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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Kids are Failing and What Does It Tell Us?

Here are some numbers to gnaw on from a well-respected, diverse midwestern public school district reporting on students who did not pass both the Math and ELA components of the state’s competency exams. Please note that the public school teachers and administrators to which we refer are all well-qualified, are dedicated professionals, and work hard to help their students. Although there are low-performers in every profession, the majority of our nation’s teachers are unsung American heroes.

Elementary school

Black students not passing both exams = 1,343 (76.6%)
Hispanic Students not passing both exams = 825 (64.4%)
Children of color not passing both exams = 2,816 (68.2%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,498 (46.0%)

Total Elementary students not passing = 4,314 (58.4%)

Middle School
Black students not passing both exams = 1,030 (81.7%)
Hispanic students not passing both exams = 558 (66.7%)
Students of Color not passing both exams = 2,078 (72.5%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,190 (52.5%)

Total Middle School students not passing = 3,268 (63.6%)

Total students unable to pass both exams = 7,582 (60.6%)

Many states commence the process of testing students for levels of competency in the third grade and continue testing through the eighth grade. Thereafter, competency testing shifts toward assessing eligibility for graduation. When results are reported, we will see that a certain percentage of students were unable to pass the Math and English Language Arts components of the assessment tool, as in the case of the above public school district. In another jurisdiction, the results may be reported as students being at, above, below, or approaching “proficient.” The term “proficient” typically implies a high level of mastery in subject matter and also and ability to utilize that knowledge in the real world. In others, the broad descriptors may be relative to where a student is relative to “grade level.” Always, the results offer some manner of comparison to state academic standards.

Although results vary depending on the level of diversity or segregation of school districts with respect to race. ethnicity, and relative affluence the above data are representative.

This is just one of more than a thousand school districts reporting comparable performance, and of course there are many smaller school districts with students who struggle, and even our nation’s highest performing districts have some students who perform poorly. Think about the numbers for a moment. We are talking about many more than ten million American children who are performing poorly in school, and these data reflect performance only in public schools. Private, parochial, and charter schools also report students who are not performing well in school.

There are a few patterns that emerge from the results of competency examinations that deserve discussion.

The most common is that, typically, black students perform well below their white classmates and moderately below children from other minority groups. Hence, the “performance” or “achievement” gap, and public education in general, are often referred to the Civil rights issues of our time. That so many children of color perform poorly in our public schools has tragic consequences for our nation and its future.

With respect to relative affluence, students from low-income families generally perform below their more affluent classmates. Another pattern with respect to children who perform poorly on competency assessments, is that their performance often drops by the time they reach middle school. Each of these patterns have been widely discussed and researched for decades. This is not “News!” fake or otherwise.

What concerns me are the students who consistently perform poorly on competency assessments, from one year to the next. My assumption, which you are invited to challenge, is that the “population of children” who perform poorly, beginning in third grade all the way through eighth grade is comprised of the same boys and girls as they move from grade to grade.

What does it say about the education process if the same children who fall short of expectations beginning in the first round of competency assessments, administered when they are eight and nine years old, are the exact same children who perform poorly every year thereafter? What does it say when there is a decline in the performance of this population of students after they reach middle school?

If, indeed, we have these huge populations of children who perform poorly all the way through elementary and middle school, what does it say about our focus on the purpose of public education? What does it say about our strategy. Does it work?

My answer to these questions is that it is time to re-evaluate our assumptions, our purpose, our strategy, and our practices.

It is my assertion that this phenomenon exists because the education process—what educators are asked to do and how—is not consistent with our purpose or mission. Rather than focus on making sure each child is ready for middle school by the time they reach the age of 11 or 12; for high school by the time they reach the ages of 14 and 15, and ready for the responsibilities of citizenship by the time they reach the age of 18, teachers are expected to move students from point to point on the outline delineating the academic standards adopted by a given State as a group, whether they are ready or not.

What the results of competency examinations tell me is not only is our focus misdirected, it is also uncompromising. The education process demands that teachers permit students to fail because giving them the time they need to learn each lesson is not even a consideration, let alone an expectation. Certainly, many teachers strive to give extra help but, depending on the number of struggling students in a teacher’s classroom, rarely is there sufficient time.

We instruct our teachers to record, in their grade books, the results of each lesson in each subject area before moving on to a new lesson. The natural consequences of this practice are students who are increasing less prepared to be successful as they move from lesson to lesson and grade to grade.

Now, step back a moment, and let’s think about what we know about the children who arrive for their first day of school, at age 5 or 6:

• We know that the disparity in their level of academic preparedness runs the full range of the continuum;

• We know that the pace at which they learn is equally disparate;

• We know many are away from their mothers and other family members for the first time; and, therefore, need to connect quickly with a caring adult;

• We know that there are some children who have few adults who care about them, if any at all; and,

• We know that many are unprepared for most of the new experiences they will face.

Now, think about our purpose but do not rush to answer.

What is our objective with these children? Think hard about what it is that their community will, someday, need from our children?

As simply as we can state them, their community needs each child to grow into:

• A well-educated young man or woman who is prepared to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy;

• Who has sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding of the world to give them choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning; and,

• Who can provide for themselves and their families.

What is the best way to accomplish these objectives?

Is it to push them along so they move from lesson to lesson, grade to grade, with their classmates, ready or not?

Or,

Is it to help them progress; from where they are intellectually and emotionally on that first day of school to become the best version of themselves that they can be and to learn how to create success for themselves?

If it is the latter, what we do today is not what children need and, clearly, it does not work. The data is indisputable.

Someday, we might be able to eliminate high-stakes testing, but that is not within our power, today. The best we can do is figure how to utilize the process to our best advantage and for the best advantage of our students. The same is true for the grading process in use in our classrooms. The purpose both types of assessments must not be to pass judgment on our students and teachers rather to gage our progress so that we can determine next steps, as we strive to fulfill our purpose.

Our primary goal is to prepare children for life after completion of their formal primary and secondary education. Our intermediate goals are to help them get there, one step at a time. We want to start at the exact point where we find them on their unique developmental path and begin to lay a foundation for intellectual and emotional growth and development. Once we have laid that foundation, our purpose is to help them master, one successful step at a time, the knowledge, skills, self-discipline, and understanding they will need in life. We are concerned about the whole child:

• We want them to have the healthy self-esteem they will need to control most of the outcomes in their lives;

• We want them to be able to develop healthy relationships with the people in their lives;

• We want them to be able to express themselves through all forms of human communication and interaction;

• We want them to understand and appreciate the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences;

• We want them to understand history so that they can apply what we as a people have learned from our mistakes throughout the millennia;

• We want them to have sufficient understanding, through science, of the complexity of the world in which they live, so they can make thoughtful decisions about issues facing society;

• We want them to be able to create value for themselves, their families, communities, and society; and, finally,

• We want them to have a sufficient understanding of the role and principles of government so that they can participate in their own governance.

We cannot help children develop these crucial things by lumping them with a group of other children; by assigning them to teachers in such a way that forming close personal relationships is problematic; by imposing arbitrary time frames, or by allowing them to fail. Kids learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn. Failure is when we say to them, “I’m sorry but we cannot justify spending any more time with you on this subject matter; we have more important things to do.”

We can reinvent the education process to give our nation’s children the quality education they deserve if we are willing to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the way we teach our children and then open our hearts and minds to a new way of doing what we do. My education model, which is designed to do just that, is available for your examination at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I encourage you to read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather in hopes that it might.

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An Open Letter to Jason Riley at The Wall Street Journal

Thank you for your column in the Wall Street Journal, “Do Black Students Need White Peers?” There are several issues in your column to which I want to respond.

The direct answer to your question is, “No, But.”

Black students do not need to have white children in their schools and classrooms in order to learn and I will elaborate on this point, below. The “But” part, however, is that all children benefit from being in in schools and classrooms with a diverse population of children. I believe diversity benefits every human being, whatever their age or venue.

The second point to address is the “Choice” movement with its focus on charters schools and vouchers. While I have nothing against charter schools, it is a myth that they always perform at a higher level than public schools. The data shows that while there are many successful charter schools, there are many that underperform when compared to the public schools they were intended to replace.

My biggest problem with the education reform movement focused on “choice” is that it is suggested that this is the solution to improving the quality of education in America; that it will end the performance gap between black and white children; or, that it will improve our nation’s ability to compete in the world marketplace. None of these assertions are true.

Having the best product or service in the world means nothing unless you are able to deliver it to customers. Any solution must be logistically feasible and it is simply not feasible to believe that we can solve the issue of the quality of American education with a handful of charters schools scattered in communities throughout the U.S. It would take us generations to create a sufficient number of charters schools to meet the needs of millions of American children and we cannot wait that long.

Besides, we already have school buildings in every community in the nation, all staffed with qualified teachers, trained in the same colleges and universities in which most charter school teachers were educated. The problem with both private and public education in America is that the education process that is utilized to teach our children has been obsolete for most of our lifetimes.

It is not the school building that makes the difference and it is not the teachers that are the problem. The only thing that makes a difference is what we do in our classrooms–what we ask of our teacher–wherever it is located. The sad but undeniable truth is that the education process in place in American public schools has not changed, materially, for as long as anyone can remember while the world into which our children are born has changed exponentially. The education process does not work for disadvantaged children and I believe the current education process does a disservice to even students on the upper end of the performance continuum.

The failure of the education process is not because teachers are incompetent and not because they do not care. The vast majority of American public school teachers are unsung heroes striving to do a difficult job under nearly impossible circumstances. My only complaint of teachers is that they have been blamed for the problems in our schools for so long that they have grown defensive when they should be banging on the table and yelling that what they are being asked to do does not work.

The real problem in our schools is that education leaders whether principals, superintendents, college professors, or policy makers are not under the same pressure, as their counterparts in a business environment, to relentlessly challenge their assumptions and to question whether they are meeting the needs of their customers.

The longer we delay fixing this obsolete education process the more young Americans will be forced to endure failure. We cannot afford to waste a single child and neither can our nation afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these children represent. Public education is the civil rights issue of our time and is at the root of all of our nation’s social and political problems. That so many people are so poorly educated that they are unable to bear the responsibilities of citizenship is why so many other Americans have grown bitter and resentful. The bitterness and resentment in the hearts of people for whom the American Dream is not real burns every bit as deeply.

The irony is that reinventing the education process to meet the needs of every American child is a relatively easy thing to do if education leaders, advocates, and policy makers would simply open their minds and hearts to the idea that their might be a better way.

As I have written, so often, the education process is no different than a production, assembly, or service-delivery process in the business world. Neither is it different than an application software. It is simply a logical process designed by human beings to produce a desired outcome. Such processes are altered, reinvented, and re-engineered with regularity in the private sector because businesses must respond to the dissatisfaction of their customers and to the dynamic changes in the expectations of those customers. Reinventing a process to produce a better outcome is a routine necessity in the private sector. In public education, and in many other public venues, such reinventions seem to be beyond the imagination of our leaders.

There is an axiom in operations management that if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are then the process is flawed and must be replaced. We must go back to the drawing board. Just as in any other venue, a process must be focused on its purpose to such a degree that every single activity must be judged on the basis of how well it serves that purpose and how well it supports the people on whom one relies to do the job. The same is true for teaching kids.

In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond makes the same point when she wrote:

“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”

In American public education we have not reinvented the education process in generations, and no, just providing new and more sophisticated tools is not sufficient. The education process is not focused on the needs of students and it sets them up for failure and humiliation.

When young children show up for their first day of school the disparity in terms of their academic preparedness is cavernous. Yet teachers are expected to move kids along, from year to year, marching to the beat of a given state’s academic standards—common core or not—at relatively the same pace. As children begin to fall behind because they need more time to learn a given lesson, they are pushed ahead, ready or not. The teacher records a low or failing score in their gradebook and it’s off to the next lesson. In many subject areas, the child’s ability to learn a new lesson requires that he or she be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. As a result, the probability that a child who has fallen behind will fail, yet again, increases.

If you examine state competency scores in any state you will find that by the third grade, only about a third of disadvantaged students can pass both the English Language Arts and mathematics components of those exams. By the time those students reach middle school the percentage of those same kids who are able to pass both ELA and math exams has dropped to 25 percent or less. What we are teaching these kids is how to fail. School districts may boast of high graduation rates but an unacceptable number of those diplomas are worthless pieces of paper.

As it happens, I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to young men and women who wish to enlist in the military. Most of these young people who take the ASVAB for enlistment purposes are recent high school grads or high school seniors. The minimum score for enlistment eligibility in the Army, for example, is a percentile score of 31, meaning that 30 percent of the candidates are not eligible for enlistment. (Some services have higher eligibility requirements).

ASVAB scores for blacks and other minorities mirrors the performance of middle school students on state competency exams that I referenced above. If one is unable to qualify for even the least desirable jobs in the military, for how many civilian jobs will they be qualified? So much for 80 to 90 percent graduation rates. It’s not the diploma that matters it is how one can apply in the real world that which they learned in school.

The sad but compelling truth is that this has been going on for more than a half century and, as a result, our poor urban and rural communities throughout America are filled with multiple generations of men and women who have always been poor and who all failed in school, diplomas notwithstanding. Many are dependent on their government, to the great resentment of other Americans. Why, because the education process has never been designed with the same rigorous focus on the needs of its students or to support teachers in meeting those needs.

It doesn’t need to be this way but no one wants to listen. We can alter this reality for all time as easily as we can alter a production process at a manufacturing facility or re-engineer the software of a computer application.

I invite you to check out my website where you will find an education model I have developed at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

I, also, invite you to check out my blog, “Education, Hope, and the American Dream” where I have posted over 150 articles on the subject of public education and the challenge of meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other children of color.

For nearly 5 years I have been seeking a public school corporation willing to test my education model in just one of its underperforming elementary schools to demonstrate that we can teach every child to be successful and insure that no child fails. I have had no takers.

Since it takes 13 years to get a new Kindergarten student through high school, every year we delay creates a whole new generation of young Americans with no choices of what to do with their lives to find joy, to support a family, or to participate in their own governance as a well-informed citizen of a democratic society.

How long are we willing to accept an avoidable tragedy that destroys millions of young lives and that jeopardizes the future of our society?

Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them; a refrain!

The original version of this article was written two-and-half years ago but events in the intervening months suggest to me that it needs repeated; with a few updates. It will be followed by a related article on bullying and peer pressure.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have now have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden brown skin. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandkids are the biological offspring of my youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, now 18 months of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

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

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

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. In the four-and-a-half years since the birth of this sweet child, our nation has been rocked by racial violence and hatred. We have known that the American people have been divided, politically, for decades but could we ever have imagined that the President of the United States, through his words and actions, could model such rhetoric and enmity?

It is bad enough that so many citizens could interpret our President’s words and actions as a license for the public expression of embittered hatred but are we truly so divided, ideologically, that good men and women would choose to tolerate such enmity out of hope that this President can “make America great, again.”

Is there any reason to believe that a man who builds walls, figuratively and literally; who condemns one of the world’s great religions for the radical violence of a few (as if Christians have never done a despicable deed); who provokes confrontations; calls people names; who brands the free press as liars; who challenges the legitimacy of our election process; ignores and ridicules the advice of his diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement advisors; who rejects the research of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists; and, who blames others when things go wrong can be the kind of leader who will unite a culturally diverse nation? Can a bully provide the kind of inspirational, positive leadership we need, so desperately?

Through the escalation of the violence and hatred over the last four-and-a-half years we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little guy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

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

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

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friends that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

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

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 and worked with their families. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children. Later, when I decided to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teachers for my local public school district and glimpsed, first hand, the challenges that both students and teachers face.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

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

These boys and girls all have the ability to learn; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete.

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

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

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

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

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

The over-riding truth as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century is that we need each and every one of these boys and girls just as desperately as they need us. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, black or white or any of the colors of the rainbow. What we see happening, today, is a preview of the rest of this 21st Century unless we choose to act.

It is only when we have gained an understanding of the forces that impede the education of our children and accept responsibility for our outcomes that we begin to acquire the power to implement meaningful changes in policy and practice. This is what positive leadership is all about.

I invite the reader to check out my Education Model and White Paper to see one way we can reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we need.

Donald Trump: The Antithesis of Positive Leadership

As an American who has spent his entire career as a student, advocate, and practitioner of the principles of positive leadership, it is staggering to think that not only is a presidential candidate spreading a message of prejudice and hatred but also that he is garnering the support of a significant percentage of Republican voters. The man behaves like a bully and a name-caller of the same ilk as a rising political leader in Germany, eighty-five years ago. If you do not agree with someone, call them names, threaten to do harm to them, persecute an entire religious group, or deport millions of others.

Over the last couple of decades we have seen the emergence of bitter enmity on the part of Americans who are so full of hatred and prejudice that they will believe even the most outrageous accusations against President Obama, a man whom they despise. No doubt, someone recently spouted that “Obama probably paid protesters at a recent political rally for Trump” and now those accusations are sweeping across the internet, taken as gospel. Equally ridiculous are the accusations that “Obama arranged and paid for the assassination” of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

How can people be so full of hate that they are willing to believe such unsubstantiated nonsense about the President of the United States?

The sad thing about Donald Trump is that the man is correct about some of the things that need to happen to keep our nation healthy and “return it to greatness.” Support of Trump on these few issues becomes impossible, however, when the man preys on the ignorance and prejudices of millions of Americans and when his political strategy poses the biggest threat to democracy in my lifetime.

We do need to put the restoration of the U.S. infrastructure at the top of our nation’s priority list. We do need to take control of immigration. We do need to put people back to work. We do need to replace politicians who have become little more than puppets of some of our nation’s richest and most powerful political action committees. We do need leadership that is beholden to no one other than the American people.

We desperately need positive leaders who recognize that the issues with which we struggle, today, did not just happen rather that they are the consequence of 65-years-worth of ineffectual policies, whether liberal or conservative, republican or democrat.

What we need most of all is a positive leader with a vision for the future. A leader who recognizes that poverty is a consequence of an obsolete educational process that has set generations of American children up for failure and that makes it almost impossible for even our best teachers to do what they dreamt of doing when they chose their profession. It is an educational process that can only be further damaged by reforms focused on privatization and standardized testing.

We yearn for a positive leader who understands that the strongest economy during the latter third of the 21st Century will be the one that has ended its reliance on fossil fuels and has mastered the production of renewable sources of clean energy. It will also be an economy that is committed to responsible stewardship of the environment.

We hunger for a positive leader who believes that all Americans are entitled to comprehensive healthcare and prescription drugs as a right of citizenship and who understands that we can provide such healthcare without socialized medicine if only we open are hearts and minds to a new way of thinking.

And, finally, we need a positive leader who can help us renew our faith in democracy and in each other; a leader who can show the American people that our greatest strength as a nation is, has always been, and will always be our diversity. We seek a leader who can rebuild a nation in which the American dream is an achievable reality for all of its citizens; not just a privileged few.

My novel, Light and Transient Causes, is about one way things could go horribly wrong if a man like Donald Trump was elected President. http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/light-and-transient-causes-a-novel/ The reader is invited to take a look.

Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them!

This is the 3rd segment of our series of articles on education, racism and the performance gap.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law, who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have three grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, golden brown skin, and a smile that lights up the world. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match, who has his sister’s smile, and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest grandchild is the biological child of my youngest daughter and her husband. She is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. She is also beautiful with a smile that is second to none.

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

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. From the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little boy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

We shuddered after reading such powerful articles as “I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had a Black Child,” which you can find on Rosebelle’s Blog; and more recently, “7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children” by Terrell Jermaine Starr on the website Alternet.

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

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

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for kids to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All were African-American. While I was responsible for the 30 to 40 different boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who chose to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children.

What I learned during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

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

They all have the ability to learn; they all are curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete. That we give up on them only adds to the tragedy.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions all of which add beauty to the world. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation.

They all deserve the absolute best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of them fail provides irrefutable evidence that they are not getting our best and that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

Whether we are teachers, principals, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education we must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible. The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. Such incidence of failure is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and their black and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce.

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

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice. They are equally free to choose to be both hopeful and powerful.

The over-riding truth, as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century, is that we need each and every one of these kids just as desperately as they need us.

Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of us, black, white or any of the colors of the rainbow. We will no longer live in a world where being an American is something of which we can be proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The final segment of this series will be devoted to showing professional educators one way in which we can irrevocably alter the reality of public education in America.

America: A Leadership Crisis of Great Urgency!

During the recent crisis with Syria, the Russian government as stepped up to offer a solution. What was most interesting was that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, chided the U.S., in response to a statement by President Obama, noting that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

However much we might resent Putin’s audacity to say such a thing, maybe we need to stop and think about the possibility that he could be correct.

Any illusions we might have had regarding the invulnerability of the United States as the richest and most powerful nation in the world were surely shattered in the wake of Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade our nation’s credit rating in 2011. Our inability to dictate our political and military will in the Middle East and the blatant hatred demonstrated by the people who have attacked our Embassies are examples of a recurring theme that challenges our nation’s belief in itself as somehow special.

Maybe it is time for the American people to step back and take stock of who we are and how rate when compared to other developed and developing nations in the world.

The U.S. national debt is measured in trillions of dollars, with China, the single greatest challenge to our economic supremacy, our largest creditor. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace over the next half-century is dependent on the quality of the American workforce, which, itself, is powered by the American educational system. According to The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. ranks 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.[1] That China ranks first in all three areas should strike fear, if not outright panic, in every American heart.

We are in the midst of a crisis of historic proportions in which our way of life as a people is in jeopardy. It is a crisis that cries out for positive leadership and yet our elected leaders in Washington stomp around like spoiled and stubborn children who have yet to learn how to work and play with others.

The challenges facing our nation and its people are immense. Whether our burdensome debt; an economy that is only a shadow of its former self; a natural environment that seems to be stumbling under the weight of a burgeoning population that fouls the very air that we breathe and the water we drink; a system of public education that is laden with failure; a health care system that fails to meet the needs of nearly a full third of its citizens, we place our future in jeopardy unless we meet these challenges.

We use oil, a diminishing natural resource, to fuel our demand for energy even though the future will belong to the first nation to develop reliable, alternate sources of energy whether solar, hydrogen, or nuclear fusion. Worse, we are dependent on foreign suppliers of oil that are friendly to us only as long as we are able to pay.

We are a people who have forgotten that the historical strength of our democracy has always been our rich diversity as a people living together, in harmony, under the rule of law. Today we govern ourselves with a two-party system in which loyal opposition has given way to enmity and distrust to such an extent that each side feels the other is out to destroy America.

We must understand that the problems of the Twenty-first Century are of such magnitude that the politics of the past are no longer adequate to meet our needs. We must find fresh solutions that satisfy the needs of the masses on the one hand and that foster a strong economy on the other. We need the kind of leadership that will demand that its people replace a rampant entitlement mentality with an abundance mentality centered on the belief that there is enough for everyone as long as each citizen is willing to give one hundred percent of themselves through hard work and participatory citizenship.

We need leadership that understands that we cannot preserve our nation’s status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world just because we think it is our right and privilege.

We are like a baseball or football team that has been in first place for so long we have forgotten what it took to rise to the top and we have become complacent. Right now, people of other nations, with China and Russia leading the way, are working hard to challenge our nation’s status. Just as importantly, the children of China and other nations are working hard to gain what they believe is an educational advantage that will seal the deal for their people and economy in the Twenty-first Century and beyond. That they are outperforming American children by a wide margin is simply unacceptable and we must answer the bell.

It is unreasonable to think that one nation will be able to dominate the future the way America has dominated the past but if we want a place at the head table, we have to elevate our game. To do so, we must reunite as a people and demand the best from ourselves, from our fellow Americans, from our children, and from our political leadership. We can ill afford to waste a minute let alone a generation.

Stand up, toe the mark, and get moving while we can still see the coat tails of our competitors. We need positive leadership and it must start with each and every one of us. That means me and it means you!