Important Questions for Public School Teachers

We begin with a declaration that American public school teachers strive to do their absolute best to help all their students learn as much as they are able. The purpose of my questions is to understand whether teachers are satisfied that they can give their students a genuine opportunity to learn, given the education process within which they are asked to teach, and the resources allocated to them.

Many public school teachers and other educators are concerned about the future of their own schools, about the future of public education as a whole, about their own futures and of the teaching profession, and about the future of our nation’s children. These concerns are justified considering the extent to which public education is under attack by education reformers with their focus on privatization of schools, high-stakes testing, attacking teacher unions and associations, and minimizing the reliance on teachers through increased utilization of digital technology.

The following questions are posed to all teachers, but especially to those who work in public schools under scrutiny because of low test scores and/or who have students who struggle to keep up. Think of the education process as the manner in which teachers, classrooms, time, and resources are organized to allow you to teach your students.

(Please note that I am not asking you to share your answers with anyone, only that you answer each question, as honestly as you can, to the satisfaction of your own hearts and minds.)

1) Given your commitment to do your best to help every one of your students experience academic success, how well does the education process support your efforts to give struggling students the extra time and attention they need to learn?

2) How often is it necessary for you to move your class on to a new lesson when one or more of your students—often a significant percentage of your class—are unable to demonstrate subject mastery on end-of-chapter exams?

3) How many times in a grading period, semester, or school year do you find it necessary to record a “below-passing score” in your gradebook?

4) By the end of a school year, what percentage of your students meet the objectives that were established for them per state academic standards for their grade level?

5) What percentage of your students earn a below-passing score on one or both Math and ELA components of your state’s competency exams (high stakes testing), or are unable to meet the criteria required to be identified as “proficient” in these subject areas; not “approaching proficient?”

If your answers to these questions raise doubts in your mind about the viability of the education process and the adequacy of the resources at your disposal, I ask you to consider another way to organize and teach our nation’s children. Please take the time to examine my education model, which is available for your review on my website at http://bit.ly/2k53li3 along with a white paper that provides the logical foundation for the model. It is an education model that has been developed through the utilization of a “systems-thinking” process, the principles of organizational development and positive leadership, and a focus on purpose that, in education, is helping every child achieve academic success.

Please note that “systems-thinking,” the principles of organizational development and positive leadership, and a focus on purpose or mission are utilized routinely in the private sector to help organizations address the concerns of dissatisfied customers and engage in continuous improvement of products and services. Often, this requires positive leadership to take an organization and its production process back to the drawing board to reinvent a process to produce better products and services or, in many cases, create new products and services. Make no mistake, education reformers and their supporters are nothing more than dissatisfied customers of public education.

If, upon review, you believe that my education model might improve the odds of success of your students, I ask you to help me spread the word, put an end to the failure of so many children, and end the frustration of public school teachers, everywhere. Implementing an education model focused on success will also render irrelevant the education reform movement with its focus privatization, high-stakes testing, and diminishing the role of teachers.

A Minefield of Distractions or a New Education Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Reinvent the Education Process to Provide Every Child with the Highest Possible Quality Education?

Educators understand that our students deserve the absolute best that their teachers have to give and also that teachers deserve the gratification that comes from our students’ success. Similarly, many of you recognize that giving kids the time and attention they deserve is often made difficult by the existing education process. You also know that in this environment, made toxic by high-stakes testing, it is hard for teachers to feel appreciated when test results are used, not as a diagnostic tool to help us do a better job, rather to justify blaming teachers and our public schools for the problems in public education

Teachers who have been around for a while know that the teaching profession has been under-appreciated for decades and they have seen many colleagues burn out and leave the profession they entered with such high hopes, expectations, and dedication.

The fact is that the world has changed exponentially over the last half century while the education process has remained relatively static. Certainly, new tools, techniques and technologies have been introduced but not all have made a teacher’s job easier. Many do not work the way they were envisioned in every teaching environment or for all students. Incremental reforms have been going on throughout the lifetimes of most of us and the best measure of their lack of success is the dread teachers feel in the anticipation of a new wave of education reforms.

I urge teachers to consider that there is an entire field of knowledge with respect to organizations and the processes utilized to serve each organization’s mission and purpose and to achieve their objectives. One of the things organizational leaders and specialists come to understand is that a process that continues to produce unacceptable outcomes, no matter how hard people work or how qualified they may be, cannot be patched, jury-rigged, or duct taped to fix that which is broken. Neither can new tools and technologies be utilized to fix an obsolete process any more than we can adapt a 747 for a trip to the moon. Elsewhere I have used the parable of new wine in old wineskins to illustrate why we haven’t been successful in fixing public education for every student through the introduction of new methodologies and technologies.

Systems are complex logical processes where the internal mechanisms that have been designed to serve the organization’s mission and purpose are integrated and interdependent. Like complex software, when we mess with the internal logic without understanding the whole, our changes will reverberate through the process creating an adverse impact on our outcomes and for our customers. Such patchwork solutions also make the work more difficult for every organization’s most valuable resource; its people. Even the best processes will degrade over time, no matter what we do.

The process utilized to reinvent an obsolete process can be replicated in almost any venue. It begins with:

• A re-clarification of an organization’s mission and purpose;

• Listening to and understanding our customer’s ever-changing requirements;

• Challenging all of our assumptions about what we do and why;

• Listening, also, to the people on whom we depend to produce our goods and services and who see flaws of the underperforming process in real time;

• Research to makes sure we are using state-of-the-art tools and technology;

• Creating a process designed to produce the outcomes we seek and that supports all of the people and resources engaged in that effort;

• A performance management system to solicit feedback and measure outcomes against expectations, not to fix blame but to help us learn from mistakes;

• To problem-solve disparate outcomes in a relentless pursuit of excellence; and, finally,

• Research and development to anticipate changes in the dynamic environment and marketplace in which we live and work.

I encourage the reader to examine the education model I have developed as each of the above components have either been completed or are in the process of completion. You can find my education model at my website at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with an accompanying white paper written to introduce the education model’s logical foundation. You will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream, with over 150 posts on the challenges facing public schools, their teachers, and students.

The education model is based upon my 40 years of organizational leadership and consulting experience; my experience working with kids, which began in 1966 and included nine years as a juvenile probation officer and supervisor, as a board member of a Montessori School, and as a co-founder of a Boys and Girls Club; two masters degrees, an MSEd in Psychology; and an MPA in public management; my own research and writing in the areas of the principles of positive leadership, organizational development, and systems thinking; and, my experience in the classroom over a ten-year period from 2002 through 2011, during which I walked in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute in a diverse urban, public school district.

Although I have great confidence that my model will work to produce the outcomes we seek, I have and offer no illusions that it is the only possible solution. Also, I can assure the reader that it is and will always be a work in process. The reader is challenged to use my education model as a starting point to help you understand so that you can offer suggestions to improve my model or develop a better solution, if you can. You are advised, however, to relinquish any and all beliefs that the existing model can be modified, incrementally, to meet the needs of all of our nation’s children. Incremental changes to the current process is what got us where we are today and can only complicate things more than they already are.

Finally, I challenge the reader to understand that all the complaining and talk in the world will not fix the problems in public education. Neither will our complaints deter the efforts of the powerful men and women promoting what they call “Choice.” To stop them we must render them irrelevant and the only thing that works to solve such real-life challenges is applying the imagination of human beings working together for a common purpose.

Whether my model or yours, I challenge all of you to rally behind a solution as a united group of professional men and women dedicated to providing the highest possible quality of education for the children of our nation. It public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depends and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depend.

Please share this article, education model and white paper with everyone you know and ask them to join you in a crusade to transform public education in America. It may be the most important thing you will ever be asked to do for your country or for society, as a whole.

The Challenge to Leaders of Public Education

In all business organizations, it is the top executives who bear responsibility for assuring that the entity is focused on its mission and that the mission, itself, properly serves the needs, interests, and expectations of customers. The process must also be structured and resourced to support the people on the line. This is the essence of organizational leadership; of positive leadership.

Positive leaders are guided by three principles or axioms of organizational development:

1) It is not until one accepts responsibility for a problem that he or she begins to acquire the power to solve it;

2) If a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, then the process is flawed and must be replaced; and

3) The point at which a process can no longer be improved is the exact point in time that it becomes obsolete.

In public education, the top leaders are superintendents and the people on the line are principals, teachers and their students. In spite of a procession of incremental improvements over the last half century, disadvantaged students still struggle to pass state competency exams. More importantly, when these students leave school they find themselves at an even greater disadvantage in society. This reality has enormous adverse consequences for American society and is at the root of our nation’s greatest social, economic, and political challenges. The opportunity cost that these young men and women represent is incalculable.

Assertions by public school educators and their supporters that public education is better than it has ever been are difficult to comprehend, given the data. Even a cursory examination of the process shows that kids who start out at a disadvantage are not given the time and attention they need to learn. The proof of this assertion can be found in teachers’ grade books, everywhere. If a teacher records a failing grade, it means the teacher has moved his or her class on to a new lesson even though some students have not yet learned. These kids are pushed ahead with the rest of their class, ready or not, and it is only a matter of time before they give up, stop trying, and begin acting out.

The education reform movement, with its focus on high-stakes testing and privatization through the creation of charter schools and vouchers is a response from dissatisfied customers of public education. These powerful men and women leading the education reform movement are justified in their concerns but their solutions could not be more wrong. They are wrong because of their lack of understanding of how kids learn. They are doing great harm to our nation’s most vulnerable children and to their teachers, schools, and communities.

The education process at work in schools, both public and private, has become obsolete and no longer meets the needs of a diverse population of 21st Century students. Over the decades, while the process has deteriorated, public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers have learned to tolerate what they consider to be an acceptable level of failure. Public school educators blame poverty and segregation for these failures and suggest that it is up to society to address these issues.

Somehow, educators have lost sight of that fact that society has already taken action to address the issues of poverty and segregation. Society has created a system of public education; has built public schools in every community in the U.S.; has allocated trillions of taxpayer’s dollars to support this purpose; and, has hired professional educators who have been trained to teach a diverse population of 21st Century American children. At no time has society carved out exceptions with respect to which children will be taught and at no time has society said there is an acceptable level of failure.

This reality exists for no other reason than we allow it. If we want to put an end to the failure we must completely reinvent the education process. Such a reinvention is a straightforward organizational development project in which we design the education process so that teachers are expected to give every child the time, attention, and support they need to learn. All it requires is a little imagination and a willingness to acknowledge what we all know to be true. What do we know?

That the current education process is set up as a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest. Our response to students who are unable pass practice assignments, quizzes, chapter tests, and state competency exams is, first, to record their Cs, Ds, and Fs in the teachers grade book and, second, to report those grades to parents and the school corporation. Those grades then become part of a child’s permanent academic record and color both our expectations of our students and our students’ expectations of themselves.

We cannot change this reality through incremental changes or through the introduction of new and innovative programs unless they are part of an integral whole. Transformational change requires that we deal with the education process as a systemic whole and that we create a structure with the same diligence and attention to detail that is utilized in developing a software application in which every piece of code is written to serve and support the application’s purpose.

We must take action to transform public education in America before it is too late. The responsibility for this transformational change rests on the shoulders of all public school educators but superintendents—the CEOs of public education—bear the ultimate responsibility. It is time for them to step up and become the powerful, positive leaders that our society needs them to be.

I challenge The School Superintendents Association (AASA) to take the lead and guide its members through the transformation process. Our children and the American people are counting on them, as are public school teachers and administrators. This is the only way to stop the drive to privatization and high stakes testing that threatens our children, their schools and communities. If our superintendents do not accept responsibility and act, to whom can we turn?

I offer a model that I have developed and that was initially presented in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (Createspace, 2013). The model has, since, been refined to accommodate all that I have learned since my book was published over four years ago. The model and an accompanying white paper that lays the logical foundation for the model are available for review at my website at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/.

I challenge the AASA to assemble its most creative members and use my model as a starting point. I believe they will discover that it will work and that authorizing its implementation will be within the statutory power of local school boards. That being said, these leaders of public school corporations throughout the nation are invited to come up with a better solution, if they can. I also challenge teachers, both individually and collectively, to do whatever is in their power to influence their leaders to act.

Is this not the most important issue on the American agenda? Is it not worth our best efforts?

The reality is that if The School Superintendent’s Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Bad Ass; Teachers Association, and every other advocacy group in support of public schools, would set aside their differences and focus on their common interests, they would have more than enough power to make education work for all children, even disadvantaged students.

The coup de grace would be that the education reform movement with its focus on testing and privatization would become irrelevant.