The Challenge to Leaders of Public Education

In all business organizations, it is the top executives who bear responsibility for assuring that the entity is focused on its mission and that the mission, itself, properly serves the needs, interests, and expectations of customers. The process must also be structured and resourced to support the people on the line. This is the essence of organizational leadership; of positive leadership.

Positive leaders are guided by three principles or axioms of organizational development:

1) It is not until one accepts responsibility for a problem that he or she begins to acquire the power to solve it;

2) If a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and must be replaced; and

3) The point at which a process can no longer be improved is the exact point in time that it becomes obsolete.

In public education, the top leaders are superintendents and the people on the line are principals, teachers and their students. In spite of a procession of incremental improvements over the last half century, disadvantaged students still struggle to pass state competency exams. More importantly, when these students leave school they find themselves at an even greater disadvantage in society. This reality has enormous adverse consequences for American society and is at the root of our nation’s greatest social, economic, and political challenges. The opportunity cost that these young men and women represent is incalculable.

Assertions by public school educators and their supporters that public education is better than it has ever been are difficult to comprehend, given the data. Even a cursory examination of the process shows that kids who start out at a disadvantage are not given the time and attention they need to learn. The proof of this assertion can be found in teachers’ grade books, everywhere. If a teacher records a failing grade, it means the teacher has moved his or her class on to a new lesson even though some students have not yet learned. These kids are pushed ahead with the rest of their class, ready or not, and it is only a matter of time before they give up, stop trying, and begin acting out.

The education reform movement, with its focus on high-stakes testing and privatization through the creation of charter schools and vouchers is a response from dissatisfied customers of public education. These powerful men and women leading the education reform movement are justified in their concerns but their solutions could not be more wrong. They are wrong because of their lack of understanding of how kids learn. They are doing great harm to our nation’s most vulnerable children and to their teachers, schools, and communities.

The education process at work in schools, both public and private, has become obsolete and no longer meets the needs of a diverse population of 21st Century students. Over the decades, while the process has deteriorated, public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers have learned to tolerate what they consider to be an acceptable level of failure. Public school educators blame poverty and segregation for these failures and suggest that it is up to society to address these issues.

Somehow, educators have lost sight of that fact that society has already taken action to address the issues of poverty and segregation. Society has created a system of public education; has built public schools in every community in the U.S.; has allocated trillions of taxpayer’s dollars to support this purpose; and, has hired professional educators who have been trained to teach a diverse population of 21st Century American children. At no time has society carved out exceptions with respect to which children will be taught and at no time has society said there is an acceptable level of failure.

This reality exists for no other reason than we allow it. If we want to put an end to the failure we must completely reinvent the education process. Such a reinvention is a straightforward organizational development project in which we design the education process so that teachers are expected to give every child the time, attention, and support they need to learn. All it requires is a little imagination and a willingness to acknowledge what we all know to be true. What do we know?

That the current education process is set up as a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest. Our response to students who are unable pass practice assignments, quizzes, chapter tests, and state competency exams is, first, to record their Cs, Ds, and Fs in the teachers grade book and, second, to report those grades to parents and the school corporation. Those grades then become part of a child’s permanent academic record and color both our expectations of our students and our students’ expectations of themselves.

We cannot change this reality through incremental changes or through the introduction of new and innovative programs unless they are part of an integral whole. Transformational change requires that we deal with the education process as a systemic whole and that we create a structure with the same diligence and attention to detail that is utilized in developing a software application in which every piece of code is written to serve and support the application’s purpose.

We must take action to transform public education in America before it is too late. The responsibility for this transformational change rests on the shoulders of all public school educators but superintendents—the CEOs of public education—bear the ultimate responsibility. It is time for them to step up and become the powerful, positive leaders that our society needs them to be.

I challenge The School Superintendents Association (AASA) to take the lead and guide its members through the transformation process. Our children and the American people are counting on them, as are public school teachers and administrators. This is the only way to stop the drive to privatization and high stakes testing that threatens our children, their schools and communities. If our superintendents do not accept responsibility and act, to whom can we turn?

I offer a model that I have developed and that was initially presented in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (Createspace, 2013). The model has, since, been refined to accommodate all that I have learned since my book was published over four years ago. The model and an accompanying white paper that lays the logical foundation for the model are available for review at my website at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/.

I challenge the AASA to assemble its most creative members and use my model as a starting point. I believe they will discover that it will work and that authorizing its implementation will be within the statutory power of local school boards. That being said, these leaders of public school corporations throughout the nation are invited to come up with a better solution, if they can. I also challenge teachers, both individually and collectively, to do whatever is in their power to influence their leaders to act.

Is this not the most important issue on the American agenda? Is it not worth our best efforts?

The reality is that if The School Superintendent’s Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Bad Ass; Teachers Association, and every other advocacy group in support of public schools, would set aside their differences and focus on their common interests, they would have more than enough power to make education work for all children, even disadvantaged students.

The coup de grace would be that the education reform movement with its focus on testing and privatization would become irrelevant.

We Need To Have a Conversation!

Since I began promoting my education model and reaching out to public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers, I have been baffled by the unwillingness of public school educators to accept responsibility for the failure of so many of their students. Please note that I said responsibility, not blame!

I love teachers and consider teaching to be a noble profession. I want teachers to be successful and to be respected for the vital work they do. I want them to find fulfillment in the art and craft of teaching our nation’s children. For many, however, teaching has become stressful and unfulfilling and too many teachers are leaving the classroom well before retirement.

Sometimes, each of us is required to tell people whom we love the honest truth; the words they need to hear whether or not they want to hear. I want to tell teachers that “what you are doing is not working for all of our nation’s students and it is harming children. Our nation’s children deserve better and so do you.”

In the case of millions of disadvantaged students and/or the non-white, the current education process is doing great harm, often sentencing them to a life of poverty. A life of poverty often means a life of crime, incarceration, and/or an early, violent death. The economic cost of supporting this population of poor, uneducated Americans is enormous and it saps American society of its strength, its spirit, and its shared values. This is unacceptable.

How many of our public school teachers go home every night and feel good about their jobs; how many feel a true sense of accomplishment? There are many schools where teachers do feel good about what they do but there many other schools where the greatest sense of accomplishment a teacher feels is that they have survived the day.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents rarely have an opportunity to see what happens to their students when they leave school and enter the real world. Sure, some students stop in to say hello, but most often these are the students who did well in school. What teachers do not see, up close and personal, is what happens to young people who leave school unprepared for the responsibilities of citizenship, unprepared to compete in the job market, and unable to keep jobs they are fortunate enough to land. What teachers do not see is what happens to their former students, now young men and women, when they find themselves crashing head first into the hard realities of life in the Twenty-first Century.

I wish teachers and administrators could be with me every Thursday evening when I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to young men and women who want to enlist in the Armed Services. A significant majority of these young people whom I test in Fort Wayne are from high schools throughout Northeast Indiana. There are a few testers who are 11th graders, received a GED, or who dropped out and did not finish school, and also a few who have one or more years of college. A significant majority of the young men and women I test, however, are high school seniors and recent graduates. While I am not authorized by my employer (the Department of Defense) to share official data regarding ASVAB scores, I can provide some anecdotal information that I think tells an important story that public school teachers and administrators need to hear.

The ASVAB is the entrance exam for the Armed Services and is, also, a vocational aptitude assessment used to determine the types of jobs and training for which candidates are most qualified. In addition, the ASVAB is offered in many high schools as a vocational aptitude test to help students plan for their futures, whether or not they are interested in military service.

For enlistment purposes, applicants must earn an “AFQT” score at least a 31 out of a possible 99. The AFQT score is a composite score of 4 of the 10 tests that make up the ASVAB and includes “arithmetic reasoning,” “word knowledge,” “paragraph comprehension,” and “mathematics knowledge.” While 31 is the minimum score for eligibility and is accepted by some of the Services, some Services have a threshold of 45 or, even higher.

In addition to enlistment eligibility, the DOD uses the scores to determine “desirability” for military service. While 31 is the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, the military does not consider someone to be a “desirable” candidate for enlistment unless they score 50 or higher. Only around half of the young men and women who seek to enlist in the Armed Services score well enough to be considered “desirable” candidates. The proportion of candidates who are ineligible for enlistment because they were unable to score 31 or higher is about one quarter of the testing population.

If a young man or woman is not eligible for enlistment and, therefor, are considered unqualified for jobs in the military, for how many civilian jobs will he or she be qualified? Apply that same comparison with respect to being considered “desirable” for enlistment. Most shocking of all is the number of these young men and women who score below 20, or who earn a single digit score. These latter two groups of young Americans, products of our nation’s public schools, are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Is it any wonder that the education reform movement has been driven by leaders from business and industry? These powerful business men and women who want to reform public education in America are motivated by the difficulty they have in finding qualified candidates for their businesses.

Some educators scoff at this suggestion and I have heard more than a few declare that it is not their job “to train automaton’s for someone’s company.” As a former business executive, I can assure the reader that neither civilian nor military employers are looking for automatons. Employers are looking for young people with a solid academic foundation; a good work ethic; an ability to communicate effectively with co-workers, suppliers, and customers; are able to think creatively and find solutions to problems; and, are willing to show initiative.

What our teachers should do—what they must do—is prepare kids so they will be able to work wherever they want, according to their interests and abilities and so they can participate in their own governance as citizens of a democratic society.

What I would love for public school teachers and administrators to see are the faces of these candidates for enlistment when I hand them their score as they walk out of the testing room. They arrived at the ASVAB test site with high hopes and expectations that they will find a place for themselves in the military. It is a crushing disappointment when they realize that they are unqualified for enlistment.

As a civilian employer, I recall the same crushing disappointment in the faces of applicants when they were denied employment because they could not demonstrate basic proficiency in math and reading.

What kind of life will a young person have if they are virtually illiterate and innumerate, and unemployable at age 20? What is the opportunity cost to our nation when these young people are unable to provide for themselves and their families? What is the cost to society if they end up in our jails and prisons?

Maybe if educators could see the faces of these young people, up close and personal, they would begin to see that what they are doing in their classrooms does not work for a significant percentage of their students. Maybe they would be less likely to boast about improved graduation rates. Maybe they would be willing to step back and truly examine what they do and why, not for the purpose of rebuttal, but in search of a better solution. What they would see by stepping back is that the education process is failing to meet the needs of far too many of their students.

It is not sufficient for public school educators to say there is nothing they can do until society addresses the problem of poverty. Our society has done something to address the issue of poverty. Our government has created a system of public education, we have built schools in every community, and we have hired professional men and women who have been trained as educators, and we have taxed the American people to pay for those schools and teachers. It is not acceptable for teachers to look around at society and say “who, me?” Is there any other profession in American society where it is acceptable to produce unacceptable outcomes, repeatedly, and do nothing about it?

We all need to understand that it is incredibly challenging to teach children who arrive for their first day of school unprepared, unmotivated, and with minimal parental support but that does not make it okay when they fail. Here is my message to public school teachers throughout the U.S.:

It may not be your fault that the education process is not working but it is your responsibility to do something about it. It is not until we accept responsibility for the challenges we face that we begin to acquire the power to overcome those challenges. The best way to stop the attacks and criticism of misguided reformers is for public school educators to come together as a unified group of professionals and shout out, loudly, that what you are being asked to do does not work. It is not until you have made such a declaration that you will be in a position to create an education process that will work for all children and that will also work for you, our children’s teachers.

Please consider the education model I have developed as one way to meet the needs of all children and, also, as a way to restore teaching to the rewarding endeavor you were seeking when you chose to be a teacher.
http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

If you think you can do a better job, then go for it, but remember, a little bit of tinkering will not work. If we want a solution, we must be willing to create a system that is engineered to meets the needs of children, that will teach them how to be successful, and in which every activity is designed to support teachers and students in the vital work they do. This new solution must be put together with the same diligence and attention to detail as a software application in which every piece of code is written to serve and support the application’s purpose.

Please understand that what you are doing today and the outcomes you are producing will never be satisfactory and will never prepare our nation’s children for the unprecedented challenges of the Twenty-first century. What it will do, however, if you cling to the obsolete process at work in our schools, is assure the success of education reformers who are working hard to shut down public education in America.