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

This is the third in a series of re-published posts while I devote most of my time to the completion of my  upcoming book.  I hope you enjoy it.

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

Relationships are key to learning  but given how many people of color and other disadvantaged Americans are suspicious of teachers, especially white teachers, it is not easy to break through. This is particularly true when skeptical parents tell their kids, “don’t let the teachers treat you unfairly” and this is a common message untrusting parents give to their kids.

When I was a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career, almost every parent I spoke with expressed concern that their kids would be treated unfairly at school. What I also discovered was that listening to them works better than talking. If they feel they are being interrogated, they will clam up quickly. If I was patient and just engaged in a normal dialogue with them, they would become more forthcoming with info about themselves and their families. Empathic listening skills must be a part of every educator’s portfolio.

For a white teacher with students of color, this is especially true, but I often wonder how many teachers know this. Teachers must maintain a keen awareness that they must earn the trust of students and their parents. That trust is not given, automatically. It is so easy when we are busy, however, to revert to talking rather than listening, giving instructions rather than explanations, and to interrogation rather than dialogue. When our students and their parents begin to learn that you have a genuine interest in hearing what they have to say—hearing their story—they become much more open. Nothing convinces them they are important to you better than your generous attention and empathic listening.

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

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

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

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

The summer after my time in Philadelphia, I was in the Army, stationed in Maryland. I went back to Germantown Avenue for a weekend visit, not knowing whether I would even be remembered. When I walked into the churchyard, the teenagers were aloof, at first, but the young kids charged me and dragged me to the ground.

If you have ever been mauled by a litter of puppies, you can appreciate how I felt. Never had I felt more loved than I did wrestling under that pile of pre-adolescent kids. The teens quickly came around, as well.

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

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

It had been 36 years since my summer in Philadelphia and over 20 years from my last day as a probation officer when I subbed for a 3rd grade teacher. I had only been subbing for a few weeks. After the first 20 minutes, I noticed a young black boy was following me around the classroom. When I gave a teacher a questioning glance she said, “he won’t stay in his seat. We can’t get him to listen to or do much of anything.”

For the entire day, he was my shadow. He let me help him with his assignments; read to him; and, when we marched to art class, to lunch, or recess, he held my hand. The teachers were as astonished as I was and told me he had never let anyone get close to him.

I was only at that school for one day. One of the most difficult things about subbing is that you may never see the same kids again and rarely get an opportunity to build on even the smallest foundation of the occasional connections you make.

To this day, I am ashamed to say that I did not stay in touch with that little boy, whether as a tutor, or “big brother,” or some other way. My only excuse was that, in addition to dealing with a couple of personal issues at the time, I was a rookie substitute teacher and was feeling overwhelmed by what I was experiencing, daily.  I think of that little guy, often, and wonder how he is doing. He would be in his late twenties by now.

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

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

As difficult as it may be, teachers can never let up. Your students will test you almost every day, to reassure themselves that your concern for them is genuine.

The following lesson had quite an impact on me as a father and I think the lesson applies to teachers and parents, alike.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

While writing this post, back in February of 2018, @casas_jimmy tweeted:

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

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

Please take the time to examine my education model at http://bit.ly/2k53li3 not in search of reasons why it cannot or will not work rather looking with hope that it might work. Also check out some of the 250 or more articles posted on this blog.

Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

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 many of these remarkable professionals seem 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 since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that 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 because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

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 hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “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.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I 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 does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine 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 in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must 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 lack 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 education reformers, policy makers, 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 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. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

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 from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working 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 superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students 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 leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will 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.

Do We have the Will to Bring About Transformative Change: A Message of Hope and a Call to Action!

We have the power, intelligence, and imagination to envision a better America and we have, in our possession, a new idea about how we can bring that vision to life. It requires that we challenge our assumptions about how we go about doing what is every society’s most important job: preparing our children for the future. Ultimately, the question is: “Do we possess the will to bring about transformative change?”

Public education need not be under attack! Public schools can be successful. Teachers need not flee the profession. Children need not fail. Teaching need not be stressful and frustrating. Learning can be fun. All kids can learn and be excited about learning. Parents can be effective partners with teachers to help their children get the best possible education. The American dream can be real for every child. People need not be poor and do not need to be entrapped in the cycle of poverty and failure, nor do they need to live under a blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness.

There is no requirement that our prisons be full. Black men and women need not be afraid of being shot by the police, white Americans need not feel threatened every time they see a black man in an unexpected place, Hispanics need not face anger and resentment when they speak Spanish to their children—besides, isn’t being bilingual something to which we should all aspire? Immigration need not be considered a threat to prosperity or democracy. Children of immigrants need not be separated from their parents. Children born in America must not be denied citizenship, whatever the status of their parents. Everyone must be free to worship according to their faith. None of the worlds great religions must be singled out for disdain or preference and their worshipers need not be subjected to prejudice.

America can, indeed, be great again, in fact, greater than it has ever been, and we need not be a divided people. The very things that divide us are, in truth, the things that keep the reality of America from matching our vision. Prejudice and bigotry impede rather than enhance the quality of life in America. We need not deprive our citizens of access to healthcare services or see the costs of healthcare become prohibitive. We need not place our environment at risk to have a strong economy or strip away regulations that were established to protect our citizens from abuses from those who would sacrifice our safety and well-being for the sake of profits.

Considering America great again does not depend on restricting the freedom of the press; questioning the integrity of our electoral process; or branding an entire race, ethnic group, or religious faith as unworthy of freedom and justice. Our greatness as a free people is not enhanced by withdrawing from the world community any more than our economy is enriched by protectionism. Like it or not, the future of the United States of America requires interdependency and the same can be said for the future of the world community.

America’s strengths and weakness are a reflection of what the American people have learned rather than a representation of who and what they could be.

All the problems facing American society and threatening the future of our participatory democracy are rooted in the historic ineffectiveness of our system of public education. Neither the interests of American society nor the world community are enhanced by ignorance, illiteracy, innumeracy, gullibility, or closed-mindedness. We need our young people to leave school with solid academic foundations, portfolios of a broad range of skills, and the ability to think exponentially (outside the box) with creativity and imagination. We need them to be able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. We need for them to provide for themselves and their families, to understand the cogent issues of our time and to participate in their intelligent discourse. Ultimately, we need our young people—all our citizens, in fact—to be able to make thoughtful choices in the face of the extraordinary challenges that await us in balance of this 21st Century.

We cannot have citizens who are so poorly informed about critical issues that they will follow, blindly, high profile dilettantes based on jingoistic platitudes and outdated dogma on whatever side of the political spectrum they reside. We need our people to be sufficiently informed that they can distinguish between real and fake news, the latter of which is poorly disguised propaganda.

We want to create an abundance mentality in which everyone believes they can participate in the American dream because, if we work together, there is enough of everything for everyone. This is an enormous challenge, I know, but it is one that is possible if every American possesses a quality education. There are, indeed, deep prejudices in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and we cannot legislate an end to bigotry and resentment. What we can do is ensure that all Americans, regardless of their race and/or ethnicity are able to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, which, in turn, increases the frequency and quality of our interactions with one another. If we live and work in closer proximity with one another our similarities are magnified relative to our differences.

This can be an accurate representation of our society, but it requires that we abandon an obsolete education process that has allowed millions of our children to fail, has driven hundreds of thousands of qualified teachers from the profession, has created extraordinary anguish on the part of a significant percentage of the rest, and has left huge populations of men and women unable to participate in the American dream.

We must replace an education process that is structured like a competition to see who can learn the most the fastest. It is an education process that fails children on both ends of the academic achievement continuum. Children who had the misfortune to start from behind are pushed ahead before they are ready, placing them at an even greater disadvantage when success on subsequent lessons requires the application of knowledge and skills they were not given time to learn. This sets up children for failure, particularly disadvantaged children. A disproportionate percentage of these disadvantaged children are black or other minorities, and kids who come from homes in which English is not the mother tongue.

The incessant repetition of this practice erodes the diligence of educators and conditions them to tolerate some level of failure. It also inures teachers and educators to the tragic consequences with which their students will be forced to deal. Sadly, policy makers and government officials are so far removed from the suffering to which they contribute they are oblivious and learn nothing from it. These powerful men and women have not learned the lessons from “systems thinking” that help us understand how our own behavior contributes to the outcomes that do us harm. (Systems thinkin is a concept introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990).

At the other end of the performance continuum, high achieving students are asked to slow down and wait for classmates to catch up. This is also tragic because when confronted with boredom and impatience, learning ceases to be fun, leaving hungry young minds to look to social media, video games, and even more harmful diversions for excitement, intellectual stimulation, and mindless distractions. When they get to high school, these students may be diverted into honors or advanced-placement programs but what happened to them in elementary school has diminished their enthusiasm for learning.

One of the dysfunctionalities of our existing education process is that it is brittle and unadaptable thus providing teachers with neither the opportunity nor the authority to differentiate between the divergent needs of their students.

As much as I admire teachers and administrators, only a minute percentage ever see the struggles faced by students, whom they proudly declared ready for graduation, when these young men and women find themselves woefully unprepared for the demands of the workplace, institutions of higher learning, or the military.

Every employer witnesses the tragedy when they turn away young men and women who lack the essential academic foundation and skills required of the jobs for which they have applied. Even those employers that offer remedial instruction to help new hires overcome their functional illiteracy and innumeracy, find these young people unmotivated to learn and unwilling to work hard. Even job candidates with impressive academic credentials are often found to be unmotivated and unimaginative. Employers are mystified when they discover that the “book smarts” of the men and women they recruit do not translate well in work situations. On the other side of the equation, these young people are frustrated to discover that what they have learned does not meet the expectations of their employers.

In many of my blog posts, I have shared stories about the difficulty young men and women have, typically recent high school graduates and second-semester seniors, when striving to pass the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to qualify for enlistment in the military services. They may have been able to pass a test or meet some other criteria to qualify for a high school diploma but a few months later they are unable to apply what they had been expected to learn to the real-life challenge of achieving enlistment eligibility. When these enlistment candidates fail to achieve the minimum score for enlistment, they can retake the exam a second time, after a thirty-day period; a third time after another thirty-day period; and, a fourth time after an additional six months. Even with the use of study materials, few of these young adults ever achieve a passing score. Cramming for exams does not give one the mastery required to be able to utilize what one needs to know in life; mastery requires that we know it.

[to be continued]

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/

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?

An Invitation to Peruse My Most Recent Blog Posts

Whether you are a new visitor to my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream or a new follower on Twitter, why not take a moment to check out the most recent articles.

I also encourage you to take a look at my education model that completely redesigns the education process to allow teachers to focus on meeting the unique needs of each student, and assures that students get the relationships, time, and attention they need to learn, sans failure: The Hawkins Model

Imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment and how it would impact your students.

Also be aware that “Likes” are nice but “retweets” are both nice and “helpful.” A “like” lets the Tweeter know that you liked what they had to say. A “retweet” goes a step further and shares the Tweet with your followers, which makes it powerful and allows you to do what Twitter does best: spread the word!

Here are my most recent blog posts:

Aug 16 – Let the Positive Leadership of LeBron James and Akron Public Schools Lead the Way!

8/10 – Grades based on Age and Focus on Standards and Testing Obscures Purpose!

7/27 – Relationships

7/18 – We Must Be Willing to Believe There is a Better Way to Teach Our Children

7/3 – Are students who fail, quitters?

6/19 – Thinking “Outside the Box”

5/25 – More Evidence that its time for Public School superintendents and Advocates for Disadvantaged kids to act!

5/14 – Public schools need visionary, Positive Leadership

4/27 Black Panther, the Movie: a Call to Action!

4/15 Who is @melhawk46 and What is His Agenda

 

Let the Positive Leadership of LeBron James and Akron Public Schools Lead the Way

However the controversy plays out, of athletes kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL football games, I want to go on record as a supporter of these talented and courageous men. Besides, when did kneeling with one’s head bowed become a sign of disrespect. I would encourage participants in any performance venue to take similar action.

Contrary to what many critics suggest, these are not spoiled, selfish millionaires showing disrespect for the American Flag. Rather these are Americans who are using the platform they are blessed to have been given to speak out against injustice in America; a nation that has not yet risen to the level of greatness to which it aspires. The American flag is a beautiful symbol of our democratic principles, but its symbolism is only as relevant as the principles, themselves. What is disrespectful is the presentation of the colors by people whose actions demonstrate a disdain for those principles.

Whether it is:

• attempts to prevent minorities from exercising their constitutional right to vote in our local, state or national elections;
• separating children from parents who have sought to immigrate to this “nation of immigrants” to escape religious, political, racial, or other forms of persecution much as our own ancestors have done;
• discriminating against men, women, and children because of their religious faith or nations of origin; or
• denying the right to the same presumption of innocence to which the rest of us are entitled, by profiling and unjustifiably shooting black or other minority suspects of criminal behavior, or even acts of civil disobedience.

These and many other injustices are far more disrespectful of the principles of liberty and justice delineated by the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Amendments that we refer to as the Bill of Rights; than kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner,” our National Anthem. Every American not only has the right to take a stand or a knee on behalf of those for whom the principles of liberty and justice are being denied, we have a sacred duty to do so.

A few months ago, I wrote that “the movie Black Panther, has a compelling message for all Americans, but particularly to successful men and women of color.

“It is a call to action with an unequivocal message that it is not acceptable to isolate oneself from the problems of society when one’s successes, discoveries, and genius can make a . . . difference.”

NBA star LeBron James has set a marvelous example of giving back to one’s community with the creation of his I Promise School, in partnership with Akron Public Schools. We must all accept responsibility for ending the failure of millions of disadvantaged children, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black or other children of color, in so many public schools as well as charter schools, or parochial.

I challenge successful men and women of color—and every other socially-conscious American man or woman—to come together as powerful positive leaders to transform public education in America, similar to what the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools are striving to do.

I would ask these positive leaders, however, not to delay intervention until children are in the third or fourth grade. Instead, start on the first day they arrive for Kindergarten to help them not only overcome their disadvantage but help them catch up and develop their unique talents and abilities so they can become the best version of themselves.

Can you think of anything that would do more to make America great, than creating a reality in which every single young man or women, upon finishing grade twelve, is literate, numerate, and in possession of a portfolio of knowledge and skill that, in conjunction with a healthy self-esteem, will give them choices about what to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning; to be full members of our participatory democracy.

I offer an innovative education model that changes the way we prepare our nation’s children to fulfill their God-given potential. I believe this education model, which you can examine at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ can and will transform public education, with your help. All it requires is a willingness to open your hearts and minds to a new way of educating our nation’s children and that you abandon the long tradition of incremental improvements; a tradition that has brought us to the point at which we find ourselves today.

Through our utilization of the principles of positive leadership, we have the power to end the failure of disadvantaged children and all other kids, for all time. What are we waiting for?

Grades Based on Age and Focus on Standards and Testing Obscures Purpose!

In the mid-19th century, the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher working with children at varying stages of learning, each pursuing different academic objectives, began giving way to Horace Mann’s vision of an education process. Mann was influenced by the Prussian education model that organized students by grades, based on age.  The Prussian model was designed for organizational efficiency and discipline. Mann’s model and focus remains the process of choice, today, in private, parochial and public schools.

If there is meaningful research to show that this is the best way to structure classrooms and organize students and teachers for learning, I hope someone will share it with me.

In a one-room schoolhouse, a teacher’s priority was to help every child get from where they were upon arrival for their first day of school, to where they needed to be when they left school to embark upon life as an adult citizen. Some students only needed to learn how to read and write; others needed to prepare to find a job or to take over their family’s farm or business; and, some  aspired to go to college to become teachers, doctors, and other professionals. Each student was guided by their inherent abilities, their unique interests, by their own dreams for the future and the dreams of their families, and by a caring teacher.  That teacher’s only purpose was to help each child prepare for whatever future to which he or she aspired.

It is my assertion that the existing education process, to which so many educators are loyal, has obscured that mission and purpose, for generations.

One of the characteristics of organizations, irrespective of venue, is that if leadership is not diligent in remaining focused on and reminding the organization and its people of its core mission or purpose, the process that was created to serve that purpose becomes the entity’s focal point. Over time, that mission or purpose becomes obscured by the clutter of the process. This is what happened when administrators and policy makers  committed to moving students from Kindergarten or first grade to twelfth grade, as a class.

The existing education process requires that “students at each grade level” be able to meet certain criteria before they are deemed ready, as a population, to move on to the next lesson or grade level. The shift in focus from preparing individual students for their unique future to preparing all students of a given age to advance as a group is subtle, but with each school year the degree of separation between the original purpose and the secondary agenda, expands.

When formal academic standards were established, teaching to the standards and meeting their arbitrary time frames grew in importance. No longer were we teaching individual children according to their unique level of academic preparedness or pace and style of learning, rather we were marching to the cadence of the Prussian fondness for order and organizational efficiency. The standards also opened the door for high-stakes testing, that was viewed as a method of assessing the effectiveness of schools and teachers. Not only did we begin teaching to the standards, we began teaching to the tests.

What high-stakes testing measures, however, is not the effectiveness of teachers and schools. It reveals, instead, the ineffectiveness of the education process in helping individual children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed; despite the efforts of public school teachers. Educators must cease viewing the results as an indictment against themselves and use it as evidence to show what they are asked to do does not work for all kids.

Can you imagine a teacher in a one-room school house telling a child, I’m sorry but time is up! I need you to move on to the next lesson, along with your classmates, ready or not?

I’m certain some of you are thinking, “but we don’t teach in one room schoolhouses!” And, of course, you are not. But, “are you teaching kids to prepare for their own unique futures or are you “teaching to the standards” or “teaching to the test?” You need not feel guilty after answering truthfully. Neither should you feel powerless to bring about a transformation.

The appropriate question educators and positive leaders at every level should be asking, is: “has our fundamental mission and purpose changed?”  And: “should mission and purpose be driven by structure and process or should it be the other way around?” It is this author’s assertion that mission and purpose should always drive structure and process and assuring that this is the case is the responsibility of positive leaders.

At one time, holding a student back so they could repeat a grade (be given a second chance to master the subject matter) was not uncommon. Gradually, educators gravitated away from that practice because it was perceived to be the greater of two evils.

A decade ago, writing about this issue in Educational Leadership, Jane L. David[i] wrote, describing the reality in public education:

 

“School systems cannot hold back every student who falls behind; too many would pile up in the lower grades. Moreover, it is expensive to add a year of schooling for a substantial number of students. Therefore, in practice, schools set passing criteria at a level that ensures that most students proceed through the grades at the expected rate.” (March 2008, Volume 65, Number 6).

 

By sacrificing so many children to preserve the process we demonstrate that the process was then and continues to be viewed as more important than our students.

Had “mission and purpose” been driving “structure and process,” educators and policy makers of an earlier time might have asked the question positive leaders should pose, relentlessly, “who exists to serve whom?”

What I have endeavored to create is an education model designed to remain loyal to “mission and purpose” amid the dynamic changes taking place around us. It offers a process that gives educators the freedom and support necessary to: form close, long-term relationships with students; elicit the support of parents; help children experience, celebrate and expect success; shield them from loss of hope that comes with repeated failure: and, to apply leading-edge methodologies, tools, and innovations for the benefit of their students.

Please examine my model at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

 

[i] Jane L. David is the Director of the Bay Area Research Group

More Evidence that It’s Time for Public School Superintendents and Advocates for Disadvantaged Kids To Act!

If you are a public school superintendent or an advocate for black kids and other minority children who cares deeply about kids—yours or anyone else’s—if you could see what I see and hear what I hear, it would break your heart.

Every Thursday evening, I have the privilege of testing young men and women seeking to enlist in the Armed Services of the U.S. A significant majority of these young people (90+ percent) are recent high school graduates and high school seniors. They come from high schools throughout Northeast Indiana and they are seeking a place for themselves in society. They come to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is used to demonstrate enlistment eligibility.

Eligibility for enlistment is determined by the “AFQT” score, which is a component of the ASVAB Battery made up of four of the ASVAB’s ten tests: “Arithmetic Reasoning” (arithmetic word problems); “Word Knowledge,” “Paragraph comprehension,” and “Mathematics Knowledge.” A minimum score of 31 is required for enlistment eligibility, although some branches require a higher score.

Even though a score of 31 makes them eligible for enlistment, prospects are considered “desirable candidates’ and qualify for enlistment incentives only if they achieve a score of 50 or better.

One can reasonably conclude that a young man or woman who is unable to qualify for even the most basic jobs in the military services will, similarly, be unable to qualify for even the most basic jobs in civilian society. The candidates who are eligible to enlist but fall short of the threshold that would designate them as desirable candidates, will be assigned the least desirable jobs.

Over the past year or more, I have tested approximately 700 public school students. Although I am not authorized to provide specific data, roughly 30 percent of the young high school graduates and high school seniors who took the exam were unable to achieve the minimum score of 31. Given that these are percentile scores based on the data from the millions of ASVAB exams administered during the last decade or longer, the outcomes I witness are not unexpected. Approximately 55 percent of the 700 high school graduates and high school seniors were unable to achieve an AFQT score of 50 or higher.

On a given Thursday evening, I might test anywhere from 5 to 20 young people. There is always a sense of nervous anticipation as candidates arrive for testing and I can hear excitement in their voices. From their recruiters, they have heard what the various branches have to offer, and the benefits are substantial.

Some of the questions and comments I get while checking them in for the exam are:

  • “Will I know my score, tonight?” and the answer is “Yes”
  • “Will I know what kind of jobs I will be qualified for?” I explain that their recruiter will help them understand their scores.
  • “I hope I do well because I would like to do “___________.”
  •  “Is this test hard? I really need to pass!”

 

Others will talk about how hard they have been studying in preparation for the test, not realizing how little that will help.

Teachers and other educators know how ineffective it is to cram the night before a test if students have not taken their classroom assignments seriously. We know it is impossible to make up, with a few hours of cramming, what takes most of us 12 or 13 years to learn and master.

As I monitor the candidates during the test, it is sad to see the discouragement set in as they begin to realize how poorly prepared they are for the material on which they are being tested. Their body language quickly reflects their discouragement: their shoulders begin to sag, they begin to fidget in their seats, or start looking around to see what other examinees are doing. When they begin racing through the questions, it is clear they have given up and are no longer trying; a strategy they have learned all too well.

I once had a young man raise his hand and then ask me one of the most profound questions I’ve ever been asked:

“How are we supposed to know this stuff?”

 I am not permitted to answer questions about the exam, but I would have loved to have been able to answer that question. Were they never told that learning “this stuff” was the purpose of going to school?

This high school graduate became one of the 3 to 5 percent of the examinees who achieved a single digit score, meaning they are functionally illiterate.

Over two-hundred times in the last year, as they left the testing room with score in hand, young men and women were confronted with the stone-cold reality that there are no good opportunities for them, whether in the military or in civilian life. Their faces tell the story. They are permitted to take a retest in 30 days, and again after another 30, and yet again 6 months after the 2nd retest.  It is exceedingly rare, however, for them to improve their score well enough to reach the “eligibility threshold,” let alone the “desirability threshold.”

I have been administering the ASVAB for fourteen years and have seen this story play out over 3000 times, whether testing in Fort Wayne, which is my primary testing site, or occasionally in South Bend, Gary, Muncie, Lafayette, or Kokomo, Indiana.  It is a story that is repeated in communities all over the U.S. as millions of young American men and women are leaving school without the knowledge and skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life. These young men and women come from all racial, ethnic, and demographic groups but a disproportionate percentage are young blacks; testimony to the fact that the performance gap or achievement gap between black students and their white classmates, is real.

It is unfortunate that public school superintendents and principals are not present to see their former students facing such stark realities; that they are not witnessing this tragedy up close and personal.

The roughly 55 percent of the candidates who score below 50 and are, thus, unable to qualify for enlistment incentives, are only marginally less at risk than those unable to score 31.

I ask the reader to understand that this population of young Americans represents only those who have sufficient ambition to, at least, seek out a better life for themselves. Many of the young men and women who leave school with minimal academic achievements do not even try to seek out opportunities because they have given up all hope. That many of this latter group of young Americans, black men especially, will end up in local, state, and federal correction facilities or meet an early, violent death is a national tragedy of immense proportions with staggering ramifications for the future of the American democracy.

All hope is not lost, however.

This is a tragedy that can so easily be avoided if the leaders of public education (our superintendents and policy makers) would first, acknowledge that what we are doing in our public schools does not work for disadvantaged children; and second, would accept responsibility for finding a solution.

It can be avoided if advocates for black children, Hispanic children, and other disadvantaged children would come together and demand action to address this civil rights issue of our times with the same relentless determination as the civil rights heroes of the 1950s and 60s. I can assure these advocates that the people who promote “school choice” are not their friends and do not have the best interests of disadvantaged kids in mind.

This is an American tragedy of staggering proportions and it happens only because the education process at work in our public schools is not structured to give disadvantaged children the time, care, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages.

Many Americans are quick to blame teachers, but this is grossly unfair. Public school teachers are victims of the same flaws in our systems of public education, as are their students. Teachers are too busy trying to make a flawed education process work for as many of their students as possible.

Public school superintendents, and to a lesser extent, their principals are the professionals who have the best opportunity to bring about meaningful change. If superintendents have underperforming schools in their districts, they have a moral obligation to join forces with their colleagues and shout, loudly, that it is time to transform public education in America. I offer my education model as a starting point. Please check it out at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/