A Minefield of Distractions or a New Education Model

In a recent exchange on Twitter, I made a comment that “Relationships put teachers in position to teach but too often the process gets in the way. [The] Process can be designed to clear the way, so teachers are always able to seize those moments. The existing education process is a minefield of distractions.”

A good athlete or team will put themselves in a position where they can win a game. That doesn’t mean they win every time, but they give themselves a chance to win. There are no certainties in athletic competitions just as there are no certainties in classroom teaching. In many ways, teaching is like the practice of medicine. Public school teachers and physicians are craftspeople working to apply an uncertain science to help people. Good teachers, like good physicians, are always working to develop their craft and they never run out of things to learn and new things to try.

What I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing is the last part of the sentence, “relationships put teachers in a position to teach but, too often, the process gets in the way.”

For going on six years I have been striving to make the point to public school teachers that the education process within which they work gets in their way. The existing process truly is a minefield of distractions. I have yet to find the correct words to explain myself in a way that resonates with teachers, however.

Public school teachers have been teaching within the same structure and education process for their whole careers. It’s the same education process within which their own teachers had to work and the same one within which their teachers’ teachers had to work. The current education process and structure have become an “unalterable given” in the minds of public school educators and it does not put them in a position to win/teach very often. When it does put them in position, teachers must often make an extraordinary effort to accomplish their objective with a student or class. It is an extraordinary effort of the type that only the most dedicated teachers are inclined to make.

Think about how an operating room is constructed to serve every need of the surgeon. It has been engineered to assure the surgeon has whatever he or she needs, within easy reach. It is designed around the way a surgeon works and thinks and the way they have been trained to react to unexpected events and crises.

One can even see this process of “designing to specifications” on state-of-the-art assembly lines in a manufacturing venue; even to the detail that when the worker needs a cap screw or nut, all they do is turn and reach, knowing it will be there. It is applied ergonomics where the environment and all physical resources are designed and organized to optimize the capability of the physician or production worker.

Why would we not want to create the same work environment for teachers? Is there any job in society more important than teaching? Is there anything in society more important than our children? How would our children grow up to be doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers or other professionals if were not for our teachers?

Teachers work with a population of students that is diverse to the extreme; each student has a unique set of needs and abilities to which the teacher must respond; and each subject area offers multiple strategies to convey content and concepts to their students. Teachers must, however, practice their extraordinarily complex craft within the context of a brittle structure, regimented to the nth degree, following an inflexible set of academic standards, while working within the confines of an arbitrary schedule.

We all understand how important it is for teachers to form close, nurturing relationships with their students, but the education process is not designed in a way that supports teachers and students through that relationship-building activity. There are too many kids for too few teachers with too little time, and no backup systems to help teachers spend extra time with the children with whom it is the most difficult to connect. Then, whatever progress is made in forming those relationships is scrapped at the end of a school year when kids move on to the next grade where they will start, anew, with another teacher with whom they may or may not be able to bond.

We all understand how important it is to pull parents into the process as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their sons and daughters, but there is no well-developed strategy integrated within the daily activities of teaching for accomplishing this objective.

We all know kids arrive for their first day of school with cavernous disparity with respect to academic preparedness and motivation to learn, but we make no formal effort to assess their state of readiness, so we can formulate a strategy that optimizes our ability to attend to their unique requirements.

We all believe that every child needs time to learn and that the best way for most children to learn is to get concentrated help to understand their mistakes and then have an opportunity to try again and apply the lessons learned. We do our best, of course, but the age-old process very quickly prompts us to move the class on to a new lesson, knowing that there are any number of students who are not ready. We don’t like it, but this is the way the process is designed to work and we all feel the burden of competency examinations looming in the future. We are asked to conform to the arbitrary structure, process, and schedule rather than expecting these things to conform to the needs of our students and teachers. How does this improve academic preparedness and motivation to learn?

It is just common sense that when we stop a lesson before a child understands, because time is up, that they will be that much less prepared to succeed on the next lesson, which may well require that they apply what they have already learned. Kids cannot effectively apply knowledge they’ve been unable to gain because an arbitrary schedule was the priority.

Almost everyone understands that it is through our successes, and the celebration of them, that we gain confidence in ourselves, thus improving the odds for a student’s successful mastery of future lessons.

When we record a failing grade, the research has long concluded that this has a labeling effect that colors their teachers’ perception of a child’s ability to learn, diminishes the student’s self-esteem, and makes it easy for them to believe what they hear when their classmates refer to them as one of the dumb kids.

How many more examples do we need to offer before educators begin to see that the existing education process has grown obsolete and truly is a minefield of distractions from their purpose. It is not created to make their job easy or to make learning easy and fun for students, or to help them develop a powerful motivation to learn. The process is not teacher/student focused.

Why don’t educators and education policy makers go back to the drawing board and start from scratch to create an education process that utilizes applied ergonomics to help teachers bond with their students; pull parents in as partners; makes sure every child is able to start from the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where they were when they arrived at our door; that is structured in a way that helps us tailor an academic path to meet the unique requirements of each child; that gives each student however much time they need to learn a given lesson because a teacher’s job is not done unless the child can utilize what they have learned.

From about the middle of 2006 until late in 2013, creating such a teaching/learning environment has been my focus. I started by striving to make sense of what I had witnessed as a substitute teacher from 2002 through 2012. I had retired from my positive leadership and organizational development consulting business to pursue my lifelong dream of writing books and chose to sub to earn some extra income. As I began to observe the challenges faced by both teachers and students, it seemed natural to begin applying my experience in positive leadership and organizational development consulting to address a process that was clearly dysfunctional.

One of my specialties was evaluating the production and service-delivery processes of clients who were frustrated that their outcomes were unacceptable. My job was to analyze the process and then modify it to produce better outcomes or, far more often, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes. It was simply a process of making sure the internal logic and activity of the process were perfectly aligned to serve its purpose. It involved organizing the activity of the people doing the work to make sure they remained focused on that purpose and ensure that the process was engineered in a way that every action and resource existed to support the work people were asked to do; to help them do their jobs to the highest standards of quality.

The result of my work on the education process was reported, first, in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: the Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, which includes the initial version of a new education model. After the book’s publication, in 2013, I continued to work to refine the process and published those results on my blog, first in a white paper that was written to lay the foundation for the education model and then present the model, itself. During this time, I also published over 150 articles on the challenges facing teachers and students in the public-school districts of America. They were written to challenge teachers to break out of their conventional boundaries and undergo a paradigm shift.

My intention was to create a system much like what I outlined above; an education process molded around the relationship between teachers and their students, putting teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn. And, then defining purpose and objectives, creating a structure to support the efforts of people, and the other components of an effective service delivery process. I continue to revise the model as I learn things from you, the professional educators with whom I interact on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Email, and through my blog.

I invite you to look at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. What do you have to lose? Imagine what it would be to work in an environment that was conceived and constructed to support you in your work in every conceivable way.

What If We Were Starting from Scratch?

For the past few years I have been suggesting that if we are not getting the outcomes we need from our public schools—if too many kids are failing—it is time to go back to the drawing board. This is, also, what Chris Weber (@webereducation) has written about, when he suggests the question we should all be asking is:

“How would we design schools, classrooms, teaching, and learning if we started from scratch?”

Starting from scratch is what I have done to create an education model that I believe will enable us to give each child the quality education they deserve. In the white paper that accompanies my education model and that provides the logical foundation for it, I wrote:

“What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.”

And,

“Through the utilization of the tools and principles of systems thinking, positive leadership, and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.”

The new process we create must be engineered to facilitate, in every conceivable way, the specific components we determine to be essential if we are to teach the whole child.

Since I have been active on Twitter the number of times educators—teachers, administrators, principals and superintendents—have been talking about the importance of building relationships with students has increased exponentially. Particularly in the aftermath of the most recent school shooting, everyone has been stressing the importance of conveying to kids that they are loved. When some students are unable to form close relationships with their teachers and other students they are at risk of becoming isolated, picked on, bullied, or even ignored. These are the kids who may feel driven to do desperate, dangerous things.

Now, think about your own school and classroom and examine where the responsibility for building warm nurturing relationship with students falls on your priority list. Think about how much of your time are you able to allocate to this activity that we understand to be so vital.

Also, think about the 5 and 6-year-old students who arrive for their first day of school. Where on their first teacher’s priority list do we find “work to develop warm, nurturing relationships with each child” and how much of that first-year teacher’s time is allocated for that purpose? Is it 100 percent? Is it 50 percent? Or, is it somewhere below 25 or even 10 percent? How does that percentage change as class size increases from 20 to 25 students or even to 35 students?

How much of a teacher’s time can be allocated to winning the trust and affection of each child? How do we find time to do all of the other things demanded of us as teachers?

As it turns out, the relationships, themselves, are key to accomplishing all that is demanded of us. If we have the relationships it makes everything else easier. Most important of all is that once we have built the relationships, everything else we do reinforces and helps us sustain them.

After we have worked so hard for an entire school year to build and solidify our relationships with our students, and have worked to lay the foundation for learning does it really make sense to sever those relationships. Is it truly in the child’s best interests to say goodbye to their favorite teacher and ask them to start all over in the fall, with a teacher who may be a complete stranger? Is this really how we teach the whole child?

If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that the existing educational process was not created for this purpose and it can only be bent and stretched so far.

So, what is the answer? If we truly believe that forming these special relationships with our students is of vital importance, how do we give it the priority it deserves? And, how do we do all of the other things that our students need if they are to succeed?

The answer, today, is that we cannot do it all because the existing education process is neither tasked, structured nor supported to give the whole child what he or she needs to learn and grow.
What we must do is reinvent, re-engineer, or redesign the process in such a way that its priorities are clear.

Effective systems do not just happen, and rarely can a dysfunctional system be sufficiently repaired to do what we need it to do. Systems, organizations, and processes are designed with great attention to detail to ensure that purpose and objectives are clear and that the structure is created to support that purpose. They are complex systems of human behavior and students of the disciplines of organizational leadership have worked to understand their inner dynamics. We cannot just hope the organizations and processes we create will accomplish their purpose and produce the outcomes we are seeking. We must ensure that every activity undertaken exists to support our purpose and mission and we must provide relentless positive leadership to sustain our effort.

The education model I have created has been designed to do this and more? I urge the reader to take the time to examine the model, not it search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather with the hope that it might. It is available for your review at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Time: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

In recent posts we have talked much about the critical role relationships play in learning. Strong, nurturing, enduring relationships between teachers and students is one of the essential variables of the education equation. If parents can be pulled into the relationship as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children, the students’ probability of success will soar.

One of the other essential variables in the education equation is time. Not just time by itself, but time and our patient attention. In most school settings; whether public schools, private, parochial, or charter schools; the education process is structured around arbitrary schedules of time. This is not surprising because everything human beings do is done within the context of time. Not all things are meant to be on a predetermined schedule, however.

If you have ever been a part of a child’s life from birth to adulthood, you know that each child is unique and learns at their own pace. The human brain, particularly a child’s brain, is a remarkable thing, possibly the most remarkable thing in all creation. A child’s brain is programmed to learn; it is like a sponge that soaks up the world around it. While science has determined that there is a clear developmental path through which children grow and mature, the variance in rates of childhood development can be great. If your eldest child walks at 12 months and speaks in sentences by 18 months, there is no reason to be concerned when you second child takes a first step at 13 months and says only a few words at one-and-a-half. The only thing that matters is that the important bases are touched and that once a skill is acquired the child can utilize it, effectively.

When children arrive for their first day of school, we see much the same pattern. Some are already reading by that monumental first day but many of their new classmates are not. Some know their letters and numbers, others may know colors and shapes. Where they fall with respect to an academic preparedness continuum is determined by the unique characteristics of their individual lives and genetic capability. Not only do they have varying starting points, some learn more quickly than others and their manner of learning may differ. Just like early childhood development, however, the bottom line is that they all can and will learn. The question is: How can we best help them learn?

Everything else changes beginning on that first day of school. No longer is the pace and direction of a child’s development determined by nature or a child’s interests and talents. Pace and direction are now guided by academic standards that are essentially an arbitrary determination of things educators believe children must learn if they are to enter adulthood with choices. When I suggest that the standards are arbitrary, I am not suggesting they have been poorly researched, rather that there is an underlying assumption that the standards and their accompanying timelines are appropriate for all “non-special needs students.” This assumption has a powerful influence on the academic success and failure of our students.

No longer is learning a natural and fun process that progresses at the child’s own pace. The first change with which children are confronted is that specific learning objectives have been identified and prioritized. The second change is that the specific learning objectives have also been correlated to a schedule that provides guidelines for the pace of learning. The expectation of teachers is that they guide their students down an academic path, as outlined by state standards and at a pace that conforms to what has been determined to be an acceptable rate of progress. Teachers have some latitude to help if the number of students who are getting off to a slow start is small. The larger the population of students who struggle and the older they get, however, the more problematic it becomes for teachers.

To gage how well students have progressed through the outline of academic standards, competency assessments have been developed. It turns out that the performance of students, on these assessments, has been determined to be an effective way to hold schools and teachers accountable for the performance of their students. Therefore, the process has come to be known as high-stakes testing.

The process begins to break down when individual students are unable to keep pace and we can be certain that learning is no longer fun for these children.

As it turns out, the two most essential variables of the education equation; which I have suggested are enduring relationships between teachers and students (not to mention parents) and that children are given however much time and patient attention they need to learn at their unique pace, are difficult to provide within the context of the current education process. The education process is comprised of two essential components. The first are the academic standards and schedules and their accompanying competency assessments; and, the second is the way teachers, classrooms, students, and resources are organized to achieve their purpose.

Think about the current education process as a conveyor belt designed to move kids along the path outlined by academic standards and that the speed with which it moves is an arbitrary schedule intended to correspond to the benchmarks placed along the path. The way we have organized teachers is that they ride along with their students as the conveyor belt moves toward its destination.

When we place a diverse population of children on that belt it appears to work well for many of our students. Other students, however, lack the skills (academic preparedness and pace of learning) that enable them to remain secure in their seats. Gradually, these children begin to fall off the belt and they lack the ability to climb back on, unassisted. Their teachers reach out to them and retrieve as many as they can, while others fall quickly out of reach. The students who have been retrieved still lack the skill necessary to hang on, however, so they fall off again and again.

Never are teachers able to retrieve all students who have fallen behind and the population of children who are failing at school grows, unrelentingly. These young people have fallen off the conveyor belt and they have no where to go other than to be swallowed up by a maelstrom of poverty and failure that plagues our society.

Until we abandon the conveyor belt as obsolete and replace it with an education process that is engineered to meet each child’s unique requirements, students will continue to fail no matter how hard our teachers work; even with innovative and sophisticated tools and methodologies that are being developed.

If, however, we utilize our imaginations, in combination with our education and experience, to design and construct a process around the way children learn, and that empowers both teachers and students, we can help each child receive the best education of which they are capable. A nice bonus will be the discovery that, in the right environment, most of our innovations with which we have been struggling will work.

Once again, I urge you to take time to review my white paper and education model to see one way we can create a teacher/student-centered education process. Please read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work, rather in hope that it might work. The model, which will be available for public school systems to use, free of charge, is available for your review at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ You are also invited to peruse the other 150 plus articles posted on this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

“Street Smart” Translates to Every Other Kind of Smart!

When working with kids, outside of a classroom setting, their level of “street smart” is easy to recognize. What “street smart” tells us is that these kids can learn anything that is important to them. The fact that so many do not learn in school is because it is not important to them. If their families, from their own negative school experiences, do not value education we can be certain child will not. The operative question, therefore, is how do we make learning at school important to all our students?

The key is relationships but given how many people of color and other disadvantaged Americans are suspicious of teachers, especially white teachers, it is not easy to break through. This is particularly true when skeptical parents tell their kids, “don’t let the teachers treat you unfairly” and this is a common occurrence. As a juvenile probation officer almost every mother I spoke with expressed concern about their child being treated fairly at school. What I also discovered was that listening to them works better than talking, and if they feel they are being interrogated, they will clam up quickly. If I was patient and just engaged in a normal dialogue with them, they would become more forthcoming with info about themselves and their families.

For a white teacher with children of color, this is most true and I am confident that most teachers know this. It is so easy when we are busy, however, to revert to interrogation and giving orders. When they begin to learn that you have a genuine interest in hearing what they have to say—hearing their story—they become much more open. Nothing convinces them they are important to you better than paying attention to them.

The way we win the parents over is by winning their kids over. When they start talking to parents about their teacher as being nice, a parent or guardian’s natural curiosity becomes an ally.

Especially early, as teachers work to form relationships with new students, the kids will be quick to pass judgment on their teacher. It is ironic that so many teachers and parents think their children never listen to them. Whether or not they appear to be listening, I can assure you that they hear and see everything you say and do. And, when what you say does not jive with what you do, your integrity is diminished. You won’t know this, unfortunately, until you feel them pulling away from you, emotionally.

It is an oversimplification, I know, but things we wish to teach them in school are not important to them until they become convinced that they, the students, are important to us. I also learned that as suspicious as they may be, they hunger for closeness with adults. They will not open themselves to a teacher, however, until they begin to trust.

In the summer of 1966, in Philadelphia, I supervised a churchyard recreation program. The church sat on the border between the territories of two gangs and our purpose was to offer a sanctuary for kids—no gang recruiters allowed. All I did was play with the kids, ages 8 to 16, and listen to them, rarely offering advice, not that I had much advice to offer at age 20. My goal was to keep them coming and on any given day we would have between 15 to 30 kids on the grounds, some days even more. The only evidence that I was making a personal connection to them as individuals was 1) the fact they came every day, and 2) they began to share more intimate details about their lives.

The summer after my time in Philadelphia, I was in the Army, stationed in Maryland. I went back for a weekend, not knowing whether I would even be remembered. When I walked into the churchyard, the teenagers were aloof, at first, but the young kids charged me and dragged me to the ground. If you have ever been mauled by a litter of puppies, you can appreciate how I felt. Never had I felt more loved than I did wrestling under that pile of kids. The teens quickly came around, as well.

While I choose to believe that teachers care deeply about their students I do not believe enough of them take the time to listen to their students and then demonstrate that they care through their actions. Like anything else, we need to sell them on our commitment to their success. When we have accomplished that, parents become so much more accessible.

One more story, this one from my first year of subbing, and then I will get on with my point.

It had been 36 years since my summer in Philadelphia and almost 25 years from my last day as a probation officer when I subbed for a 3rd grade class. I had only been subbing for a few weeks After the first 20 minutes, I noticed a young black boy was following me around the classroom. When I gave a teacher a questioning glance she said, “he won’t stay in his seat. We can’t get him to listen to or do much of anything.” For the entire day, he was my shadow. He let me help him with his assignments; read to him; and, when we marched to art class, to lunch, or recess, he held my hand. Again, the teachers were astonished and told me he never let anyone get close to him.

I was only at that school for one day. One of the most difficult things about subbing is that you may never see the same kids again and rarely get an opportunity to build on even the smallest foundation of the occasional connections you make. To this day, I am ashamed to say that I did not stay in touch with that little boy, whether as a tutor, or “big brother,” or some other way. My only excuse was that, in addition to dealing with a couple of personal issues at the time, I was a rookie substitute teacher and was feeling overwhelmed by what I was experiencing, every day. I think of that child, often, and wonder how he is doing. He would be in his late twenties by now.

Back when I worked closely with kids I would have responded to this child’s need for affection, instinctively. In that summer in 1966, on Germantown Avenue, and when I began work as a juvenile probation officer a few years later, I learned far more from my kids than they learned from me. The most important lesson of all was that it is all about caring.

Teachers are just people and there are times when all are distracted by personal issues. Somehow, teachers must have sufficient strength of character and relentless commitment to their purpose, however, that they are able to set their personal issues aside when they walk into their school each morning. If you treat each student as if he or she is your number one priority; listen to them empathically and are able to convey through your words and actions that they are special, you gain a tremendous amount of leverage with respect to your ability to influence them in a positive way.

If you have any experience at all you know that you can never let up because they will test you almost every day, to reassure themselves that your concern for them is genuine. This lesson had quite an impact on me as a father and I think the lesson applies to teachers and parents, alike.

“It is every bit as important that we pass the tests our kids give us as it is that they pass the tests we give them.”

How often we pass their tests and demonstrate unconditional love and concern has a profound effect on our ability to make a difference in their lives. It is imperative that we not wait until they are 16 before we begin working to form the kind of connections that, truly, will transform lives. We need to recreate the education process so that its over-riding priority must be to help teachers form close, personal bonds with their students beginning on their first day of school. The structure must be engineered to support this purpose, time must be fully allocated, the ratio of teacher to student must be sufficient, and teachers and students must be allowed to remain together for more than just one school year.

From the first day a 5 or 6-year old child arrives at school, our focus must be to treat each boy and girl as a beautiful, unique child of creation. For some children it will be easy but there are some who will test us, severely. They are the children about whom my grandmother was referring when she told me that the “child who is the hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

Their first few weeks of school may the most important period of a child’s academic life. Making certain they feel special and are not being pushed beyond their cusp of knowledge and understanding must be our absolute priority. Thereafter, the education process must be a place where they feel special, where they discover that learning is a process they can master and where their successes are celebrated. The powerful self-esteem that comes from feeling special, combined with the confidence that they can create success for themselves will ensure that they will have choices in life; real choices.

The way our schools and classrooms are structured today and the misguided expectations we place on our students and teachers do not allow us to give our students what they need most. Nothing we can do, incrementally, will be enough. The process must be reinvented to fulfill its purpose. A process exists for no other purpose.

We can create a process that helps us provide our students with a solid foundation upon which they can build a future for themselves. What we discover is “street smart” translates to every other kind of “smart.” If we accomplish this for our students we will have also created a process that provides teachers with the sense of personal and professional fulfillment that comes when we help another human being create a life for themselves,

We have the power to create such a process. Time and children are being wasted while we tinker with this or that. Working together, educators like you and advocates like me have the power to reinvent the education process. All it takes is our imagination, courage, and determination to accept nothing less than the best for our students and nothing less than the best for ourselves.

While writing this post, today, I saw a tweet from and Jimmy Casas, an educator, (@casas_jimmy) who tweeted:

“Let’s not hide behind the standard line “I don’t have time.” We determine what we have time for & what we don’t. When something matters a great deal to us, let’s find a way to make it happen. . . .”

It fit perfectly with the theme of this post. It helps when the structure and process are created to focus on purpose. If our purpose is that all kids learn then the process makes providing that time its priority. The proper response is not “I don’t have time” rather it is “that’s what I’m here for!”

Please take the time to examine my education model at http://bit.ly/2k53li3 not in search of reasons why it cannot or will not work rather looking with hope that it might work. Also check out some of the 150 or more articles posted on my blog.

How Many Kids are Failing and What Does It Tell Us?

Here are some numbers to gnaw on from a well-respected, diverse midwestern public school district reporting on students who did not pass both the Math and ELA components of the state’s competency exams. Please note that the public school teachers and administrators to which we refer are all well-qualified, are dedicated professionals, and work hard to help their students. Although there are low-performers in every profession, the majority of our nation’s teachers are unsung American heroes.

Elementary school

Black students not passing both exams = 1,343 (76.6%)
Hispanic Students not passing both exams = 825 (64.4%)
Children of color not passing both exams = 2,816 (68.2%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,498 (46.0%)

Total Elementary students not passing = 4,314 (58.4%)

Middle School
Black students not passing both exams = 1,030 (81.7%)
Hispanic students not passing both exams = 558 (66.7%)
Students of Color not passing both exams = 2,078 (72.5%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,190 (52.5%)

Total Middle School students not passing = 3,268 (63.6%)

Total students unable to pass both exams = 7,582 (60.6%)

Many states commence the process of testing students for levels of competency in the third grade and continue testing through the eighth grade. Thereafter, competency testing shifts toward assessing eligibility for graduation. When results are reported, we will see that a certain percentage of students were unable to pass the Math and English Language Arts components of the assessment tool, as in the case of the above public school district. In another jurisdiction, the results may be reported as students being at, above, below, or approaching “proficient.” The term “proficient” typically implies a high level of mastery in subject matter and also and ability to utilize that knowledge in the real world. In others, the broad descriptors may be relative to where a student is relative to “grade level.” Always, the results offer some manner of comparison to state academic standards.

Although results vary depending on the level of diversity or segregation of school districts with respect to race. ethnicity, and relative affluence the above data are representative.

This is just one of more than a thousand school districts reporting comparable performance, and of course there are many smaller school districts with students who struggle, and even our nation’s highest performing districts have some students who perform poorly. Think about the numbers for a moment. We are talking about many more than ten million American children who are performing poorly in school, and these data reflect performance only in public schools. Private, parochial, and charter schools also report students who are not performing well in school.

There are a few patterns that emerge from the results of competency examinations that deserve discussion.

The most common is that, typically, black students perform well below their white classmates and moderately below children from other minority groups. Hence, the “performance” or “achievement” gap, and public education in general, are often referred to the Civil rights issues of our time. That so many children of color perform poorly in our public schools has tragic consequences for our nation and its future.

With respect to relative affluence, students from low-income families generally perform below their more affluent classmates. Another pattern with respect to children who perform poorly on competency assessments, is that their performance often drops by the time they reach middle school. Each of these patterns have been widely discussed and researched for decades. This is not “News!” fake or otherwise.

What concerns me are the students who consistently perform poorly on competency assessments, from one year to the next. My assumption, which you are invited to challenge, is that the “population of children” who perform poorly, beginning in third grade all the way through eighth grade is comprised of the same boys and girls as they move from grade to grade.

What does it say about the education process if the same children who fall short of expectations beginning in the first round of competency assessments, administered when they are eight and nine years old, are the exact same children who perform poorly every year thereafter? What does it say when there is a decline in the performance of this population of students after they reach middle school?

If, indeed, we have these huge populations of children who perform poorly all the way through elementary and middle school, what does it say about our focus on the purpose of public education? What does it say about our strategy. Does it work?

My answer to these questions is that it is time to re-evaluate our assumptions, our purpose, our strategy, and our practices.

It is my assertion that this phenomenon exists because the education process—what educators are asked to do and how—is not consistent with our purpose or mission. Rather than focus on making sure each child is ready for middle school by the time they reach the age of 11 or 12; for high school by the time they reach the ages of 14 and 15, and ready for the responsibilities of citizenship by the time they reach the age of 18, teachers are expected to move students from point to point on the outline delineating the academic standards adopted by a given State as a group, whether they are ready or not.

What the results of competency examinations tell me is not only is our focus misdirected, it is also uncompromising. The education process demands that teachers permit students to fail because giving them the time they need to learn each lesson is not even a consideration, let alone an expectation. Certainly, many teachers strive to give extra help but, depending on the number of struggling students in a teacher’s classroom, rarely is there sufficient time.

We instruct our teachers to record, in their grade books, the results of each lesson in each subject area before moving on to a new lesson. The natural consequences of this practice are students who are increasing less prepared to be successful as they move from lesson to lesson and grade to grade.

Now, step back a moment, and let’s think about what we know about the children who arrive for their first day of school, at age 5 or 6:

• We know that the disparity in their level of academic preparedness runs the full range of the continuum;

• We know that the pace at which they learn is equally disparate;

• We know many are away from their mothers and other family members for the first time; and, therefore, need to connect quickly with a caring adult;

• We know that there are some children who have few adults who care about them, if any at all; and,

• We know that many are unprepared for most of the new experiences they will face.

Now, think about our purpose but do not rush to answer.

What is our objective with these children? Think hard about what it is that their community will, someday, need from our children?

As simply as we can state them, their community needs each child to grow into:

• A well-educated young man or woman who is prepared to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy;

• Who has sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding of the world to give them choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning; and,

• Who can provide for themselves and their families.

What is the best way to accomplish these objectives?

Is it to push them along so they move from lesson to lesson, grade to grade, with their classmates, ready or not?

Or,

Is it to help them progress; from where they are intellectually and emotionally on that first day of school to become the best version of themselves that they can be and to learn how to create success for themselves?

If it is the latter, what we do today is not what children need and, clearly, it does not work. The data is indisputable.

Someday, we might be able to eliminate high-stakes testing, but that is not within our power, today. The best we can do is figure how to utilize the process to our best advantage and for the best advantage of our students. The same is true for the grading process in use in our classrooms. The purpose both types of assessments must not be to pass judgment on our students and teachers rather to gage our progress so that we can determine next steps, as we strive to fulfill our purpose.

Our primary goal is to prepare children for life after completion of their formal primary and secondary education. Our intermediate goals are to help them get there, one step at a time. We want to start at the exact point where we find them on their unique developmental path and begin to lay a foundation for intellectual and emotional growth and development. Once we have laid that foundation, our purpose is to help them master, one successful step at a time, the knowledge, skills, self-discipline, and understanding they will need in life. We are concerned about the whole child:

• We want them to have the healthy self-esteem they will need to control most of the outcomes in their lives;

• We want them to be able to develop healthy relationships with the people in their lives;

• We want them to be able to express themselves through all forms of human communication and interaction;

• We want them to understand and appreciate the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences;

• We want them to understand history so that they can apply what we as a people have learned from our mistakes throughout the millennia;

• We want them to have sufficient understanding, through science, of the complexity of the world in which they live, so they can make thoughtful decisions about issues facing society;

• We want them to be able to create value for themselves, their families, communities, and society; and, finally,

• We want them to have a sufficient understanding of the role and principles of government so that they can participate in their own governance.

We cannot help children develop these crucial things by lumping them with a group of other children; by assigning them to teachers in such a way that forming close personal relationships is problematic; by imposing arbitrary time frames, or by allowing them to fail. Kids learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn. Failure is when we say to them, “I’m sorry but we cannot justify spending any more time with you on this subject matter; we have more important things to do.”

We can reinvent the education process to give our nation’s children the quality education they deserve if we are willing to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the way we teach our children and then open our hearts and minds to a new way of doing what we do. My education model, which is designed to do just that, is available for your examination at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I encourage you to read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather in hopes that it might.

: Calibri; font-size: medium;”>