One Child At a Time!

Imagine that you have just started a new job with a highly reputable employer, along with 30 other new hires. Imagine having begun the month-long new employee training program and discover that all of the other trainees seem to be a step ahead of you in all of the prerequisite skill sets.

As you begin this exercise to not do so casually. Strive to show true empathy so that you actually feel what it would be like to find yourself in such a predicament when all of your peers seem to be doing well. Imagine, also, that the fact that you are struggling is readily apparent to everyone else in the program.

Next, imagine that you have finished the first phase of the program while earning the lowest score in the class. Think about how this would feel. What would be going through your mind?

Would you feel as if you were an integral part of the group or would you feel like an outsider? Dredge your past for a time when you experienced this or something similar. Compare how you felt then with what you are feeling now. Would you feel ready to move on to the next phase of the training or would you feel desperate for a little more time to study or maybe a little more time with the instructor?

Now, as you begin phase 2 of this 5-part program, imagine that any illusions you may have had about this being a fresh start are shattered by the discovery that doing well on this new subject matter requires that you be able to apply the skills, knowledge, and principles that were covered in phase 1. Strive to imagine what it would feel like to discover, as you move through the phases of training, that you are a little further behind at the end of each phase and even less prepared for what is to follow.

Would you feel comfortable in asking the instructor for a little extra time and attention? Would you be willing to share with the instructor just how far behind you are? How about your classmates? Would you feel comfortable asking one of them to help you understand?

Can you feel the sense of panic that would be almost certain to descend upon you? How would you assess your chances of successfully completing the training? After repeated failure, is there a point at which you begin to feel like quitting? Are you excited about the chance to move out onto the shop floor to begin work or is your gut knotting with dread at that prospect?

If you are a public school teacher, how many students in your classroom are living this nightmare, lesson after lesson, subject after subject, grading period after grading period? How many of the students in your school are struggling with this very phenomenon—a phenomenon I like to call the “cycle of failure?” Now, multiply that number by the number of facilities in your school district; in your state; and, finally, multiply that number by the number of stars on our flag.

If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the number of struggling students—the number of failing students—is staggering. How many kids does it take before it becomes a national tragedy? When we think about this “cycle of failure” in terms of millions of children in tens of thousands of classrooms, it seems overwhelming. Is it any wonder that public school teachers feel hopeless to do anything about it?

The sad reality of this crisis in public education is that to solve the dilemma and end the crisis, all teachers must do is slow down and give each child the time they need to understand before we ask them to move on to the next lesson. It would be simple except for the fact that slowing down is not part of the expectations placed on American public school teachers.

Our expectations in the present reality of public education is that teachers must move their entire class of students down a predetermined path so that they all arrive at the same time and with the same level of preparation for the standardized competency exams that loom in our not-to-distant future; exams by which teachers and their schools will be held accountable.

The educational process does not account for the individual students who fall off the side of the path and become hopefully lost and makes no provision for attending to their needs. Teachers care very much, however, and they do their best to give these children a little extra time and attention but the pressure to move the students along is relentless.

From a practical perspective, the solution is simple. All we need to do is alter our expectations so that each and every child is to be given however much time they need. Impossible, you say! It is not impossible. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Making such a change from a human engineering perspective is as simple it could be. Once expectations have changed, all that is required are some modifications to the classroom management process.

The problem is not the practicability of such changes but rather the political component.

Somehow we must convince policy makers that each child is a precious resource of incalculable value and that an educational process is dysfunctional if it views struggling children as collateral damage. The bottom line is that our society cannot afford to lose a single child let alone a few million children. We must make certain that every child counts and the only way we can make certain they count is to do so one child at a time.

Chapter 9 of “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch: “The Facts About College Graduation Rates” – Our ongoing review!

In Chapter 9 of her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch challenges the assertion of many that “Our economy will suffer unless we have the highest graduation rate in the world.” Ravitch says there is no evidence for this claim. In this Ravitch is correct.

Ravitch is also correct to wonder whether college degrees “obtained under pressure to reach a target represent real learning or will they be reached by credential inflation, credit recovery, and other schemes that devalue the meaning of the diploma.”

This has certainly been the case with high school graduation rates and diplomas.  The attention on graduation rates and test scores distracts us from the more important question, “what are our students actually learning?”

It is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue about some of these issues when Dr. Ravitch and I are in such disagreement over the existence of a crisis in public education. Meaningful dialogue requires that there be a common premise, somewhere. I continue to assert that we need to stop defending public education and start defending our schools and teachers. The problem is not schools and teachers but rather an educational process that does not allow teachers to do what we need them to do and that does not meet the needs of a majority of American children. We cannot fix something until we are willing to acknowledge its inefficacy.

Is there any doubt that the world marketplace is an economic competition on a grand scale? Are not the results of any competition, irrespective of scale, contingent upon the relative performance of the competitors? Is not performance a function of the level of skill, knowledge, and preparation of the performers?

The generation who emerged from the Great Depression and led us through World War II understand that the US has not always been the dominant economy in the world marketplace. Their children and grandchildren, on the other hand, have never lived at a time when the US was not the dominant economic force on the planet. We have come to take American economic power for granted.

Any student of history should be able to tell you that America’s rise to economic preeminence came at a time when the playing field was anything but equal. In the aftermath of World War II, while the American industrial and commercial capabilities were in full bloom, having been ramped up during the war, the economies of Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union were faced with the challenge of rebuilding in the aftermath of a devastating war. The economies of China, India, South Korea, other Pacific-rim nations, and the Middle East were either non-existent or embryonic.

Not only was the US production process in full gear following the war but our employers, thanks to the American systems of public education, were able to draw on the most highly educated workforce in the world. This was also a time when the nation had great confidence in itself, when there was great clarity in values, and when the populace was highly motivated to insure that their children would not be subjected to the deprivation they experienced during the Great Depression. Just as importantly, American society was not yet confronted with the series of social challenges that would commence with the civil rights movement and, soon thereafter, the anti-war movement.

In the ensuing five-and-a-half decades, while the United States was beginning to believe that its economic supremacy was a God-given right and while we were also becoming more and more distracted by our nation’s social challenges, the world was in the midst of transformational change. The rest of the world, led by Western Europe, Japan, and the other emerging economies of Asia and Eastern Europe were working furiously to catch up with the US. As we approach the last half of the second decade of a new century these nations have pretty much caught up and are, in some cases, threatening to surpass the US in economic production and wealth.

Many of these nations, but certainly not all, have less poverty, offer better healthcare, provide a comparable level of personal liberty to their people, and are also challenging us with respect to the effectiveness with which we education our children. That they are doing this at a time when we are destroying our systems of public education with nonsensical reforms has frightening consequences.

The American people, immersed in their many social and political challenges, are only beginning to understand the ramifications of what can only be described as a re-balancing of global economic power; with the loss of jobs and devaluation of the dollar the most obvious examples. The future consequences of a reality in which the largest percentage of ownership of America’s economic assets is in the hands of foreign investors cannot yet be fully envisioned.

So, Ravitch is correct in saying that there is no evidence that U.S. college graduation rates is connected to our success in the world marketplace. Unfortunately, it is a pointless issue and we are asking the wrong questions. The appropriate questions begin with whether or not our high school and college graduates are able to utilize, in the real world, the knowledge, skills, and level of understanding about the world that will be necessary to keep the U.S. in the game, economically. This question must be followed with “Are we teaching our children what they most need to know?”

We cannot answer the second question until we are able to identify the fundamental purpose of an education. This, however, is a topic for another day.

Denying the Crisis in Public Education a Strategic Error on the Part of Bad Ass Teachers and Their Colleagues.

The Bad Ass Teachers Association, Diane Ravitch, and every other teacher advocacy group make a strategic error when they argue that there is no crisis in American public education and that our public schools are doing better than they have ever done.

It is a strategic error for several reasons all of which weaken the argument against the corporate reforms that are sweeping the nation. It is a strategic error because it portrays public school teachers as being in complete denial and overly defensive.

The truth is that our systems of public education are in a deep state of crisis and it is a crisis in which teachers bear only a modest share of the responsibility and are as much the victims of the crisis as are the students in their classrooms.

While it is true that our nation’s top students are learning more than at any time in the history of public education we could make an argument that even the interests of these accomplished youngsters are being compromised by the crisis in education. The sad truth is that the students at the other end of the academic success continuum may be learning less than at any time in the history of public education.

The overwhelming majority of our nation’s public school teachers are heroes of the first order as they dedicate their lives and careers to serving the interests of our nation’s children. Yes, there are bad teachers just like there are underperforming members of every other population of professional men and women. Do teachers need to do a better job of policing their own? Absolutely! Do teachers’ unions and associations need to do a better job of serving the interests of both their members and the teaching profession? Absolutely!

When examining the problems of our systems of public education, no one is guiltless, teachers included. The flip side of that statement is that when examining the problems of our systems of public education, no group of people does more for the children in America than the men and women who stand in front of our classrooms. When examined with an objective eye, in the midst of all of the forces that conspire to thwart their efforts, what public school teachers accomplish is nothing short of remarkable.

The truth is that teachers deserve all of the support we can give them and they deserve none of the mounting blame and criticism that is heaped upon their heads and shoulders, unmercifully.  It is also true that teachers need their unions and their associations. These are, after all, the only entities that support the efforts of teachers consistently. We do not plan to let the teacher organizations off the hook, however, as they are no different than any other business organization and need to relentlessly re-examine their mission, their strategic objectives, and retool themselves in an ever-changing political environment.

The one thing about which we can be sure is that very little of that which has worked in the past can be expected to work in the future.

Let us examine the evidence for the argument that our systems of public education are in a state of crisis. For the benefit or our teachers we are going to save the empirical evidence for later. The compelling truth is that teachers know in their hearts that public education is in crisis because they deal with the reality of it every single day in their classrooms.

You know it every day when the emphasis you are asked to place is more on test preparation than sustained learning. You know it every day that you must move your class on to a new lesson when you know there are students who are not yet ready; students who do not yet understand yesterday’s material and will be even less prepared to understand what is presented to them tomorrow.

You know when you deal with the disruption of students who will not behave and will not try and when their parents are convinced that you are being unfair to their child.

You know it when you deal with students who could be honor students if only they would try. You know it when parents of such students seem to have no more ability to motivate their children than you do.

You see it when you experience, first hand, the performance gap between the white and minority students in your classrooms and you know that many of the students who are failing place no value at all on education and neither do many of their parents.

You know it when, at the end of a school year you are approached by administrators asking what you can do to help a student improve his or her grade so they are able to graduate with their class; students who have done little or nothing to earn that grade for an entire semester or school year.

You know it when you look at children who are weighed down by the crushing burden of a range of disadvantages: disadvantages with which the students are as powerless to deal as are you, their teachers.

The empirical evidence for the crisis is so overwhelming is seems almost pointless to rehash the data. That teachers are unfairly blamed for the results of the standardized competency examinations administered in their respective states does not mitigate the fact that far too many children are failing.

There is the performance gap between white and black students, and between white and other minority students a gap that show no sign of narrowing and yet is rarely the topic of frank discourse.

NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results that show that a full 60 percent of American students are below proficiency in virtually every subject of inquiry and anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of minority students are below proficiency. Contrary to the arguments of so many of the defenders of public education, the demarcation line between proficiency and below is the one that counts. NAEP defines “proficient” in several ways but the most noteworthy is the assertion that students must be able to use in real-life situations what they have learned in school. Anything less than this is simply unacceptable no matter how much we might wish, otherwise. After all, if we cannot use knowledge or skills in real life then we have not really learned.

So, the reader may ask, what are teachers to do in the face of the unreasonable scrutiny and the unfair burden of blame heaped on them by reformers and many of the families they exist to serve? It is so easy for teachers to feel overwhelmed by the forces that impede their ability to do what they know must be done.

The answers to these questions are the subject of my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.

For the purpose of today’s subject, the answer is that teachers need to stand tall and declare, going beyond what the Bad Ass Teachers are declaring:

“Damn right the system is in crisis and we’re through taking the blame for an antiquated educational structure and process that has not been substantially altered for more than a century.”

“We are through taking the blame for what may be the lowest level of student motivation to learn on the part of students in decades.”

“We are sick and tired of being held responsible for the cavernous disparity in the levels of preparation of students when they arrive at our door for their first day of school.”

“We are fed up with being blamed for the burgeoning population of American parents who have lost hope and faith in the American Dream and no longer believe that an education provides a way out for their sons and daughters.”

And, “We categorically reject responsibility for a reality that the combined power of the influence of the peer group and social media, both of which are fueled by the power of Madison Avenue, has made it exponentially more difficult for parents to sustain their role as the biggest influence in the lives of their pre- and post-pubescent children.”

When parents have ceased being the major influencing force in the lives of their children it will be that much more difficult for teachers to preserve their own level of influence in the lives of those same children.

But complaining about these realities will only take teachers so far. The operative question is what can be done about these challenges and right now, in this point in history, the only ones coming forth with what they believe to be a solution, however ill-advised it may be, are the corporate and government reformers with their “runaway train of misguided educational reforms.”

The Bad Ass Teacher Association, by taking a stand and shouting that they “aren’t going to take it anymore,” has positioned itself to play a lead role in countering the “reformers” with real and meaningful reforms of our educational process. In my next post, I will publish and open letter to the Bad Ass Teachers of America challenging them to take the lead in changing this reality and offering a comprehensive plan of action as a place to begin.