Seeing the Forest through the Trees

How is it that some of the nation’s most intelligent and accomplished people overlook a simple truth. As trite as it may be, the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees!” is as true as it is timeless. In the midst of the trees, or any other complex reality, it is incredibly difficult to see the whole of which we are apart. The consequence of being so immersed in the detail is that we are not fully aware of the external forces that influence whatever it is that we do. Without that broader perspective and the knowledge and understanding it provides, we find it difficult to resolve the challenges we face.

The analogy is very much like the reality in public education. Public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers work hard to address the challenges they face, particularly those in communities populated by large numbers of disadvantaged students, and yet satisfactory solutions elude us. Public school teachers and administrators seem disconnected from what outsiders perceive as the reality. Educators judge their work by the effort and commitment they put into teaching our children while those outside of the system judge the work of our schools by the performance of its graduates. Far too often those assessments are on opposite ends of the curve.

That raises the operative question. How do we judge any process developed to produce a product, service or any other outcome? Do we judge those outcomes by how hard people think they work and how much they say they care, or by the quality and utility of the outcomes, themselves?

The incremental improvements made in public schools over the last half century are comparable to course corrections of a ship at sea. The corrections are intended to allow the ship to arrive more quickly to its destination. If the destination, itself, is incorrect, however, the course adjustments are not only irrelevant, they might divert us even farther from our destination.

With respect to our system of public education, the education process as it is currently designed is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to optimize each child’s academic success, particularly disadvantaged kids. The data from public schools in communities all over the U.S. supports this assertion. What we hear so often from public school educators is that “public schools are better than they have ever been.”

How these educators respond to challenges about the low performance of disadvantaged students provides insight into our dilemma. What educators say is that the performance of these kids is a consequence of poverty and segregation and fixing these socio-economic issues is the responsibility of society; not public schools and teachers. The unfortunate result of this disavowal of responsibility is that, in response to a half-century of poor performance of the disadvantaged, public school educators have made no substantive changes to the education process. They have, instead, relied on incremental improvements that are as irrelevant to American society as the course corrections at sea, by ships steaming toward the wrong destination.

It is clear to this observer—one who has spent an entire career working to help my organizations and clients fix ineffectual processes on the one hand and who has walked in the shoes of public school teachers while subbing, on the other—that the education process at work in our schools is fatally flawed. Because it is flawed, it has proven almost impossible for children who start at a disadvantage to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to escape poverty and become fully productive and responsible citizens. The fact that public school educators have done nothing to address this critical deficiency is the motivating force behind the education reform movement.

What we need from public school educators is for them to acknowledge what they know to be true. The process does not work for disadvantaged kids.

The good news is that the reinvention of the education process is a relatively easy thing to do. All it requires is that we take the time to re-examine what it is that all kids need, including the disadvantaged, and then engineer a structure that is designed for the express purpose of meeting those needs. This is what this author has done in creating a new education model.

So what do kids need?

1) What kids need is more time on lessons with which they struggle. They must not be pushed to move on to the next lesson before they have mastered a current one. As success on many lessons depends on a student’s ability to apply what they have already learned, struggling students are set up for failure, are rarely able to catch up, and fall further behind. This repetitive bruising of young egos is devastating. .

2) What kids need is a fair starting point on a unique academic plan that builds on what they know and what they can do. What matters is whether each of the children for whom we are responsible learns as much as they are able at their own best speed. Students are not competing with one another in the classroom rather they are each laying their own foundation and building for their own unique futures.

3) What kids need are warm and nurturing relationships with all of the adults who share responsibility for teaching, protecting, caring, and advocating for them and the more such people there are the better off the child.

4) Children need the people who care, protect, teach, and advocate for them to work together as a team. The more these educators, mentors, and care givers communicate with one another and work together, the better it is for the child. This need places a premium on the parents and teachers working together as partners to be a positive force in the lives of our children.

5) Children need these relationships to be stable and enduring. We want each child to have the same quality of relationships that many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers. Often, it takes an entire school year to create these special bonds and, far too frequently, it never happens within as single school year. Once formed, why would we want to sever such relationships because it is May or June?

6) Kids need to experience and celebrate success at every opportunity. They must also learn that success is neither a destination nor a trophy. Success is a process in which we learn how to set goals and objectives, how to achieve them by learning from the mistakes we make along the way. It is the child’s mistakes that point us to areas where they need more work. We want children and teachers to think of mistakes as the building blocks of success and accomplishment.

7) Our children need to master the skills, knowledge, and discipline they will need in order to have real and meaningful choices available to them when they leave school. This is only possible when our children are able to utilize in the real world that which they have learned. If they cannot use it, they have not learned it and our job on with that child is not yet done. It serves no one’s interest when a child is allowed to fail.

Creating an education process that is tasked, structured and resourced to help children meet their needs is our responsibility and it is eminently doable. It simply requires that we acknowledge that the existing process is irreparable and then go back to the drawing board.

Use Your Imagination and Experience as a Positive Force for Change Rather Than As an Obstacle!

In almost any other venue in American society, when something is not working properly we waste little time before we fix it. We may try to fiddle with the problem for a while but if that fails to produce the outcomes we want we move quickly to revamp or replace a faulty component or process. Very few of us are willing to put up with disappointing outcomes.

This is especially true in business. Few businesses can endure dissatisfied customers as doing so is the quickest way to lose one’s business. When a pattern of disappointing outcomes is recognized, business owners feel a sense of urgency to find a solution. Only rarely will tinkering or other incremental adjustments do the trick. What is needed is a trip back to the drawing board, analyzing feedback, clarifying purpose and objectives, challenging one’s assumptions, and finding a new solution. Very often, the new solution involves a radical departure from the manner in which things were done in the past.

“But, this is the way we have always done it” is never an acceptable answer to dissatisfied customers. Learning how to be an agent for change is one of the core principles of positive leadership.

How is it that the American people can be tolerant to the point of disinterest in the fact that millions of American children are failing in public schools. Disadvantaged kids failing in a nation that boasts of American ingenuity and its commitment to human rights? It seems incongruous. Do we not care about disadvantaged kids? Do we think them incapable of learning and therefore undeserving of our time and attention?

In my last blog post, I quoted Linda Darling-Hammond from her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, (Teachers College Press, 2010). Dr. Darling-Hammond is President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University where she is Faculty Director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. She wrote:

“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”

In the midst of the failure of so many of our most precious children, how is it that public school educators do little more than ask teachers to try harder while the education reformers are on a mission to shut them down? How is it that public school educators and the advocates that support them leave some of the most fundamental assumptions in public education unchallenged? Challenging assumptions is also one of the core principles of positive leadership:

• Does it really make sense for the education process at work in our public schools to be structured as if education is a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest?

• Do we really want public education to be a competition in which some kids win and others lose?

• How can we continue to justify asking children to move from one lesson to the next, one semester after another, and from grade to grade when they are unable to apply much of what they were expected to learn.

• Do we never second guess our tradition of accepting the failure of a significant percentage of public school students as an unalterable given?

• Does it still make sense to ask all children to progress through academic standards at the same pace as other children of the same age, even though there is great disparity in their level of academic preparedness?

• Other than the fact that this is the way we have done it for over a century, does it still make sense to move students from Kindergarten through grade 12, changing teachers every year?

• Is it fair to kids who want to learn to see valuable classroom time usurped as teachers allocate increasingly larger percentages of their time to unmotivated students who act out in class and exhibit no motivation to learn?

• Do we ever consider the possibility that there might be a better way to help kids learn?

It is so easy to blame public school teachers, whom I consider to be unsung heroes, for the problems in their schools and communities but doing so is no different than blaming soldiers on the front lines of combat for the faulty strategy and tactics of their commanders.

Our public school teachers need our help not our recriminations and they need our patience as it is only natural that they be resistant to change. That being said, the best thing public school teachers can do in their own best interests and the interests of their students is speak out about the inadequacies of the education process.

The education process at work in schools all over the U.S., both public and private, does not provide our children with the best chance to learn and it does not place our teachers in a position to teach at the top of their ability. The education process and the entire system of public education is flawed. Not only is it destroying young lives it is robbing our nation and our society of its ability to provide a safe community for its citizens, to compete successfully in a dynamic world economy, and to participate meaningfully in an increasingly interdependent global society.

Public school educators are challenged to step back to a vantage point from which the educational process can be examined as an integral whole. You are invited to evaluate the education model I have developed and an accompanying white paper at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ If you do not think my model will work, use it as a springboard to come up with something that will work. Use your experience and imagination as a positive force for change rather than be an obstacle in the way of progress.

Withstanding the Relentless Wave of the Education Reform Movement

Throughout the U.S., the movement to privatize education is advancing, whether in state legislatures or local school districts, and it is a relentless force. Education reformers are on a mission to replace under-performing public schools with charter schools and other private alternatives. They are committed to giving parents a “choice.” Most of the public schools reformers are targeting are located in urban and rural communities with populations that are as diverse economically as they are culturally. That public school educators have not taken the time to understand the true motivation of reformers places their futures and ours at risk.

This unrelenting pursuit of privatization on the part of education reformers, and the policy makers who support them, is driven by the poor performance of students. The zeal of these crusaders, however, is not just about the numbers rather it is guided by the intransigence of public school teachers and administrators who insist that public education is better than it has ever been.

The irony is that public education might, indeed, be better than ever but it is nowhere near good enough. This leaves public schools, their teachers and communities in a showdown, winner-take-all poker game in which they hold no cards.

The facts are indisputable. In states throughout the U.S., the percentage of children unable to pass their state’s competency exams in math and English language arts is unacceptable. If you have doubts that what I say is true, go to the website of a nearby public school district that serves a significant percentage of poor and minority students and examine the data. Better yet, go to the website of your state’s department of education and look at statewide data. Although children who fail are often poor and include a disproportionate percentage of children of color or for whom English is a second language, they come from all segments of U.S. population. The data is alarming.

It is my assertion that most of the problems facing 21st Century American society are rooted in the separation between the haves and have nots and between white Americans and people of color. The chasm that divides us exists because disadvantaged children enter public school at age five or six and then exit, 13 years later, without the knowledge and skills necessary to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy and without the ability to participate in the American dream. Instead, they return to their communities and join the previous generations of men and women who have always failed in school and have always been poor and who live under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness.

As these men and women clog up our justice system, fill our prisons to overflowing, raise their children on welfare, and become hardcore unemployable they elicit the bitterness and resentment of mainstream Americans who are asked to bear the economic burden. Many of these “mainstream Americans” have been reared in a society that has long been permeated by racism and discrimination and the events of our time validate, in their minds, the long-held traditions in which blacks and other people of color were viewed as inferior. Is it any wonder that, in the anger and frustration of so many, the American people have elected an authoritarian outsider as President of the United States on the basis of his promise to make American great again? Sadly, what is great for some is misery for others.

The biggest cause of this separation is that the needs of disadvantaged students are not being met by public schools and by the educational process at work in those schools. Public education was intended to be the great equalizer that would give every American child a ticket to the American dream. Instead, public education has become a brittle shell of its former self. While American society has changed exponentially, public education has plodded along with a seemingly endless series of incremental improvements none of which help our public schools serve the mission for which they were created. Public school educators have forgotten whom they exist to serve.

Would we be content, for example, to let physicians practice early 20th century medicine in response to the health challenges facing 21st people? Of course not, and we cannot afford to let our public schools prepare children for the challenges of the 21st century using outdated early 20th century methodologies.

Public schools, their teachers and administrators must recognize and acknowledge that they are viewed as obsolete by the education reform movement in America. Reformers are committed to putting public schools out of business. Unfortunately, the leaders of the reform movement, who are enormously successful business people, have forgotten the very principles upon which their own success has been built. They think that just by taking over the responsibility for educating our nation’s children, their success and the success of their students will be guaranteed. Unfortunately, they have not taken the time to understand the needs of their customer. It is ironic that this is not a mistake they would make when making an acquisition of another business entity.

This flaw in the internal logic of the reform movement, with its focus on high stakes testing and privatization, creates a real opportunity for public education. It is an opportunity, however, that cannot be seized and realized until educators are willing to go back to the drawing board and re-examine the needs of their customers. We need our public school educators to understand that not only are they responsible for the outcomes public schools produce they are also responsible for finding a solution that produces the outcomes our society so desperately needs. Blaming external forces is unacceptable. As I said in a recent post, what public school educators need is a paradigm shift.

In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, (Teachers College Press, 2010) Linda Darling-Hammond writes:

“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”

Now, seven years after these words were published, very little has changed in the way the American education process is structured and we are still getting the same outcomes we were getting then.

I utilized an axiom from operations management with a similar theme when developing my education model. It is a model that I believe will transform public education in America and seize the initiative from the reform movement. It says:

“If a system, process, or operation continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they might be, then the system is flawed and must be replaced or reinvented.”

What my model does is:

• Change the objectives and expectations of teachers;

• Identify and address the unique needs of each and every student;

• Alter the structure of the education process to support teachers in meeting our new objectives and expectations;

• Rewrite the rules by which the game is played; and,

• Change the manner in which we keep score.

What we will soon discover after implementing such changes is that anything is possible. Reinventing the education process is a simple human engineering exercise. We have the ability to create a process to do whatever we need it to do, if only we are willing to use our ingenuity and open our hearts and minds to the possibilities that exist outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

I invite the reader to visit http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ to check out my education model and also a white paper that sets out the logical foundation of the model and summarizes the findings and conclusions in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.

If public school teachers and administrators continue to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to accept responsibility for fixing what is broken, the outcome for public schools and teachers is inevitable. The reform movement is riding the crest of a powerful wave and they will not be deterred. The only solution is to eliminate the failure and help every child develop the knowledge, skills, and character they will need to live the American dream. Only then will Americans see the false promise of privatization; only then will parents have a real choice.