My Motivation to Develop an Education Model that Works for All Kids!

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

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

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

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

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

In 1951, I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school that was twenty-five percent black. It was at school where I learned to be a friend and playmate with one of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friend that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friend, I was devastated. My black friend and I never played together, after that. At the time I did not understand whereas he probably thought to himself “I should have known better.” This was nothing new in his life. For me, innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

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

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of nine and seventeen. I also worked with their families. I have vivid memories of sitting at a kitchen table, having a cup of coffee with the mother of a young boy or girl—some white and others black—who was desperate to understand why her child was failing in school and seemed unable to stay out of trouble. “My kid’s not stupid!” they would often say. I had no answer for them, but I agreed that their sons and daughters were not stupid. In fact, their “street smarts” was apparent.

A decade later, I was one of the founding board members of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged, as a volunteer, to be around, play with, and serve a diverse group of children. When in an environment where these children felt safe and received unconditional affection, patience, and affirmation their joy and laughter was contagious. These kids were voracious learners, quick to listen to adults with whom they felt a special connection. They were anxious to soak up whatever lessons their adult leaders might offer. If they struggled with a lesson, they sought the help of their trusted friend.

Often, the adults would scratch their heads and wonder why so many of these children, so full of life and curiosity, were failing in school. I was only beginning to comprehend.

More than a dozen years later, when I decided to relinquish my leadership and organizational-development consulting practice to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teacher for my local public school district. In those high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, I was able to walk in the shoes of public school teachers and observe, first hand, the struggles of so many of these teachers and their students. Once I got over feeling overwhelmed by all that was swirling around me, I began to wonder why these classrooms were so different from the game rooms and playgrounds at the Boys and Girls Club or the churchyard in Philadelphia.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids and they can all learn from someone who cares about them if given a fair opportunity. Whatever their backgrounds there are more similarities than differences between them.

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

All these boys and girls are capable of learning; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete in classrooms that never should have become competitive environments in the first place.

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

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

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

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

Teachers must be challenged to accept that, for professional men and women, powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

Education Infrastructure: To Ensure Our Future, Focus on Desired Outcomes

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

OP ED COLUMNS

http://www.journalgazette.net/opinion/columns/20181206/education-infrastructure

Mel Hawkins

Thursday, December 06, 2018 1:00 am

The Journal Gazette’s Nov. 30 editorial, “Students first,” offers evidence of the dysfunctionality of the political process with respect to education policy.

Our system of education is a national tragedy and is at the root of all our nation’s challenges. That millions of our nation’s children suffer irreparable harm makes the American education process a disaster of unprecedented scope and scale.

Children in charter, parochial and public schools are failing throughout the U.S., and each failure has tragic consequences for the children and our society. Even the students who seem to be succeeding are not learning the things they will need to know, nor are they developing the skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life. Neither are they being prepared to find creative solutions to the unimaginable challenges the balance of this 21st century will present.

That our teachers are being asked to shoulder the blame for the unacceptable outcomes of an obsolete education process is just one more travesty. These dedicated men and women are as much the victims of our flawed education policies as are their students. Not only are they blamed for the struggles of their students, we refuse to provide them with the level of respect and compensation they deserve for doing one of the most important and challenging jobs in American society. The fact that we are driving so many of these men and women out of the profession is just one more symptom of the obsolescence of the American education process.

Possibly we should invite teachers to participate more fully in the policy-making process. The problem, however, is that the solutions to the challenges of preparing our children for an uncertain future will be found outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

Perhaps we should examine the challenges facing education in America the same way we must address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Over the past century the world has changed exponentially while the structure and function of our education process have changed minimally. In our schools today, it takes an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and principals to implement innovative ideas and solutions that will endure and not be ground to dust by the unrelenting glacial power of the existing education process.

The education process impedes rather than facilitates the ability of educators to respond to the unique requirements of a diverse population of children with disparate needs. The recent focus of education reformers on charter schools, voucher systems and high-stakes testing to hold teachers and schools accountable has done more damage to public education than we could have possibly envisioned.

Ironically, high-stakes testing is telling us what we need to know. These tests are not measuring the performance of teachers and schools, however; rather they measure the efficacy of the education process itself.
Our challenge must be to reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we want.

What are those outcomes? That every child learns as much as they are able at their own best pace. That students retain what they have learned and are able to use their knowledge and skills in real-life situations and not solely for the purposes of passing standardized tests. That as these students discover they can be successful, they begin to develop a healthy self-esteem that will enable them to overcome obstacles and control most of the outcomes in their lives. That as they progress along their developmental paths, they are able to partner with their parents and teachers to take ownership of their futures.

Education must not be a competition to see who learns the most the fastest. Rather, it must be a process that provides each and every child with a menu of choices about what to do in life to provide for their families, to find joy and meaning, and to participate in their own governance. It must enable them to make thoughtful and reasoned choices and help them work together to find new and innovative solutions to the problems facing a world undergoing unrelenting change and facing unprecedented challenges.

These things are possible and within our power to accomplish if we are willing to challenge all our assumptions about what we do and why and, then, open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and doing.

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!

How To Make People Feel Important is an Essential Skill of Positive Leaders!

Great teachers and great principals share a common characteristic and less effective principals and less successful teachers lack that same characteristic. Great principals and great teachers have learned how to make people feel important, which is one of the essential attributes of positive leaders.

While following teachers on Twitter, one of the things these dedicated men and women often share is the nature of the culture in their school. Do they feel valued and appreciated or do they feel that their principals prowl the hallways looking for reasons to be critical? The culture in any organization is a function of the quality of leadership and the same is true in a classroom. The experience and success of students is every bit as much a function of the culture in the classroom as the experience and success of teachers is a function of the culture in their school.

Anyone who aspires to a position of leadership must learn what I consider to be the essential lesson of positive leadership: “It is not about you!”

The only measure of a leader’s success is the success of their people. Teachers may not think of themselves as leaders but leaders they are. Children are desperate for affection and affirmation and the heart will always be the portal to the mind. Make people and/or your students feel important and ignite the internal motivation to learn and to excel that exists in each of us.

Examine your own experience with your favorite teacher or supervisor. You felt a special relationship with your mentor, a real kinship. You knew you were liked and you did your best work while they were involved in your life. What did they do differently than the other teachers and supervisors who clutter your memory?

These leaders treated you as if you were special. They liked you; they remembered your name; they listened to you; they valued your opinion; they showed appreciation for your efforts; they smiled at you; they treated you with respect; they trusted you; they challenged you; they strove to help you do a better job; they provided you with clear expectations; they gave you continuous and ongoing constructive feedback; they let you make mistakes without fear of retribution or humiliation; they encouraged you to stretch, knowing they were there for you when you needed them. They made sure you received full recognition for your contributions and they celebrated with you. They expected much from you and so much more.

They worked hard to make you feel important. It was a genuine display of affection. And, it was easy because they liked people. Positive leaders genuinely care about and believe in the capabilities of the people with whom they work; whether those people are five, twenty-five, fifty-five, or older.

When subbing a few years ago, I was helping a young lady with an assignment. When we finished, and she understood, she thanked me; not for helping her but for caring. I responded that caring is what teachers do. She said, “Not mine. If they cared they wouldn’t be so quick to give up on me.”

Students will respond to the positive attention and affection of a teacher who communicates that they care with their words, actions, their smiles and even the twinkle in their eyes. They care enough to expect the best of a child; they care enough to give their students the safety of boundaries. The student is sufficiently important that their teacher refuses to give up on them. Teachers will respond to that same positive affection and attention from their principals.

If you are a principal, how would your teachers rate the quality of your leadership? How fondly will they look back on their time with you?

What School Could Be, 2018, by Ted Dintersmith

A Five Star Review by Mel Hawkins

 

If you are an educator, parent, grandparent, or are just concerned about the quality of education being provided to our nation’s children, What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, (WSCB) by Ted Dintersmith is a must read. It is a look at what school in America could be, juxtaposed with the reality in an overwhelming majority of American schools.

Many educators have said that reading about these “teachers and children in ordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things”  has given them hope, inspiration, and encouragement. For teachers struggling with the day-to-day challenges of “teaching to the test,” finding encouragement and inspiration is reason enough to read Ted Dintersmith’s book.

We can only hope that teachers, administrators, and policy makers are shaken and motivated by Dintersmith’s core message that “our education system is stuck in time, training students for a world that no longer exists.” His challenge to educators is that “Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on life’s sidelines, jeopardizing the survival of civil society.”

Over the past eight years, I have been comparing the American education process to a 1950s assembly line with an obsolete quality system, producing piles of discrepant material. These piles are the allegorical equivalent of remedial classrooms full of high school students unable to pass state competency exams. We place the future of our democratic society at risk when we send these young men and women out into the world, with or without a high school diploma, unprepared for the challenges of the Twenty-first Century workplace. For young people entering adulthood with few skills and choices, the American dream quickly becomes a nightmare.

It is my hope that American teachers, administrators, and policy makers will rally around someone of Ted Dintersmith’s stature and platform and be motivated to act; with a sense of urgency. I also hope those of us with a vision for our schools can work together to bring it to life.

In WSCB, Dintersmith suggests that our schools must help students develop: PEAK (Purpose, Essentials, Agency, and Knowledge). He suggests that these things “abound in preschools, kindergartens, and Montessori schools—places where children love school, learn deeply and joyously, and master essential skills.”

How ironic is it that learning is fun until children arrive at school where such initiatives as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other policies have “shoved PEAK out of our classrooms.”

“The purpose of U.S. education. . ,” Ted Dintersmith writes, describing the current reality, “. . . is to rank human potential not develop it.” And, that “’College ready’ impedes learning and innovation in our K-12 schools.”

The journey on which WSCB takes its readers provides examples of schools, in diverse communities throughout America, that focus on “hands-on learning” where children are challenged with “real-world problems.” You will see students who are excited by learning and teachers who are fulfilled by teaching. It reveals a vision of education where students develop their unique potential and leave school with knowledge, skills, and abilities they can utilize in the real world, rather than with abstract academic concepts they may or may not be able to regurgitate on standardized tests, let alone apply in life.

One of the people Dintersmith encountered on his excursion was a chief of staff to a state governor whose attitude reflects the scope of the challenge facing those of us seeking to transform education in America. This aide said, in response to his query, “Look. I know everything I need to know about education. You don’t need to tell me anything.”

One can only wonder how anyone could ever think they know everything there is to know about anything? Breaking through this kind of resistance is the challenge educators face and if you are a teacher in a classroom, the sense of powerlessness can be overwhelming. Possibly, Ted Dintersmith and others, can give teachers hope and inspiration around which they can rally. They need not be powerless.

Teachers unions and associations were created to give teachers a voice and some sense of power over the outcomes in their professional lives. The key is for teachers and administrators to use the power of their numbers as advocates of positive ideas rather than as a forum for complaints. There are few things as powerful as a positive new idea in the hands of a community of people with a shared vision. Ted Dintersmith’s accounts of his visits around America provides his readers with real examples of things schools and teachers can do for their students.

The questions that nag at me after reading WSCB, and that have nagged at me for years, are “why do so many of the innovative programs and initiatives we read about focus on kids in high school or even middle school?” Why do we wait for children to be bored, unmotivated, and discouraged before we act? Why not begin changing the way we teach them from the moment they arrive at our door for their first day of school? Why not make learning fun and meaningful right from the start? Imagine how we would be pushed to reinvent college, high school, and even middle school if fifth grade boys and girls were successful learners prepared to take ownership of their educations.

Do not wait to read What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, 2018 by Ted Dintersmith. Go ahead and treat yourselves. You deserve it.

Teach to the Kids and the Tests Will Take Care of Themselves!

In his books Stephen Covey often used the story about taking time to sharpen the saw and it is a good lesson for public school educators. As we work hard, cutting wood, the saw gradually loses its edge. If we don’t take time to stop and sharpen the saw, it won’t matter how hard we work; our productivity will begin to decline until we are accomplishing almost nothing at all. It is the same concept as an athletic coach pushing his or her athletes to focus on the fundamentals.

The era of high-stakes testing has led public school policy makers and administrators to push teachers to work hard doing the wrong things when what they really need to be doing is teaching to the kids and their unique requirements and not to the test. It seems that no matter how hard our dedicated teachers work toward our misconceived purpose, the test scores rarely improve and when they do they see only gains of the slimmest of margins.

From a child’s first day of school, at age five or six, our focus needs to be on identifying each child’s unique starting point. We need to know where they are on the academic preparedness continuum. Once we have identified what they know and where they are lacking, we can develop an academic path tailored to the unique needs of each child.

Our goal is not to train them to pass state competency exams rather it is to help them lay a solid academic foundation on which they can build the future they will be learning to envision for themselves. Once they have that academic foundation they can begin the wonderful and fun journey of discovery of who they are, what they can be, and where they can go in life.

Their destination should not be based upon anything other than their own evolving sets of knowledge, skills, interests, and dreams. We are not teaching them to be successful in the world as we know it because that world will not exist by the time our students leave school as many as 13 years later.

Think back on your own teachers. Could they have envisioned the world in which you are now asked to teach. The world has undergone such phenomenal change that if our deceased grandparents and educators were able to drop down today they would be overwhelmed by a world that is nothing like the one they knew.

Our job is to make certain our children are always moving forward from one stage of their individual development to the next, irrespective of what their classmates are doing. We must not prepare them for college because college may not be what they will someday want and need to find joy and meaning in their lives. The last thing we must do is allow them to become discouraged, to give up, and to lose hope. We want them to be excited about the adventure and we need to be excited to be their guide, coach, mentor and friend

If we give them a solid foundation they will be primed to go wherever their curiosity, interests, talents, and abilities will take them. They will be primed to thrive in a future we can barely imagine. It will be a different world where every aspect and institution in society will have had to adapt to accommodate whole new generations of motivated young men and women with both the hunger and wherewithal to make a difference and with a dream to follow.

We cannot wait until kids reach middle school and have become so far behind that they have given up and lost hope. Certainly, we must help the children we find at this tragic point in their young lives but it is not where our overall focus must be. Instead, we must focus on children in grades K-2 and makes sure they never fall behind because we have given them a foundation upon which they can construct their own future.

The last chapter of my book,  Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (2013) was an attempt to envision how different the future might look if we help our children develop their full potential. Envisioning that future, I wrote:

“Post secondary educational institutions have had to virtually reinvent themselves as the demand for more advanced mathematics, science, engineering, and information technology classes has exploded. The evolution of institutions devoted to a wide range of technical and vocational educational opportunities has been similarly phenomenal.”

 

My education model has been developed to allow such a future to evolve and I encourage you to examine it with an open mind. If you are inspired by what you find, as a number of readers have been, I urge you to share it with as many of colleagues as you can. Imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. You will find my model and an accompanying white paper at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ 

In a few months, I will be releasing a new book focused on the model and what it will allow us to accomplish. More important, it will focus on what we can enable our students to accomplish so they can take their place in a troubled world where their knowledge and imagination will be desperately needed.

 

The Biggest Flaw in our Education Process is not Giving Kids Time to Learn!

My challenge to teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, is to look deep inside your hearts and think about how many times the education process requires you to move your students on to a new lesson before they are ready.

How many times in a given semester, year, or in your career have you had to record a lesser grade beside a struggling student’s name, not because it was the best that they could do, rather because an arbitrary schedule said it was time to move on to a new lesson module? For many of you, this happens, routinely, with one or more students on every lesson module. In some public schools—in all schools, actually—it happens for the majority of a teacher’s students. In our lowest performing schools, it happens to teachers with almost every student on almost every lesson; semester after semester and year after year.

Is it any wonder that so many of these students are unable to pass state competency examinations by the time they reach the third grade? Why should we be surprised that a significant percentage of these boys and girls have given up by the time they reach middle school? We all know what happens when a child has given up and lost hope. They stop trying and begin acting out in class. After all, they cannot appear to care! Peer pressure is far too powerful.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (2013), I used an example of children learning how to ride a bicycle and I will use the same example in my new book, which will be finished by the end of the year.

We know that some kids learn quickly and are riding within an hour or two, and that other children will endure bruised egos and scraped appendages for several days before their brains finally gain a sense of balance. We also know that once they learn to ride their bikes they derive the same enjoyment from riding as the early learners. The fact that it took them longer to learn is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is that they did learn and can use what they learned.

There are many things that determine a child’s success in learning. Children learn differently. They have different potential. Some have special needs. Some kids arrive better prepared to learn. Some children are shy and timid and are fearful of being embarrassed in front of their teachers and classmates. Some boys and girls need more personal attention before they are ready to test their knowledge. So many others just need more time to learn.

Imagine that when half the children have mastered the art of riding a bicycle, we immediately push all ahead to learn advanced riding skills. Can you imagine popping wheelies, doing jumps, or racing around turns before you’ve mastered keeping your balance, braking, and steering? Can you imagine even having the courage to attempt using more demanding skills when you are still afraid of falling?

With poignant clarity, this example illustrates the trauma that children face when the learning process is more focused on keeping up with an arbitrary schedule than helping children learn. The more scrapes and bruises, whether egos or appendages, the greater the trauma. Imagine the added indignity when we attach grades to the names of these children: A’s for the fast learners and C’s, D’s, and F’s for their slower classmates.

Learning is not a competition. It is not like a race to see how fast they can run and where the winners get ribbons and medals and the losers get nothing.

Learning should be thought of as more like healing from an illness or injury. It does not matter that some individuals heal more quickly than others and we certainly do not award ribbons, medals, or A’s to patients who recover the fastest and easiest. The only thing that matters is that our patients heal.

Learning, also, is not a trip where all students travel to the same destination. It is not grooming children for the life we envision for them rather it is preparing them to discover their own future. With our help, they acquire the basic academic skills they will need to interact and communicate with the world around them. From that foundation they can begin to discover their own talents, interests and, ultimately, the destinations they choose for themselves. This adventure of discovery requires that they are exposed to a broad range of learning experiences that challenge their own imaginations and the imaginations of their teachers. Teachers, in a positive leadership environment, must keep in mind that we can barely imagine the world in which our students must be prepared to prosper.

If you think about these examples you can see that what we ask teachers and their students to do in our schools, today, makes little sense. It’s the way we’ve always done it, however. The entire education process is structured, tasked, and resourced to reward the speed or ease with which one learns rather than assure that every child learns. Tragically, we have become inured to the reality that so many of these precious young lives fall behind and out, along the way.

We talk a great deal about the importance of relationships between teachers and their students but the process, itself, and the way we organize teachers and their students, makes it difficult to develop nurturing relationships with every boy or girl, especially the most timid and reticent. Where does it say that the best way to organize teachers and students is in grades Kindergarten through 12? Where did we get the idea that it is in a child’s best interest to assign them to a different teacher, every year?

Who decided it was okay to allow children to fall so far behind that they are never able to catch up? Who got the bright idea that it is okay to expect kids who start from behind to keep up with classmates who arrive at school, readier to learn? What were they thinking when they decided that it was in a child’s best interest to learn at the same pace as their classmates and reach the same milestones together?

Who in the world got the idea that it is acceptable to tell students we cannot give them the extra time they need to learn? When did we decide to accept, unquestioningly, that our education  process is working when the same kids and the same schools are unable to pass state competency exams, year after year? It is bad enough that administering such exams has become our focal point. Is it not worse that we seem not to learn and then utilize what the exams are telling us?

Whether you are a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member, or policy maker, do you deem it acceptable that some kids excel in school while others fail? Do you not see that while it might be wonderful that some teachers are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students, it does not mean the education process is working for children, everywhere?

The truth we must accept is that the teachers and schools that are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students are succeeding despite the system, not because of it.

Examples of these success stories are wonderful in that they show what educators can do when allowed to use their imaginations in an environment supported by positive leadership. The challenge, however, must not be helping more teachers and principals carve out exceptions to the norm. The challenge must be creating a process that allows all teachers to use their skill, training, and imaginations to help children learn as much as they can from their own unique starting point; all kids, not just a few. The challenge must be preparing them to take command of their own destinies.

We must not preserve the existence of a system that constrains the ingenuity of our teachers and the performance of their students. What we must do is go back to the drawing board and create a system that exists to help all children learn, grow, dream, and create.

Through the application of my nearly fifty years of working with children and leading organizations, I have developed an education model crafted around the work of teachers and students. I urge you to take an hour or less of your time to examine my education model. Read it, not looking to find fault. Read it like an explorer to see if there might be a better way to do what you do. You can find the model simply by scrolling down to the previous blog post.