The Performance Gap Between Black and White Students: the Civil Rights Issue of our Time – A Refrain

Black Americans have been fighting discrimination since the Emancipation Proclamation. During the 1950s and 60s, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the legion of heroes of the civil rights movement fought discrimination relentlessly. As simple as I can state it: disadvantaged children, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, are the victims of systemic discrimination and they will continue to suffer until black advocates stand united in their determination to alter this reality. The performance gap between black and white students is the civil rights issue of our time and it demands action on the part of everyone who has a stake in the future of these children.

Public school policy-makers are very much like the US Congress in the 1950’s. If it had not been for the heroes of the civil rights movement, we might still be waiting for meaningful civil rights legislation. Disadvantaged children must not be made to wait. They are counting on us and we must act now. What a tragedy it will be if, in twenty years, our children’s children are still languishing as a result of an obsolete education process because we were reluctant to act; because we believed ourselves to be powerless. This is the antithesis of positive leadership.

Public school educators and their advocates have proclaimed that public education is better than it has ever been. That may be true for some children but it could not be further from the truth with respect to disadvantaged children, many but not all of whom are black and other minorities.

The fact that, for a half century or more, we have been accepting the performance gap as an inevitable outcome of poverty is a gross injustice. The test for discriminatory practices is whether or not an action creates a disparate impact. If the performance gap is not incontrovertible evidence of disparate impact, I don’t know what is. It is an injustice that has sentenced millions of disadvantaged kids, young men in particular, to a life of failure, poverty, violence, and incarceration. That we have accepted the assertions of public school teachers that the education process works for everyone, strains all semblance of credibility.

It is the job of public school teachers to teach all children not just the ones who come primed and ready to learn. The fact that so many children are failing means that something is terribly wrong; that something is not working. In any other venue we would never accept that there is nothing we can do to improve unacceptable outcomes. Imagine a hospital, for example, refusing to address an unprecedented number of deaths. Teachers are not to blame for the failures of the system but they have an obligation to stand up for their students, when needed.

The performance gap between black and white students is not because black kids are incapable of learning. That millions of kids who live in our poor urban and rural communities are disadvantaged in any number of ways does not mean they cannot learn, it just means they need a little extra time, patience, and attention. They need educators to keep trying new approaches until they find one that works.

Whether manufacturing a product, providing a service, or selling something, there is always a solution if the outcomes are not what we want. This is also true with the education process utilized in schools all over the U.S. Finding a solution is not even complicated. It is simply a matter of clarifying purpose; being willing to try something new; learning from our mistakes; and being committed to never giving up. Are these not the lessons we strive to teach our students?

That we also have access to the principles of organizational management, systems thinking, and positive leadership suggests that we should be able to accomplish anything.

I have developed a solution that will work but I need the help of black leaders to come together and convince public school superintendents with underperforming elementary schools to test my model. With the right kind of pressure some will be compelled to act. Some teachers may well be skeptical but if they want success for their students, and the overwhelming majority of teachers do, they must be open to a new way.

Please check out my education model, which I will offer for free, and the accompanying white paper that lays out the logical foundation at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ All I ask is the credit of authorship. Right now there are millions of disadvantaged children who are learning how to fail and their lives will be irrevocably damaged unless people like you decide it must stop.

An Open Letter to the Educators of and Advocates for, Children of Color

If you do not stop the failure of disadvantaged students, a disproportionate percentage of whom are children of color, who will?

In the movie Deja Vu, Denzel Washington’s character asks a young woman:

“What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they’d never believe you?”


Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of those occasions.

Many public school educators and policy makers have convinced themselves that they are powerless to do anything about the failure of these children until society addresses poverty and segregation.

If you are reading these words, please believe me when I tell you that you are not powerless! These children are capable of learning if we place them in an environment that takes into consideration any academic preparedness disadvantages they bring with them on their first day of school.

If we make the effort to discover what they know and help them begin building on that foundation, one success at a time, it is only a matter of our patient time and attention until a motivation to learn takes root. From that point on, with the help of caring teachers and parents working together, there will be no stopping them.

Imagine a future in which every child who graduates from high school has the knowledge, skills, confidence, and determination to create a positive future for themselves and their families.

It takes thirteen years to help a child progress from Kindergarten to the moment they walk off a stage with a diploma that is more than just a meaningless piece of paper, so we must start now! We cannot afford to squander another day, let alone waste another child.

That millions of disadvantaged students, many of whom are black and other minorities, are failing in school is an indisputable fact of life in America. Because this has been going on for generations, urban and rural communities throughout the U.S. are full of multiple generations of men and women who have always failed in school and have always been poor. Consider the possibility that this is not an inevitable outcome of poverty and segregation.

I suggest an alternate reality in which poverty and segregation exist because so many children have been failing for so long. It is a chicken versus the egg conundrum, I know. The reality is that the failure of so many children and the poverty and segregation within which they live, are like a Gordian knot; intertwined, interdependent, and seemingly impenetrable.

Disadvantaged students fail not because they are incapable of learning and not because our teachers are incompetent rather because these kids arrive for their first day of school with an academic preparedness deficiency. They start from behind and are expected to keep up with more “advantaged” class mates and with academic standards and expectations that make no allowance or accommodation for their disadvantages. As these children are pushed ahead before they are ready, they begin to fall behind.

What do any of us do when we discover that we are unable to compete and begin to lose/fail repeatedly? When we fail, again and again, we get discouraged and if the pattern continues, we give up and stop trying. If we are a child in a classroom, we begin to act out.

Our teachers, who have worked hard to help us, begin to perceive us as slow learners and begin to accept our failure as inevitable. Our classmates begin to perceive us as dumb and this affects the way they interact with and think about us. This reality makes it easy for them to target us, first for teasing, then insults, and then bullying.

Worst of all, we begin to view ourselves as unequal and it damages our self-esteem. When this happens anytime, especially at an early age, the impact on our self-esteem and our view of our place in the world can be altered for the rest or our lives. We begin to think of ourselves as separate and apart.

This is tragic because it is so unnecessary. We can begin altering this reality, immediately, if educators would simply open their eyes to the reality, on the one hand, that this is not our fault, and on the other, that we have the power to change the reality and end the failure.

All these kids need is the time and the patient attention of one or more teachers who care about them. For 5 and 6-year old children warm, nurturing relationships that allow the children to feel loved and safe are as essential to their well-being as the air they breathe. Such relationships are an essential variable in the education equation. This is true for all kids, even those with loving parents. For children who do not feel loved and safe at home, such relationships may be the only deterrent to the schoolhouse to jailhouse track.

This latter group of children pose a significant challenge because many of them have learned not to trust.

For this reason, schools must make forming such relationships their overriding priority. That means not only making the formation of such relationships a primary expectation for teachers but also crafting an environment that fosters and sustains such relationships. Because of the background of these youngsters, great care must be taken to ensure that these relationships, once formed, endure. One of the best ways to ensure that they endure is to give the child more than one teacher with whom they can bond and by keeping them together for an extended period of time.

The next step in the creation of a no-failure zone is to do a comprehensive assessment of each new student’s level of academic preparedness and then tailor an academic plan to give them the unique support they require to be successful. Student’s must be given however much time they need to begin learning and then building on what they know, one success at a time. Each success must be celebrated. Celebrating an individual’s successes and even their nice tries, is a powerful form of affirmation that helps them develop a strong and resilient self-esteem. There is nothing that ignites a motivation to learn in the hearts and minds of children more than learning that they can create their own success.

Interestingly, teachers who have never experienced success in reaching these most challenging students will be on a parallel path in their own career development. They are also learning that they can be successful with even their most challenging students.

Children discover that success is not an event, it is a process that often includes a few stumbles along the way. If we teach them that each stumble is nothing more than a mistake and that we all make mistakes, kids begin to view their stumbles as learning opportunities and as an inherent part of the process of success.

Because of the way the current, obsolete education process has evolved, many teachers have become disconnected from their purpose. They have come to view themselves as scorekeepers and passers of judgment.

What we want all teachers and administrators to understand it that we have only one purpose and that is to help children learn. Starting from their first day of school, and over the next thirteen years or so, our purpose is to help them gain the knowledge, skill, wisdom, and understanding they will need to make a life for themselves and their families. Our job is to ensure that they have a wide menu of choices determined by their unique talents and interests. We want them to be able to participate in their own governance and in the American dream.

For children of color, we must help them develop the powerful self-esteem that will make them impervious to the ravages of discrimination and bigotry. However much we might want to legislate an end to the racism in the hearts of man, it is not within our power to do. The best we can do is to make sure not a single child is left defenseless. Every successful man or woman of color has faced the pain and heartache of discrimination in their lives but because they were not defenseless, they have been able to create incredible achievements for themselves, their families, and for society.

One young child even grew up to be President of the United States. Who knows, there might be a boy or girl in your class who has, within him or her, the makings of a future President. Our challenge as educators is to make sure each boy and girl gets the opportunity to develop their unique potential.

Imagine a future in which every young man or woman of color, or who was once disadvantaged, leaves high school with the skills, knowledge, wisdom, talent, and motivation to become a full-fledged player in the American enterprise; to partake fully in the American dream. This is the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned and for which the heroes of the civil rights movement sacrificed so much.

Please take time to read my White Paper and Education Model at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ Please read it, not in search of reasons why it will not work, rather in hope that it might. Utilize it as a spark to ignite your own imagination.

Brainstorming Session!

How many times throughout your lifetime have you heard other people say “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

The way you are asked to teach your students, today in 2018, is because someone, many decades ago, sat down and designed an education system in a way they thought would make it easy to teach kids. In present times, we continue that tradition of one teacher per classroom of 35 or fewer children.

Now, imagine that you and the other teachers at your school decided to create an opportunity to spend a day brainstorming, without the participation of administrators telling you what you can and cannot do. Imagine that the challenge you were given was to create an education model from scratch that would enable you to do all the things you have always wanted but were unable to do with and for your students. Would it look anything like the education process in which you work today?

Go ahead and try it! Plan a brainstorming session some weekend and see what happens. What do you have to lose?

Like seeds, ideas germinate the easiest when planted in fertile soil so, to kick it off and get everyone in an “exponential-thinking mindset” so you can all think outside the box. Someone told me recently that “think outside the box” has become cliché. The phrase might be cliché but the process of getting outside of one’s frame of reference is an essential tool of creative thinking.

Suggest to your colleagues that they review my education model before arriving for your brainstorming session at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ just to get a glimpse of what might exist beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Then, set both my model and “the way you have always done it” aside and have at it. Start with a clean whiteboard and no constraints. There is no such thing as an idea too crazy to consider.

Start by going around the room and asking every participant, one after another, to identify anything and everything they can think of that children need in order to learn. Do not stop until there are no more ideas. Then, work together to try to consolidate and prioritize that list, but do not erase anything. Remember, you want to teach the whole child and even the smallest things might make an enormous difference. Once you have completed this step then start back around and begin to suggest ways you could organize yourselves to ensure that every child has every one of his or her needs, met.

Remind yourself that the existing education process was designed a century ago and things have changed since then; in fact, everything has changed since then, many times over. Educators have experimented with modifications and there have been many innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies over the decades, but the original model is still at work in public schools, as well as private and parochial school, all over the U.S.

The reason these ideas have not proven successful is not because they were bad ideas and not because teachers are incapable. The innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies have been disappointing because we tried to force them into an outmoded and brittle process. As I have written, before, it is like the parable of storing new wine in old wineskins that leak and turn sour the wine we had worked so hard to produce.

Today, you are teaching in an archaic structure and process only because that’s the way we’ve always done it. This would be okay if the way we teach worked for everyone. But, of course, we know it does not.

Some of you might be thinking, “it works in my school” but if there is a single failing grade in even one teacher’s gradebook, then a child has failed. There are many schools where it we be difficult to count all the failing grades that have been recorded in the gradebooks of all the teachers in a given school over the course of a semester.

We have been conditioned to think this is the best we can do and that the responsibility for the failure of children who live in poverty, a disproportionate percentage of whom are also children of color, must be borne by society, not our public schools.

As education reformers and other critics of public education have become more aggressive and are now offering alternatives to traditional public schools, it is only natural that public school teachers have grown defensive. That it is why it is vital that public school teachers, administrators, and policymakers step back and challenge their fundamental assumptions about what they do and why. It is my belief that teachers are in the best position to take responsibility for this process because they are close to the problems. Teachers live with the challenges of teaching every day and they witness the struggles and failure of children.

Consider one last chilling thought. We have noted that educators suggest that it is up to society to address the problems of poverty before teachers can be expected to teach millions of our nation’s disadvantaged students. Guess what? Society has done something to address the issues of poverty that make it so difficult to meet the needs of all our nation’s children; needs that are often extraordinary.

Over the past fifty years, American society has spent trillions of dollars building school buildings in communities all over the U.S. and have staffed them with the most qualified teachers our colleges and universities can produce. Society has been waiting on you, the best teachers we can produce, to find a solution because the American people don’t have a clue. You, America’s teachers—unsung heroes all—are the only Americans who truly understand the needs of the children with whom you work every single day.

America needs each of you to put your heads together and come up with a new way of teaching that will allow every child to learn and be successful in the classroom and that will refuse to let a single child fail. You know better than anyone that your students do not start off from the same point with respect to academic preparedness and with reference to your state’s academic standards; you know that they do not all have supportive parents; you know they do not all learn at the same pace; and you even know that there is no expectation that they will all arrive at the same destination. You also know that they are children and that they need us to like them, to be patient with them, to support them in every conceivable way.

You also know that our nation’s disadvantaged students, are the most vulnerable. They need us to tailor an academic process to their unique requirements and they are also the students who need us the most no matter how challenging it might be to teach them. Remember, the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.

What you may not have considered is that American society needs these kids every bit as much as they need us. We can no longer afford the enormous cost of caring for a growing population of Americans who lack the academic skills to support themselves and their families. We can no longer afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these generations of children represent if we are to rise to the unprecedented challenges the balance of this Twenty-first Century will present.

Finally, we all need to understand that we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices in the hearts of the American people. Neither can we legislate an end to the resentment, bitterness, and anger in the hearts of Americans who are frustrated that they are asked to pay taxes to support people whom they perceive to be unwilling to support themselves. What we can do, gradually, is to reduce the population of Americans who have become entrapped in a maelstrom of poverty, failure, hopelessness, and powerless; thus, leaving others to find something else to be angry and embittered about.

This is not something that can be done in a day. After all, it takes eighteen years to raise a child and it takes thirteen years in school to help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and understanding they will need to have choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning when they leave high school. They must, also, be able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy.

Teachers, I urge you not to wait for someone else to fix the problems in our nation’s public schools. And do not forget that education reformers are working hard and spending huge sums of money to take that responsibility away from you. Scariest of all, these reformers haven’t taken the time to understand the real challenges in our public schools and are oblivious to the harm they do. You, our teachers, are the only ones who can stop the reformers and the only way to stop them is to render them irrelevant.

Seeing the Forest through the Trees

How is it that some of the nation’s most intelligent and accomplished people overlook a simple truth. As trite as it may be, the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees!” is as true as it is timeless. In the midst of the trees, or any other complex reality, it is incredibly difficult to see the whole of which we are apart. The consequence of being so immersed in the detail is that we are not fully aware of the external forces that influence whatever it is that we do. Without that broader perspective and the knowledge and understanding it provides, we find it difficult to resolve the challenges we face.

The analogy is very much like the reality in public education. Public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers work hard to address the challenges they face, particularly those in communities populated by large numbers of disadvantaged students, and yet satisfactory solutions elude us. Public school teachers and administrators seem disconnected from what outsiders perceive as the reality. Educators judge their work by the effort and commitment they put into teaching our children while those outside of the system judge the work of our schools by the performance of its graduates. Far too often those assessments are on opposite ends of the curve.

That raises the operative question. How do we judge any process developed to produce a product, service or any other outcome? Do we judge those outcomes by how hard people think they work and how much they say they care, or by the quality and utility of the outcomes, themselves?

The incremental improvements made in public schools over the last half century are comparable to course corrections of a ship at sea. The corrections are intended to allow the ship to arrive more quickly to its destination. If the destination, itself, is incorrect, however, the course adjustments are not only irrelevant, they might divert us even farther from our destination.

With respect to our system of public education, the education process as it is currently designed is neither tasked, structured, nor resourced to optimize each child’s academic success, particularly disadvantaged kids. The data from public schools in communities all over the U.S. supports this assertion. What we hear so often from public school educators is that “public schools are better than they have ever been.”

How these educators respond to challenges about the low performance of disadvantaged students provides insight into our dilemma. What educators say is that the performance of these kids is a consequence of poverty and segregation and fixing these socio-economic issues is the responsibility of society; not public schools and teachers. The unfortunate result of this disavowal of responsibility is that, in response to a half-century of poor performance of the disadvantaged, public school educators have made no substantive changes to the education process. They have, instead, relied on incremental improvements that are as irrelevant to American society as the course corrections at sea, by ships steaming toward the wrong destination.

It is clear to this observer—one who has spent an entire career working to help my organizations and clients fix ineffectual processes on the one hand and who has walked in the shoes of public school teachers while subbing, on the other—that the education process at work in our schools is fatally flawed. Because it is flawed, it has proven almost impossible for children who start at a disadvantage to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to escape poverty and become fully productive and responsible citizens. The fact that public school educators have done nothing to address this critical deficiency is the motivating force behind the education reform movement.

What we need from public school educators is for them to acknowledge what they know to be true. The process does not work for disadvantaged kids.

The good news is that the reinvention of the education process is a relatively easy thing to do. All it requires is that we take the time to re-examine what it is that all kids need, including the disadvantaged, and then engineer a structure that is designed for the express purpose of meeting those needs. This is what this author has done in creating a new education model.

So what do kids need?

1) What kids need is more time on lessons with which they struggle. They must not be pushed to move on to the next lesson before they have mastered a current one. As success on many lessons depends on a student’s ability to apply what they have already learned, struggling students are set up for failure, are rarely able to catch up, and fall further behind. This repetitive bruising of young egos is devastating. .

2) What kids need is a fair starting point on a unique academic plan that builds on what they know and what they can do. What matters is whether each of the children for whom we are responsible learns as much as they are able at their own best speed. Students are not competing with one another in the classroom rather they are each laying their own foundation and building for their own unique futures.

3) What kids need are warm and nurturing relationships with all of the adults who share responsibility for teaching, protecting, caring, and advocating for them and the more such people there are the better off the child.

4) Children need the people who care, protect, teach, and advocate for them to work together as a team. The more these educators, mentors, and care givers communicate with one another and work together, the better it is for the child. This need places a premium on the parents and teachers working together as partners to be a positive force in the lives of our children.

5) Children need these relationships to be stable and enduring. We want each child to have the same quality of relationships that many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers. Often, it takes an entire school year to create these special bonds and, far too frequently, it never happens within as single school year. Once formed, why would we want to sever such relationships because it is May or June?

6) Kids need to experience and celebrate success at every opportunity. They must also learn that success is neither a destination nor a trophy. Success is a process in which we learn how to set goals and objectives, how to achieve them by learning from the mistakes we make along the way. It is the child’s mistakes that point us to areas where they need more work. We want children and teachers to think of mistakes as the building blocks of success and accomplishment.

7) Our children need to master the skills, knowledge, and discipline they will need in order to have real and meaningful choices available to them when they leave school. This is only possible when our children are able to utilize in the real world that which they have learned. If they cannot use it, they have not learned it and our job on with that child is not yet done. It serves no one’s interest when a child is allowed to fail.

Creating an education process that is tasked, structured and resourced to help children meet their needs is our responsibility and it is eminently doable. It simply requires that we acknowledge that the existing process is irreparable and then go back to the drawing board.

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.

A Holiday Wish for American School Children!

It does not seem all that significant when a child in the early grades is asked to move on to the next lesson before he or she has mastered the current one. It happens slowly at first and teachers strive to give each child the help they need. Once a student has fallen behind the first time the odds that he or she will fall behind a second, third, or fourth time, increases. Gradually, as they are compelled to keep the class moving the frequency with which it happens inures teachers to the tragedy unfolding in their classrooms.

With each such incident the probability grows that falling behind will become a recurring theme. Very quickly students find themselves on the precipitous path to habitual failure. It is the slipperiest of slopes and it is a rare student who his able to climb out of the vortex.

The reader is urged to sift through your own memories for a time when you fell behind, even if only briefly. Do you remember the panic of falling behind or not understanding? Most of us do remember such experiences because they were traumatic. Imagine how you would have felt had academic failure become a recurring pattern in your life; day after day, week after week, semester after semester, and year after year.

Look up the standardized test scores for public schools in your area. Pay particular attention to the standardized tests that are utilized in high schools to determine qualifications for graduation. In Indiana we call these End of Class Assessments (ECA). Passing the ECAs in key subjects is an essential qualification for graduation. How many schools report that 20 to 30 percent of the 10th graders failed to pass one or more of their ECAs? How many schools report failure rates of greater than 30 percent?

Many of these students will still graduate because they will have subsequent opportunities to take their ECAs after remediation classes. Others will be granted waivers in which other measures have been utilized to determine eligibility for graduation. Their graduation notwithstanding, most of these young men and women will find that they are qualified for only the most menial and low-paying jobs in their communities. They are limited to such choices because they are unable to demonstrate even the most rudimentary levels of literacy and numeracy.

Although these students are a diverse group, demographically, a disproportionate number of these young adults are poor and/or black. Where do you think they will end up? If we are honest with ourselves we know they face a bleak future and will likely produce children with bleak futures. Many will spend their lives in poverty and some will be in and out of correctional facilities.

Once a week, I test young men and women who want to join the military. Week after week, anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of these young people who take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) fail to get the minimum score necessary to be eligible for enlistment.

When I hand them the envelope, as they leave the testing room, I am thankful that I am unable to see their faces when they read their score. I can only imagine how dejected they must feel as this window of opportunity, for which they had such high hopes, slams shut in their faces. Most who fail will return in 30 days to do a retest.

“I think I will do better, this time,” they tell me. “I have really studied!”

It is almost impossible to make up, in 30 days of cramming, what the rest of us have learned over our 12 years of primary and secondary education and the vast majority of the retest candidates see little if any improvement in their scores. After another 30 days they can take the ASVAB a third time, and after another 6 months they can take it for the fourth time. Rarely are these efforts rewarded.

One young man actually asked me, one evening, “How are we supposed to know this stuff?” And, he asked it not with sarcasm but with a look of utter despair. Think about his question. I checked his information and this young man was listed as a high school graduate. It is a cruel trick of nature that, so often, we are called upon to make important decisions that will impact the rest of our lives well before we have gained the maturity to decide wisely.

We call these kids failures and we blame poverty, racism, and segregation but we are horribly wrong. These children—our students—fail because the educational process we make available to them is neither designed nor structured to give them what they need and what they deserve.

We also blame teachers but in this we are also terribly wrong. The overwhelming majority of teachers do the absolute best they can under the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. Any culpability they must bear is not because they do not work hard or lack commitment. Rather it is because they do not step back and challenge the reasons why we keep doing what we do in spite of the consistently disappointing outcomes for so many students.

The best, and also the saddest, thing of all is that it does not have to be this way. All that is required of us, if we truly wish to change the reality of public education for so many of our nation’s children, is to accept responsibility for challenging our assumptions about what we do and why.

What a wonderful gift it would be if we would refuse to accept failure and pledge to give each and every student the time and patience they need to progress from one lesson to the next at the best speed of which they are capable; without regard for the performance of their classmates.

Donald Trump: Illusion of Bold Leadership

The willingness of so many Americans to embrace Donald Trump as a legitimate candidate for President is evidence of just how frustrated Americans are with the leadership in Washington, whether President Obama, whom so many demonize, or a dysfunctional Congress.

Trump’s immediate popularity is also a function of a desire for quick and easy answers to the seemingly overwhelming cascade of challenges facing our nation, its people, and the world community.

We do need bold, new leadership with fresh insight into the unprecedented number of issues of the Twenty-first Century but Donald Trump provides only the illusion of bold and fresh thinking; the kind one would expect to find on any of the inane reality shows on television.

The more frustrated we become with the challenges facing our society the more tempted the masses are to abandon good judgment and also the core principles of democracy. The truth is, the more complicated and critical the issues become the more important it is to cling to our democratic principles. Relinquishing those principles, however briefly we might envision doing so, is the single-most dangerous strategy a free people can contemplate.

The problem is heightened by the fact that we often confuse our democratic principles with over-simplified political dogma, catch phrases, and clichéd solutions. I love, for example, the assertion that we can turn our country around if we just cut spending or balance the budget. How could the logic be any simpler? Is it not common sense? The answer, of course, is only if we ignore the realities of society.

The reality is that a full third to nearly half of the American people depend upon their government for their economic survival. The underlying theme of conservative ideology is to cut off the poor, the infirm, the disenfranchised, and illegal immigrants because we can no longer afford to support their dependency. We quietly include the growing population of the elderly in this sweeping agenda but we are careful not to mention them too loudly. Neither do we draw attention to the fact that so many of the poor are minorities.

It would be one thing if the proponents of such radical spending cuts offered up alternative solutions to the problems facing the unfortunate members of our society but, of course, they do not. Rather they offer up the metaphoric equivalent of “Let them eat cake!” And, we have not addressed the enormous cost of protecting our environment and rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Sadly, this burgeoning population of Americans, many of whom have lost all faith and hope in the American dream, are the product of 65 years’ worth of dysfunctional policy making; both democrat and republican and both liberal and conservative.

If we cut them off, where do our leaders think these people will go? Will they quietly disappear and let the rest of us go on with our lives?

The growth of this population of vulnerable Americans will accelerate in the aftermath of our nonsensical policies regarding public education, poverty, healthcare, aging, employment, immigration, and Social Security. The greater their number the louder will be their clamor and the more reactionary will be the response of “middle Americans” and the government representing them.

The greater the enmity between the “haves” and the “have nots” the more incendiary our society. The social wildfire that will burst forth as a result of an inevitable spark will rage more furiously than anything we have experienced to date. How can a nation survive leadership that so egregiously neglects the needs and interests of such an enormous segment of its population while claiming to represent and serve the American people?

If we do not find meaningful solutions to these challenges the future will not be pretty and the more vulnerable we become as a nation the bolder will be the response of the nations that compete with the U.S. for economic, political, and military supremacy.

If we are to have any hope of sustaining the great American democracy throughout the balance of the Twenty-first Century we must find a way to bring our entire population on board as productive members of a fully participatory democracy. Not an easy task, to be sure, but it is impossible only if we fail to pull our heads out of the landfill of the past century’s failed policies and outworn platitudes.

Our future can be secured only if we reach beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom for real solutions to public education, healthcare, poverty, immigration, discrimination, and the environment using all of our imagination and ingenuity. Only when we learn to think exponentially will new and innovative solutions be discovered that can meet the challenges of the Twenty-first Century and beyond.

In addition to this blog, Mel Hawkins is the author of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, a nonfiction book offering a blueprint to fix public education and transform American Society; and a novel, Light and Transient Causes, about what happens if we don’t.

Racism Places our Future at Risk!

The more diverse a population the more important it is that people learn, play, work, and live in an integrated environment. Racism is a horrible and complicated aspect of American society and it threatens the very principles of democracy. One of the great certainties of the 21st Century is that our population will become increasingly more diverse. If we are going to preserve our liberty, we must find a way to set aside our prejudices and work together. Diversity is our nation’s greatest strength. The danger occurs when we do not embrace it as such. The best way to promote diversity and end racism is through public education.

The differences in skin color are there for all to see and when all of the white kids live over here and all of the black kids live over there, it is we versus them. Rarely do the two worlds come together. Simply by changing their physical proximity between us, we create opportunities to get to know one another, up close and personal. The differences still exist and are every bit as problematic, but when we are close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes (a characteristic that is shared by human beings everywhere) we also begin to see the similarities. This is the great value of integrated public schools.

As important as it is, however, integration in our schools, public or private, is not a magic elixir that will eradicate the performance gap between white students and minority students and bring an end to racism.

Fort Wayne Community Schools provides a perfect example. This school corporation is the largest in the state of Indiana, has a highly respected black superintendent, and three of the other seven senior leadership positions are filled by black men and women. The district’s student population is 53 percent non-white and there are many minority teachers and principals throughout the district. Just as importantly, most of the schools, particularly at the middle school or high school level, have a diverse population of students. They are integrated but in spite of all of the good things this district and its professional educators do, performance gap issues remain one of its great challenges.

If academic parity is our objective, then we must do more than strive for integrated schools and classrooms. We must make accommodations for students with an “academic-preparedness disadvantage” much like we do for those who have physical, visual, hearing or emotional impairments.

We do not, for example, bring students with physical, visual, or hearing impairments into a school and expect them to find their way around like their unimpaired classmates. We find ways to make accommodations so that these children can take full advantage of their opportunity to strive for a quality education.

Why is it, then, that we bring academically disadvantaged children into our schools along with children who have no such disadvantages and hold the former to the same standards of academic performance as the latter?

It is one thing to establish academic standards that outline all of the things we want our students to learn before they graduate from high school. If we want all of our students to learn the same things and we want them all to be successful we must recognize that they are not all beginning at the same point on the academic preparedness continuum.

What we can reasonably hope to accomplish and what our objective must be is that every student arrives at the best possible destination with respect to his or her unique talents and capabilities. This is a realistic goal if we treat all children as unique individuals and place them on an academic path that is right for them and is tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses. In every other learning environment with which I am familiar, the speed with which learning takes place is the least important factor. What is important is that children do learn.

If given sufficient time and attention, most children who start off from behind will begin to catch up. If, however, we push them along a common path with no accommodation for their “academic preparedness disadvantage,” they will begin to experience failure. Over time, the failures will begin to accumulate and each failure gnaws at a child’s self-esteem. This, we cannot allow.

The biggest problems with current educational reforms and their focus on standardized testing, charter schools, and vouchers is that they are creating more separation between various demographic groups. This may or may not be the intent of the proponents of such reforms but it is clearly the outcomes that flow from such reforms and it can only increase disparity. It is the disparity in opportunities to live the American dream that keeps us separate and apart and that keeps racism alive.

Preserving public schools that bring all components of society together is critical to the future of our democratic way of life but racism will not yield to our will, easily. We must challenge our conventional wisdom at every opportunity, every step along the way. We must also rid ourselves of our obsession with the idea that poverty is the problem. Every time we blame poverty there is a part of our mind that shuts down and we tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about poverty.

We have spent fifty years blaming poverty and declaring war on it and what has it gotten us? No one disputes that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for men, women, and children but being poor does not keep human beings from pursuing a dream. What keeps people (parents and their children) from pursuing a dream is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty; it is when they have given up and no longer dream of a better life for themselves or for their children.

Individuals may not be able to do anything about poverty but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one child, one family, one teacher, one classroom, and one school at a time. To do so we must shake ourselves out of our lethargy and latch onto that which is in our power to do.

One last word about segregated schools. Many of our nation’s most challenged public schools are segregated on the basis of race and each year they perform poorly on state competency exams. We tend to look at these schools and brand both the schools and their teachers as subpar, as failures. This is a gross misjudgement. Many of the teachers at these unfortunate schools are remarkable men and women who are committed to doing the absolute best for the students in their classrooms.

Unlike many of their former colleagues, who ran out of these schools screaming and hollering, these public school teachers return every fall and arrive for work every day to make a difference in the lives of as many of their students as possible, even if it only a handful. These men and women deserve our thanks and appreciation as they are true American heroes. Even more than our thanks and appreciation, these teachers need our help. They need us to stop blaming them for the problems in their classrooms, in their schools, and in the neighborhoods they serve. They need us to support them in what they do rather attacking them and stripping away the limited resources with which they strive to do their important work.

An Invitation to Read: “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream”

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, challenges both the conventional thinking about why so many American children fail and many of the education reform initiatives that are sweeping the nation including the focus on standardized testing, blaming teachers, privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and the corresponding abandonment of our most challenged rural and urban public schools.

The book was inspired by my ten years as a substitute teacher for a public schools district; my experience as a juvenile probation officer during the first nine years of my career; and, by over thirty years of leadership development and consulting experience in organizations where I was responsible for hiring, training, and then both leading and holding the employees of my organizations accountable. Most importantly it was inspired by my experience in applying a “Systems Thinking” approach to understand why systems and processes fail and then to reinvent them to produce desired outcomes. I have Masters Degrees in both Education and Public Affairs and have written four books.

Because we are asking the wrong questions in our search for meaningful solutions to the problems of public education, current reforms are woefully misguided. The correct question is “what are the characteristics common to children who succeed,” not “why children fail.” We need to understand why children fail but we must build our solutions around things that work.

In public schools all over the US, there are examples of children from impoverished families who find a way to excel academically. Whether white or black, from intact or fractured families these children share a common advantage. They are supported by parents who cling to hope that an education offers a way out for their sons and daughters. These mothers, fathers, and often grandparents are relentless in the expectations they hold out for their children. They take responsibility for their children’s success and they partner with their children’s teachers. Unlike so many of today’s students, the children of these parents arrive for their first day of school well-prepared and well-motivated.

While poverty creates tremendous disadvantages, it is not the reason why children fail so often. A fundamental premise of this work is that the problem with public education in America is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty and that permeates so many communities throughout the U.S., irrespective of race. I suggest that it is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that contributes to the burgeoning population of parents who have given up on the American dream and on education as a way out for their children. We declared war on it a half century ago but poverty is so huge and amorphous that we feel powerless in its wake. We can do something about hopelessness and powerlessness, however. I show how we can attack that hopelessness, relentlessly, even if it is only one family, one school, or one community at a time.

The other main problem with public education in America is an educational process that is, essentially, early 20th Century technology that has not been substantially modified in over a century. It is an obsolete system that is structured to produce the outcomes it gets and is simply inadequate to meet the needs of Twenty-First Century America and its children. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets children up for failure and humiliation while actually impeding the ability of teachers to do what our children so desperately need them to do and what they so desperately want to do. The system has left generations of adults bitter and resentful and is the cause of teacher burnout on an unacceptable scale. Ironically, it is system that also does a disservice to the thirty to forty percent of the student population who seem to perform well.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream offers thirty-three interdependent action strategies to transform public education in America. They are interdependent because incremental changes and half-measures will not work. The first nineteen strategies are focused on reinventing the educational process to one that is focused on success and subject mastery. It offers specific recommendations to structure the system to produce the outcomes we want by focusing on the relationship between teachers and students. This new model will help teachers teach and foster the ability of teachers to develop long-standing, nurturing relationships with their students and parents. I offer an educational process in which children can learn that success is a process that all can master.

The remaining fourteen action strategies are focused on attacking hopelessness and powerlessness in the community and speaks specifically to the problem of the performance gap between white students and their black and other minority classmates. This performance gap is the most destructive aspect in all of public education. If public education is going to work we need to re-engage parents as critical partners in the education of their children.

I believe that business practices can make a significant and meaningful contribution to the challenges facing public education but I am not talking about principles from the boardrooms with which so many reformers and politicians have become enamored. The business principles to which I refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer; structuring an organization to serve its purpose; leadership development; problem solving; teamwork; integrating quality assessments into the educational process; and, giving teachers, administrators, and their staff the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

It has been two years since Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream was released and, like most authors, there are things I wish I had said differently. If I were re-writing the book today I would minimize, if not eliminate altogether, the discussion about PISA results and comparisons with other nations as I have come to believe they are meaningless.

That being said, it is vital that we understand that the U.S. is being challenged by existing and emerging players in the international marketplace and our supremacy, both economically and politically, is at risk. I am convinced that this makes finding a solution to the challenges of public education the most important item on the American agenda.

Improving the quality of education for every single child in the U.S. is the only way to meaningfully address the problems of poverty and racism that threaten to undermine our democratic traditions.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions at amazon.com and melhawkinsandassociates.com.

Racism, The Achievement Gap, and Public Education, Part 2

This is the second of our series of articles that are offered to address the issues that face children of color and also white children who live in poverty in this the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.

We begin with the simple idea that it is time to draw a line in the sand and say that we will no longer tolerate a world in which some Americans are denied access to the American dream. This demands that
we shift our focus to those things over which we have control and not squander our precious time and energy fretting about things that are outside the power of individual human beings to change.

It is like being stuck in the mud. Do we complain about our plight or start digging ourselves out.

We cannot, for example, go back and change several hundred years of history in which black men and women were brought to this continent in chains, nor the first 100 years following the Emancipation Proclamation during which black Americans were forced to live as second-class citizens, nor the 50 years since Civil Rights laws were passed; legislation that raised the expectations of African-American and other minorities but without altering the reality in which so many live in poverty, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

We cannot go back and change the reality that has greeted the millions of Latinos who have migrated to this country in recent years, whether legally or not.

We cannot legislate changes in the hearts of so many white Americans that are laced with bigotry and prejudice, whether blatant or subtle.

Neither can we legislate a change in the hearts and minds of those police officers who are predisposed to act with bias and excessive force. The best we can do demand that our communities hold abusers accountable and tighten our entrance requirements.

We cannot erase, through legislation action or executive orders, the economic disadvantages that have led generations of Americans to rear their children and live in poverty. Recall that President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty a half century ago and ask yourself if anything has changed. Most of us would say things have gotten steadily worse.

We have not been successful in our attempts to legislate an end to the institutional racism that has plagued and continues to plague black men, women, and children and the families of other minorities; institutional racism that is invisible to the overwhelming majority of white Americans. Civil rights laws have been on the books for a half century and have been routinely enforced and upheld by our nation’s courts of law, yet still these realities persist.

We cannot undo the damage that has been done to minds and egos of generations of children who have been victims of an educational process that has taught them how to fail nor can we undo a long history of academic failure that has led generations of young parents to relinquish their belief that an education is a ticket to the American dream and provides a way for their children to escape the clutches of poverty.

As much as we might wish to do all of the above they are not within our power and no amount of complaining about the injustice of these realities will alter that fact. The more we dwell on things we cannot change the more immersed we are in our paradigms of powerlessness and hopelessness.

We are not powerless, however, and we need not be hopeless. We have it within our power to draw a line of demarcation in the sand and say “no more!” All it requires is that we begin doing things differently from two strategic fronts, simultaneously.

We must alter, once and for all, the balance of power that drives legislation and policy making in the American political landscape. How we do this will be the topic of the next series of articles we will be writing but it begins with the reality that the conservative political power structure in the U.S. that, today, is driven by conservative “tea party” ideology, does not represent anywhere close to a majority of the American people. The problem, of course is that the majority of Americans have stopped participating in their own governance because they have given up hope that anything they do will make a difference.

In a recent post, Phyllis Bush, a great friend to public education, talked about choosing collaboration over competition. If the following groups of Americans would come together to form a political coalition they would have more than enough political clout to turn both our federal and state legislative branches upside down and also our federal and state executive branches.

Who would make up this coalition? The answer is all of the people whose political needs and interests are being ignored by those currently in power. They include:

• All African-American; Hispanic-American; and other ethnic, racial, and religious minorities; and also those who face discrimination due to sexual orientation;

• All professional educators working in public schools throughout America;

• All parents who depend on public schools for the education of their children; and,

• All of the men and women in America who work for a living and who are union members or who would belong to a union had that right not been taken from them.

We need to leave the tradition of Republican and Democrat behind. The reality, today, is that it is the Tea Party and their conservative supporters versus the people. Maybe we need to call it the “People’s Party,” making it clear, however, that this is not a socialist or communist agenda.

The other strategic front is American public education. We have the power to begin changing, from the inside out, the forces that keep poor and minority children from getting the education they need to break out of poverty. We can do this, however, only if we are willing to open our hearts and minds and re-examine our fundamental assumptions about the way we structure the educational process at work in American schools; about the way we teach children.

All that is required of us is that we be willing to step back and think systemically about the way the process is structured and how it produces outcomes that are so devastating to precious young lives.

If we do this honestly, and without feeling the need to excuse ourselves from blame or responsibility, it is so very easy to do. We should not waste one nanosecond worrying about blame or fault. What we can do—what we must do—is accept responsibility for doing things differently, beginning this very moment.

There is a simple but powerful axiom that we must keep at the forefront of our minds:

“It is not until we accept responsibility for the problems in our lives that we begin to acquire the power to solve them.”

Clearly the key is public education. If we are able to provide all children, not just affluent white children, the knowledge and skills they need in order to carve out full and productive lives for themselves then we can begin narrowing the performance gap until it disappears forever. We can begin by identifying outcomes that are acceptable to us and that will give all children an opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. Then, it is simply a matter of structuring the process in such a way that it can and will produce those outcomes. We will show the reader exactly how this can be done in our last segment. Before we do so, however, there is one last point of discussion we must consider in the upcoming third post in this series.