Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them; a refrain!

The original version of this article was written two-and-half years ago but events in the intervening months suggest to me that it needs repeated; with a few updates. It will be followed by a related article on bullying and peer pressure.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have now have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden brown skin. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandkids are the biological offspring of my youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, now 18 months of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

Each of them have magnificent smiles that light up our lives even more than the lights of the holiday season and laughter that warms us during the coldest of times. Their smiles have reminded me that throughout my whole life, whenever I have been blessed to see a child smile, I am blind to any of the other features, that for reasons that are difficult to fathom, cause some human beings to pass derisive judgment. For me the smile of any child is a source of incalculable joy that is as common to the shared universal human experience as anything else in life.

These children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and like all grandparents we love them so much that it hurts.

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. In the four-and-a-half years since the birth of this sweet child, our nation has been rocked by racial violence and hatred. We have known that the American people have been divided, politically, for decades but could we ever have imagined that the President of the United States, through his words and actions, could model such rhetoric and enmity?

It is bad enough that so many citizens could interpret our President’s words and actions as a license for the public expression of embittered hatred but are we truly so divided, ideologically, that good men and women would choose to tolerate such enmity out of hope that this President can “make America great, again.”

Is there any reason to believe that a man who builds walls, figuratively and literally; who condemns one of the world’s great religions for the radical violence of a few (as if Christians have never done a despicable deed); who provokes confrontations; calls people names; who brands the free press as liars; who challenges the legitimacy of our election process; ignores and ridicules the advice of his diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement advisors; who rejects the research of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists; and, who blames others when things go wrong can be the kind of leader who will unite a culturally diverse nation? Can a bully provide the kind of inspirational, positive leadership we need, so desperately?

Through the escalation of the violence and hatred over the last four-and-a-half years we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little guy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color produce such extremes of bitter passion.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered to be equal under the Constitution.

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friends that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for young children to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All but one of these kids were black. While I was responsible for the boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who came to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised. While my job was to keep them safe, I must confess that these youngsters taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 and worked with their families. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children. Later, when I decided to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teachers for my local public school district and glimpsed, first hand, the challenges that both students and teachers face.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to warmth and affection with warmth and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or society or when bullied.

These boys and girls all have the ability to learn; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation. They all deserve the best we have to offer and the very fact that so children fail provides irrefutable evidence that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

I truly believe that, in spite of the heroic effort of our teachers, it is here, in our elementary schools that we will find the roots of the problems that beleaguer us as a nation and society. Whether we are teachers, administrators, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education, educators must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible.

The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. That children are failing is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between black and white children and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce. Like any other production- or service-delivery process it can be reinvented to produce the outcomes we want and need.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is that they are the people in the best position to identify the failure of this flawed educational process but they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have learned to perceive themselves as powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

The over-riding truth as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century is that we need each and every one of these boys and girls just as desperately as they need us. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, black or white or any of the colors of the rainbow. What we see happening, today, is a preview of the rest of this 21st Century unless we choose to act.

It is only when we have gained an understanding of the forces that impede the education of our children and accept responsibility for our outcomes that we begin to acquire the power to implement meaningful changes in policy and practice. This is what positive leadership is all about.

I invite the reader to check out my Education Model and White Paper to see one way we can reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we need.

Educators are as justified in their opposition as Indiana’s new pathway to graduation is essential!

I understand the point of view of teachers and other educators who have spoken out against Indiana’s proposed pathway to graduation. They are as justified in their opposition as the new pathway is necessary for the State of Indiana.

“How can this be?” you ask. “How can such divergent points of view have validity?

From the perspective of employers, our colleges and universities, and even our Armed Forces, a new and more rigorous graduation requirements are essential. The lack of academic preparedness of an unacceptable number of high school graduates is, well, unacceptable.

I saw it as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; as an employer, beginning nearly 40 years ago, I saw it as a substitute teacher for ten years, and I see it now as a test administrator for the Department of Defense, responsible for administering the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) for young men and women seeking to enlist in the military. I have also spoken to professors, who teach freshmen and sophomores in our colleges and universities, who are frustrated at the lack of academic preparedness and motivation of students.

In previous posts I have written about the ASVAB and how many high school graduates and seniors are unable to achieve a score of 31, which is the minimum score for enlistment eligibility. I have written how the performance of black and other minorities, on the ASVAB, mirrors what we see on state competency exams, and on data from NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress). It is interesting that achieving a score of 31 on the ASVAB is being proposed as one of the additional requirements for graduation under the new pathway but did you know that although a 31 is the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, that enlistment incentives are offered only to candidates who score 50 or higher. A score of 31 might make a prospective enlistee eligible but it does not make them desirable candidates.

The bottom line is that far too many of the young people graduating, today, are poorly prepared or motivated to be successful on the job, in the military, or in a university classroom. Certainly there are many students who graduate with excellent records of achievement but they are far from a majority. There are comparable percentages of students at the bottom of the academic performance continuum who are virtually illiterate and innumerate. Most disconcerting is that the large group of graduates in the middle of the continuum are not qualified to do the jobs that society requires of them if we are to compete in a global marketplace.

The impressive sounding graduation rates about which so many public school districts boast are essentially meaningless. An official looking piece of parchment is meaningless if the bearer cannot compete in the mainstream society. Being unable to compete means that these young men and women have very few choices available to them as adults and often end up being dependent upon government support rather than being contributors.

As disturbing as is the data, it pales in comparison to the disturbing nature of the denial on the part of public school educators. American public school teachers and administrators seem oblivious to the level of dissatisfaction that exists in the communities they serve and in the nation at large. They seem disconnected from the dissatisfaction of their customers and seem not to understand that education reforms are motivated by this dissatisfaction and not by the greed of corporate executives.

This is tragic because education reformers evidence no understanding of the challenges of teaching children and their reform initiatives do more harm than good. We cannot solve the problems in public education until public school teachers and administrators accept responsibility for the problem; and please note, I said responsibility, not blame.

I consider myself to be an ardent advocate for public schools and teachers. I view all public school teachers as unsung American heroes especially the ones who teach in diverse or segregated public school districts. They are being asked to do the impossible. They are being asked to provide a high quality education to our nation’s most vulnerable children within the context of an education process that was already obsolete 65 years ago when I arrived for my first day of Kindergarten.

I am saddened that so many of the educators whom I respect and admire will stop reading about now because they do not wish to hear what I have to say. They are seemingly unwilling and/or unable to pull their heads out of the sand and acknowledge that what they are being asked to do does not work. I understand the trepidation of high school teachers in Indiana when they feel overwhelmed by what these new graduation requirements will demand of them when they are already overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask them to do under the current requirements.

As necessary as more rigorous graduation requirements might be to the welfare of society, it is outrageous to expect public school educators to meet these expectations unless we are prepared to fix an obsolete education process that allows kids to arrive for their first day of the ninth grade as unprepared for the demands of high school as our twelfth graders are unprepared for the demands of the work force, of university classrooms, and military entrance requirements.

American society is as disconnected from what transpires in our nation’s most challenged public schools as our public school teachers and administrators are out-of-touch with the level of dissatisfaction of their customers.

Yes, I know that there are many of our nation’s finest school districts that will insist that they are doing an exemplary job with their students and that those young men and women leave high school well-prepared for life after high school. They too are wrong. They are wrong not because they are doing anything wrong and not because their students are incapable, rather because the education process, itself, impedes the ability of even our best students to strive for, let alone reach, their full potential.

The problems in public education are so huge and so pervasive that it is easy for us to feel overwhelmed in the face of its challenges. This is true only because educators are so immersed in the education process that they cannot view it as an integral whole.

The way we have structured our schools and classrooms and the way we have designed our instructional methodologies and the way we have organized our curricula, and the way we have allocated our resources are nothing more than components of a logical process. Like any other process, whether production, assembly, service delivery, or software application the education process at work in our schools, both public and private, can be reinvented, re-engineered, re-designed, re-tasked to do anything we want it to do, even things we have not yet imagined to be possible. It is time for us to step back and rethink what it is we do and why.

Is there anything more important for the future of our society in the uncertain times that are unfolding before us, than the way we prepare the children on whom that future depends?

It is time to take a few step back and examine the education process in place in our schools from a systems-thinking perspective. It is time to challenge each and every assumption we have made about what we do and why. It is time to redefine our purpose and then reinvent the education process to give our teachers the direction, structure, time and resources they require to give each and every one of our students the patient time and attention they need to learn every single lesson.

It is not enough to teach lessons, however, and we must do so much more. We must teach our children how to get along with one another; we must teach them how to question why we do what we do as a people; we must teach them how to think creatively and how to utilize their imaginations to find new and innovative solutions to the challenges we face in this ever-more complicated world; we must teach them to understand history not so that we can yearn to return to a simpler time because there will never be a simpler time. We must teach them history so that they can learn from our mistakes just like we want to help them learn from their own mistakes.

We must teach them how to be successful and I am not talking about being rich and famous. We must teach them that success is a process of learning from our mistakes, building on what we know, striving for ever-higher expectations, and learning the most important truths in life. The first of those truths is that there is no such thing as failure; there are only disappointing outcomes from which we can learn and grow. The second of those truths is that people are more important than things and that the value of everything in life is measured in terms of its utility to people. The third truth is that what got us where we are today will not take us to where we want and need to be tomorrow. Our success in meeting the challenges of tomorrow will come from the wisdom we have gained from the mistakes we have made and learning that there are no final answers. Every question answered raises a whole new set of questions, Our questions are the energy that powers our imagination and ingenuity.

Every problem facing American society today is rooted in the manner and success with which we educate our children. That makes public education the most important issue on the American agenda and the civil rights issue of our time.

I challenge teachers to believe that both you and your students deserve better. I challenge you to have the courage to accept responsibility for the problems in our schools and in the education process with which you are expected to work. I challenge you to shout out at the top of your voices when what you are being asked to do does not work and to draw upon your collective power to demand support for changing the reality of public education in America.

Raising expectations is a good thing only when we give ourselves the tools necessary to meet them. Our educators do not have the tools they need to meet current requirements, let alone the new ones, however much needed they may be. We must give them these tools.

The Pathology of Secondary Agendas in Public Education!

Over the years in teaching, like so many jobs people do, our core purpose has become obscured by secondary agendas. It might help to look at a simple example from another venue.

In a government organization for which I do some part-time testing, reduction of spending to avoid exceeding one’s budget has become a top priority. Someone in the command structure decided to eliminate overtime as this was a big contributor to over-spending. Overtime now requires prior approval by top leadership.

It was fascinating to observe how quickly the “no-overtime mandate” became more important than saving money. This problem occurs anytime multiple testing assignments are scheduled on the same day in my immediate geographical area. When this happens, my organization’s solution is to send someone from an hour or two away to handle one of those assignments; thus obviating the need to pay me 4 or 5 hours of overtime.

The practice makes sense until one compares the actual expenditures for the two test sessions. On close examination, one would find that bringing in another test administrator from an hour or two away more than doubles the cost of paying me between 4 or 5 hours of overtime. Not only must they pay the second test administrator’s testing time, they must also pay that person’s two to four hours of round trip travel time, plus $0.535 per mile in travel reimbursement.

The end result is that adherence to the overtime policy, instituted to reduce expenditures, has become more important than saving money. In just one of these examples they spend about $250 to avoid paying me an extra $100 of overtime. So much for saving tax dollars.

This is what happens, often, when our core purpose becomes obscured by secondary agendas.

In thinking about the core purpose of public education, at one time homework and classroom work in preparation for a quiz or test, were intended to be viewed as practice. Their purpose was to give teachers an opportunity to use the mistakes students make to, first, identify where their students need help and, secondly, to help those kids learn from mistakes. The same is true for mistakes on quizzes and tests. In many classrooms, the scores of practice assignments are recorded in a gradebook and are factored into computation of grades. Practice assignments, and especially quizzes and tests often signal the end of a given lesson and time to move on to a new lesson.

Compare practices and performances of a band, choir, or athletic team. Practices in preparation for a concert or game are to help improve performances in the concerts or games and are rarely graded. Even mistakes that occur during the performance are singled out so the performer or athlete can continue to work on those areas in which their performance is weak and rarely for grading purposes. While level of performance throughout a semester may influence grades, individual mistakes are rarely tallied for record-keeping purposes. Mastering the skills are the clear objective.

In the academic arena, grading and then recording scores of students’ homework, classroom work, quizzes and tests often seem to have become more important than using a student’s mistakes to help them learn and master the academic material.

Grading practice assignments, quizzes and tests that were originally intended to signal that there is more work to be done seems to have become an end, in and of themselves. It signals that work on one lesson is completed and that it is time to move on to a next lesson, grading period, semester, or school year.

In today’s education environment, schools and teachers are under tremendous pressure to keep their students and classrooms on pace, per their state’s academic standards and in preparation for statewide competency exams. The unintended consequence is that the original mission of schools and teachers, which was to help children learn, has become obscured.

There is no way to pinpoint when this change occurred and it is not the fault of any one person. It is simply one of the pressures to which any logical process can be subjected. It happens all the time in production-, assembly-, and service-delivery processes in private enterprise but the effect on product or service quality almost always results in a quick reduction in customer satisfaction. Many business failures occur because producers of goods and services do not monitor customer satisfaction closely. Successful producers are always listening to their customers and are able to take immediate corrective action.

In public education, customers such as employers and the military have been expressing dissatisfaction for decades and they are not the only ones. I have heard any number of college professors who teach freshman and sophomore classes complain about the lack of academic preparedness and self-discipline of many of their students.

Understand that this is not the fault of teachers who are doing what they are being directed to do. Making sure their schools are not diverted from their core purpose is the responsibility of leadership, however, starting with principals and ending where the buck stops in any public school corporation.

It is incredibly difficult for leaders, in any venue, to admit that what they are doing is not working and is producing unacceptable outcomes and the further removed they are from their end customers, the more difficult it is. High level administrators of public school corporations, along with their advocates, must be challenged to recognize that the education reform movement, misguided though it may be, is motivated by the same type of customer dissatisfaction as a struggling business entity. What distinguishes public education from producers of consumer goods and services is what is at stake.

In public schools, our nation’s children are suffering, especially disadvantaged students, and this is having an adverse impact on every aspect of life in American society.

Somehow the superintendents and governing bodies of local school corporations; along with teachers, both individually and collectively; must find the courage to accept responsibility for the problems in our public schools. It is not until we accept responsibility for our problems that we begin to acquire the power to solve them. And, it is not until educators accept responsibility that the failure of disadvantaged students will cease.

Please check out my Education Model and White Paper
I also want to introduce a few new blogs I have found:

https://shanephipps/wordpress.com/
http://www.justintarte.com/
www.davidgeurin.com
www.tsschmidty.blogspot.com
www.marlenagrosstaylor.com/blog
www.brentclarkson.com/blog