do none of things that determined parents do. They do not talk constantly about the importance of education. They do not make certain that their child has resources that will help them be successful in school. They do not ask, routinely, “How was school today?” nor do they ask to see homework or tests and other papers sent home by their child’s teacher. They do not call and talk to their child’s teacher to see how their son or daughter is doing or to ask what they can do to help and support the child? They do not go to parent/teacher conferences or back-to-school night. Whatever they might be vocalizing their actions provide no evidence that a real commitment exists or that the parent recognizes and accepts responsibility as a partner in the educational process.

Think for a moment, about how the answers to this new set of questions changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.

The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries. Many of these parents have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

Because the quality of the education our children receive will determine whether or not the U.S. can maintain any semblance of a competitive advantage as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century, we are facing two challenges:

1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations and this is a reality that must be altered at all cost.

2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it starts all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates. We must create a reality in which children are given sufficient time to master their subjects before they are permitted to move on because we have no illusions that they all will have achieved the same things by the end of twelve years of formal education. We do not need them to achieve the same things. What we need is that they will have learned as much as they are able to learn and that they will be able to apply what they have learned when they enter the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be.

The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children. It will require that we quit bickering and, instead, come together to achieve a common objective.

The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because the educational leaders in each of our fifty states has the authority to change, by decree, the educational process in their state.

If we continue down the same path, we place our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

Gov. Christie, “Failure Factories” and other Follies in the Debate on Education

You and others are correct to reject the arguments of politicians like Christie and the many so-called business gurus who advocate privatization of education, vouchers, and reliance on testing to assess both student and teacher performance and who blame teachers and their unions for the problems with education in America. Critics of these initiatives are wrong, however, to cite them as examples of the danger in applying business principles to problems in our schools. These proposals have nothing to do with business principles.

These same critics are also wrong to defend the state of education in America as something less than a crisis. Administrators, educational researchers, and policymakers are poorly positioned to judge the performance of public education.

If you wish to know the truth about the quality of education in America, ask the employer who is struggling to hire people who can read, write, and enumerate with any level of sophistication. Ask test administrators like myself, who see only minimal improvements in the number of young people, over the past decade, who can earn the minimum score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gain eligibility for entry in to the Armed Services of the United States. Ask the middle school and high school teachers of our urban public schools who devote so much time to dealing with behavior issues in their classrooms that teaching has become problematic.

Draw your own conclusions when you examine the results of the performance of American children, as documented by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), when compared to children of other developed and developing nations.

Our systems of education in America derive no benefit when their advocates lash out at critics and pull their heads inside their shells while claiming that everything is getting better.

The crisis in education in America is real and we stumble along making the same mistakes that we’ve been making for generations and offering up the same excuses. It is poverty, they say as if the acknowledgement somehow absolves them of their responsibility.

The problem is not poverty and it is not racial discrimination or segregation; it is not bad teachers and schools; and it is not fractured families living in deteriorating urban and rural communities. I suggest an alternate hypothesis that the relationship between poverty and the failure of our educational systems, along with deteriorating urban communities, is not causal, rather that they are all symptoms of the same pathology. It is our unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about theses systemic issues that blinds us from the real truth.

When we look at the problem and study the children who are failing we are looking through the wrong end of the microscope and we are asking all the wrong questions. There is only one question that we need to ask and the answer to that one question will tell us everything we need to know to solve the problems of education in America, which, by the way, will lead to the solutions of poverty, and deteriorating communities. What is that one question?
That question is not “why do children fail?” rather it is: “what do children who succeed have in common with one another?” Or, re-phrased, what is the one characteristic shared by almost every single successful American primary and secondary education student?

We will be surprised to discover that it is not affluence because just as there are poor children who excel academically, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.
It is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.

It is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.
It is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.

Finally, it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst schools.

The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by one or more parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children with teachers and principals.

Think for a moment, about how this one distinguishing characteristics of successful school children changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.

The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries; and, finally, more often than not, they have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

We have two challenges if we wish to secure any semblance of a competitive advantage for the U.S. as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations.
2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it sets all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates.

The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children.

The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because each and every school corporation in America has the authority to change the educational process by decree. That we choose to continue our practice of stumbling around in the dark is nothing short of malpractice and it places our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

I invite you and your readers to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America. What you will find is a different approach to the challenge of identifying and then rectifying the problems with education. We offer a business approach but not in the way you might think.

What businesses do not do is rush headlong into the fray implementing unproven solutions to their most challenging problems. With their focus on customer satisfaction, businesses seek practical solutions to real life problems, aggressively but not recklessly. If we are not getting the outcomes we seek, we search for alternate solutions. To paraphrase the wisdom of Zig Ziglar, if “you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”

Businesses also understand that we must structure our production processes to get the outcomes we seek. Tinkering with a dysfunctional process will create nothing but disappointing outcomes. What is needed is a systems-thinking approach in which we examine the educational process as an integral whole, identify what it is we want to accomplish, and then re-design or, if you will, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes.

In Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream I walk the reader through this systems-thinking process, systematically.

I also invite you and your readers to visit my blog THE LEADer (Thinking Exponentially: Leadership, Education, and the America Dream). This blog was created to explore the cultural challenges we face as we strive to re-instill faith and home in the American dream.

A Healthy Self-Esteem, the 1st Attribute of Positive Leaders

The first distinguishing characteristic of positive leaders – the first attribute – is a strong and positive self-concept. Positive leaders have a clear sense of who they are and where they are going. They have confidence in themselves and in their talents and abilities. They believe in themselves; they believe themselves to be somehow special. It is this core belief – this strong sense of self – from which the power of positive leadership emanates.
Leadership, as we have already discovered, implies taking risks, forging new concepts, charting new courses, breaking new trails. Leadership means going first – often where no man or woman has gone before. This takes great courage, confidence, and character and these traits, so common to the great leaders of history, are nothing more than manifestations of a strong self-esteem.

Leaders must be outwardly directed. They are concerned about the world and about other people. It is not that their own needs are left unattended – quite the contrary, positive leaders are secure in themselves. They know in the deepest part of their souls that they are okay – that nothing that can happen in the external world can diminish their worth as a living, breathing human being; as a child of Creation. From this foundation of a secure ego they are able to give freely of themselves. They have, in fact, discovered one of the greatest secrets of life: that the best way to serve one’s self, to feed a healthy ego, is to serve others. The more we give the greater the gifts we receive.

For men and women with an underdeveloped ego who find themselves in a leadership role, this is an alien concept. They have not reached the crest of the mountain from which they can see the panorama. They spend the greater part of their time and energy advancing their individual interests rather than attending to the needs of their organization and its people. As a result, as leaders they are ineffectual. Just as importantly, this self-serving behavior is apparent to the people with whom these individuals work and interact.

There are very few individuals for whom a healthy self-concept comes easily and most of us must work relentlessly at maintaining our self-esteem. Much like we must do with purpose, we must periodically step back and assess the health of our self-esteem. Unless we have perfected the process of retaining a healthy ego, the natural ebbs and flows of life can lead to disequilibrium. We are often unaware that our focus has shifted from the external world to the internal.

Effective positive leaders work relentlessly to maintain a healthy self-esteem much in the way individuals exercise their bodies to maintain physical health and well-being. Exposing ourselves to positive and inspirational thoughts and ideas is an important component of this ego-development process. It is also important to take time for introspection. Examine your strengths and weakness as objectively as you are able and then develop action plans to work on your imperfections. It is also suggested that you ask your closest friends or significant others to help you with this process as we are not always able to view ourselves the way others perceive us.

Remember always that we will never be perfect. Humans are, by definition, imperfect beings and there are no exceptions. It is not necessary that we are always right, what is important is that we strive to do what is right. Look around you at positive leaders. Often they are the strong, silent types who are so confident in themselves that it becomes unnecessary to boast of their prowess or accomplishments. The deeds of these men and women speak far more eloquently than anything they might say. You can possess this same confidence, this same sense of self if only you will reach out for it.