The Hawkins Model: An Updated Version

THE HAWKINS MODEL

 Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure.

By Mel Hawkins

Version dated: September, 2018

 

A Process is Just a Process

Teaching children in a classroom is a process of human design, no different than any other production, assembly, service-delivery process, or even a software program. It is a logical construct engineered to produce certain outcomes.

We are guided by the principle that when a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes, no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is broken and must be reinvented. The education process in our public schools must be tasked, organized, staffed, and resourced in such a way that every child leaves school with a quality education. It is such an education that gives them meaningful choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning and to provide for themselves and their families. The education process must help students discover their potential and help them develop that potential and begin taking ownership of the pursuit of their dreams and ambitions.

The existing education process in use in public schools is structured like a competition in which some students win and others lose. It is a rigid process that requires teachers and schools to conform to its structure and organization. It is our belief that the structure and organization of teachers, students, and schools must be driven by the purpose for which schools and teachers exist: “To help all children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed.”

I challenge educators to examine the model you are about to read with an open mind, seeking to understand how it could work and not in search of reasons why it will not.  My hope is that this model will stimulate your imagination and open your heart and mind not only to the deficiencies of the existing education process but also to the limitless possibilities of a model created for you.

The model has been titled, the Hawkins Model, so I can retain the right of authorship. The Hawkins Model will be offered to public and parochial schools, free of charge. The only compensation I expect to receive would be royalties on the sale of my new book, that will be released, later this year, with the working title, The Hawkins Model: Public Education Reinvented, One Success at a Time!

This work will replace Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, published in 2013 through Createspace. Thanks to the wonderful professional educators who support one another and share ideas through social media, I have learned a great deal in the past five years. While I believe the original book is worth a reader’s time and consideration, I have discovered many new ideas and have abandoned others.

My final advice to prospective readers is to consider that positive advocacy for a new idea or solution is a far more effective means of driving positive change than complaints and protests. The latter are like fireworks. They are exciting, stimulating, and even inspiring, but when the last echoes fade into the night sky and the smoke has dissipated, they are quickly forgotten. Only ideas and solutions, promoted through the advocacy of positive leaders working together, have an opportunity to become real and have a lasting impact on the world.

 

Discarding the Past

What public school teachers and administrators will think when they first review my model is, “this will not work in my classroom(s),” and, of course, they are correct. This is exactly my point. In the current education process, it takes an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and principals to implement innovative ideas and solutions that will endure and not be ground to dust by the unrelenting glacial power of the existing education process. It is my assertion that no educator can be satisfied, no matter how successful their own school, until every school is focused on the success of every student.

We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.

 

Two Fundamental Truths

 There are two fundamental truths that are central to our purpose and every detail of the education model you are about to read has been designed to serve those truths.

 

Relationships

The first truth is that academic success is a function of the quality of the relationships between teachers, students, and parents. Children who feel a close personal relationship with their teacher, the kind that many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher(s), almost always give their best effort and that proves to be true throughout one’s whole life. In fact, is there any time in our lives when close relationships with other human beings are not the most important source of our happiness and well-being?

The current education process is not structured to facilitate those relationships for more than a given school year, if it happens at all. Neither is it an expectation on which teacher performance will be evaluated. That those special relationships that do develop are severed, routinely, at the end of a school year illustrates that the most important variable in the education equation is not even a priority in the education process in schools, today.

Of great concern is the tendency of some education reformers to denigrate the importance of teachers. We reject this notion, categorically.

In the Hawkins Model, nothing is more important to the success of kids than enduring relationships with caring teachers. Add concerned parents to the equation and students will soar.

 

Learning is the only thing that counts

The second truth is that the only thing that matters is that children learn as much as they can at their own best speed. One would think this would be obvious but all students in schools, today, are not given the same opportunity to succeed. The process is structured to move children along an identical path, at the same pace. At the end of the lesson, we assign a grade to each child’s performance, record it in our grade books, and move on to a new lesson; our job on the previous lesson, completed; or so we believe. At the end of the school year, we move all but a few on to the next grade where new teachers will try to get to know them and move them and their new classmates along the next measured segment of the path delineated by state academic standards. We then, repeat this process in succeeding years as we are gradually conditioned to tolerate a certain level of failure. It is difficult not to become inured to the failure of our students.

The model you are about to examine has been engineered to insure no child is pushed on to a new lesson until they understand and can demonstrate mastery on the current lesson. If a child has not learned a given lesson the job of educators is incomplete. The expectation must be that educators keep working with the child until they can demonstrate an acceptable level of mastery; until our students have learned. Nothing else matters. We must not be satisfied, however, that a student was able to pass a test. The true measure of learning is one’s ability to apply that skill or knowledge in real life situations. Simply stated, if a child cannot use a skill or knowledge they have not learned it, and this has devastating consequences with respect to the child’s ability to become the best version of themselves.

At the same time, the last thing we want to do is put a child in a situation in which they feel pressured to perform. Learning is supposed to be fun. It is one of the great ironies of life that many children perceive learning to be fun until they start school. Learning can be fun in any environment if success in learning is both assured and celebrated. We want children to believe in their hearts that learning is a great adventure. We want it to be a great adventure for teachers, as well.

This requires that we change what we teach. We must teach more than academic subject matter and we must teach the whole child. We want to teach applied academics–how to use what they learn in the real world. We want to teach them how to think creatively; how to solve problems; how to communicate effectively using all media; and, how to work together with other people both individually and as members of a team. We want them to embrace technology and use their imaginations to take on the challenges facing both the planet Earth and human society. We also want them to learn how to be kind; how to have an open mind and be non-judgmental. We want to teach them how to participate in their own governance and to respect the rights and beliefs of individual human beings and the principles of democracy. We want them to be good citizens who accept responsibility for their actions and their communities. We want to teach the principles of positive leadership, of organizational dynamics (people working together in organizations), and systems thinking, which is the process of bringing about systemic changes. Finally, we want to teach them to value life, family, and community.

Where our students will end up in life will be determined by their individual potential, their interests, how much they learn, and how hard they are willing to work. If they leave school with few, if any, choices about what to do with their lives then not only have they failed, we have failed them.

 

The Hawkins Model

 

Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose

The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives to find joy and meaning. We want them to be able to think creatively. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance and be able to make informed choices with respect to significant issues of the day.

The welfare and success of all students must be a teacher’s over-riding priority and the instructional process, and the very structure of the environment, must be molded to serve that purpose with the same dedication aircraft engineers use to design the cockpit to support and enable every function a pilot will be called upon to perform.

An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them that success is a process. Success and winning are not accomplishments rather they are a life-long process of getting the most out of one’s life by learning from one’s experiences; both mistakes and successes.

 

Step 2 – Objectives and Expectations

Our objective as educators is to help children learn as much as they are able, as fast as they are able, beginning at that point on the learning preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. Each school must be a “No Failure Zone!”

It is our expectation that:

  • Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn every lesson;
  • They learn that mistakes are learning opportunities and that they should never give up on themselves;
  • Success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;
  • We will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;
  • Students must learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations that include subsequent lessons, state competency examinations, and life in a democratic society;
  • There are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule; and, finally,
  • Learning is an adventure of discovery.

 

Education is not a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of failure. No child should be asked to keep up with their classmates and no child should be asked to wait for classmates to catch up.

 

Step 3 – What do children need to learn?

Let us summarize all the things children need if they are to learn:

  • A close personal relationship with one or more qualified teachers;
  • The involvement and support of parents/guardians in partnership with teachers;
  • To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;
  • An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements and where disadvantaged students receive accommodations appropriate to their disadvantage much as we do for special needs students;
  • Access, under guidance of their teachers, to leading edge methodologies, approaches, and technologies; from STEM to stern;
  • Our patient time and attention;
  • A stable and safe environment for the long term;
  • The freedom to explore the world and pursue their own interests as well as the curriculum developed for them;
  • To learn how to be successful and they need to know that success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way on the basis of what they learn from experience; and,
  • To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win.

 

As educators, we must understand that while cutting-edge technology may seem threatening to us, it will be an integral part of the world in which our children must, someday, thrive. Educators are encouraged to think of their smart phones as an example of something that was initially intimidating but has become an integral part of our lives. Notwithstanding that everything in life has tradeoffs, think about how our smart phones have benefited us in our daily lives.

 

Step 4 – Where do we begin?

We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted public school districts and using them as a test case and, also, by soliciting the support of local advocacy groups that represent the people residing in a given school’s boundaries. We stress our focus on public schools because this is the only place we can attend to the needs of all our nation’s children. When something works in public education, it will find its way into private, parochial, and charter schools but the converse is not true.

People in the communities to be targeted will be skeptical. They have spent a lifetime hearing false promises and enduring their own difficulties in school. We will need the help of a community’s leaders to convince people that this is something special that will truly give their children a path out of poverty. After sharing our objectives with the community, our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and what we now refer to as first through fifth grade. Our objective will be to meet each child at the unique point on an academic preparedness continuum where we find them on day one. From that unique point of departure, our objective is to help each child move forward on their unique path at their own best speed.

 

Step 5 – Organization and structure

 We will eliminate references to grades K through 12 as well as any other arbitrary schedules in the educational process and replace those grades with three phases of a child’s primary and secondary education:

  • Elementary/Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)
  • Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)
  • Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)

 

While addressing pre-school learning is not within our purview, what we will be doing will bring the importance of pre-school learning and development into sharper focus. The primary focus of public schools, however, must be on the children who stand before us.

It is understood that many school districts have divided elementary schools into smaller segments, e.g. K to 2, 3 to 5, etc. While these segments could be preserved in our proposed education model, we would ask administrators and policy makers to remember that one of our core objectives will be to sustain the relationships between children and their teachers and between students and their classmates for as long as possible.

 

Step 6 – Teaching teams

We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15, meaning not more than 45 students assigned to a team of three teachers. To optimize our chances for success we would solicit volunteers from among the school corporation’s most capable and most innovative teachers. We want teachers who will be proud to be part of something new and excited by the opportunity. It is our belief that while modifications to existing classrooms might be nice they are not essential.

Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance and commitment than management. Individuals who are marginal performers and evidence low levels of commitment may be able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person is held accountable by the team.

Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with a student, another member of the team can step in, thus increasing the probability that every student will find a teacher with whom they can bond. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents as we triple the likelihood that a parent will find a teacher with whom they feel comfortable.

Finally, teams provide much more stability. If one team member is off due to illness or other reasons, the team is still able to maintain its equilibrium, even given the insertion of a substitute or replacement.

 

Step 7- Optimizing teaching staff

If a school has teacher aide slots for elementary classrooms, we recommend that the funds allocated for such positions be redirected to paying for additional teachers. Striving to optimize teacher resources is a top priority and if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose, however capable they may be. Qualified teachers are an essential variable.

Like the practice of medicine, teaching is an uncertain science. Physicians practice medicine and they are challenged to learn, relentlessly. Just like their students, practice is an integral part of a teacher’s learning process and provides one with opportunities to learn from the outcomes we produce, whether positive or negative.

 

Step 8 – Duration and stability

Students will remain together as a group and will be assigned to the same teaching team throughout their full elementary/primary academic phase. Eventually, that model will be employed as students move from the elementary/primary phase to the middle school and high school phases.

Close personal relations with teachers and their students, in a safe environment, can best be accomplished by keeping them together over a period of years. Why would we want to break up relationships between teachers and students because the calendar changes? We are guided by the adage that “the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.” Sometimes, it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have the relationship severed at the end of a school year, which is nothing more than a designated point on an arbitrary calendar.

These types of long-term relationships also increase the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers. Finally, we believe keeping students together in such an intimate environment will strengthen the bonds between classmates and have a positive impact on both the incidence of bullying and our ability to respond to such incidents.

 

Step 9 – Reaching out to Parents

Reaching out to parents must be a high priority. By partnering with their child’s teachers, the parent can play an important part in helping the child succeed.  There is a high expectation that, as students begin to experience success, their parents/guardians will begin to see a difference in their children, at home. Success is contagious, even for those of us on the sidelines. It is our hope that the desire to share in and help celebrate their son or daughter’s success will lure even the most skeptical parents into partnerships with their child’s teachers.

We also know that when we form close relationships with parents we also get to know their families. This creates a real opportunity to intervene, if there are younger children in the home, to help insure that they enjoy improved enrichment opportunities thus optimizing their academic preparedness. With each parent we pull into the process, we expand our presence in the community and raise awareness that our new education model is a special opportunity.

 

Step 10 – Assessment and tailored academic plan

Select an appropriate assessment process/tool and utilize it to determine the level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school. We will then utilize what we learn to create a tailored academic plan to meet each student’s unique needs.

We know that the disparity with respect to academic preparedness of students spans the full spectrum. We also know that children have different learning styles. What educators must do is to recognize that these differences exist and do their best to accommodate the unique style, potential, and interests of their students.

 

Step 11 – The learning process

Academic Standards

Academic standards have been established by most states and on a nation-wide level there is “Common Core.” These standards drive expectations of schools, teachers, and their students and they also drive the high-stakes testing that assesses performance against those standards. While assessing standards and curricula is not my area of expertise, the other area of concern is the expectation that students are all expected to be at the same place at the end of a school year. Given that students have different starting points and that they are headed for more than just one destination, such expectations set millions of kids up for failure.

As new approaches to teaching children using experiential learning methodologies gain popularity, the greater the disconnect will be between standards and what kids truly need. Education leaders and policy makers must begin to re-evaluate the efficacy of existing standards.

Most of us would agree that there are foundational academic skills upon which a diverse population of young people can build different lives. The common denominator, however, is no longer limited to being able to read and write and to have basic math and science skills, although these are essential. Our challenge is to prepare children for life, not test-taking, and this demands that we find new and better ways to help kids learn by doing. Critical skills such as creative thinking, communication, team work, problem-solving, and the ability to understand and utilize technology will be as essential to their success as reading, writing, and math skills. The compelling need to be better stewards of our environment will make science and engineering more important than ever. As citizens of the 21st Century, our students must not only be able to utilize what they learn they must be able to adapt to the accelerating speed of obsolescence.

Because of the disparity in the academic preparedness of children arriving for their first day of school, we need to help children progress along a tailored academic path from their unique starting point and we must also be helping them assume ever greater responsibility for their own growth and development. As their interests and aptitudes evolve they must begin charting their own futures, with the help of caring teachers. The process for helping kids develop mastery over an ever-widening range of subject matter must be adaptive and involve, in some form:

  1. Presentation, appropriate to the subject matter, through utilization the full spectrum of media, methodology, and technology;
  2. Practice and review, giving the student as much time as they require to learn from their mistakes;
  3. Assessment of their ability to demonstrate mastery over subject matter, which we define as the ability to utilize it in the real world. When that level of mastery is quantifiable, such as a grade on a test or other instrument of measurement, the target will be minimum of 85 percent;
  4. The expectation that no child will be pushed ahead before they are able to utilize what they have learned even if that means starting over using other means and approaches; and,
  5. A verification assessment, in each subject area, to confirm retention of subject area mastery at a point in the near future, such as 6 to 8 weeks.

 

If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success must be celebrated and, also, formally documented. Students are, then, ready to move on to the next steps on their unique academic path in a given subject area. It is envisioned that such formal documentation will, someday, replace the need for standardized competency exams given once a year.

One of our Twitter colleagues, @nkgalpal, reminded us that students can also play a vital role in helping classmates who may be struggling on a given lesson or subject area.  Educators have long recognized that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. This suggests that more advanced students benefit as much or more as the classmates they have an opportunity to help. Not only does this enhance the level and quality of learning that takes place it also strengthens the bonds between students.

We want our classrooms to function like a family or like an athletic team in which members have formed the strong bonds that result from dedication to shared purpose and objectives; sharing the demanding work required in practices; cheering for and supporting their classmates; and shared celebration of success in overcoming their academic challenges. Think about how many times you have seen starters, at the end of a basketball game, cheer excitedly for teammates who work hard in practice but rarely get an opportunity to make a basket, a steal, rebound, or an assist in an actual game. These bonds are enduring.

 

Character, Creativity, Imagination, Service, and Civic Responsibility

As we have noted, our objective as educators extends beyond subject matter mastery. Even when character, creativity, imagination, service and civic responsibility are covered in the academic standards of some jurisdictions, they are easily forgotten in challenging environments and situations, particularly in our era of high-stakes testing.

We suggest that these things are interdependent. Think of subject matter mastery as laying a foundation upon which character, genius, and individuality will be built.  An individual’s ability to explore and create is very much, if not always, a function of fundamental knowledge and skill sets.

 

Step 12 – State-of-the-Art technology and tools of success

Provide each student and teacher with appropriate technology with which to work. We must be willing and able to utilize state-of-the-art technological tools, as they evolve, to help teachers teach and kids learn. Among other things, this requires that teachers be willing to relinquish their reticence.

No matter what some education reformers might say, technology will not and cannot replace teachers. This education model is premised upon the primacy of teachers in the education equation. Technology can and will empower teachers, however. The world is becoming and will continue to become more technology-driven than it is today, and this trend will only accelerate and expand in scope.

Our children will live, work, and rear their own families in a technological world that surpasses anything most of us can imagine. Our job is to prepare students for that future, not find ways to avoid it because of our own fear and reluctance.

There are wonderful digital tools on the market but many of them are specialized to the extent that it is unlikely they will provide the full range of support teachers and students need. We are seeking something comparable to an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that is real-time, cloud-based, and integrated with 360-degree feedback capability. Such technology must be relieve teachers of all classroom management responsibilities, so they can be devoted, optimally, to relationship building and teaching.

It is envisioned that, as the scope of the potential market for such a product begins to reveal itself, developers of technology solutions will be competing aggressively to capture sustainable market share. Astute providers of such solutions will work closely with their prospective customers to ensure satisfaction.

A system must help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels, in various subject areas, utilizing an array of resources to meet the needs of a diverse student population.  Students will be on a unique path even though many of the paths may be parallel.

Software must be able to:

  • Keep attendance records;
  • Manage various subject areas;
  • Help teachers and students through lesson presentations;
  • Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative;
  • Permit teacher to enter qualitative assessments of performance;
  • Identify areas that need review and more practice;
  • Signal readiness for Mastery Quizzes;
  • Grade and record the results of quizzes and assignments and then direct students onward to a subsequent lesson module or back for more work on current modules;
  • Celebrate success much like a video game;
  • Signal the teachers at every step of the way;
  • Recommend when it is time for a Verification Mastery Quiz;
  • Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record; and,
  • Give students the freedom to pursue their interests, as they strive to explore the universe.

 

Our objective is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed along their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include teaching, coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction must also include time spent with students’ parents.

 

Step 13 – No Failure and No waiting

No student is to be pushed to the next lesson until they have mastered the current lesson as success on one lesson dramatically improves the readiness for success on subsequent lessons. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated that they are ready to move on will be asked to wait for classmates to catch up. Every student moves forward at the best speed of which they are capable. This creates opportunities for students to move ahead on their own initiative and take ownership of their own adventure of discovery even if it means teachers must scurry to keep up.

It also means that no student will experience the humiliation of failure.The ultimate mission of education is to put the fun back in learning and teaching. Success is what drives motivation, commitment, and fun. If all we ever do is lose when playing a game, it is only a matter of time until we avoid playing.

Success is a process of applying what we learn from our experiences, whether successful or unsuccessful. The more we succeed, the more confident we become and the more confident we become, the more motivated we are to learn and grow. As children gain confidence in their ability to control the outcomes in their lives, their self-esteem is strengthened and their ability to overcome obstacles, including discrimination, is enhanced.

Educators are challenged to understand that the single greatest flaw in education, both public and private, is its acceptance of failure on the part of our students. Nothing destroys motivation to learn and creates an atmosphere of hopelessness as much as repeated failure. The fact that we permit children to fail is unconscionable and inexcusable.

In our definition, “failure” and “making mistakes” are not the same thing. We all make mistakes. Mistakes become failure only when students are allowed or are required to stop trying before they come to understand. This happens every time we ask a child to move on to a new lesson before they are ready and every time teachers are asked to record an unsatisfactory grade in their books. This type of failure not only deprives children of an opportunity to experience success, it robs them of the essential knowledge and skills they will need to be successful on subsequent lessons, and to live productive and meaningful lives.

Children must be able to use what they have learned in “real-life” situations. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) defines “proficiency” as:

“having a demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” [The emphasis is mine.]

Anything less than proficient is unacceptable and that includes “approaching proficiency.” Approaching proficiency is a good thing only if a student subsequently  becomes proficient. The work of our teachers and schools is not complete until students have actually achieve “proficiency.”

 

Step 14 – the Arts and Exercise

We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must be given the opportunity to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:

  • Develop relationships with other teachers;
  • Exercise their young bodies;
  • Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art; and,
  • Interact with children from other classes.

 

Step 15 – Performance Management and Metrics

Identifying how performance against objectives will be measured is a vital part of any operational plan because how we keep score determines how the game will be played. We want teachers and administrators to be rewarded for the quality of the outcomes they produce. Our objective is to measure how effectively teachers are helping kids learn and be able to apply what they have learned in real-life situations.

Students will be expected to pass not only a Mastery Quiz (MQ) with a score of 85 percent or better before moving on to subsequent lessons, but also a Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) that will be administered to students 6 to 8 weeks after passing the MQ. The purpose of the VMQ is to ensure that students have retained what the have learned and are able to utilize that knowledge and/or skills in real life situations. This can best be measured by determining the percentage of students who pass their VMQ on the first attempt. The higher the percentage of passage the better the performance of teachers.

We are not expecting perfection, however. Certainly a few students will not pass their VMQs, signaling that they were not ready. While we want to minimize such occurrences, teachers will not suffer consequences. We must ensure that “pace of learning” does not replace “understanding” as the objective of teachers or the education process. The failure of a VMQ by a student is nothing more than an opportunity for teachers to learn from their disappointing outcomes.

 

Step 16 – High Stakes Testing

The performance of teachers will not be evaluated on the results of high stakes testing. We do not want teachers to feel pressured to move students along before they are ready. Every student who passes a VMQ will be demonstrating that they were, indeed, ready.

High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be irrelevant and obsolete. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them. If students are truly learning, their ability to utilize what they have learned will be reflected in competency exam results. Such exams are, after all, nothing more than a real-life opportunity to apply what one has learned.

 

Step 17 – Stability and Adaptability

We will not concern ourselves with the arrival of new students or the departure of students during the process or with teachers who may need to be replaced, for whatever reason. These events will occur, and we will deal with them when necessary. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind that there are no perfect systems, but the best and most successful systems are the ones that allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.

 

Step 18 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment

We must stress that winning organizations are driven by operating systems in which every single event or activity serves the mission. When we tinker with bits and pieces of an operation out of context with the system and its purpose, we end up with a system that looks very much like the educational process we have today. It will be a system that simply cannot deliver the outcomes that we want because there are components that work at cross purposes with the mission.

We are striving to create an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is inconsequential in the long run and in the big picture, much like it is inconsequential if it takes a child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her playmates. Once children learn they all derive benefit from the knowledge gained.

 

Step 19 – The Power of positive leaders

As with any human endeavor, positive leadership is crucial. Administrators at every level, whether superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, or assistant principals, must be trained to be more than administrators. They must be powerful positive leaders who understand that their success is a function of both their ability to keep their organizations focused on purpose and the quality of leadership they provide to their people. The bottom line is that the over-riding priority of positive leaders is to help their people be successful at every level of their organization and its supply chain; which includes students, parents, and the community.

Education departments in our colleges and universities must ensure that the study of leadership is a core component in the education of school administrators, at every level. We must view them as leaders, not administrators.

 

Step 20 – Special Needs

At anytime along the way, from initial assessment and beyond, if a child is determined to have special needs they will be offered additional resources, much as happens in our schools, today.

 

Summary and Conclusions

The only justification for preserving the status quo in public education would be if we truly believed the children who fail are incapable of learning. If, on the other hand, we believe all children can learn, we are compelled to act.

The fundamental premise of the Hawkins Model is that all children can learn if given the opportunity and if they feel safe and secure. The fact that we have clung for so long to an ineffectual educational process that sets kids up for failure and humiliation is unfathomable. Refusal to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality is inexcusable.

Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes they are seeking, the model can be implemented in every school in the district and can be modified to fit the needs of students as they move on to middle school and high school.

The success of this model will also drive the need for revolutionary change in our institutions of higher learning. Colleges, universities, community colleges, technical schools, and vocational education programs must be prepared to reinvent themselves as the needs of their students will have changed exponentially.

 

All Kids Can Learn but Many Are Sure to Fail If We Fail to Help Them

Every day that we delay addressing the problems of public education in America more kids give up on themselves because they have fallen so far behind their classmates that they have no hope that they will ever catch up.

I see these young men and women as seniors in high school or shortly after they finish high school when they show up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). They are hoping to find a way to make a life for themselves by enlisting in the Armed Services. At the end of the test session, they walk out of the room with an envelope in their hands and their heads hanging low. In the envelope are the results of their ASVAB that show they have scored below the minimum score of 31 out of a possible 99, which is the threshold for enlistment eligibility.

So far this year, 25 percent of the candidates to whom I have administered ASVAB have scored below 31, and half of those score below 20. A score of less than 20 indicates a high probability that individuals are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Two-thirds of the young people who scored below 31 were African-American. Not only do these young American men and women not qualify for enlistment, they will also fail to qualify for all but the most menial and lowest-paying jobs in their community. In all likelihood, the young African-American men will return to their poor urban or rural communities where many will to turn to gangs, crime, and or drugs. Some will be killed during commission of a crime or as a result of black on black violence. Far too many will end up in a state penitentiary. The young woman will most likely get pregnant and begin raising their own children in the same cycle of failure and poverty in which they were reared.

All of the young men and women who scored below 31 are victims of flawed educational process in which they started out behind and found it impossible to catch up with their classmates. The sad truth is that they never had a chance and they are left with very few choices in life. There are millions of other young children in public schools all over the U.S. who are destined to the same fate.

Our systems of public education are like any other system that has lost focus on its purpose and has been allowed to deteriorate over time. Somewhere along the line, as the society-at-large became exponentially more complex, our systems of public education began to view accelerating levels of failure as normal and acceptable.

We must stop blaming poverty and recognize that poverty is a consequence of our flawed educational process not the cause of it. We must stop blaming our teachers and schools that are doing the best they can under a flawed educational process that is neither structured nor tasked to help children who show up for school with a range of “academic preparedness deficiencies.” It is a system that allows an unacceptable percentage of students to fail while contributing to the burnout of a growing population of teachers; men and women who have lost faith in the profession they chose with youthful enthusiasm and lofty purpose.

We must stop educational reformers who have no clue about the damage they do when they siphon off tax dollars of which our most challenged schools, teachers, and students are in desperate need. We must not allow them to further weaken the ties between our public schools and the communities they exist to serve, while destroying the hope of students and teachers, alike.

In their defensive postures, professional educators like to scoff at the results of the Nation’s Report Card, presented by the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), which provides documented evidence that public education in America is in a state of unacceptable crisis.

The irony is that professional educators would be well-advised to embrace the findings of the Nation’s Report Card as verifiable proof that the educational process, with which teachers are asked to do their important work, is fatally thawed.

Here is a quick summary of the NAEP’s findings for 20131, showing the percentage of American students whose performance is measured to be below or above “Proficient.” The Achievement Levels identified by the NAEP are “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.

NAEP defines “Basic” as: “denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade assessed.”

NAEP defines “Proficient” as: “representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

1 The italics are mine. NAEP data can be accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/stateprofiles/sresult.asp?mode=full&displaycat=7&s1=18

Average Scale Scores
8th grade math: 67% Below Proficient; 33 Proficient +
8th grade reading: 71% Below Proficient; 29% Proficient +
8th grade science: 73% Below Proficient; 27% Proficient +
8th grade writing: 69% Below Proficient; 31% Proficient +

For purposes of this article, the author identifies “Proficient” as the minimum acceptable level of achievement for our students for the simple reason that if a student has achieved only partial mastery of the subject matter and is unable to apply what they have learned to real-world situations they our job is not finished.

Clearly, the goal of education must be that students be able to “demonstrate competency” over the subject matter and they must also be able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations,” which would include subsequent lessons within a subject area.

How long do we allow roughly 70 percent of American students, a disproportionate percentage of which are black and other minorities, to be less than “proficient” before we say this in unacceptable? How long can we allow public school educators to claim that American public education is better than ever? How long can we allow the educational reform movement’s focus on privatization and standardized testing to abandon our nation’s most vulnerable students and school districts and hurt these kids, their teachers, and their communities?

It does not have to be this way! Through a straightforward application of “systems thinking” and organizational principles we can alter this reality for all time.

For an overview of my book and its recommendations, I invite the reader to check out my blog post of October 26, 2015, which is a white paper entitled, “Breaking Down the Cycles of Failure and Poverty:
Making Public Education Work for All Students Irrespective of Relative Affluence or the Color of Their Skin.”

At the end of this post, I have provided an implementation outline that will show just how simple it would be reinvent the educational process at work in American public schools. It is a model that requires no legislative action and can be implemented by local school districts, acting on their own authority.

Finally, the reader is also encouraged to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America and my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.

Implementation Outline for Educational Model in Which There Is Only Success and No Failure

Submitted by: Mel Hawkins, BA, MSEd, MPA

April 18, 2016

Discarding the Past

We commence this implementation process by rejecting our current educational process in which some level of failure is tolerated. We reject failure, absolutely.

It understood that most public school teachers and schools believe they work hard to make sure that every child learns and that no child gets left behind. The reality, however, is that each year children are moved from grade to grade who are behind their classmates. Each and every year thereafter they fall a little further behind until they lose all hope that they can ever catch up.

That this occurs is not the fault of teachers rather it is a flaw in a structure that does not provide each teacher with the time and resources they need to teach and does not provide each and every child with the time and support they need to learn. We cannot alter those unfortunate outcomes until we alter the internal logic of the educational process and also the structure that exists to support that process.

What we offer is a new reality that can benefit every child in America and that can transform public education.

Step 1 – Clarifying Mission and Purpose

The purpose of an education is to prepare children to be responsible and productive citizens who have a wide menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find joy and meaning. As citizens of a democracy, we want them to participate in their own governance, and be able to make informed choices with respect to the important issues of the day.

Note: An education must teach children more than facts and knowledge, it must teach them that success is a process. Success and winning are not accomplishments rather they are a life-long process of getting the most out of one’s life.

Step 2 – Objectives and Expectations

Our objective as educators is to help children learn as much as they are able, as fast as they are able, beginning at that point on the learning preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. Our schools must be a “No Failure Zone!”

It is our expectation that:

• Every child will be given whatever time and attention they need to learn each and every lesson;

• We teach children that success is a process that must be learned and that all of our students can be successful;

• That success will be measured against a child’s own past performance and not the performance of other children;

• That we will strive for subject mastery and that the threshold for mastery is a score of 85 percent or better on mastery assessments;

• That students will learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real life situations

• That there are no arbitrary schedules or time limits and that all students are on their own unique schedule.

Note: Education is not a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest and there is no such thing as an acceptable level of failure. Our task is to create a model of an educational process that rejects failure and where the only thing that matters is that children learn.

Step 3 – What do children need In order to truly learn?

Children Need:

• To start at the exact point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door;

• A close personal relationship with one or more teachers;

• Our patient time and attention;

• A stable and safe environment for the long term;

• To learn that mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities that come only when we extend ourselves beyond our zones of comfort;

• To learn how to be successful and they need to know that success and winning are nothing more than a process of striving toward one’s goal and making adjustments along the way on the basis of what they learn from their mistakes.

• To experience success and winning and to celebrate every success and every win:

• An academic plan tailored to their unique requirements.

• The involvement and support of their parents or guardians.


Step 4 – Where do we begin?

We begin by selecting the lowest performing elementary schools in any of our targeted districts and use them as a test case.

Note: Our primary agenda is to focus on children who are starting kindergarten and all of the action items are presented with that assumption. If a school district’s commitment to this model is sufficiently high, however, there is no reason why we could not, similarly, organize students in the higher elementary grades in the same manner. Doing so creates additional challenges because the farther along children have been pushed, the further behind they will be. If we commence with these older children, it still requires that we know where they are in terms of their academic development in each subject area, and then that we tailor a plan to begin the process of starting over with that unique student. Teachers will have less time to help these kids play catch up but, clearly, these students will need all the help they can get before they move on to the middle school phase.

Step 5 – Organization and structure

We will eliminate references to grades k through 12 as well as any other arbitrary schedules in the educational process and replace those grades with three phases of a child’s primary and secondary education:

• Elementary/or Primary Phase (formerly grades K through 5)

• Middle School Phase (formerly grades 6 through 8)

• Secondary Phase (formerly grades 9 through 12)

Note: We chose Kindergarten rather than first grade for our starting point because the sooner we intervene in the lives of our students, the better. Part of the problem in disadvantaged communities is that children live in an environment in which intellectual and emotional enrichment opportunities are few in number. The longer a child is left in such an environment the further behind they will be.

Step 6- Teaching teams

We will rely on teams of 3 teachers with a teacher to student ratio no greater than 1:15

Note: Teams have proven beneficial in business and industry for a long time and they have a clear record of high levels of productivity and excellence. Even in strong union environments in manufacturing venues, teams often prove more effective in dealing with subpar performance or commitment than management. In large work groups, marginal performers and those with low levels of commitment are able to hide in the crowd. Within a team setting, there is no place to hide and each person his held accountable by the team.

Teaching teams have the added advantage that if one teacher is having difficulty with any individual student, another member of the team can step in. Teams will also make it easier to develop a rapport with parents.

Teams also provide much more stability. If one team member is off due to illness or other reasons, the team is still able to maintain its equilibrium, even given the insertion of a substitute.

If a school has teacher aide slots for this age group, we will recommend that the funds allocated for such positions be redirected to paying for additional teachers. Striving to optimize teacher resources is a top priority and if we are utilizing the proper tools, aides will not serve our purpose.

Step 7 – Duration and stability

Students will remain together as a group and will be assigned to the same teaching team throughout their full elementary/primary academic phase.

Note: Close personal relations with teachers and other students, in a safe environment, can best be accomplished by keeping them together over a period of years. Why would we want to break up relationships between teachers and students because the calendar changes. Sometimes it takes teachers most of the year to bond with some of their most challenging students only to have it brought to a halt at the end of a school year.

This type of long-term relationships also enhances the likelihood that parents can be pulled into the educational process as partners with their children’s teachers.

Step 8 – Reaching out to Parents

Reaching out to parents must be a high priority.

Note: We know that students do better when they are supported by their parents and when parents and teachers are working together as a partners behind a united front. We also know that when we form close relationships with parents we also get to know their families. This creates a real opportunity to intervene if there are younger children in the home to help insure that they enjoy improved enrichment opportunities.

Step 9 – Assessment and tailored academic plan

Select an appropriate assessment tool and utilize it to determine the level of academic preparedness of each child when they arrive at our door for their first day of school. We will then utilize what we learn from that assessment to create a tailored academic plan for each and every student based on where they are and pursuant to the academic standards established in that state.

Step 10 – The learning process

From their unique starting point, we will begin moving our students along their tailored academic plan, one lesson module per subject at a time. The learning process will be:

• Lesson presentation

• Practice

• Review

• Mastery Quiz (MQ)

• Verification Master Quiz (VMQ)

Note: Teachers can spend as much time as necessary on any of the steps in the process and can even go back to re-present a lesson using other methods and resources. Each review gives teachers the opportunity to help children learn from the mistakes they made on practice assignments and on unsuccessful quizzes. When the student’s success on practice assignments suggests they are ready, they can move on to the MQ. If the student scores 85 percent or better, their success can be celebrated and they are ready to move on to the next lesson. If not, the teacher can recycle back through all or part of the learning process until the student is able to demonstrate mastery.

Step 11 – State-of-the-Art tools of success

Provide each student and teacher with a personal tablet with which to work.

Utilize technology to help teachers teach, and kids learn with the Khan Academy’s program as but one example. The tool must also help the teacher manage the process as they will have students working at multiple levels. Students are all on a unique path even though they may often be parallel paths. Software must be able to:

Keep attendance records,
Manage various subject areas,
Help teachers and students through lesson presentations,
Generate practice assignments and grade them if they are quantitative,
Permit teacher to enter qualitative results generated by them,
Identify areas that need review and more practice,
Signal readiness for MQ,
Grade and record results of quiz and direct student on to next lesson module or back for more work on current module,
Celebrate success much like a video game,
Signal the teachers at every step of the way,
Recommend when it is time for VMQ, and
Document Mastery achievements as verified by VMQ as part of the student’s permanent record.

Note: The purpose of the software is to empower teachers so their time can be devoted to meaningful interaction with each and every student as they proceed on their tailored academic journey. Meaningful interaction will include coaching, mentoring, consoling, encouraging, nurturing, playing, and celebration. That interaction may also include time spent with students’ parents.

Whenever it is deemed advantageous, we believe there is also great value in group learning sessions, projects and interaction.

Step 12 – No Failure and No waiting

No student is to be pushed to the next lesson until they have mastered the current lesson as success on one lesson dramatically improves the readiness for success on subsequent lessons. Similarly, no student who has demonstrated that they are ready to move on will be asked to wait for classmates to catch up. Every student moves forward at the best speed of which they are capable.

The beauty of this approach is that students can progress at their own speed, even if that means charging ahead with teachers rushing to keep up. It also means that no student will feel pressured to move faster than they are able nor will they experience the humiliation of failure.

Step 13 – Verify and document mastery

The Verification Master Quiz (VMQ) will occur a few lessons later as the purpose is to assure that the child has retained what they have learned and are able to utilize it on future lessons. Ultimately, if the child cannot utilize what they have learned in real-life situations they have not learned it and, therefore, our job on that lesson is not completed. Once verified, mastery is documented as part of the student’s permanent record.

Step 14 – High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing using state competency exams will not disappear until they have been proven to be obsolete. Teachers and students should spend no time worrying about them or preparing for them. If students are truly learning, their ability to utilize what they have learned will be reflected in competency exam results. Such exams are, after all, nothing more than a real-life opportunity to apply what one has learned.

Note: Ask yourself “Who would we predict to perform better on a competency exam given in the second semester of what we currently refer to as the 5th grade?

The child who has fallen further and further behind with each passing semester and simply has not learned a significant portion of the subject matter on which they will be tested?

Or,

The child who may or may not be on schedule as determined by state academic standards but has actually mastered the material they have covered and who are demonstrating an accelerating pace of learning?

I think we all know the answer.

Step 15 – the Arts and Exercise

We also consider the arts and physical exercise to be essential components of a quality education. Student must still be given the opportunities to go to art, music, and gym classes where they will:

• Develop relationships with other teachers;

• Exercise their young bodies; and,

• Learn to appreciate and to express themselves through art.

Step 16 – Stability and adaptability

We will not concern ourselves with arrival of new students or the departure of students during the process or with teachers who may need to be replaced for whatever reason. These things will happen and we will deal with them when necessary. These inevitable events must not be allowed to divert us from our purpose. We must keep in mind that there are no perfect systems but the best and most successful systems are the ones that allow us to adapt to the peculiar and the unexpected.

Step 17 – Relentless, non-negotiable commitment

Finally, we must stress that winning organizations are driven by operating systems in which every single event or activity serves the mission. When we tinker with bits and pieces of an operation out of context with the system and its purpose, we end up with a system that looks very much like the educational process we have today. It will be a system that simply cannot deliver the outcomes that we want because there are components that work at cross purposes with the mission.

Note: We are creating an environment in which the fact that some children need additional time to master the material is considered to be inconsequential in the long run and in the big picture, much like it is inconsequential if it takes a child longer to learn how to ride a bicycle than his or her playmates. Once they learn to ride they all derive equal benefit and joy from bicycling.

Step 18 – Special Needs

Anywhere along the way, from initial assessment and beyond, if a child is determined to have special needs they will be offered additional resources, much as happens in our schools, today.

Summary and Conclusions:

All children can learn if given the opportunity and if they feel safe and secure. The fact that we have clung for so long to an ineffectual educational process that sets kids up for failure and humiliation is unfathomable. If we refuse to seize an opportunity to alter this tragic reality it is inexcusable.

Once a school district becomes satisfied that this new model produces the outcomes we want, the model can be implemented in each and every school in the district.

What If We Change the Way We Keep Score for Both Teachers and Students?

In this last segment of our series of articles in examination of the performance gap we will shift our focus to taking action.

A year or so ago, actor Michael J. Fox put out a poster that challenged educators. It said:

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

We do not like to think of our classrooms as hostile environments, as envisioned by legal scholar Randall Robinson (see Part 1 of this series). Teachers work hard to make their classrooms as welcoming and interesting as possible.

The hostility Robinson describes is a function of a competitive environment in which we expect children, who arrive with any number of disadvantages, to compete on equal terms with children who have been primed for academic competition. We start all students off from the same point of departure even though the level of readiness of the students can only be described as cavernous.

That this disparity has a significant impact on the ability of some students to keep pace with others is a fact that we all know, intuitively, but are programmed to ignore.

Recall “5 Things Well-Meaning White Educators Should Consider If They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap,” by Jamie Utt, published at his website at www.changefromwithin.org (see part 1).

The fifth thing Utt suggested that must be done, which we have modified, is:

“Envision and Create Schools Where People of Color are Centered (And Whiteness Is Not) and Where All Children Are Centered for Who They Are As Unique Individuals, Irrespective of Color, Language of Birth, Religious Tradition, Relative Affluence, or Sexual Orientation.”

This is far and away the most vital of the “5 Things” because this is one that is well within our power to control whether we are a school superintendent, school principal, or even a single teacher in a classroom.

One of the easiest ways this can be accomplished is by changing our expectations of teachers and the things for which they are held accountable. Rather than evaluate teachers on the percentage of children who achieve passing scores on annual standardized competency examinations, what if we were to evaluate them on the percentage of students who score 85 percent or better on short mastery quizzes following individual lesson plans?

The goal is that 100 percent of each teacher’s students achieve 85% or better on mastery quizzes following every individual lesson plan they are given. It does not matter whether every student earned 85% or better the first time they took a quiz or even the second or third. What matters is that they achieved mastery, that the student’s accomplishment is celebrated and rewarded, and that the teachers’ efforts are formally acknowledged.

Neither does it matter if some students, within a given grading period or semester, achieved mastery on two, five, ten or more lesson plans. What matters is that a student is not permitted to move on to a new lesson within a given area of subject matter until they have mastered the preceding lesson. Each lesson mastered is a success and each success is tallied and valued equally with every other success.

The single most powerful driver of the number of lessons a student is able to master is the level of confidence they have gained through repeated success, absent even the hint of failure.

Even within the current educational process, where we move everyone along the same path and test them on the same material each year, we have learned that by the time they finish the 12th grade they will all be at different levels of accomplishment. Some are off to college, some leave school illiterate or barely literate and are destined to a life of poverty or crime—probably both—and also a life of virtual disenfranchisement, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Whatever their destination, what distinguishes graduates from one another is the strength of the foundation upon which their charted destinations are constructed.

What is better? Is it a student who was given 1000 lessons but failed 80 percent of them and is proficient in only 10 percent? Or, is it that they are proficient in each of the lessons they were given whether 100, 200, 500 or a thousand?

Even though we want to downplay the value of standardized testing as much as possible, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) definitions bring the matter into brilliant focus. The NAEP defines “proficient level of academic performance” as:

“. . . solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The crucial variable is that kids must be able to apply “such knowledge to real world situations. . . .” Ultimately their ability to utilize what they have learned is the only thing that matters. If they cannot use it effectively, they haven’t really learned it.

It is when students are unable to apply the knowledge and skills we strove to teach during 12 years of school that they are doomed to a life separate and apart from mainstream America. We like to blame poverty for this separation but poverty is the inescapable outcome that burdens adults who were unsuccessful in acquiring the skills necessary for life as a productive American citizen.

The fact that most of these kids and the adults they ultimately become are poor, black, or other minorities is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are folks for whom English is a second language or are illegal immigrants. The educational process is poorly designed to meet the needs of this fastest-growing population of American children.

The glaring and tragic truth is that these young people are set up to fail. It is bad enough that they are victims of a flawed educational process. Worse is the fact that the teachers into the hands of which these kids are entrusted are inadequately prepared, under-resourced, poorly supervised, and are held accountable for outcomes that are counter to the best interests of their students.

This is a reality that must be altered before it is too late. It is already too late for millions of Americans who were the victims of a dysfunctional system and every day we delay, more kids are lost.

All that we need to in order to change this reality for all time is to step back and evaluate the American educational process as an integral whole, re-examine our purpose and assumptions, and make a few structural changes in what we do on a daily basis the most important of which is nothing more than changing the way a game is scored.

As soon as we change the way we score success, players and coaches (teachers and principals) will begin developing strategies and structural designs to support the new objectives. There is nothing magical or mystical about this process. It is simply the way systems function within the context of organizations.

What stands in our way of bringing about such transformational change to education in America, whether public or private? Other than our intransigence, not one damn thing!

The reader is invited to read my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, where I offer a blueprint for bringing about the systemic changes we have discussed. The reader is also invited to check out the rest of this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream for a full discussion of how we can overcome the challenges of public education in America. I am not suggesting that the reader will find all of the right answers in my book and blog but they will find many of the right questions.

Both the blog and book can be found on my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com.

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.

What is the truth about claims that American public education is in crisis and what is the evidence to support such claims?

As much as I admire and respect public school teachers, and as important as it is that we pledge our support to them, they are no better positioned to judge the efficacy of public education in America than cooks, waiters, and bus persons are positioned to judge the quality of the food their restaurant serves. Such judgments must always be left to the customer and, as we shall see shortly, sometimes our teachers are a customer of the system.

It is clear to this observer that the American educational process is failing in spite of the valiant efforts of the men and women who stand at the front of a classroom. While it is a gross disservice to lay the blame on our teachers, we must look objectively at the system’s performance.

So what is the evidence that suggests that our systems of public education are in a state of crisis?

Let’s start with what motivated the business men and women, whom we often refer to as “corporate reformers,” to focus so much attention on education. These business executives are motivated by the frustration they feel when it is so incredibly difficult to find qualified workers for their operations and it doesn’t matter whether they are seeking skilled or unskilled labor, or professionals.

Applications for work are submitted, daily, from prospective employees who are unable to understand and apply basic mathematical and scientific principles, who are unable to craft a coherent sentence or to express themselves effectively, whether orally or in writing. They are young men and women who demonstrate minimal motivation to do their best and insufficient self-discipline to earn the status and prestige to which they consider themselves entitled.

The quality of this labor force requires that employers allocate enormous sums of money and inordinate time on the part of their trainers, supervisors and managers to teach these young adults what they need to know; what most of us believe they should have brought to the table in the first place. The sheer mass of the resources diverted for such purposes has a measurable adverse impact on both productivity and profitability of business entities.

Not sufficient proof, you say? Then let us ask the classroom teachers in our more challenging public schools, particularly in middle- and high school classrooms, about the disruptive behavior, lack of motivation to learn, willingness to copy a classmates work without the slightest remorse, and about the apathy and/or hostility of the parents of these youngsters who make no attempt to be supportive of their children’s teachers. Yet these parents are fully prepared to accuse teachers of incompetence and of unfairly picking on their children.

Ask the teachers in our best schools how many of their students could do so much better if only they tried; if only their parents were more supportive; if only teachers were able to give them more time, attention, and encouragement. All of these “ifs,” by the way, are activities and investments of time and resources that our current educational process is not structured to support.

Still not enough? Let’s ask the military services how many young men and women, the majority of which are high school seniors or graduates, who are unable to earn the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for enlistment. Ask them what percentage of the enlistees who do qualify are able to do more than the most basic jobs in the military? How many are qualified for the highly technical jobs or for officer candidacy? The answers are most disturbing.

Need more evidence? Let’s examine NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) results that indicate that only forty percent of American eighth graders are able to score well enough on NAEP assessments to be categorized as “proficient” or above. Let’s keep in mind that the definition that has been established for “proficient” is:

“solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this      level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

The emphasis is mine and it is vital that we consider the significance of this expectation that students gain the ability to apply what they have learned “to real world situations.”  It means it is not enough that students are able to earn certain scores on the assessments for given subject matter, they must also be able to utilize what they have learned throughout their lifetimes.

This means that a full 60 percent of American eighth graders have not acquired sufficient mastery over subject matter that would enable them to utilize, on the job or in solving other real-life problems, the math, science, reading, and writing skills that they were supposed to have studied in the classroom.

Let’s examine NAEP results further to see that only 10 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Hispanic students are able to earn the achievement level of “proficient” or above in math, science, reading and writing. This is the most glaring fact in all of education and most teachers and other educators are reluctant to even talk about this performance gap. Corporate reformers don’t talk about the performance gap, either, they simply offer vouchers programs so a handful of such students can escape their “failing schools.” We talk around the performance gap but we do not deal with it.

Ask yourself whether there are any circumstances in which we should be satisfied with these performance levels of American school children. Should we, in fact, be anything less than appalled by these data?

We won’t bother to go into detail about the performance of American students on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), as some have questioned the validity of such measures. Shouldn’t we be concerned, however, that our response in the face of unfavorable comparisons with between American kids and their counterparts in other nations, is to cry “foul?” Rather than accept these data as worthy of our serious attention and accept responsibility for them, we revert to claims that such assessments are biased and/or unfairly administered.

The unpleasant truth is that China, India, and other developing economies (not to mention Europe and Japan) are dedicated to replacing the U.S. as the richest and most powerful nations in the world. If we continue to scoff at these challenges, make no mistake, the future of American society will be decidedly unpleasant for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It is this author’s assertion that, in spite of the best efforts of dedicated American school teachers, our educational process and the system in which it functions are poorly structured and minimally prepared to meet the needs of American children, irrespective of their relative position on the academic performance continuum, on the affluence continuum, or their race or ethnicity. I would suggest to you that our educational process inhibits all students, even our most accomplished, from reaching their full potential and this reality demands our attention and compels us to action.

The United States is a competitor in a dynamic international marketplace. Like competitors in any sport, success is contingent upon the efficacy of one’s player development program.  I suggest to you that the American “player/student” development program has languished for long enough.

Part 7 of the chapter by chapter review of “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch – What about PISA?

Whether or not Ravitch is correct about the validity or significance of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other international student assessments, and she may well be, it is still embarrassing when we argue that the test itself was biased, unfair, or otherwise flawed whenever the results do not suit us.

The most important thing we need to learn from PISA is something that no one seems to recognize or acknowledge. The very existence of PISA and its assessment process signals a desire on the part of other nations to demonstrate that they can compete.

Dr. Ravitch may also be correct that we have no significant enemies that threaten to conquer us. What we do have, however, is a growing number of significant challengers in the “competition” that we know as the world marketplace. These nations are committed to competing with us economically and even surpassing us as the preeminent economic power. There is little evidence to show that we take this competition seriously. Most Americans seem to feel that we are somehow invulnerable to such challenges.

We need to remind every American citizen that our nation did not acquire its status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world as a birthright and we cannot sustain it because we feel entitled. That status was achieved because we had the best educated and the most productive workforce in the world. As we speak, other nations are working hard to change that reality and we need to be cognizant of the zeal of their efforts and commitment.

Competition is a bad thing only for those people who are unprepared or unable to compete. In the case of the U.S., it has been a long time since we have been sufficiently challenged that we have felt any need to work hard to sustain our advantage. That reality has been and is being altered irrevocably and we must respond. It is imperative that we view this challenge not as a threat but rather as an opportunity to expand our limits and raise our expectations.

Whatever one’s opinion about PISA, it is only one small piece of a growing body of evidence that the American education system is in crisis and that our national well-being is at risk. It is ironic that the only people who seem to recognize the risks are people who have no clue what to about it while the people who have the expertise to address the problems of American public education seem to be in denial and are more focused on defending their profession.

Far more important to us than PISA, the other evidence seems, to this writer, compelling and overwhelming:

1) According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results show that only 40 percent of American eighth graders are “proficient or above” in math. The achievement levels that have been defined by NAEP are “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” (The reader is referred to the May 13th segment of our chapter by chapter review of Reign of Error, explaining why we reject Dr. Ravitch’s assertion that the benchmark should “basic or above” in favor of the far higher threshold of “Proficient or above.”) Our nation’s NAEP results for eighth grade reading, science, and writing were 31, 30, and 33 percent respectively. I don’t see how anyone can feel good about the fact that only 30 to 40 out of every 100 children have developed sufficient mastery of the subject matter to be able to apply what they have learned to real-world situations.

2) The performance gap between white and minority students, whether measured by NAEP or state competency exams, clearly indicates that the educational needs of minority children are not being effectively addressed in American public schools. Saying we have closed the gap a few percentage points over the past decade does not even approach acceptable. NAEP results show that 44 percent of white kids scored a Proficient or better compared to only about 15 percent of African-American students and 20 percent of Hispanics. This is an untenable situation and we dare not rest until we have altered this reality.

3) Employers throughout the U.S. are frustrated that young people entering the work force are poorly prepared to do the jobs for which they are being hired. (See the May 19th column by Paul Wyche of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette headlined: “The Young and Unreliable: Millennials’ work ethic appalls employers, who can’t find skilled help”) As a result, employers must incur significant costs to assess and provide remedial training for huge numbers of new hires.

4) The frustration in public school classrooms in communities throughout the U.S., on the part of teachers who must devote significant time and energy to maintain order – the lack of which deters millions of other students from taking full advantage of their opportunity for a quality education.

5) The burgeoning population of American parents who have lost hope and faith in the American Dream and no longer view an education as a ticket to a better life for their children.

The author’s personal experience as an ASVAB test administrator for the Department of Defense validates the existence of a crisis in education. Let there be no doubt that the military service will be only one of many doors of opportunity to close on young men and women unable to meet minimum eligibility requirements for enlistment in the Armed Services of the U.S.

Ravitch offers an eloquent argument for rejecting the focus on standardized testing, whether international student assessments or state competency exams, and preserving the educational traditions that contributed the U.S.’s rise to the top.

Yes, what we have been doing has brought us to where we are today but that does not mean it will take us where we need to go from here. Let us not forget that this same educational process that has gotten us where we are today also gave us a performance gap that is staggering in its scope and will continue to have crippling consequences.

And, NO, we cannot blame that all on poverty. One of our great weaknesses is our inability to step far enough back that we are able to see how our educational process contributes to the failure of so many of our children. It is a process that both contributes to and exacerbates the problems of poverty. These things are both interdependent and symbiotic.

One of the great misfortunes of the current corporate reform movement with its focus on privatization, choice, standards, testing, and accountability is that it distracts us from what should be our real mission. Our professional educators, justifiably or not, have chosen to slip into a defensive mode rather than use their experience and wisdom to evaluate and address the weaknesses of our current and obsolete educational process.

Quoting Yong Zhao, a Chinese born professor at the University of Oregon, Ravitch brings us to the crossroads but then sends us down the wrong path. Ravitch quotes Zhao, “that China wants to transform itself from ‘a labor-intensive, low-level manufacturing economy into an innovation-driven knowledge society. . . . Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge. Zhao then writes, “If China, a developing country aspiring to move into an innovative society, has been working to emulate U.S. education, why does America want to abandon it.”

China seems to be beating us to the logical leap to where we should already be as illustrated by Valerie Strauss’ report in the May 26th issue of the Washington Post, “No. 1 Shanghai may drop out of PISA.”

Quoting Yi Houqin, an official of the Shanghai Education Commission the article shares that they are no longer interested in a focus on standardized testing. “What it [China] needs are schools that follow sound educational principles . . . and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development.”

If anything should alarm American leaders, this shift in direction on the part of China’s educational leaders, should.

In the U.S., we tell ourselves that this is what we are about but our actions speak the truth. We say we want to develop the individuality of students and teach them to think and to explore but the way we structure the process is to ask all students to rush down the same path on the same schedule. Our educational process (not our schools or teachers) is focused on grading rather than learning; on failure rather than success.

If our objective is that kids learn something, why do we grade and then record their unsuccessful attempts. All those mistakes on practice worksheets and failed quizzes do is tell us that the child has not yet learned and is not ready to move on. So what do we do? We grade the worksheet or quiz, record the “C,” “D,” or “F” and move them along to the next lesson, module, grading period, semester or grade. What those practice worksheets and quizzes are really telling us is that our job on that particular lesson with that specific child is not yet completed.

Our real issue with testing, standardized or otherwise, should be on the purpose for which the test is designed to serve. Testing should always be, first, diagnostic: asking the question what has the child learned and how prepared are they for future; or, second, documentary: has the child mastered the lessons that we have striven to teach them? How they rank in comparison to other students is no more consequential than how the U.S. ranks compared to China or other nations on PISA assessments.

We come back to the only question that matters. How far has the child progressed; what are his or her strengths and weaknesses; and, where do we go from here.

The nation that is the world leader in economic performance will be the nation with the best educated workforce, with the best work ethic, and with the highest level of productivity. Economic laws and principles care nothing about the political, racial, or ethnic make-up of the population, only about what a people can accomplish.

We have already experienced, as a nation, what it is like to lose huge chunks of low-paying jobs to China, Mexico, and parts elsewhere. Imagine the consequences if we begin to lose chunks of our highest paying jobs for skilled or professional workers.

Imagine the impact if the average American household income was to drop by 10, 20, or even 30 percent. As earned income shrinks, how do we continue to bear the cost of the millions of baby boomers who are withdrawing from the workforce and can be expected to live until they are in their 80s and 90s. How do we continue to bear the cost of the growing population of Americans who are under-employed, unemployed, and unemployable when fewer people are working for fewer and fewer dollars.

If we want to get a different outcome we must begin doing things differently. Sadly, the opportunity cost is staggering when the powerful platform of Diane Ravitch is distracted from the real issues.

international student assessments, PISA, American education system, American public education, public education, NAEP, Reign of Error, performance gap between white and minority students, performance gap, American public schools, public schools, standardized testing, educational process,

Ongoing review of Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of Reign of Error is focused on the performance gap that exists between white students and their minority classmates. There seems to be little doubt that the achievement gap is real and that it is particularly egregious with respect to African-American students.

The corporate reformers and other advocates of charter schools, vouchers, more testing and accountability, and privatization of education cite the data as irrefutable evidence that we need to rescue as many kids as possible from our underperforming schools. Rarely do they acknowledge any responsibility to help the schools that are being abandoned or to reach out help the people who seem unable to escape. The reality from the perspective of the poor is that they are being written off once again. How can they think otherwise?

Ravitch acknowledges that the gap is unacceptable but insists that much progress has been made in closing the gap over the past two decades. I suggest the progress has been too little, too slow.

While the reformers say that education is failing, Ravitch and other defenders of traditional education say that test scores and other measures of student performance, including graduation rates, are higher they have ever been. This may be true but neither the progress nor the data is good enough! The results are simply unacceptable. It is comparable to a president boasting that unemployment has dropped from 25 to 22 percent on his or her watch.

As we have noted in prior sections, we concur that the educational system is failing but believe that it is the educational process that is failing, not schools and their teachers.

While reformers call for what amounts to wholesale abandonment of traditional public education in America, Ravitch and her defenders suggest that we cannot fix education until we address the societal problems that cause the failure; specifically poverty and racial segregation. Once again, both sides of the argument totally misinterpret the forces that influence all that is taking place in our public schools.

One of the issues with which we agree totally with Ravitch is the importance of preserving the links between our schools and the communities they exist to serve. We agree that privatization of public education, the crippling of unions and the establishment of for-profit schools “inevitably means deregulation, greater segregation, and less equity with minimal oversight by public authorities.” Then Ravitch adds “Privatization has typically not been a friend to powerless groups.”

I find it remarkable that Ravitch has sufficient insight to recognize that many of the citizens and their communities who depend on public education are powerless yet she fails to grasp the role that this “powerlessness” plays in our educational crisis and she is not alone. Few people seem to recognize that unlike poverty, which is a condition over which we have been able to exert almost no control, “powerlessness” is a state of mind that is within our power to do something about. As we have said so often, we need to attack powerlessness and hopelessness relentlessly.

Rather than developing strategies that will help people learn how to begin exerting control over the outcomes in their lives we promise to take care of them; a promise we have yet to keep. Such promises do not help alleviate this sense of powerlessness rather they create dependencies to which the powerless can cling.

What the reformers do not seem to realize is that the farther you remove the community from the decision-making process the more powerless the citizens of those communities become. If we take away a community’s schools we effectively deprive the community of its ability to bridge the performance gap, themselves. In other words we increase their level of powerlessness and, therefore, their sense of hopelessness.

Ravitch states emphatically that African-Americans are making great progress and cites NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) results that show a reduction of the number of students scoring “below basic” in math and reading.

My interpretation would suggest that Improvements between 2007 and 2011 have been marginal, at best. The numbers speak for themselves. NAEP results show that, in 2011, 49 percent of black students scored below basic in 8th grade math and 41 percent in 8th grade reading. In other words, virtually half of African-American eighth graders scored below basic in Math and 4 out every 10 scored below basic in reading. Hardly cause for celebration. Most importantly, “basic” is not an acceptable for which to strive.

The NAEP defines basic, which is one of its three achievement levels, as “denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work. Think about what that means. It is partial mastery, not mastery. And, it is not even partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work but rather partial mastery of the “prerequisite” knowledge and skills.

NAEP’s definition of “proficient”, on the other hand, is “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” [The emphasis is mine.]

So, when one is proficient by this definition, it means they possess the ability to actually apply what they have learned to real life situations. “Basic,” on the other hand, implies that the knowledge and skills are not sufficient for utilization in solving “real life” situations. In other words, the gap between “proficiency” and “below basic,” as defined by NAEP, is as cavernous as the gap between the performance of white and black students.

In the business world, one would never send an employee out in the shop, plant, field, or office to do a job if they could only demonstrate partial mastery of prerequisite skills. They have to be able to apply their knowledge to “real-life situations” or they are of no use to their employer and pose a risk to customer satisfaction. Clearly, the performance bar needs to be raised to “proficient” and what we are doing now is blatantly inadequate.

Here, the data is every bit as disturbing. From 2003 to 2011 the percentage of black students who have achieved the level of “proficient or above” in math has risen from 8 percent to only 14 percent. In reading, during same time span, the percentage of African-American students who have achieved “proficient or above” has risen only from 13 to 15 percent. During this period, the percentage of white students who have achieved “proficient or above” in math and reading has risen to 43 and 44 percent, respectively.

The gap is alarming but why would we ever be satisfied that less than 45 percent of our children are achieving “proficiency or above.” We must raise our targets and change the way we do things.

We need to reinvent the educational process to one that is focused on success and that is structured in a way that it supports teachers and students in what they do. And, we need to create a nation-wide campaign to resell the American dream and engage parents from all demographic groups as full partners in the education of their children. The good news is that such a reinvention is well within our power to do if only we will open our minds to new ideas and to the possibility of a desirable outcome.

Ravitch’s assertion that blacks and other minorities are making real progress is difficult to accept given the facts. Possibly Ravitch and others are referring to the many middle class and professional blacks who have risen to the corporate boardroom, the operating room, and even to White House; but this population is an exception. The gap between uneducated blacks in our poor rural and urban communities and more accomplished middle class African-Americans is, itself, cavernous. The accomplishments of so many is clear evidence that African-American students can excel.

So we are left with the question “why do so many fail?” And let us not forget that many of the most accomplished African-Americans and other minorities rose from the same neighborhoods as their underperforming classmates.

Diane Ravitch is correct that “Achievement gaps begin long before children start kindergarten.” She is also correct that the variance with respect to preparation and motivation of students as they arrive for their first day of school is as disparate as the population is diverse. It is also true that where families fall on the affluence continuum, the degree to which education is valued in a given culture, and the availability of quality healthcare all play a role in determining how motivated and well-prepared a child is upon arrival for their first day of school.

The most important influence on the relative preparation and motivation of children is the level of hopelessness and powerlessness that surrounds the child from the day of their birth and up until they head off for their first day of school. Where I disagree with Ravitch is not the relative scope and scale of the challenges these children face but with our perceptions about what we have the power to do in response. Most Americans have the attitude that only our government bears responsibility for bringing about such changes and has the power needed. Because of that attitude, we go about our business as usual and we sit back and wait for the world to change around us.

The reality is that we are not powerless and we need not be hopeless. We need a plan of action; we need to work together as a community; and, we need to do that which is in our power to do, even if it is one step at a time or one family, school, or community at a time.

The reference to the work of Thomas B. Timar’s (University of California), I thought, was particularly helpful. Timar wrote, as quoted by Ravitch,

“One reason [why there was so little progress in closing the achievement gap] is that although schools can be held accountable for some of the disadvantages these students experience, they have been given the entire responsibility for closing the achievement gap. Yet the gap is the symptom of larger social, economic and political problems that go far beyond the reach of the school. . . . While schools are part of the solution, they alone cannot solve the problems of educational disparities.” (Timar, Thomas B. and Julie Maxwell-Jolly, eds., Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Education Press, 2012, page 230).

According to Ravitch, Professor Timar also suggests that “policy makers have invested for thirty years in strategies that are “misdirected and ineffectual,” managing to keep urban schools in a state of “policy spin,” bouncing from one idea to another. . . .”

The most salient points by Timar are:
• Schools can’t solve the problem alone. . . .
• The value of local initiatives without which, Timar suggests, reforms cannot succeed.
• Creating social capital that exists between schools and their community. He describes them as built on a “sense of community, organizational stability, and trust. Leadership has a shared vision and a “sense of purpose, a plan, and individuals with responsibility for coordination and implementation.
• Teachers working collaboratively to improve teaching and learning
• The need to think in terms of long-term, comprehensive strategies.
• That American policymakers haves grown too politically conservative and are unwilling to address structural issues.
• “bureaucratizing the process of school improvement and turning it into a chase for higher test scores” have not worked.
• Federal programs like NCLB and Race to the Top have made schools less stable, encouraged staff turnover, promoted policy churn, and undermined professionalism.

The best chance, Timar implies and we which I suggest in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, lies with grass roots models of change.

Where Timar strays off course is the traditional view that until we can address the issues of poverty there will always be achievement gaps but he redeems himself by saying that we need to “work vigorously to improve conditions” of families and communities. I would exchange the word “conditions” to “states of mind,” suggesting that we need to address hopelessness and powerlessness.

Ravitch writes, in reference to Timar’s point of view, “Rather than regulation and mandates we need professional collaboration, community building, and cooperation that require that schools have authority to design their own improvement plans and act without waiting for instructions or permission from Washington or the state capital [sic].”

My response to that is “RIGHT ON, DR. RAVITCH!”

Ravitch concludes this chapter by saying, “What we know from these scholars makes sense. The achievement gaps are rooted in social, political, and economic structures. If we are unwilling to change the root causes, we are unlikely ever to close the gaps. What we call achievement gaps are in fact opportunity gaps.”

She continues, “The schools did not cause the achievement gaps, and the schools alone are not powerful enough to close them.”

I think the point Ravitch is really striving to make, here, is that schools did not cause the gaps and should not be blamed for our lack of success in closing them. In Reinventing Education, I suggest that schools provide the perfect vehicle with which to attack the “root causes,” which I define as “powerlessness and hopelessness” rather than “poverty, segregation et al,” and that if parents and schools can be brought together in partnership, we have more than enough power to transform public education.

Finally, Ravitch says:

“So long as society is indifferent to poverty, so long as we are willing to look the other way rather than act vigorously to improve the conditions of families and communities, there will always be achievement gaps.”

The unfortunate but sublimely subtle truth—and the reason why poverty and deteriorating communities remain a reality—is our fixation on the idea that changing these realities is society’s or government’s responsibility. At no time do Ravitch and the legions of well-meaning professional educators, policy makers, and social scientists recognize the subtle but profound truth that these conditions exist because we have robbed the poor and the disenfranchised of a sense of responsibility for their own circumstances and we have enabled their sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

We cannot change the economic conditions in which people live without addressing their dependency and helping them recognize the power that they have to begin changing their own lives. We can be of great assistance in helping people shed their sense of powerlessness and hopelessness but we cannot do it for them. What we must do is teach them that success is a process that even they can master and then help them deal with the obstacles that stand in the way of their children.

Powerful forces are poised to rip control of education out of the hands Teachers and communities

Yesterday’s (5/8/14) report, by Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press, under the headline: “Nation’s students not improving: Exam finds no gains in seniors’ critical skills since ’09,” is certain to renew exclamations that our teachers are failing America’s children.

However absurd such proclamations may be, it is time for teachers, working collectively and with their communities, to take the lead in advocating substantial reforms of the educational process. If teachers permit educational reforms to remain exclusively in the hands of the government and corporate reformers, they are putting America’s children at risk and are leaving the teaching profession unprotected.

It is not sufficient to take a defensive posture and cry out against such reformers. What is needed are proactive proposals that the entire teaching profession can support with all of its political influence and might at the local, state, and federal level.

The reforms themselves must be substantial and they must literally reinvent the American educational process so that it:

• Is focused on success in real and substantive ways that allows teachers to teach children how to be successful;

• Shifts the focus back to subject mastery rather than test preparation, using the NAEP definition of “proficient” as a model where the expectation is to help students acquire the ability to apply what they learn to real-life situations;

• Puts teachers in a position to teach in an intimate environment in which they can form close, nurturing relationships with both students and parents;

• Help children experience the fun of learning under the tutelage of a “favorite teacher” rather than deal with the stress of looming annual, standardized exams;

• Integrate student assessment and teacher accountability into the instructional process, much like industry has done with quality systems, obviating the need for annual standardized examinations to demonstrate competency;

• Provides teachers with state-of-the-art technology and other tools to facilitate rather than obstruct what they do, where the technology is as seamless and productive as the smartphones most of us carry in our pockets and purses; and,

• Begins the challenging process of re-establishing the highest possible level of trust between parents and their children’s teachers.

Teachers must also use their collective might to aggressively pursue grants for creative programs that engage parents as partners in the education of their children (I encourage teachers to count the number of such programs of which they are currently aware).

I offer my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, as a model for implementation at the local level in schools and communities all over the nation. It is a model that can also serve as catalyst for brainstorming or as a springboard for the development of other models.

In any case, it is time for teachers to act before their credibility is completely tainted and their social capital squandered.

Will More Minority Teachers Make a Difference?

Will more minority teachers make a difference in the performance gap between white students and their minority classmates or will we have to close the performance gap in order to get more minority teachers?

On Monday, May 5th and article was released by the Associated Press and published by newspapers throughout the U.S. The article, about diversity among teachers, is interesting not only because the data is revealing but also because it gives us an opportunity to broaden the dialogue about the performance gap in education between white and minority students. This performance gap is the single most glaring fact in all of education and yet it is rarely discussed in any depth other than to make passing reference to it. Then, it is explained away with a series of clichés that have evolved from unverified assumptions that are influenced more by our prejudices than by reasoned observation and research.

We will not have solved the problems of public education until the performance gap has been significantly closed and ultimately eliminated and we cannot close the performance gap until we examine it scientifically and unapologetically.

Yes, it makes sense that it would be a good thing if more students “can look and see someone who looks just like them, that they can relate to,” as suggested by Kevin Gilbert, in the Associated Press article. It seems somewhat of a stretch, however, to conclude, as Gilbert does, that “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”

If Gilbert, a professional educator in Mississippi and board member of the National Education Association, was correct we would expect that minority students would perform at a high level whenever they found themselves in a classroom with a teacher of the same race or ethnic background as themselves.

There is little documented evidence to support Gilbert’s assertion and we can only speculate what would be the impact on the “performance gap” if we could somehow increase the number of minority teachers in American public school classrooms.

My daughter’s experience, teaching in an all-black elementary school in Washington DC provides an example. Other than my daughter, every other teacher in the school was African-American. Her school was one of the lowest performing schools in one of our nation’s lowest-performing school districts. The racial makeup of the collective faculty had no appreciable effect on a reality in which only a handful of students were motivated to learn and where the parents of those few students appeared to be the only parents who cared or accepted even a modicum of responsibility for the success of their sons and daughters.

The teachers whom my daughter came to know and be inspired by were not drawn from the bottom of the barrel of qualified teachers, they were dedicated men and women who gave their all to help as many students as they could in the midst of one of the most dreadful teaching environments in the U.S.

Irrespective of race or ethnicity, what almost any teacher working in a public school classroom will tell you is that the overwhelming majority of their students could be successful if only they cared and if only they would try. These same teachers would add that without the support of parents it is incredibly difficult to break through the indifference.

For those readers who will be quick to suggest that it is the teachers who do not care, unless they have walked in the shoes of their children’s teachers they know not of what they speak. The overwhelming majority of our public school teachers care very much, even in the face of years of frustration and disillusionment.

Putting more minority teachers in American public school classrooms may or may not have an impact on the performance gap but, clearly, if only we could close the performance gap between white students and their minority counterparts there would be many more minority teachers to fill those classrooms. We can also say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of public school districts would love to have more minority candidates from which to choose when attempting to fill teaching vacancies.

Below are a few facts from the National Center for Educational Statistics about both the performance gap in education and also about the number of minority students who go on to college; the population from which future teachers can be recruited.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures the percentage of 8th grade American students earning an assessment level of “proficient and above” in math and reading. The NAEP defines “proficient” as having “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” Since it is vital that the knowledge and skills a student acquires transfers to life as an adult, the phrase “application of such knowledge to real-world situations” is particularly noteworthy.

In 2012, of the students in 8th grade math, 44 percent of white students were assessed as “proficient or above,” compared to only 13 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students. In reading, the scores were similar as 43 percent of white students were assessed at “proficient or above,” compared to 15 and 19 percent of black and Hispanic students, respectively. Clearly the performance gap is as real as it is ominous. That we would consider 44 percent to be an acceptable level of achievement is sad commentary on American education.

When looking at students enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities in the same year, 59 percent were white, 15 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic. I suspect it is not a coincidence that the numbers are similar to the percentage of students assessed at “proficient or above” on the NAEP Assessments.

When looking at students earning bachelor degrees in the 2011-12 school year, 70 percent of the graduates were white while only 10.7 were African-American students, and 9.8 percent Hispanic. Clearly, not as many minority students are making it through to graduation compared to their white classmates.

Given that not every college graduate chooses a career in education, we should not be surprised that minority teachers are under-represented in American public school classrooms. It is a reality that can only be altered by closing the performance gap and this is where we must place our focus. Everything else is a diversion that obstructs our progress.

Chapter 5 – Journalled review of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error. “The Facts about Test Scores.”

In Chapter 5 of her monumental work, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch offers the results of The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments as compelling evidence that “students in American public schools today are studying and mastering far more difficult topics in science and mathematics than their peers forty to fifty years ago.” On the basis of this evidence she believes that “Test scores are at their highest point ever recorded” and, therefore, claims that “the educational system is broken and obsolete” are simply not true. It may be true that scores are higher than ever for the students at the elite end of the academic continuum but it ignores the stark reality that is the performance of the majority of American school children.

It is somewhat ironic that Ravitch is critical of the value of standardized testing in assessing the efficacy of public education on the one hand but cites NAEP results as evidence of the health of public education in America on the other. Her argument is that the NAEP assessment process is a different sort of testing and is far more meaningful that they typical standardized competency examinations used in states throughout the U.S. About this she is correct and we will examine the NAEP assessments and their results, shortly.

It is also important that we examine the context in which Ravitch’s arguments are made. Like most educators, Ravitch is frustrated at the savagery with which our schools and teachers are being blamed for the perceived failure of public education in America. Being attacked, even when criticisms are justified, is far more effective at putting educators on the defensive than it is as a catalyst for meaningful educational reform. When the criticisms are unfair and based upon claims that are unfounded or prejudicial, the intensity of one’s defensive posture is magnified.

As we have said throughout this “journaled review of Ravitch’s Reign of Error,” she is right to challenge the basis for such claims and also the solutions proffered by the “evil corporate reformers.” Where she is wrong is to insist that the documented improvements in the performance of our public schools, as measured by NAEP, are acceptable and that they prove that public education in America is not failing. We would suggest that the NAEP results prove rather clearly that public education is, indeed, failing.

Let us digress for a few paragraphs and take a look at the NAEP assessment process. Ravitch is correct that the NAEP assessment process is a meaningful tool and that the NAEP, which is part of the US Department of Education, and its independent governing board, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) are a highly reputable, bipartisan body comprised of educators, elected officials, business people, and members of the general public.

The NAEP measures student performance in reading, math, and other subjects over time and reports results in two ways. The first is by scale scores, ranging from zero to 500 which reflect what students know and can do, without making judgments about whether the performance is good or bad. To use the vernacular, the results “are what they are.”
The second component is that Achievement Levels have been established in an attempt to put the raw results into some sort of meaningful context. It is acknowledged that these achievement levels are somewhat arbitrary and have created opportunities for over-interpretation.

On the NAEP assessments, an “advanced” level of achievement denotes “superior performance at each grade assessed.”
“Proficient” is defined, by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) as “solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic achievement. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

The NAGB defines “Basic” as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade assessed.”

The NAGB “believes, however, that all students should reach the Proficient level; the Basic level is not the desired goal, but rather represents partial mastery that is a step toward Proficient.”

“Below Basic” represents students who are unable to demonstrate even partial mastery of the work at each grade assessed.

We must maintain an awareness that these achievement levels are determined by the judgment of a panel of people on the basis of the performance of actual testers using percentiles. In effect, we are superimposing a distribution curve over the scores in order to make it more meaningful for us. As we shall see, later, the results tell us how much students know but it does not even begin to tell us where they should be performing at a given grade.

We can draw meaningful conclusions from the scores that will help us chart a course for the future, however and we will discuss this in some detail.

An important distinction with respect to NAEP results is that the scale scores of 0-500 change very little over time and actually show how students are moving up the scale, i.e. from the 4th grade assessment to the 8th grade assessment. In essence, the assessment shows how much kids know and can utilize at a given point in time. It might be helpful to think of it as a continuum along which students move as they gain increasing levels of mastery over the subject matter with no ceiling as to how far they can progress other than topping out at a score of 500.

Now, we want to compare the NAEP assessment process with state competency exams and we will use Indiana’s ISTEP+ simply because of the author’s relative level of familiarity with it.

Right out of the gate, be aware that we are going to over-simplify this process but it is the logic of the process that we want to illustrate.

On ISTEP+ for Grade 3 Math, for example, there is an expectation that a given number of areas of content will have been presented to the students by the time the ISTEP+ for that grade level is scheduled to be administered. The primary question the ISTEP+ is designed to measure is whether or not students “have learned what we expect them to know.” Specifically, what they are expected to know is defined within the context of state standards. What is not obvious from the published data are such questions as “How were passing scores determined?” In other words, how high was the bar set? For example is passing 60 percent? Eighty percent?

So, in the case of NAEP we are assessing how much a child of a given age knows and can utilize, without regard for how his or her classmates might be doing. For the ISTEP+ we seem more concerned about how a given student’s performance compares to the performance of his or her classmates.

Returning to our discussion of how NAEP results are to be interpreted, Ravitch disagrees with those who “assume that students who were not “Proficient” on the NAEP were “below grade level”.” “That is wrong” Ravitch insists and she suggests that having “76 percent” or some comparable percentage of the student population at “basic or above” is something to be touted.

I tend to agree with the NAGB that “Basic” is not our desired goal and that all students should reach the “Proficient” level of achievement, which is a point at which they have “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. . . .” and can apply “that knowledge to real-world situations. . . .”

Think about the difference, here. Ravitch is stating that the NAEP results in which 71 percent of eighth grade students are at “Basic or above” is validation that our schools are not in a state of crisis.

I would suggest just the opposite, and the NAEP would seem to agree, that it is clearly unacceptable that only 44 percent of eighth grade math students are “Proficient or Advanced.” Why would we ever think our job is done when any student has achieved only “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental. . .” to achieving proficiency rather than “Proficiency” itself? Why would we ever think it acceptable that 56 percent of eighth grade math students are not at a point where they have mastered the material sufficiently to apply that knowledge to real world problem-solving?

And, let us not forget about the 29 percent of eighth grade math students who have yet to demonstrate even partial mastery of the material. The two realities taken together spell crisis in this author’s mind in bold upper-case letters.

Other points of concern include:

The fact that we have no sense at all about whether or not the bar has been set sufficiently high;
The fact that only 6 to 8 percent are performing at an advanced level;
The fact that the variance between the 10th percentile and the 90th percentile is a cavernous 94 points (for eighth grade math students); and
The fact that the performance gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates remains at an unconscionably high rate and that closing the gap from 32 points to 25 points for African-American students over a twenty plus year period is an accomplishment about which we should feel embarrassed rather than proud.

In American educational thinking, we are caught up in the idea that only 6 to 8 percent of students can be A students. In the business world, no production manager would be content to have such disparity of performance. The expectation would be that 75 percent of more of employees are working at the highest level of productivity and that those employees who are not are receiving aggressive remedial attention.

What we can say with some certainty, when talking about American public education, is that few if any students are performing at the highest level of which they are capable and the vast majority are nowhere close to achieving their potential. Helping individual students reach the highest tiers of their potential should always be the goal of our schools and teachers and we should not be squandering a single second worrying about whether Child “A” is keeping up with his or her classmates.

The NAEP Assessment tools appear to offer a high level of utility in judging the efficacy of our systems of public education. What we need to focus on is closing the gaps and raising the bar.
Let us not forget that the biggest fallacy in over-reliance on standardized testing, of any kind, as the ultimate measure of accountability for schools and teachers is that schools and teachers are only a small part of the equation for academic excellence.

To suggest that our current level of achievements provide evidence that no crisis exists in American public education is nothing short of absurd.