Differentiation: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

One of the essential variables that is missing from the education equation in America is differentiation.

When they begin school, we do not treat each five- or six-year-old boy and girl as unique little people with respect to their characteristics, challenges, and potential. Neither do we adapt the academic standards to which we teach nor the individual lesson plans with which teachers must work to serve each child. Instead, the education process often impedes the ability of teachers to attend to children, individually.

Teachers go to great lengths to help their students negotiate the challenging academic pathway along which all of them are directed but there is only so much they can do, particularly if they teach in schools that are attended by disadvantaged children.

In addition to a host of disparities that exist, their personality impacts the ability of children to form nurturing and enduring relationships with their teachers and the likelihood that they will find their place within the community of students in their classrooms. What kind of social skills do they possess? Is there anything about them that stands out and attracts either the positive or negative attention of their classmates? Are they among that population of children who are the most difficult to love but who need it the most? Children who are different in some obvious way need the help of their teacher to negotiate not only the complex academic pathways but also the social minefields that exist in even Kindergarten classrooms.

Having a sense of belonging can change the course of a child’s entire life. Teachers who are overwhelmed by challenging classrooms will find it difficult if not impossible to attend to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls. And no, it is not enough that teachers bond with a few of their students.

It is one of the great ironies of the human condition that children think learning is fun until they begin their formal education. It is the first few years of school that will determine how many of these young lives will be lost to society. Make no mistake, the unmotivated and disruptive students we meet in middle school and high school lost their way during their first few years of school, if not their first few months. These are the children with whom teachers were unable to form enduring relationships in Kindergarten and first grade. These are the children who were the hardest to love but who needed it the most.

Somehow, we must shake education leaders and policy makers of education in America with enough force that they see the folly of the learning environments they create for their students and teachers. For every child that we lose in their first few months of school there will be consequences, both for the children and society. There is also an incalculable opportunity cost associated with each child who falls off the conveyor belt that is education in America. The boys and girls who will someday end up in prison, on drugs, or who will suffer early, violent deaths might have had the potential to achieve greatness had we created an education model and learning environment crafted to meet their unique requirements.

How many more young lives can we afford to squander and how long are we willing to let this tragedy to continue? How many teachers are we willing let flee the profession because they are unable to give kids what they need?

When children arrive for their very first day of school, they are at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives. They need to feel safe, loved, and important. These are the things that allow the development of a healthy self-esteem. It is insufficient that teachers strive to identify and respond to the unique needs of each of their students—and indeed they do—the education process and the way teachers, students, and classrooms are organized must be crafted to support that essential variable of a child’s education: differentiation. We are not just teaching children to pass annual competency examinations, we are preparing them to be responsible citizens of a participatory democracy.

What we teach and how we teach it must, also, differentiate with respect to the reality that our children do not all learn the same way and are not all preparing for the same futures. Some will be going on to college, some to vocational schools, others to the military or directly into the work force. In some cases, they are preparing for careers and endeavors that do not exist, today, and that we cannot envision. Our job, as education leaders and teachers is to help them acquire an academic foundation that, as their unique talents and abilities are revealed, will allow them to choose their own destinations; to strike out in any direction.

If we are helping them learn the things they will need to develop their unique potential; to discover their special talents and abilities; to formulate and begin to pursue their dreams for the future; to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy; and to be able to control most of the outcomes in their lives, a healthy self-esteem will prove to be more important than what they know. With a solid academic foundation, a healthy self-esteem, and active imaginations they will be able to learn whatever they need to know.

This tragedy need not continue. We can go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we seek. This is what I have striven to accomplish in the development of my education model and I urge you to take time to read it, not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. My model is available for your review at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Political Commentary by a Concerned American and Supporter of Community Public Schools!

Differentiation is the most vital of the missing ingredients in public education in America and merits a serious discussion; a discussion that will follow this commentary in a subsequent post.

The way academic standards are written; the way curricula are designed to teach to those standards; and the way high-stakes testing is geared to measure performance against those standards and hold both teachers and schools accountable shape the function and character of the education process in America. The result is an education process structured like a conveyer belt that moves students from point to point down the list of academic standards without regard for the unique requirements, academic preparedness, strengths, weakness, and personalities of these children from five years of age to eighteen.

Teachers do the best they can to differentiate with respect to the diverse needs of their students. Because teachers are not encouraged to deviate from the curriculum, however, there are only so many exceptions even the most accomplished and innovative teachers can carve out of their daily lesson plan and classroom-management responsibilities. The more challenging the classroom the more difficult it becomes to personalize our approach and the more adverse the consequences of not doing so.

That so many of our public schools and their students seem unable to rise to these standards should prompt us to challenge the effectiveness of the education process and, probably, the academic standards, themselves. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, critics of public education have opted, instead, to question the effectiveness of public schools and their teachers rather than challenge the efficacy of the process within which our teachers are expected to teach.

If we were responsible for managing a production or assembly process that consistently fails to meet our expectations, most leaders would start by questioning the capability of their people. While our people are where our problem-solving effort should begin, however, its focus should not be poking fingers of blame rather it should strive to understand where the process impedes rather than supports the efforts of our people.

With rare exceptions, we are most likely to conclude that giving our workers more training and asking them to work harder will not help them overcome the challenges of a flawed process. The one thing my 45 years of leadership experience has taught me is that most people want to do a good job if we give them the support they need to do so. It is when they are unable to excel, no matter how hard they work, that they become discouraged and stop trying. Such workers, professional or blue collar, are very much like struggling students in underperforming schools.

Astute positive leaders do not hesitate to overhaul or completely reinvent a flawed process that produces disappointing outcomes and that discourages rather than serves their people. The impact of their decisive action is almost always transformative. In the private sector, that willingness to act is driven by the demands of customers. In the public sector, it is driven by our commitment to the people we serve and to those who do the work.

In response to the disappointing outcomes of many of our public schools, however, critics have been content to place the responsibility for those outcomes on the shoulders of our teachers. They seem unwilling to question the efficacy of the process. I believe this is because they don’t know any better.

By not vigorously disputing that teachers and schools are to blame, leaders of public education have issued a de facto invitation to private investors to compete for public dollars, as prospective educators, based on their assertion they can improve the quality of education simply by running their schools the way they run their businesses. That they rarely offer innovative education models, methodologies, and approaches should leave discerning Americans scratching their heads. We have allowed American school children to be treated like commodities.

We say American school children are our nation’s most precious assets and yet we funnel them, like livestock, through a sorting process that separates them by how well they negotiate the complex path we chart for them. It’s one thing to single out the best performers but to accept and, then, send low or non-performers out into the competitive pasture that is American society, unprepared for its rigors, makes no sense.

This suggests, to this observer, that education reformers, public officials, and many policy makers have written off low-performing public schools, their teachers, and students as lost causes, unworthy of our time and attention. Instead, we place our hopes on a solution that, purportedly, over an undefined period of years or even decades, will gradually draw enough students to its promise that our nation’s education system will be transformed. Has anyone contemplated the social cost of such unverified assertions?

Under the banner of “choice” the education reform movement has become a powerful political force. The very word, “choice,” plays on the emotions of Americans who have been conditioned to believe that consumerism and their idealized perception of a “free market system” are synonymous; that, indeed, consumerism is at the core of America’s greatness. Too many of us are oblivious to the fact that consumerism is driven, more, by the sophistication and appeal of innovative marketing campaigns than by the ability of producers of consumer products and services to deliver the goods.

It is interesting how this same phenomenon has become the primary driver of election outcomes. Elections are crucial to a participatory democracy and our leaders should be focused on instilling confidence in that process. Some leaders, however, are now casting doubt about the integrity of the election process. This is a dangerous strategy that poses a very real threat to our democratic principles. Democracy requires that people believe government serves the will of the people.

Think about how we go about choosing our elected officials. Successful election campaigns are driven less by thoughtful debates about cogent issues than by the effectiveness of a candidates fundraising strategies and marketing campaigns. Strategies that include brazen attacks on one’s opponents by the candidates, themselves, or by interest-based, political action groups have become the preferences of choice. Equally effective are shameless proselytizing of voters with sweeping promises and jingoistic platitudes.

Like consumerism, the American voter, inundated by voluminous rhetoric, must choose whom they are willing to believe. And, once one has chosen whom they wish to believe, otherwise intelligent men and women seem compelled, by some misplaced sense of loyalty, to believe every claim of their leaders. Call an opponent a crook at every opportunity and your followers will choose to believe, however scant the evidence and contrary to the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” That leaders who make such accusations will turn around and use that principle to defend their friends and supporters is the least subtle of ironies.

Could it be that the gullibility of an uninformed citizenry is a consequence of an ineffective education process? We will explore that question in our next post.

The Essential Purpose of School: Help All Kids Learn or Just Document and Accept their Success or Failure?

It is time for educators, at every level of the education process in America, to redefine and reaffirm their essential mission. For what purpose do they exist to serve?

 Is it to use their talent, skills, and all the resources available to them to help children progress along their unique developmental and learning path or is it to push them from one lesson to the next on an arbitrary schedule or calendar?

 Is it to teach children how to be successful and help them celebrate their successes as they learn and grow or is it to document their successes and/or failures after an unending sequence of arbitrary time periods? Is it to move students from one lesson to the next, in each subject area, ready or not, or is it to ensure that they are able to utilize what they have learned throughout their lives, in real-life situations, the least important of which are standardized tests?

 Critics of public education find it easy to point their fingers at teachers but that is a “cop-out.” It is always easy to blame someone else for our problems. Teachers can only do what their administrators tell them to do and they can only teach to the academic standards that have been established by their state government. They must teach the curricula they are given.

 It is also easy to blame teachers’ unions and associations that exist only for the purpose of representing the interests of their members and defending them from policy makers, government officials, and reformers who want to blame them for the unacceptable outcomes of the flawed education process in which they are asked to work. These critics have not taken the time walk in the shoes of the teachers they are so quick to blame.

 Perhaps if administrators and policy makers would acknowledge that it is the education process that is flawed and that teachers are their most important asset, they might find that teachers’ unions and associations would be willing partners in reinventing the education process. Imagine an education process that, truly, does function to serve teachers, students, and parents in the important work they do.

Even in our highest-performing schools, many teachers are frustrated. It is such schools, however, where the symptoms of the flawed education process are subtle. This leads many educators to proclaim “public education is better than it has ever been.”

 The best teachers, if they were to look deep inside their hearts, know that many students are not learning as much as they could, even in high performing schools. They know the process is moving students along an assembly line.  

 In struggling schools that perform poorly, as measured by state competency exams, the flaws are apparent. Teachers know their students are not getting the education necessary to enter adulthood with meaningful choices. Teachers know something is awry every time they are asked to move students on to a new lesson before they can demonstrate understanding of preceding lessons. Teachers know the education process is flawed every time a student arrives in their classroom who is so far behind that catching up seems improbable, if not impossible. Teachers know something is wrong every time they record a low or failing grade in their grade books. They know it is a sham when administrators seek innovative ways to justify the issuance of diplomas to students who have made little or no effort throughout four years of high school; young men and women who lack the academic foundation necessary to make a place for themselves in main-stream society.

 The fact that most of the schools that produce low test scores are populated by disadvantaged students is no secret. We all know this. How is it that we have become inured to the failure of these students? How can administrators and policy makers avert their eyes and pretend that the education process is working for all kids?

 The fact that a disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged students are children of color is also common knowledge. How can the leaders of public education not see that the education process is failing theses students? Have they convinced themselves that this is the best we can expect from black students and other minority children?

 Leaders of the black community and other minorities must surely be appalled by the academic performance of so many of their children? They know these kids deserve better and they know their own children are as capable of learning as any other child. Is it not obvious that something is broken? Why are the leaders of black community not marching in the streets to protest what is clearly the civil rights issue of the 21st Century?

 One can only judge a process by the quality of the outcomes it produces. This is true of assembly and manufacturing processes, of service-delivery processes, and it is true of the education process in American schools.

 Before we rush to join the bashers of our nation’s public schools let us state, unequivocally, that the same disappointing outcomes are being produced by many private, parochial, and charter schools.

The problem is not our public schools and it is not the teachers. Schools are nothing more than structures constructed of brick and mortar and our teachers are all trained in the same colleges and universities and are certified to the same standards.

 The problem is an education process that became obsolete a half century ago and no longer serves its essential purpose. The education process at work in American schools is not structured to ensure that every child gets the time and attention they need to learn. The education process is not designed to nurture our nation’s most precious assets. It is a process that honors stale traditions of a distant past and that suppresses the creativity and craftsmanship of teachers.

 The problem with the education process begins with academic standards. We must have academic standards to ensure that we are teaching our children the things they need to know to become healthy, confident, and productive citizens. Quality standards give us direction. What we must do, however, is challenge the fundamental assumptions upon which the current standards were established, beginning with the assumption that all children must develop and learn at the same pace.

 We know that some children learn to walk or talk earlier than other kids. Even within our own families, some of our sons and daughters reach the notable milestones of child development earlier than their siblings. A child’s brain is not software, programmed so that every step in the developmental process is scheduled to occur at a precise point in time. Child development research may have established broad guidelines, but they are only guidelines. Each child is unique in every conceivable manner or characteristic. When children arrive for their first day of school, they are not at the exact same point on the growth and development chart. Not only are they genetically unique but they come from households that are diverse by every conceivable measure.

 How is it, then, that the establishers of academic standards expect all students to move from grade to grade on the academic standards continuum, in unison? We do not expect children to reach puberty at the exact same age nor do we expect synchronous growth spurts. Are we striving for regimentation or are we seeking the optimal growth and development of each of our students; intellectually, physically, and emotionally?

 Let us step back and re-think the essential purpose of education and then construct an education process that is engineered to support that purpose. This is what I have labored to do with the education model I have designed. It is structured to help each child learn and grow at their optimal pace while also developing their unique interests, talents, and potential.  It is an education model engineered so that teachers can adapt to the individual and dynamic needs of their students with creativity and craftsmanship. I urge you to take an hour to read it at:

 http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

No one has ordained that we must follow the obsolete traditions of a past we have out-grown. Please open your hearts and minds to the simple belief that the creation of an education process that will help your students fulfill their inherent potential is within our power. 

It Is Time to Mold the Classroom Around Ts & Ss! Please Help!

We cannot afford to waste another school year. Next fall will be here before we know it and we must find superintendents who are willing to test a student-teacher-parent focused education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools. And yes, there are underperforming schools in both urban and rural school districts throughout the U.S.

Many of you reading this post are educators. We follow each other on Twitter so you have heard me make this plea, often. Please join the small but growing number of educators who have been both intrigued and excited after reading the education model I have developed. The model is based on my fifty years of experience working with kids, as an organizational leader, as a leadership and organizational development consultant, and as a substitute school teacher.

It is a model designed to support the important work of our teachers and students not impede their efforts. Please help me find a superintendent willing to test my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools next fall, for the 2019/2020 school year.

I ask you to:

  • Read my education model;
  • Follow my blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream:
  • Follow me on Twitter;
  • Share your enthusiasm for my model by “Retweeting” and “liking” my Tweets and by sharing my blog posts to the people whom you know and with whom you work;
  • Reach out to other educators, beyond Twitter, and encourage them to read the model; and, finally,
  • Implore superintendents, principals, and other administrators in your network to consider testing my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools

 

If you do, we can transform public education in America and begin repairing a nation that is becoming dangerously divided. I believe this is the only way we can preserve democracy in America for future generations.

If you take the time to read my model you will see that there is a solution to the challenges facing American schools, but it requires that we abandon a century-long tradition of employing incremental changes. These challenges demand that we go back to the drawing board to create an education process engineered to produce the results we seek.

Our children, their teachers, and our nation are in desperate need of an education process that rejects the failures of the past and put our focus on helping children learn so that they can use what they learn in the real world. Passing state standardized tests is meaningless if kids cannot use what they learn next semester, next year, and beyond. The same is true with respect to high school diplomas.

Please consider this informal analysis of students in my home state of Indiana.

ISTEP+ results in Indiana have been released, recently, and the numbers are staggering. Also understand, that Indiana is not unique. What we see in Indiana is true in school districts in virtually every state in the union and it has been true for decades.

ISTEP results for nine counties in Northeast Indiana show that there are at least 40 schools in which less that forty percent of the students in two or more grades, have passed both the English Language Arts and math components of the ISTEP. These exams are given to students in grades 3 to 8 and, again, in high school.

There are an additional 45 schools in which less than thirty percent of students, in two or more grades, pass both ELA and math components of the ISTEPs.

These schools represent both urban and rural school districts and both public, private and parochial schools. And, no, charter schools are no exception.

It is understood that we shouldn’t be testing. It is understood that many teachers and schools are under tremendous pressure to teach to the test. It is understood that high-stakes testing is the worst possible way to assess the performance of teachers. It is true that some of the tests, themselves,  may be flawed. None of these things, however, justify disregarding what the results tell us.

What the results of high-stakes testing tell us is that the education process, itself, is fundamentally flawed. It sets children up for failure. Disadvantaged kids, many of whom are children of color and/or who begin school with a low level of academic preparedness, suffer irreparable damage because of the education process.

This damage occurs despite the heroic efforts of our children’s teachers. Blaming teachers is like blaming soldiers for the wars they are asked to fight.

If that were not bad enough, there is research to show that many of the students who do well on such tests do not retain what they have been drilled to reproduce—to regurgitate—for more than a few weeks or months. As a former employer, I can attest that an alarming percentage of these young people are unable to use, in a real-world work environment, what their diplomas certify that they have learned.

The State of Indiana has begun letting students use the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to help qualify for graduation when they are unable to pass their ISTEPs.

As one of many individuals who administer the ASVAB, both in schools and for young men and women seeking to enlist in the military, I can attest to the fact that more than 30 percent of the high-school graduates and high school seniors seeking to enlist, are unable to get the minimum score to qualify for enlistment. The percentage of minority students who are unable to pass the ASVAB (achieve a score of at least 31 out of a possible 99), is substantially higher, over fifty percent.

This is a national tragedy that, through the balance of this 21st Century, will have devastating consequences for American society. I would also assert, that the policies of neither Republicans nor Democrats will be successful if we do not act to replace the flawed education process employed in our nation’s schools. There are no short-term fixes and we cannot return to earlier, simpler times.

It is imperative that we act now!