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. 

A Minefield of Distractions or a New Education Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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