Quadrilateral Pegs through the Round Holes of Public Education

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how so many seem to be unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered in at least a half century and clearly has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that many consider me an outsider because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, making it easy for them to make light of my education model. My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your minds to a new idea.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. On my own I have been a student of leadership for over forty-five years and have written a book to share what I’ve learned about the power of positive leadership. Also, I have been a student “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

I have had an opportunity to both participate in and observe what happens in public school classrooms from the perspective of a substitute teacher over a period of ten years. I have worked with some of my communities most challenging children as a juvenile probation officer for the first nine years of my career. I have spent 30 years of my career in organizational leadership and consulting where I designed from scratch or reinvented service delivery and other processes to produce acceptable outcomes for the customers of my organizations or for my clients’ organizations. I have both taught and counseled CEOs, managers, and supervisors how to be effective positive leaders of their organizations and its people. I have been both the designer and instructor of multiple employee training programs.

What I have witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that has not been significantly altered since I started school in the fall of 1951.

If you can imagine, even for a moment, what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students on the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids are the future men and women who must be prepared to lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they are without the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These reformers and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve. As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools that are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We just need to change the way we teach these kids and the way we support both teachers and students as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes will be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting today’s transportation needs. It is the education process or system that is obsolete.

Over the past few years, I have worked to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level.

I am seeking a superintendent of a public-school district willing to test my education model in one of its underperforming elementary schools. You know the numbers and, therefore, that what you have been doing has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way. Why not consider a novel approach?

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with over 200 articles on public education on my blog. I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time. Are your students worth at least that much given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

We often blame poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why these children fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education we are the ones who discriminate. What we are doing has not worked for the last sixty-five years and it will not work for the next sixty-five years. When we let them fail we render them defenseless against discrimination.

Our goal must be to arm these young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

An Important Message to our Nation’s Heroes!

To my heroes in public education and to my heroes who are leading advocates for people of color, make sure you take note of a new piece of legislation being introduced in Congress.

What does it say to you when one of our elected representatives to Congress does not believe our public schools are good enough for the children of our heroes who serve in the Armed Services of the United States?

One of the lead stories, this morning, on the front page of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, reports that US Representative, Jim Banks, Republican from the 3rd Congressional District in Indiana, has introduced a bill that:

“. . . would let active-duty military families tap public funds to send their children to private schools.”

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette also reported that “Banks wrote an op-ed column about his legislation that was published this week in the Wall Street Journal under the headline ‘Military Families Deserve School Choice.’”

It is time that our public school policy makers, administrators and teachers accept the indisputable fact that a growing percentage of the American people, led by conservative politicians and corporate reformers who are advocates of “school choice,” have given up on public education as the best solution for preparing our nation’s children for the future. These powerful men and women seem perfectly content to let public schools in affluent communities go about their business, but they view public schools serving disadvantaged children and their families as a lost cause.

To our heroes in the Armed Services of the United States. We understand how you feel about your children because we feel the same about all children, but, is this the America you are fighting to protect? An America where not every child counts?

It is time for advocates for people of color and the poor to acknowledge that these same supporters of “school choice,” whether conservative Americans and their political champions or powerful corporate reformers, are willing to abandon your children and their schools, teachers and communities. They consider you and your children to be part of Governor Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent of American voters who are dependent on government” and do not matter.

How long are we going to sit by and let this happen?

To public school educators I ask you to consider that all the protests, marches, rallies, and teacher strikes in the world will not alter the reality that disadvantaged children in America, a disproportionate percentage of whom are blacks and other minorities, are failing in our most challenged public schools, by the millions. Teachers may not deserve the blame for creating this reality, but they will be blamed until they are willing to accept responsibility and declare to the world that what they are being asked to do in our public schools does not work for disadvantaged children.

Teachers have not shown a willingness to say it out loud, but you know in your hearts that the existing education process does not work for children who arrive for their first day of school with minimal academic preparedness, little or no motivation to learn, and less parental support.

You know this to be true every time a student shows up in your classroom who is so far behind that catching up seems impossible. Teachers know this to be true every time you are required to record an “F” in your gradebook and move your class on to a new lesson when many of your students are not ready. You know in your hearts that these kids need more time to learn but the education process does not allow you to give them that time. You do your best to help these kids when there are only one or two of them in your classroom but when the kids who need more time represent 25, 50, or 75 percent of the students in your class, it is impossible to give them the help they require.

For advocates for people of color who are still working hard to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream a reality, surely you know that had it not been for the heroes of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, we might still be waiting for meaningful civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other such legislation was passed only because the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored.

Today, in this second decade of the 21st Century, public education is the civil rights issue of our time. I challenge advocates for children of color and advocates for public education to come together as a united front to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids, once and for all. Imagine a world, 10 to 13 years from now, when every single graduate from high school is armed with a portfolio of knowledge, skills, and confidence to enter mainstream America with real “choices.” All we need to do is go back to the drawing board to reinvent public education.

Here is the good news:

1. I have already gone back to the drawing board to reinvent public education and have developed an education model focused on success and rejecting failure. Use it as a starting point. If you think it will work, run with it. Or, it may inspire a better idea from one of you. You can examine my model at: http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

2. Solving the problems in public education for all children, not just the disadvantaged, does not require an act of Congress. It does not require an act of your state legislature. All it requires is that we find a handful of public school superintendents willing to test this new education model, whether mine or yours, in just one of the lowest performing elementary schools in their district. Once proven to work, it can then be expanded to every school.

3. Implementing an education model that works for all children will also render irrelevant, the corporate reform and “school choice” movement.

Whatever you do, please don’t just sit there. There are millions of children who are desperate for your help, now.

It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend, and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.

The Performance Gap Between Black and White Students: the Civil Rights Issue of our Time – A Refrain

Black Americans have been fighting discrimination since the Emancipation Proclamation. During the 1950s and 60s, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the legion of heroes of the civil rights movement fought discrimination relentlessly. As simple as I can state it: disadvantaged children, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, are the victims of systemic discrimination and they will continue to suffer until black advocates stand united in their determination to alter this reality. The performance gap between black and white students is the civil rights issue of our time and it demands action on the part of everyone who has a stake in the future of these children.

Public school policy-makers are very much like the US Congress in the 1950’s. If it had not been for the heroes of the civil rights movement, we might still be waiting for meaningful civil rights legislation. Disadvantaged children must not be made to wait. They are counting on us and we must act now. What a tragedy it will be if, in twenty years, our children’s children are still languishing as a result of an obsolete education process because we were reluctant to act; because we believed ourselves to be powerless. This is the antithesis of positive leadership.

Public school educators and their advocates have proclaimed that public education is better than it has ever been. That may be true for some children but it could not be further from the truth with respect to disadvantaged children, many but not all of whom are black and other minorities.

The fact that, for a half century or more, we have been accepting the performance gap as an inevitable outcome of poverty is a gross injustice. The test for discriminatory practices is whether or not an action creates a disparate impact. If the performance gap is not incontrovertible evidence of disparate impact, I don’t know what is. It is an injustice that has sentenced millions of disadvantaged kids, young men in particular, to a life of failure, poverty, violence, and incarceration. That we have accepted the assertions of public school teachers that the education process works for everyone, strains all semblance of credibility.

It is the job of public school teachers to teach all children not just the ones who come primed and ready to learn. The fact that so many children are failing means that something is terribly wrong; that something is not working. In any other venue we would never accept that there is nothing we can do to improve unacceptable outcomes. Imagine a hospital, for example, refusing to address an unprecedented number of deaths. Teachers are not to blame for the failures of the system but they have an obligation to stand up for their students, when needed.

The performance gap between black and white students is not because black kids are incapable of learning. That millions of kids who live in our poor urban and rural communities are disadvantaged in any number of ways does not mean they cannot learn, it just means they need a little extra time, patience, and attention. They need educators to keep trying new approaches until they find one that works.

Whether manufacturing a product, providing a service, or selling something, there is always a solution if the outcomes are not what we want. This is also true with the education process utilized in schools all over the U.S. Finding a solution is not even complicated. It is simply a matter of clarifying purpose; being willing to try something new; learning from our mistakes; and being committed to never giving up. Are these not the lessons we strive to teach our students?

That we also have access to the principles of organizational management, systems thinking, and positive leadership suggests that we should be able to accomplish anything.

I have developed a solution that will work but I need the help of black leaders to come together and convince public school superintendents with underperforming elementary schools to test my model. With the right kind of pressure some will be compelled to act. Some teachers may well be skeptical but if they want success for their students, and the overwhelming majority of teachers do, they must be open to a new way.

Please check out my education model, which I will offer for free, and the accompanying white paper that lays out the logical foundation at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ All I ask is the credit of authorship. Right now there are millions of disadvantaged children who are learning how to fail and their lives will be irrevocably damaged unless people like you decide it must stop.

How the Littlest Thing Can Constrain One’s Ability to Do One’s Job!

For five years I have been pleading with educators to examine an education model I have developed to empower teachers to teach and students to learn. http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

It is model in which everything has been tailored to remove obstacles that impede the work of teachers and inhibits the work of students. These are two of the most important jobs in American society! Having had the opportunity to work in classrooms as a substitute teacher and view the education process through the eyes of an organizational and leadership development consultant gives me a unique perspective.

The following is a true story about a small manufacturing operation I worked with over a six-month period. The company employed 120 people. The owner/CEO was frustrated beyond description that the products being produced were not meeting customer expectations and that production costs made it impossible to price it competitively. His fear was that he was about to lose customers to his competition.

What I discovered, very quickly was a manufacturing process that seemed purposely designed to make his employees’ jobs more difficult.

This was one of the littlest and most obvious things to the point of being ridiculous, looking at it from my objective perch. It was, also, one of many examples of archaic structure and design that had an enormous adverse impact on the people, the quality of the work, the cost of production and, ultimately, customer satisfaction. Archaic structure and design is just another way of saying archaic and self-defeating leadership.

While at lunch with the management team of another client, I received a call from a shop-floor supervisor with whom I had spent much time. He told me that one of the lines had been shut down for an hour and was causing a chain reaction of shutdowns of the other three lines that were dependent on the first. The problem, it turned out, was that the first line had run out of masking tape needed to prepare the work-in-process for the next phase of the production process. The masking tape cost the company one dollar per role.

I said, “help me understand how you could be completely out of masking tape?”

The supervisor answered, “Oh, we have plenty of tape in inventory but its locked in the supply cabinet.”

It turned out that the plant manager did not trust his people to have access to the supply cabinet, so he kept the only keys. That morning, the plant manager had instructed his shop floor supervisors that he would be in a meeting for four hours and was not to be disturbed for any reason. Clearly, the shop supervisors had learned not to disregard this plant manager’s directives.

The ultimate irony of the situation was not that all four production lines had shut down for four hours because the shop floor supervisors were not trusted with the key to the supply cabinet to access a one dollar roll of masking tape. Rather, it was that the plant manager’s meeting was a series of interviews with prospective new shop floor supervisors. His intent was to replace the current supervisors who could never seem to address production issues.

The moral of this little story is that a process—whether production, service delivery, or teaching children—must be designed to support the mission in every conceivable way. Literally, the process must be constructed around the needs of the person doing the job, just as the cockpit of a fighter jet is engineered to enable every single action the pilot might be called upon to perform. If the process consistently produces disappointing outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, the process is flawed and must be reinvented.

Now think about what happens to 5 and 6-year-old students, many of whom are away from their mothers for the first time, when they arrive for their first day of school.

The first thing they need is to bond as quickly as possible with a teacher who will be a surrogate mother. He or she will nurture the children during this first, most important transition in the lives of many of them, make them feel safe, secure, and special. How easy is it to accomplish this objective when it is one teacher for every 20, 25, 30, and sometimes even 35 students?

While handling that critical responsibility, the teacher must figure out how to prepare this diverse population of children with disparate levels of academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support, to the point where they are ready to move on to first grade, as per criteria established state academic standards.

Oh, and I forgot, we would like for our teachers to reach out to the parents of these children in hopes that they will become partners, sharing in the responsibility for the education of their sons and daughters.

Clearly, academic preparedness, relationships between teachers and students, motivation to learn, and parental support are at the top of the list of essential variables in the education equation. Our teachers must accomplish all these challenging objectives knowing that the probability of their students’ success in first grade, and every grade thereafter will, in large part, be dependent on how well teachers do their jobs in that critical first year.

And, let’s not forget, at the end of their first nine months students will be separated from the only teacher they have ever known and with whom they may or may not have been successful in bonding. One of our colleagues, I believe @GetUpStandUp2 (Susan DuFresne), correct me if I’m wrong, likened this event to the trauma of divorce.

This is just one example of the many things teachers are asked to do for their students that the education process neither supports nor enables and for which it is not resourced.