What School Could Be, 2018, by Ted Dintersmith

A Five Star Review by Mel Hawkins

 

If you are an educator, parent, grandparent, or are just concerned about the quality of education being provided to our nation’s children, What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, (WSCB) by Ted Dintersmith is a must read. It is a look at what school in America could be, juxtaposed with the reality in an overwhelming majority of American schools.

Many educators have said that reading about these “teachers and children in ordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things”  has given them hope, inspiration, and encouragement. For teachers struggling with the day-to-day challenges of “teaching to the test,” finding encouragement and inspiration is reason enough to read Ted Dintersmith’s book.

We can only hope that teachers, administrators, and policy makers are shaken and motivated by Dintersmith’s core message that “our education system is stuck in time, training students for a world that no longer exists.” His challenge to educators is that “Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on life’s sidelines, jeopardizing the survival of civil society.”

Over the past eight years, I have been comparing the American education process to a 1950s assembly line with an obsolete quality system, producing piles of discrepant material. These piles are the allegorical equivalent of remedial classrooms full of high school students unable to pass state competency exams. We place the future of our democratic society at risk when we send these young men and women out into the world, with or without a high school diploma, unprepared for the challenges of the Twenty-first Century workplace. For young people entering adulthood with few skills and choices, the American dream quickly becomes a nightmare.

It is my hope that American teachers, administrators, and policy makers will rally around someone of Ted Dintersmith’s stature and platform and be motivated to act; with a sense of urgency. I also hope those of us with a vision for our schools can work together to bring it to life.

In WSCB, Dintersmith suggests that our schools must help students develop: PEAK (Purpose, Essentials, Agency, and Knowledge). He suggests that these things “abound in preschools, kindergartens, and Montessori schools—places where children love school, learn deeply and joyously, and master essential skills.”

How ironic is it that learning is fun until children arrive at school where such initiatives as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other policies have “shoved PEAK out of our classrooms.”

“The purpose of U.S. education. . ,” Ted Dintersmith writes, describing the current reality, “. . . is to rank human potential not develop it.” And, that “’College ready’ impedes learning and innovation in our K-12 schools.”

The journey on which WSCB takes its readers provides examples of schools, in diverse communities throughout America, that focus on “hands-on learning” where children are challenged with “real-world problems.” You will see students who are excited by learning and teachers who are fulfilled by teaching. It reveals a vision of education where students develop their unique potential and leave school with knowledge, skills, and abilities they can utilize in the real world, rather than with abstract academic concepts they may or may not be able to regurgitate on standardized tests, let alone apply in life.

One of the people Dintersmith encountered on his excursion was a chief of staff to a state governor whose attitude reflects the scope of the challenge facing those of us seeking to transform education in America. This aide said, in response to his query, “Look. I know everything I need to know about education. You don’t need to tell me anything.”

One can only wonder how anyone could ever think they know everything there is to know about anything? Breaking through this kind of resistance is the challenge educators face and if you are a teacher in a classroom, the sense of powerlessness can be overwhelming. Possibly, Ted Dintersmith and others, can give teachers hope and inspiration around which they can rally. They need not be powerless.

Teachers unions and associations were created to give teachers a voice and some sense of power over the outcomes in their professional lives. The key is for teachers and administrators to use the power of their numbers as advocates of positive ideas rather than as a forum for complaints. There are few things as powerful as a positive new idea in the hands of a community of people with a shared vision. Ted Dintersmith’s accounts of his visits around America provides his readers with real examples of things schools and teachers can do for their students.

The questions that nag at me after reading WSCB, and that have nagged at me for years, are “why do so many of the innovative programs and initiatives we read about focus on kids in high school or even middle school?” Why do we wait for children to be bored, unmotivated, and discouraged before we act? Why not begin changing the way we teach them from the moment they arrive at our door for their first day of school? Why not make learning fun and meaningful right from the start? Imagine how we would be pushed to reinvent college, high school, and even middle school if fifth grade boys and girls were successful learners prepared to take ownership of their educations.

Do not wait to read What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, 2018 by Ted Dintersmith. Go ahead and treat yourselves. You deserve it.

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.

Setting the Stage

Over the last 150 years, the educational process at work in our systems of education, both public and private, has evolved slowly through a steady stream of incremental reforms. During those same 150 years, American society has changed exponentially. A combination of a growing population; increasing diversity; immigration, both legal and not; advancements in technology that would have seemed unimaginable even two decades ago; a crumbling infrastructure; a more competitive world marketplace; a fragile and demanding ecosystem; and, a far more complex political environment place great pressure on a democratic form of government.

Democracy depends upon our public schools to prepare young people for the responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive members of society but, given the dynamic world in which we live, the American educational process is ill-equipped to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse population of children. If we were creating an educational process from scratch, given what we now know, that process would look much different than it does today. It would be structured to produce the outcomes we want.

In order to alter this reality, we must start by clarifying the purpose of public education in America. As simply as we can state that purpose, it is to prepare our nation’s children for the responsibilities of citizenship and to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and tools they will need to become productive citizens. We must work to help each child maximize their talents and abilities so they will be able to enter adulthood with a menu of choices for what they want to do with their lives in order to find happiness and meaning. We also want them to be able to create value and add wealth to society. Of equal importance is that they be able to carry out their civic responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy. This requires that they have sufficient understanding of the complex issues facing our society to make thoughtful decisions.

We want their education to be well-rounded to include language arts and mathematics skills; a solid understanding of the natural world (science); a grasp of history in hopes that they can learn from our mistakes; and, finally, a full appreciation of the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences. We need to teach them that diversity is our greatest strength as a nation.

During the balance of this Twenty-first Century, the world will continue to undergo unprecedented changes that will challenge the ability of our planet’s diverse population to live together in peace. We must address the issues of hunger, health, and economic welfare while protecting our natural habitat. We must do all of these things in the midst of the hatred some people have for others and in spite of the horrible violence people do to one another.

As a nation, we cannot be successful bickering among ourselves and neither can we meet our objectives if we must continue to support an ever-larger segment of people who live in poverty. Add caring for the steadily aging baby boomer generation and the burden will soon be overwhelming.

A significant emphasis of conservative right Americans is that it is time to cut off those who depend on government assistance. The problem, of course, is that these millions of Americans who are dependent are not going to slip away into oblivion and let the rest of the population do their own thing. We must, somehow, re-engage the poor as full and productive citizens.

We also need the millions of immigrants who have fled to the U.S., whether legally or illegally.
We must stop thinking of these people as a liability or as a danger. This population will prove to be an invaluable asset to our country and all they ask in return is the same freedom and opportunities that Americans should be able to expect.

We must also recognize that there will be a shift in political power over the balance of this century. According to the projections of the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2060, the population of non-Hispanic whites is projected to decline from 62 percent, today, to an estimated 44 percent of the total US population. Any illusions white Americans may have that they will continue to rule the roost into the latter half of this century are pure fantasy. If we are committed to the preservation of the great American democracy, we must invite the poor and the non-white to become full and equal partners. For the poor and the non-white, it is time to take charge of one’s own destiny.

What I have endeavored to do is apply a systems’ thinking approach to examine public education in America, and the educational process at work within that system, as an integral whole. Systems’ thinking, introduced by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Doubleday, New York, 1990), allows one to challenge his or her fundamental assumptions and to understand how a system is structured to produce the results it gets. One also begins to see how one’s own actions, as a player within the system, contribute to its disappointing outcomes.

Through the utilization of the tools of systems thinking and application of organizational principles, we need to identify clear objectives for the creation of an educational process that will produce the results we want and for creating the structure to support those objectives.

Today, our educational process, whether employed in a public, private, or parochial setting, is not structured to see that each child learns as much as he or she can, as quickly as he or she is able. Rather, the process is structured to move children, grouped by chronological age, along a path outlined by academic standards that are established by each state. Standardized tests are utilized to assess whether children are where the academic standards say they should be at predetermined points in time.

What the current educational process does is ask teachers to guide children down that path as if it were a race and to keep score to see who learns the most, the fastest. As children fall out along the way from ages 5 or 6 to 18, we let them accumulate along that path, much in the way a 1950s assembly line would produce a scrap pile of discrepant material. Because these children have not been successful in acquiring even a basic portfolio of knowledge and skills, they congregate in the poorest neighborhoods and communities in both urban and rural America and they begin creating a whole new generation. They congregate in these poor communities because they have nowhere else to go with the possible exception of our jails and prisons.

Reformers who push for privatization of education; standardized testing as a tool to hold teachers and schools accountable and promote charter schools and vouchers are wrong in their assertions about why so many American children are failing in our schools. In their drive to apply what they refer to as “proven business practices” they are doing great harm to our most vulnerable children, their schools and communities, and also to the public school teachers on whom so much depends. These reformers proceed with such arrogance that they never consider the possibility that they might be wrong.

These reformers are correct, however, about the need to apply proven business principles but we are not talking about the principles that come from the boardrooms with their focus on financial incentives, investments, and entrepreneurialism. The business principles to which we refer are things that can be learned from an operational perspective in a business environment. These principles have to do with things like focus on one’s customer, structuring an organization to serve its purpose, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line the tools and resources they need to help them do the best job of which they are capable.

Public school teachers and other educational professionals, while unfairly blamed for the problems in our public schools, are also wrong. They are wrong to defend an educational process that fails to meet the needs of so many of our precious children. It is my assertion that the educational process, with its focus on failure, does a disservice to even the children who appear to excel academically.

Reforms of the last two decades have attacked them to such a degree that our teachers’ defensiveness is understandable but that does not make their intransigence defensible. We need fresh insight into this vital issue. It is public education on which the futures of our nation’s children depend and it is our children on whom our nation’s future depends.

If your find merit in the following pages, I ask that you read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, (CreateSpace, 2013) and the companion blog at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com. The book is available in both Kindle and paperback format and can be ordered through Amazon.com or through my website.


Reinventing the American Educational Process and our Public Schools

For as long as anyone can remember, children at the ages of 5 or 6 have arrived for their first day of school where they, as a class, have been placed on a path from Kindergarten and first grade to twelfth grade, although not all make it to grade 12. There have always been children who fail or perform poorly in school and, over the decades, the number of failures has multiplied as one generation after another has sent its sons and daughters off to school. We now have multiple generations of families who have always failed at school and who have always been poor. With each generation, the hope in the minds of parents that an education provides a way out for their children has eroded as has their faith in the American dream.

These mothers and fathers, and sometimes grandparents and other family members, raise their children in poverty. They still send their children off to school but for many, the purpose of school has been downgraded to free daycare, five days a week, 9 months of the year. With but the fewest of exceptions, these parents and guardians no longer teach their children that an education is a ticket to the American dream, nor do they make sacrifices to help prepare their children for school or support their kids’ teachers.

These youngsters show up for their first day of school with minimal motivation to learn, little if any academic preparation, and little parental support. Often, the parents’ biggest concern is a fear that their children will be picked on by their teachers and be forced to endure other forms of discrimination, so minimal is the trust of schools on the part of many of these parents. The seemingly inevitable outcome of these realities is that each generation of the poor and the failing is even more likely to remain entrapped in the cycles of poverty and academic failure.

For decades, educators and educational policymakers have responded to this cycle of failure with a bevy of incremental reforms and initiatives and have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to fix what is wrong with public education. In their frustration with their inability to put an end to the cycle of failure, educators and policymakers alike have declared that such pervasive failure is a consequence of poverty. They suggest that we will not alter the outcomes in our schools until we do something about poverty. At no time have these educators considered that what they do contributes to the crisis or that the educational process, itself, is flawed.

The rest of us nod our heads in bewildered agreement because what else could it be? The fact that this population of the poor and the uneducated is disproportionately black or other minorities is declared to be a consequence of segregation and discrimination. Sadly, an embarrassingly large segment of mainstream America, a society still scourged by the bitterness and resentment of bigotry, believe that such outcomes are the best we can expect from children of color or for whom English is a second language. Crime and violence are viewed as inevitable outcomes. Sad commentary for a nation that boasts that it is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world and a beacon for freedom and human dignity.

These beliefs play a significant role in the tendency of some whites and some police officers to profile blacks, young men in particular, as a threat, thereby elevating the tension in even routine interactions and confrontations. This is all part of a complicated web of interdependent forces that adversely affect American society; a society comprised of unequal components. The growing number of successful, well-educated blacks and other minorities is viewed as nothing more than an anomaly by many white Americans.

The poor and minorities are becoming angrier as they find more and more doors of opportunity closed to them. Meanwhile, mainstream Americans are angrier because they resent having to support a population of men and women whom they view as unwilling to pull their own weight. They greatly resent what they view as an entitlement mentality.

The wider the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” the greater the threat to a democratic form of government that depends on the ability of reasonable men and women to work together. This ever-widening chasm contributes to a growing desire of some Americans for a more authoritarian style of leadership, a phenomenon that has been studied by such people as Marc J. Hetherington at Vanderbilt University and Jonathon Weiler at the University of North Carolina. The reader may also wish to check out an article on the subject on March 1, 2016 in Vox by Amanda Taub, and a column by Colbert I. King in the Washington Post on March 4th of this year.

It is within this context that the battle for the future of public education is being fought. On the one hand, we have business people with incredible wealth who have generously pledged huge chunks of their personal fortunes to reform education in America. These people, and those who support them in both government and in the private sector, are tired of waiting for professional educators to “clean up their act.” These education reformers are motivated by years of frustration with the difficulty in finding capable, well-educated men and women to work in their companies. They are emboldened by their absolute belief that the wealth and jobs created by their corporations are the fundamental backbone of the American economy.

These reformers have declared that if professional educators cannot fix public education “they need to get out of our way and let us run their schools like we run our businesses.” In their zeal to hold schools and teachers accountable, they have placed great emphasis on standardized competency examinations. They suggest that schools that cannot improve their performance should be taken over or closed and their teachers let go.

Their other point of emphasis is privatization through the creation of charter schools that provide alternatives so families can “choose the best available school for their children.” The words “choice” and “school choice” and derivatives have become an effective if misleading tagline for reformers and political candidates who portray themselves as “champions of public education.”
These politicians profess to be committed to the idea of “choice,” and they charge forth ignorant of both the true issues facing public education and of the harm they do. They are also proponents of voucher programs as a tool to subsidize charter and other private and parochial schools with tax dollars.

This sounds promising but it is the shallowest of promises. The problem with such strategies is not that charter schools are inherently bad rather that these reformers are abandoning our most challenged public school districts and their students and teachers. If one steps back and examines this movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”

We must not allow public education to be considered “triage” where we pick and choose to whom we will guarantee opportunities.

We seem to have lost sight of the original vision with respect to charter schools which was that such schools would become laboratories for innovative techniques and approaches that, once proven, can be rolled out for the benefit of all schools. Given the fact that many charter schools seem to do little more than replicate the traditional educational process, it should come as no surprise that few charters are outperforming their public school counterparts and that some are underperforming.

Teachers unions and associations have also been targeted by reformers who believe these entities, through their advocacy on behalf of teachers, have become obstacles in the path of educational reforms. The reality is that these corporate reformers and their conservative political supporters are against unions, irrespective of venue.

All of these reform initiatives, including “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” evidence no real understanding of the reasons why so many American children are failing. In the interim, these education reform initiatives and their proponents are a powerful force doing horrific damage to our public schools, their students and teachers, and also to the communities public schools strive to serve.

On the other side of the battle for the future of public education, we find American teachers and other educators who proclaim that our public schools are not failing. It is disappointing that teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, are so busy defending themselves from critics that they cannot translate what they see in their own classrooms into meaningful advocacy. The things they complain about in the faculty lounge or at association and union gatherings are the exact same problems to which I refer in my book.

One can only wonder how an educational system that fails nearly a third of its students can be considered to be a success. If we examine the findings of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that data suggests that 60 to 70 percent of American students perform below “proficient.” NAEP defines “proficient,” among other things, as a student being able to apply what they have learned in “real-world situations.” That we can claim the system is working, when more than half of its students are unable to apply what they have learned in response to “real-world situations,” stretches credibility.

These professionals insist that poverty is the culprit and throw up their hands in figurative despair that they are powerless to overcome the impact of it. Ridding the nation of poverty, these advocates suggest, is the responsibility of our government and of society as a whole. Educators also point to the re-segregation of our poor urban and rural public schools as a causal factor. In spite of the poverty and other challenges, these educators insist that our public schools are better than they have ever been.

There have, indeed, been many advancements in education over the years but we can only judge a system or process by the outcomes it produces, no matter how hard people are working or how well-meaning they may be.

The truth about the generations of the uneducated who live in poverty is that they are victims of a century’s worth of ineffectual government policies and an obsolete educational process that works at cross purposes with the efforts of teachers and sets children up for failure. No one can dispute that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for children but it is because of the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty that parents have given up on education and have lost faith in the American dream.

Instead of blaming poverty, we need to attack hopelessness and powerlessness, relentlessly. We need to take this logic a step further and suggest that rather than poverty being the cause of the challenges in public education, poverty is, in fact, an outcome of the crisis in public education. It is a “chicken v. the egg” conundrum, to be sure.

Poverty exists because a huge population of American men and women—the overwhelming majority of whom attended public schools—lack literacy, numeracy, and the other knowledge and skills essential to full participation in the American enterprise and in our democracy. These Americans are trapped in a maelstrom of failure and poverty and are virtually powerless to alter that reality. This fact is indisputable and to disclaim any and all responsibility for such outcomes further damages the credibility of educators. We are at a critical point in our nation’s history and being in denial serves the interests of no one.

Let us be blunt. Poverty does not keep children from learning and our insistence that poverty is to blame for the problems in public education obscures the truth and bars the path to meaningful reform. Throughout our nation’s history there are countless examples of children from impoverished families who have excelled, academically, and have escaped the clutches of poverty. This is also true, today. We have known this but because we have been asking the wrong questions, the significance of these success stories eludes us. Rather than asking “why do so many children fail?” the question we should be asking is “what are the characteristics of the children who succeed in spite of the incredible disadvantages they face?”

As it turns out, the answer to the “correct question” is the key to unlocking the secrets of both the cycles of failure and of poverty. Only when we understand the real forces at work will we be able to develop a strategy to fix public education, attack poverty, and begin transforming American society.

The reason why some kids find success in a landscape of deprivation is, first, because they are supported by a parent or guardian who, in the face of incredible odds, somehow clings to hope that an education can provide a way out for their children. Many of the educated black men and women who are reading these words know that what I say is true from their own experience. These adults owe everything to a parent or guardian who refused to let them fail.

These parents and guardians are fiercely determined that their child is going to learn and they do whatever it takes to help. They make sure their child is prepared, academically; that they are motivated to learn; that they work hard; and, these caregivers accept responsibility for their child’s education through committed partnerships with their children’s teachers. Unfortunately, these parents are the exception to the rule but that does not diminish the significance of what we can learn from their success.

The lessons we can learn from these incredible caregivers must be central to every effort to reform public education. A committed parent who believes in the American dream for their children, if not for themselves, is formidable force in the life of a child. When those parents are willing partners with their children’s teachers their power and that of the teachers is magnified. Amazing success follows.

What this means for educational reform is that, somehow, we must find a way to convince parents that an education will be the difference in the lives of their children. This is no easy task when those parents have spent a lifetime on the outside looking in and have been victims of as many as 150 years of failed promises. These parents are part of multiple generations of men and women who have been chewed up and spit out by an educational process that is focused on failure. They neither believe in the importance of education nor the integrity of teachers and other educators. These Americans are drowning in a sea of anger and despair and they do not trust the hands that reach out to help them.

If we are going to convince people, we must be able to show them that we have something new and powerful to offer that will benefit their children. There is nothing in marketing as powerful as having something new and innovative to sell. Parents and guardians must be convinced that their child will not be subjected to the cycle of failure; something they know well from their own school experience.

It is imperative that we understand that this flawed educational process threatens the very principles of democracy. Unless we act quickly, with purpose and commitment, the adverse consequences for our society will be as certain as the impact of unrestrained use of fossil fuels on our planet. These generations of American were not destined to fail, rather they were permitted to fail and until we accept responsibility for that failure, the consequences will haunt the great American democracy for generations to come.

We turn, now, to the educational process at work in schools, both public and private, throughout the U.S.; first to understand and then to figure out what must be done. What is it about this process that is having such a devastating effect on so many of our nation’s most vulnerable children, thus placing our society at risk? We need to think about what happens, today in 2016, in elementary schools throughout the nation.

The disparity in academic preparation, motivation to learn, and parental support of the children who arrive at our door on their first day of school is cavernous. The disadvantage created when a child is bereft of these essential supports is every bit as great as a child with a visual, auditory or any other type of recognized disability. The impact is probably greater for the children with “academic preparedness” impairments because these other disabilities are not always accompanied by such high levels of hopelessness and powerlessness. We have known what to do for the former group of children for a long time and so we just do it.

Since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) we have made all manner of accommodations to mitigate the disadvantages of those with physical, visual, auditory, and emotional impairments and we have spent billions of dollars toward that objective, as well we should. We have done the same for children with clearly identifiable learning disabilities.

We have had no idea what to do with students with an “academic preparedness deficiency” and so we have done next to nothing other than rely on teachers to do the best they can. Very often these children come from low-income families and live in the midst of hopelessness and powerlessness. Many are children of color or those for whom English is a second language. These children deserve the same level of accommodation as other children with impairments.

Teachers, particularly in the lower grades, do the best they can for these students within the context of the current educational process and its associated expectations. Teachers recognize that many children are faltering and they reach back and help as much as time permits. What we must understand is that educational process is not structured in such a way that helping these kids is a priority or even an expectation and this is not activity against which our teachers’ performance will be measured.

The primary focus of the educational process, rather, is on preparing the whole class for the standardized competency exams that loom in the near future. It is on the aggregate performance of the class, on such exams, that the performance of both teachers and their schools will be measured and for which they will be held accountable.

It is understood that not all children will perform well on such tests and about this educators do feel remorse. It is a numbers game, however, the essence of which is that there is a certain percentage of failure that we have learned to tolerate. A school’s performance is measured against both state averages and its own past performance.

In other words, the process is designed to view a certain level of failure as acceptable. The educational process is not perfect, we tell ourselves, and it cannot be expected to solve the problems of society that contribute to the failure of so many children; most notably poverty.
If we stop and truly think about the implications of this mindset it is difficult to fathom or justify.

Why would we ever be willing to accept the failure of a child? Why would we ever judge a child’s performance against that of his or her classmates?

Although we possess the tools and expertise with which to perform a comprehensive assessment of the extent of a child’s disadvantage when they report for their first day of school, how many schools do this? Had we made the effort to do such an assessment, we possess the know-how to design a unique instructional plan to mitigate the disadvantage of every single child who arrives at our door. This is no different than making any other type of accommodation.

While we could make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children with an academic preparation deficiency by performing such assessments and creating tailored instructional plans, even this is insufficient if we do not also address the fundamental flaws in the educational process. It is a process that expects teachers to move students forward, as a class, even when some students are not ready. Every time a student is expected to move on to a new lesson before they are ready reduces the odds that the child will be successful on the next lesson. As this pattern plays out the one lesson kids are learning is that they are not able to keep up with their classmates. Sooner or later these kids will give up on themselves.

Sometime around the year 2007, I had an epiphany. I began subbing for Fort Wayne Community Schools in 2002 and for the first couple of years I was so overwhelmed by the challenges of subbing that I rarely found the time or the presence of mind to really think about what was happening around me. In this respect, I was much like the teachers for whom I was filling in. This changed when I accepted a week-long sub assignment for a middle school math teacher. I wrote about that experience and it is one of six vignettes that I included in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream (CreateSpace 2013). I have reproduced that vignette here:

Vignette #1 – Fort Wayne, IN – Middle school Math – Substitute Teacher

It is not very often that a substitute teacher actually has an opportunity to teach. One of the few occasions when I was able to teach was in a week-long assignment for a middle school math teacher. After two days of work on material having to do with prime factoring, rules of divisibility, and reducing to lowest terms, the students in three separate classes took a quiz, which the teacher had prepared in advance. It included twenty-five problems; all very similar to the problems that had been included on the several worksheets on which we had been working. This particular teacher went to great lengths to insure that his students did not cheat. The students sat at round tables, four students per table. He had acquired interlocking boards that were about twenty-four inches high for the purpose of dividing the table into four equal sections. Prior to every quiz or exam, the students would retrieve the boards from behind a cabinet and would set them up. As a result, it would be difficult if not impossible for a student to copy off of a classmate without being seen.
Given the time we had spent on the subject matter and the relatively straightforward nature of the material, I had high expectations, believing the students would do well on the quiz. To my surprise and disappointment, the results were that better than fifty percent of the 85 students scored below 60 percent and 75 percent of the students scored below 75. Only eight of the 85 students scored above 85 percent, and only two out of the 85 students scored better than 95 percent. In other words there were 43 Fs, 21 Ds, 13 Cs, 6 Bs, and 2 As.
The next day, prompted by my surprise at the results, I spent the entire period reviewing the same material. I did not return the quiz to the students, however, and chose not to review the actual questions from the prior day’s quiz. We worked problems as a class on the whiteboard and I worked one-on-one with the students who appeared to need that level of attention. Great care was taken to avoid doing the work for them.
The following day, I had all three classes retake the quiz. In advance of the retake they were told, in broad strokes, how poorly the class had done, although no one had access to their own results. They were also assured that this was a risk-free venture as I would throw out the lowest of the two test scores. The hope was that this opportunity would motivate the students to improve their scores while alleviating performance pressure.

Figure 1 – Comparing 1st and 2nd Quiz Scores

The new scores showed dramatic improvement by all but a handful of students. Better than ninety percent of students earned higher scores on the second quiz with several improving by two, three or more letter grades. A few students improved from failing grades to As and Bs. Roughly 80 percent of the students from the three classes scored 75 or better and a full third scored 85 or higher, 10 of whom scored above 95 percent (See Figure 1). Given the unlikelihood that the students remembered specific questions or problems, it seemed reasonable to conclude that their scores on the second quiz represented a substantially higher level of mastery.
While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, the level of improvement certainly was not a result of pure chance. The operative question is: Is it worth an extra two days to get such a dramatic improvement in subject-matter mastery. I’ll let the reader decide for themselves.

The epiphany occurred for me when I realized that I had witnessed something that happens to students every day, in every class, year after year. Had I not attempted to try something different, the scores from the first quiz would have been recorded in the teacher’s gradebook and I would have moved on to the next lesson and we would have repeated the same process of presentation, practice, review, quiz, and final review. For both students and teacher this process has become a ritual.

The question that kept nagging at me was, how would the 64 students who had received Ds and Fs have fared on the next lesson module, had I not taken the extra time on the lesson? For that matter, how would the 13 students have fared who had received Cs? It struck me, then, that for the students who struggled—90 percent of the students of this teacher and classroom—this was a microcosm of their academic life; probably from beginning to end. We have placed these children in an environment that we have structured as a competition in which there are both winners and losers. If that were not bad enough, we accept the failure of these students as if we are powerless to do anything about it. The logical progression of this thought process was, “how much failure can a child deal with before they become so discouraged that they stop trying?”

In the above vignette, even though there was great improvement after the second quiz, two-thirds of the students were not yet able to achieve a score of 85 percent, but many were close. It probably would not take more than one more review and the majority of the class would be ready to move on to the next lesson module. Another sad fact in this story is that the students who had achieved 85 percent or better after the first test were forced to wait for others to catch up. In the ideal scenario, these students would have been encouraged to charge ahead at their best speed.

How much failure can any of us endure before losing hope that we will ever be successful? The reader is encouraged to think back on their own experience of a time where you were struggling to keep up with your classmates; or about a task you could never quite get right; or, about a game you could never win. How did you feel? How long did it take before you began avoiding such situations?

It was at this point that I began to think about the educational process as a system. Let us summarize the existing educational process:

In spite of the great variance on the academic preparedness continuum of the children arriving for their first day of school, for generations we have asked individual teachers to do the best they can for each child. We have laid down this challenge to our teachers, however, within the context of a specific set of expectations. Those expectations are that the results of their efforts will be measured not on the basis of each student’s progress on a unique educational path but rather on the basis of how an entire population of children at the same age perform as measured against state academic standards for children of a given age.

In Indiana, for example, we do this beginning with the second semester of the third grade, and then multiple grades thereafter, until high school, using ISTEP+, Indiana’s version of a standardized competency examination. Once in high school, the purpose of the testing shifts to graduate qualification in certain subjects.

Imagine that you teach at a school where only 20 percent of the students who arrive at your door are well-prepared for academic success. On standardized competency exams, how would the performance of your students compare to the students in a school across town where 80 percent of the kids arrive well-prepared? Would you feel that you were being fairly compared? More importantly, would your students have the same chance for success?

This is the reality of the American educational process for teachers and students in schools, both public and private, in communities throughout the United States. Teachers are expected to move their entire class, in sequential order from step-to-step as established by state standards for each subject area. Teachers must do this lesson-to-lesson, chapter-to-chapter, semester-to-semester, and grade-to-grade. While teachers have some latitude to help children along, slowly, at least during Kindergarten and first and second grades, the older the students get the more pressure is felt to move everyone along at a steady and comparable pace.

That ISTEP+ or other competency exams loom in the not too distant future is a cold reality for schools and teachers. If students do not perform well on these exams both the school and its teachers face consequences. From this point onward, the pressure to keep students moving along a common path becomes nothing short of relentless.

The fact that a great variance exists with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support is given virtually no consideration. Teachers must present subject matter according to the lesson plans that they have developed in conformance with state standards and that have been approved by their administration. Although they strive to give each student as much time and attention as possible, patience is a luxury not often available to teachers. The situation is complicated by the reality that anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of a teacher’s students miss most if not all of the questions or problems on practice assignments, quizzes, and tests. The time allotted for help and review is usually sufficient for students with a few mistakes but it is never enough for those who have made many.

The unvarnished truth is that the students who did poorly have been allowed to fail. The grades also become part of the student’s academic record and, not too gradually, begin to have a labeling effect. Children begin to identify with the grades they are given,

Very often, the next lesson requires that students be able to apply all or some of what they learned on previous lessons so that the student who is struggling is now at an even greater disadvantage and a greater risk of failure. Recall that according to NAEP results, 60 to 70 percent of American students “are below proficient.” They have not attained a level of mastery sufficient that they can utilize that knowledge “in real world situations,” which includes subsequent lesson modules.

Repeated failure chips away at a child’s confidence and self-esteem as these students recognize, very clearly, that they are not keeping up with classmates.

Now, think about this process within the context of teaching a child how to ride a bicycle. Some children learn quickly and are riding well before the end of the day. Other children fall down, cry and, for days, suffer skinned appendages and bruised egos. We keep encouraging them, however, because we know they can and will learn—they just need more time and our patient attention, which parents have the ability to give.

Within a few days, all are riding with comparable proficiency. Even bruised egos heal under the canopy of success and the joy of riding with one’s friends. After a couple of days, the fact that some kids took longer to learn than others becomes totally inconsequential to both the child and the community. Imagine, however, having to learn how to pop wheelies or perform other advanced riding skills before we have mastered balance, steering, and braking.

When kids fail in our schools it is not because they are incapable of learning and it is not because our teachers are incompetent. Children fail because our educational process is not structured to give each child however much time and patient attention they need. Learning quickly, or at least as quickly as one’s classmates, has become more important than whether or not a student has actually learned. This is proven, daily, throughout the nation whenever teachers must move on to new subject matter knowing full well that many of their students do not understand the previous one. Is it any wonder that kids give up on learning, stop trying, and begin acting out simply because they were permitted to fail?

This is the reality for the overwhelming majority of students who struggle and often fail, every day and in every class in virtually every school in America. Whether these struggling students represent 5 percent of their school’s population or 80 percent, the consequences are tragic for both the children, their teachers, and our nation. The fact that they do not get the time and attention they require is not because it is beyond our capability rather it is because this is not the expectation we lay out for teachers and because the educational process upon which we rely is not so structured.

Consider an alternative reality in which students are not permitted to fail; a reality in which they are always given the time and patient attention they require. When children who start from behind begin to realize that they can learn and when they have an opportunity to enjoy the success of learning, everything changes. We all want the same thing. When we sample a taste of success—of winning—we want more. The more kids learn, the more confident they become and the more confident they become the better able they are to control the outcomes in their lives. The more control young people have over outcomes, the stronger their self-esteem. Before long, the speed at which these children learn accelerates and they begin closing the gaps between themselves and the classmates with whom they have never been able to compete.

In a discussion with a teacher about this very process, he said “But they will never really catch up.” My response was a blunt “so what!” It does not matter whether they catch up with everyone else because we have no expectation that every student who completes high school will have chosen the same destination. We want them to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. We want them to have choices based upon their own unique skills, knowledge, and interests. If a child leaves school at the age of 18 or younger and has no choices available to them because of their poor academic performance, who has failed? Is the student or is it the American educational process?

We must begin with the simple idea that every child can learn and we must commence their formal education at the specific point on the academic preparedness continuum where we find them when they arrive at our door. The fact that our community needs to begin intervening in the lives of these children earlier and more aggressively does not change the job of the school and its teachers. With one exception, we can accept responsibility only at the point at which children pass through our door.

The exception is that when we find, through our assessment, that a child has any kind of impairment the first question we need to ask is “are there other children in the home who are at risk?” If so, we need to do what we can to connect that family with whatever kind of early intervention programs might be available in our community. We must, then, turn our full attention to the child who stands before us. Each of them both needs and deserves our best and most patient effort. They must not be allowed to fail, under any circumstances, as we begin moving them at their best speed from point to point on the unique academic plan we have tailored for them.

We are not just teaching colors, letters, numbers, words or other academic skills, we are teaching them that they can be successful, that they can learn, that learning can be fun, and that success will be celebrated. As the child moves along the path, one success at a time, the speed with which they learn will gradually begin to increase. Our job is simply to help them get as far down their unique academic path as they are able during the time they are our responsibility.

There is one more job that we must do, however. We must make it an ongoing routine to communicate with the child’s parent or guardian, whether or not they initially respond to our overtures. Gradually, most parents will begin responding when they see or hear that their child is making progress; when they begin to see the evidence of that progress in the eyes, hearts, minds, and behavior of their sons and daughters. Success and winning are as contagious as any infectious disease, even for those watching from the sidelines. Every time a parent is lured by their child’s success we have gained another foothold in the community.

What is important are two fundamental benchmarks that should be applied to every child. The first benchmark should be applied at every step of the way down each individual’s unique academic path. The second benchmark should be applied at strategic points along the way and once again when they finish high school.

The first benchmark is “can the student apply what they have learned in subsequent lessons or in responding to real life challenges.” If a student is unable to utilize what they have been taught, they have not really learned. And, if they have not really learned, then our job as educators is not done with respect to that child on that lesson. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable.

The second benchmark to be applied when kids finish high school and at other strategic points along the way is “on the basis of what they have learned, do students have meaningful choices to make.” Kids who cannot utilize what they have learned are almost always left with default decisions, which amount to no choice at all. The whole point of an education is to insure that kids have choices as adults.

We do a great disservice to a child who is pushed along to a second lesson before they have learned and mastered the first. We also do a great disservice to students who are at the top of their class when we ask them to slow down and wait for their classmates to catch up. Students should always be allowed to move forward at the best speed of which they are capable and that speed should never be influenced by the learning velocity of their classmates. To ask a student who excels, academically, to slow down will only diminish the joy of learning and add unnecessary boredom and frustration. When students are bored and frustrated they begin looking to friends, social media, and video games for their intellectual stimulation. The last thing we should ever want to do is dampen the joy of learning for any child, at any time.

In business, there is a principle that an organization is structured to produce the outcomes it gets. What outcomes do we covet? Do we want every child to learn and be able to utilize what they have learned and experience success; or, do we want a system that is satisfied to determine which kids learn the most, the fastest and in which only a few get to experience the joy of success? Do we want a process that allows children to enter adulthood without the knowledge and skills they will need in order to accept the responsibilities of citizenship?

The standard should be that every child is expected to achieve a level of mastery that is at least 85 percent on each and every lesson module and that no child should be allowed to fail. Anything less than 85 percent mastery is unacceptable. This raises questions of what is possible and practical.

Is it even possible for teachers to give kids as much time and patient attention as they need? Is it realistic to think that all kids can achieve 85 percent mastery in every subject?

The answer is “no” when we try to do it within the context of the existing educational process and the incumbent expectations on both teachers and students. When we challenge our assumptions, alter those expectations to match our newly identified objectives, and then restructure the educational process to support those expectations, however, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” It is nothing more than a human engineering problem that will yield to the application of the human imagination and relentless determination.

My book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a specific blueprint for a practical solution that achieves our objectives and more. This is not science fiction, it is real-world problem-solving that will change the reality of public education for millions of American children and, in the process, will transform American society. It will also make the American dream an achievable reality for all people.

We will discover beyond a reasonable doubt that poverty is not the cause of the academic failure rather it is the other way around. Poverty is the outcome our current educational process is structured to create because it not only permits students to fail, it sets them up for failure.

We cannot continue churning out young adults and continue to grow the population of American men and women who lack the levels of literacy, numeracy, and other academic knowledge and skills necessary to be productive players in the American enterprise. We cannot accept the outcome in which young people are unable to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy that depends on its people to make informed choices. These men and women do not believe in the American dream and they do not teach their children that a quality education is a ticket to that dream. Instead they live in poverty under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness and they bequeath the same tainted heritage to future generations of their offspring. This is untenable and unnecessary.

Our nation’s poor urban and rural communities are now full of several generations of Americans with a common experience. Whether white, black, or minorities of other ethnic heritage matters not. The longer a culture has been forced to endure the cycles of failure and poverty, however, the more likely they are to accept their circumstances with passive resignation. It has been engrained in them so deeply that few are able to envision anything different. If we cannot envision a better life for ourselves or our children, we cannot create it.

The performance gap between white and black students is the most gaping because African-Americans have been forced to endure the equivalent of lower class citizenship for a hundred and fifty years and that does not include the centuries of slavery. In some respects, African-American culture has evolved in isolation from mainstream America and is very much separate and apart. The exceptions are those who, with the help of parents and teachers, have enjoyed academic success and have carved out a place for themselves as educated men and women in mainstream society. If they were to speak candidly, many highly educated African-American men and women who are successful professionals or who occupy high level positions would acknowledge that they often have a sense of being separate and apart from poor blacks in urban and rural America.

Poor and uneducated adult Americans have minimal trust in mainstream/white society and its promises. For them, the dream is a failed promise and it is no more real for their children. Breaking down that mistrust is incredibly challenging so it is vital that we have unveiled a new educational process and can demonstrate that it will work for their children. When the barriers have been overcome, black children are every bit as capable of high academic achievement as any other child. This is true for all children, whatever the demography.

I urge the reader to take the time necessary to read my book and blog. Public education is, after all, an issue of such importance that we can afford to leave no stone unturned in search of a solution. What a bonus it will be if, when we solve the problems of public education, we learn that we have also set in motion the systematic abolition of poverty.

I offer one last caveat. There is a tendency to back off from sweeping systemic change and to latch onto bits and pieces of a newly designed proposal or system. This never works and is no more effective than the routine incremental changes that have effected public education for a century. What we have today is a product of that way of thinking. Systems are complex human organizations and/or processes with many interdependent people, parts, and forces. For a transformational change to work as envisioned, all of the components must support the system’s mission. When we only tinker with complex systems we inevitably discover that some components work at cross purposes with the mission. This must not be permitted.

Everything starts with purpose or mission and in the case of public education the purpose is to help every child gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for them to have a full and productive life and to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship.

Next, we must identify the key components that create the absolute best chance that we can provide each and every child with that kind of educational experience:

1. We must perform an assessment for each child who arrives for their first day of school so that we can develop an academic path tailored to his or her unique needs;
2. We must create an environment that fosters close personal relationships between students, teachers and parents as this gives each child the absolute best opportunity to be successful. We want each child to have the same type of special relationship with their teacher that many of us remember when we think back to our favorite teacher(s) and we want the parents to be an integral part of that special relationship;
3. During Kindergarten, first, and second grades we need to increase the resources dedicated to helping these youngsters lay a solid foundation for success and learning. Some kids start from way behind and we must do everything within our power to see that they progress from their unique starting point;
4. We must give each child the time and the patient instruction they need to begin moving down the unique academic path we have created for them at the best speed of which they are capable with the expectation that the minimum subject mastery score is 85 percent;
5. We must eliminate even the possibility of failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is critical to academic success but mistakes and failure are two entirely different things. If a child cannot demonstrate mastery on a given lesson then our job is not complete;
6. We want an environment in which all children are allowed to progress at their own best speed. They must not be required to wait on those who learn more slowly and they must not be pressured to keep up with students who had a head start.
7. We also want to create an environment in which students feel safe and secure and are able to develop strong, positive relationships with their peers irrespective of the speed with which they learn;
8. We want to give each child as much stability as possible with respect to both relationships and environment, for as long as possible, and, finally;
9. We must also provide teachers with clear expectations consistent with our new mission and we must equip them with tools and technology to help them optimize their performance.

On the foundation of these core objectives we can construct a new educational process that will be structured to produce the outcomes we seek. In my book, I offer nineteen action strategies to create such an educational process. These illustrate exactly how this new educational process will be structured and how it will work. I then offer an additional 14 action items that are designed to take this message to the people and engage parents as full partners.

As an addendum to this white paper, I have attached a model implementation plan to illustrate how manageable would be its implementation.

We must then reach out to organizations that exist for the sole purpose of advocacy on behalf of the poor, of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other minorities and demographic groups. With the assistance of these organizations, the intent is to take a new educational model to public school corporations that are struggling in the aftermath of the national movement to “reform public education.”

These corporations will be given the opportunity to employ this new model in one or more of elementary schools in their district with the poorest records of performance. Once the performance of this model has been demonstrated and well-documented, we can begin rolling the model out in each and every public school in that school corporation and then throughout the U.S.

Only when this has been accomplished will we be prepared to meet the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges that the balance of the 21st Century will bring.

Challenging Assumptions in Public Education: Do Grades 1 Through 12 Really Make Sense?

Grades 1 through 12 have been around for as long as anyone can remember. One of the first assumptions we need to challenge is whether or not this is the best way to organize teachers and students in our schools and classrooms. Does the structure support our objectives as educators? Is it consistent with our purpose?

When we ask such questions, we must always take a moment to remind ourselves of our primary purpose because the way we organize our resources must support that purpose. It is amazing how many organizations discover, after asking such questions, that one’s purpose has evolved but the organizational structure has remained static.

In primary and secondary education, whether in public schools or private, our essential purpose as educators is to help students master the academic subject matter we have selected for them to the best of their ability.

Toward this purpose, individual states have established academic standards that designate what academic subject matter is to be presented, in what sequence, and at what age. These academic standards include clearly delineated check points along the academic path so that we can verify, through annual standardized testing, that the students are progressing on schedule.

Most educators would agree that the best way to achieve that purpose or objective is to:

• Create a warm, nurturing environment in which teachers and students are able to bond;

• Maintain the lowest possible ratio of teachers and students; and,

• Pull parents in as partners, sharing the responsibility for the education of their children.

What we strive to do is help each student learn the subject matter well enough that they can demonstrate mastery. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “to master” as:

“to learn (something) completely; to get the knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand (something) very well.”

It is important that we ask ourselves whether helping students achieve subject matter mastery is what we do.

I would assert that what we do, how the process is structured and how teachers and students are organized do not support our purpose. What teachers do, today, what they are asked to do, is something entirely different. Think about the way it works:

1. Academic material is presented to students in a series of lessons or modules that are to be presented in a specific sequence and at a given time in the academic calendar;

2. Teachers do their best to help students understand;

3. We give students opportunities to practice;

4. We attempt to help them learn from the mistakes they make;

5. We test them to assess how well they learned (mastered) the subject matter of each lesson;

6. We record outcomes in the gradebook, typically on the basis of an A to F grading scale; and,

7. We move the entire class on to the next lesson.

The breakdowns typically begin to occur at step #3 of the process. As much as they might like to spend more time helping struggling students learn from the mistakes they made on both practice assignments and assessments, teachers can do so only as long as it does not slow the class down.

While there is no expectation that teachers will spend extra time with struggling students, most recognize that the need exists and do their best to make time, even if it requires that they invite the student to stop in after school.

For even the most dedicated teachers, however, there is a limit to how much time they can give to each of the students who need extra help or tutoring. The reality is that the numbers are large and most kids who need that extra attention will not ask for it nor will they sacrifice their own time to get it.

So, teachers do the only thing they can do and that they are expected to do and that is move the class on to the next lesson, whether or not all of their students are ready. For the kids who struggle, the consequence of the choices teachers must make are significant and the students find themselves predetermined to continue their struggles and, ultimately, to fail. Eventually, failure becomes the inevitable outcome and the kids who were pushed ahead before they were ready begin to lose hope.

Given the way the process is designed and the way teachers and students are organized within individual classrooms it is incredibly difficult to avoid losing students who have given up on themselves.

The current structure also has an adverse impact on the quality of the bonds teachers are able to forge with their students. Some teachers are better at this than others and some students are more difficult to engage. The reader is asked to consider the adage, which I first heard from my grandmother, that

“The child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

At the end of the school year, kids move on to other classrooms and unfamiliar teachers while teachers prepare to greet twenty to thirty new students, the majority of whom they have never met. Then, the entire process begins anew.

For many students, the special relationship many of us recall when we think back on our favorite teachers never happens. Of equal significance is that the number of parents who have bonded with their child’s teacher by the end of a school year will be fewer, still.

The structure of the Grade 1 through 12 model has been around for so long it has become granite-like. Few educators even think about it. It has become an unalterable given in our minds.

The truth is that the Grade 1 through 12 structure is nothing more than a logical construct that was once believed to be the most efficacious way to organize teachers and students within our brick and mortar classrooms. The physical structure of individual classrooms has been questioned somewhat more than “Grade 1 through 12” but it is still the predominant reality in public schools all over the nation and also in private and parochial schools.

There have been a few initiatives to alter the structure with an “open classroom” setting as one example but few have endured. Many times, such experiments were abandoned not so much because it was a bad idea rather because there were no corresponding changes to the expectations placed on teachers working in an open-classroom setting. As a result, there were no significant changes in outcomes.

We need to remind ourselves that just because an idea does not work the first time we try it does not mean it was a bad idea.
We need to consider alterations to both the physical environment and our expectations of teachers and students.

Consider this one idea. You are also encouraged to formulate an idea of your own.

Beginning with first grade, what if:

1. We were to cut two doors between adjacent classrooms in our school and ask the two teachers to work together as a team with the same 40 to 60 students?

2. We replaced classroom aides with an additional teacher to form a team of three teachers?

3. What if we kept those same 40 to 60 students together with that same team of three teachers for a five year period and stopped referring to classrooms as first grade, etc.?

4. What if we changed our expectations so that:

a. No student is permitted to move on to new subject matter until they are able to demonstrate mastery (85
percent) over the material?

b. No student is required to wait for their classmates to catch up before moving on to their next lesson?

c. Teachers are expected to make sure that every one of their students has bonded with at least one of member of
the teaching team?

d. Teachers are also expected to engage the parents of each of their students as partners in the educational
process?

e. And, we replaced annual, standardized competency exams with small quizzes given to verify subject-matter
mastery, one lesson at a time.

What we would have, after implementing such changes, would be an environment with close personal bonds between teachers, students, and parents and in which all students succeed, albeit at their own best speed. It would be a learning environment in which there is no failure and in which all students begin to gain confidence that not only can they learn but also that learning can be fun. We would also see that the speed with which kids learn would increase, steadily.

What a different world public education would be.

Seem impossible? The truth is that making such changes is a simple, human-engineering problem that private and public school districts could begin implementing at the beginning of the coming school year. Most important of all is that the outcomes that would result would be astonishing.

Relationship between teacher and student trumps everything!

“I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart!” was how one third grader in Colorado completed the assignment reported on ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir.

If we want all American school children to get the quality education they deserve, and that our society so desperately needs them to achieve, we must give them what they need to be successful. We can identify four things that are not only essential but they trump everything else. What we need our political leaders to come to understand, whether here in Indiana or anywhere throughout the U.S. is that standardized testing is not one of these four things.

The first thing children need is to be treated as individuals on a dedicated learning path that is tailored to their unique starting point. As every professional educator will attest, the level of preparation and motivation children bring with them on their very first day of school is as diverse as the population of parents who gave birth to them. Beginning with such a focus not only puts a child on a path on which they can be successful, it sends a subtle but powerful message that they are special and that they are valued. Nothing gives the child the absolute best opportunity to be successful and nothing helps a child develop a healthy self-esteem more than being accepted for who they are; not how they stack up to their classmates.

The second most critical component of educational success is that each child is placed in an environment in which they can enjoy a nurturing, positive, life-affirming relationship with a teacher who will love them and care for them unconditionally. We want every child to experience the joy of the special relationship that most of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher. While this component might be second on our list, it is second only because of chronology. Creating an environment that fosters such caring relationships between teacher and child is, overwhelmingly, the most important thing we can do to assure that the child receives the highest quality education of which they are capable. Yes, I understand that some children are easier to love than others but the universal truth is that “the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

The third thing the child needs is the assurance that they will get off to a good start and this requires that they begin learning how to be successful, from the very outset. This can be accomplished by creating a situation in which a child is not permitted to fail. Because we have placed them on a unique learning curve, it does not matter how a given child compares to other members of his or her class. We need to create an environment in which each and every child is given the time they need to learn each and every lesson, every step along the way. We simply must not permit them to fail. One of the things our current educational process does most successfully is to teach children how to fail. If we can, instead, begin teaching them that they can and will succeed it is amazing how success replicates itself every step along the way. It changes the equation to one in which the child’s success is a given.

The fourth essential component is that we need to engage parents as partners in the education of their sons and daughters. If we can pull the parents into the special relationship we strive to create between a child and his or her teacher we create an environment in which anything is possible and where every obstacle can be overcome. A warm, nurturing, and positive triumvirate between parents, children, and their teachers creates the most powerful motivational force in the world.

Many public school teachers will read this list and nod their head that these are important but will then go back to what they have been doing, whether or not it has been successful. The problem is that these four components are so far from the reality from most public school classrooms, particularly those in our most challenging schools and communities, that they are viewed as unreal; as abstractions.

What every professional educator must be challenged to believe at the very core of their being is that these components are not abstractions. They are real, and they can be created in each and every public school classroom in America, if only we step back and examine not only the way we do everything and why, but also the way we structure the process that supports and facilitates what we do. Each of these components is achievable and manageable; they are attainable solutions to a human engineering problem that requires only that we structure the educational process to support our most critical objectives.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, I offer a blueprint for an educational process that relies on these components as a foundation for everything else it does.

I can imagine nothing that would validate a teacher’s existence more than hearing one their students say, “I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart.”

Tea Party Strategies Have Frightening Implications for the Poor and Minorities

During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Governor Mitt Romney’s remark about the “47 percent of Americans” not counting was intended to convey a shift in thinking that is at the center of the political strategies of the “Tea Party movement” and other conservative republicans.

What Romney meant was that many of the American’s who make up that 47 percent will not vote and those who do vote will not be voting for republicans. The resulting ideology that seems to guide much of today’s conservative political strategy is based on the idea that they cannot do anything to change the thinking of the 47 percent so they will stop trying.

Instead, their focus has become the pursuit of policies that they feel are in the best interests of the country without respect to the interests of the 47 percent. It is comparable to the isolationist point of view of American leaders of an earlier era that they will take care of Americans and let the rest of the world take care of itself. In this case, “the rest of the world” is the “47 percent.”

If we closely examine the policy initiatives of conservatives in both business and government, the theme is woven throughout with bright red, white, and blue threads.

The rabid opposition to “Obamacare” is but one example. In fact the term “Obamacare” and its root “Obama” have become a pejorative terms comparable to “Communist” and “socialist.” How often, when they can think of nothing intelligent to say about the opposition, do you see conservative political ads portray opposing candidate as an “Obamacare” supporters? With Pavlovian consistency, the typical response on the part of conservative Americans is that their minds shut down and they no longer listen to what the other side has to say.

I would be first to tell you that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a bad law but at least it was motivated by a sincere desire, on the part of its advocates, to address the national travesty that was and still is the American health care system. The proponents of healthcare reform might have been able to come with a workable solution to the problems of healthcare in America had the people on the other side of the political DMZ been willing to roll up their sleeves and help. The Affordable Care Act is as much a result of the intransigence of conservatives as it is the convoluted logic of its proponents.

The nation-wide attack on public education, public schools, and public school teachers—with our Hoosier state in the forefront—is another of the frightening examples of the strategic mindset on the part of Tea Party and other conservative leaders. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to cling to the hope that traditional republicans want what is best for all Americans, not just an elite minority.

Government and corporate reforms of public education focus on blaming teachers and our most challenged urban schools for the problems in education. As I have noted on many occasions, this is like blaming our men and women in uniform for the wars our government asks them to fight.

This conservative strategy, as terrifying as it is unspoken, is to attack our most challenged public schools and their teachers with a focus on standardized testing to hold them accountable. Then, rather than use the information gleaned from test results to address the real reasons why so many children are failing, they use the results to seek closure of urban schools and seize control of those schools from the communities.

Incidentally, using standardized test results to show that some schools are struggling is no more sophisticated and scientific than using a thermometer to determine that January is colder than July. To continue the metaphor, rather than use the findings to figure out ways to make the best of the cold, Governor Pence and his reformers use the findings to justify escaping to Florida for the winter months, leaving the rest of the population to shiver.

In the battle over public education the strategy of choice for reformers is two-pronged. With the right hand, they encourage the creation of more charter schools and then incent families to abandon their community public schools through the use of voucher programs. With their left hand they are stripping our urban public schools of the resources they need to teach their students and they are weakening the ability of local citizens to stand up for their schools. The underlying theme is, “let’s take care of our own and let the figurative 47 percent of the population fend for themselves.” These strategies are having a devastating effect not just on urban public school corporations and their teachers but also on our children and our communities.

Here in Indiana, we have a strong conservative governor who is intent on undermining the will of the people by stripping the Indiana Department of Public Education and its duly elected superintendent of their power to attend to the needs of every school, every teacher, and every student in Indiana. It seems almost incomprehensible to imagine that a conservative republican governor would so willfully usurp the will of 1.3 million Hoosier voters. It is also incomprehensible that most Hoosiers appear unable to recognize what is happening.

The most recent iteration of this “strategy of abandonment” was the creation of “Just IN.” This innovative creation was intended to empower our governor to use public funds to control the flow of information to Hoosier citizens. So much for the conservative mantra of protecting the citizenry from big government.

If all of this was not so tragic it would almost be exciting to see what these “self-proclaimed saviors of America” will come up with, next.

Fortunately, in the face of the public uproar, Governor Pence was quick to back down on his “Just IN” proposal. Supporters of public education and members of ethnically diverse urban communities throughout America need to take a lesson from this latest outcome. If supporters of public education stand united, there is hope that we can encourage the Governor Pence to cease and desist. Leaders of minority communities and other economically challenged communities must also take heed of Pence’s back down on “Just IN.”

If supporters of public education and the leaders of minority and other economically challenged communities would link arms and stand together they would be a force to be reckoned with. If we can combat the Governor’s attack on freedom of the press, who knows what, standing united, we might accomplish in our fight to restore our state’s commitment to our public schools and their students and teachers.

Attacking the Performance Gap between Black and White Students

As we have said so often, the performance gap that exists between white students and their black classmates is the single-most glaring fact in all of public education. Our ability to close the gap will be driven not by more standardized testing, not by blaming teachers for their inability to help their students raise test scores, not by the creation of more charter schools with voucher programs to pay for them, not by closing the so-called “failing public schools,” and certainly not by severing the vital relationships between our public schools and the communities they exist to serve.

We must understand why so many black kids fail. What we will discover is that the high rate of failure among poor urban black students is not the result of some genetic deficiency that makes it difficult for them to learn as well as their white classmates. There are far too many examples of accomplished African-Americans, many of whom grew up in poverty in our most challenging neighborhoods, who rose to prominence in virtually every profession in American Society. A black President of the United States is just one of many examples.

The reason why so many African-American students fail is not because they are poor, although being poor creates enormous challenges. The problem is that our focus on poverty, which we feel powerless to control, distracts from actions that are within our power to do.

We all know of examples where poor children have succeeded academically, irrespective of race or family structure. What we need to do is make the effort to understand what distinguishes poor kids who enjoy academic success from poor kids that fail.

While there can be any number of things that come into play in contributing to a child’s success in school, with a special teacher one of the most obvious, the overwhelming majority of such successes flow from a commitment of a parent or guardian who somehow clings to the hope that an quality education offers a way out for their child. It is when parents have lost hope that an education can make a difference that their sons and daughters arrive for their first day of school poorly prepared for academic success and with precious little motivation to learn.

Many of these families have lost faith in American public education and have lost both faith and hope in the American dream. I suggest to you that these are realities over which we have a great deal of control if only we would accept responsibility and try.

The following story taken from my book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, is true:

“While subbing in an alternative high school classroom (alternative school within the Fort Wayne Community Schools district is where middle and high school students are sent when they are suspended from their regular school), I had a conversation with a young African-American student. He would not work on the worksheet I had given to the class.

“You need to get busy on the assignment,” I said to him.

“I don’t do worksheets,” was his response.

“If you don’t understand the lesson, I’ll be happy to help you with it,” was my answer.

He looked at me and very calmly responded, “I didn’t say I don’t know how to do it, cuz. I said I don’t do worksheets.”

With full-fledged naiveté I asked, “You don’t think you need to learn this material?”

“It’s a complete waste of my time, cuz!” was his answer.

“You don’t think it’s necessary for you to read and write well? How will you get a job to support yourself?”

At no time did he show any emotion during this conversation.

“Cuz, you don’t know nothin’ about what I need to support myself in the hood. You need to back off, Cuz! I don’t need none of what you got!”

As I pointed out in my book, this was not a dumb kid and, in fact, if evaluated within the context of the world in which he exists he would be judged to be highly intelligent. It is also true that this young man was not an exception to the rule but rather one of many in his community. The difference is that these intelligent young kids, irrespective of race, learn what they consider to be important in their lives. The things we teach in our schools are just not on the list of the things that are important to a huge number of our youngsters.

What teachers and members of the community can do, working together in partnership, is begin to change the value placed on education by these youngsters and their parents or guardians.

If you are reading these words, is there any doubt in your mind that teacher and parent working together can be successful in helping a child see the value in an education and develop a motivation to learn? There are no guarantees, of course, and the earlier those partnerships can be formed along the timeline that represents the developmental years of a child, the higher the probability that a child can succeed. Not only will they succeed but they will rise to ever-higher expectations as identified by their teacher and parent. And, what is true for black children is true for all of our nation’s at-risk children.

The next, question, of course, is “but what can we do?”

They Are Destroying Public Education Just When We Need It the Most!

The events in Ferguson Missouri illustrate just how far apart we have drifted as a people. Somehow, we must find a way to repair the damage that has been done and the trust that has been lost and begin closing the gap between the white community and the communities of African-Americans and other minorities, between the rich and poor, the sick and the healthy, and the hopeful and the hopeless.

If we have learned anything from the last sixty years it is that we cannot legislate a change of heart. The only thing we can do is see that every American child; irrespective of race, religion, creed, color, sexual preference, or relative affluence has an opportunity for a quality education. It is only through education that a young man or woman can emerge from childhood with sufficient skill and knowledge to make a place for themselves in the world; to be able to choose from an array of meaningful opportunities; to be able to exert control over their own lives and destinies; and, have sufficient strength of character to persevere through life’s hardships and disappointments.

The federal government, corporate reformers, and state governments across the land are engaged in a relentless attack against public schools, community control of education, and the public school teachers. Now they are even attacking programs for our nation’s special needs children. These powerful men and women are no more qualified to fix public education in America because of their success in business than they are to perform surgery at a local hospital. As for our elected and appointed government officials, maybe they should fix our executive and legislative branches of government before they try to tackle something they know even less about.

It is, however, understandable that these reformers feel compelled to act because our professional educators have not stepped up to acknowledge the deficiencies in our educational process; deficiencies that only they are qualified to address.

The would-be reformers of public education have not taken the time to understand that the problems with education in America exist in spite of the valiant efforts of our public school teachers and not because of them. The reformers aggressively promote standardized testing, a process that distracts educators from what is important, and they drain resources from our most vulnerable community school corporations with vouchers to encourage parents to send their kids to a small number of unproven charter schools and to other parochial and private schools that cannot begin to meet the needs of every child in their communities. To offer what they believe to be a lifeline to parents who want the best for their children is a cruel strategy, indeed, if it can bear the weight of only a small percentage of the families of our communities.

These corporate reformers have not spent time in our public school classrooms so that they can witness, first hand, the deplorable lack of motivation to learn on the part of children across the spectrum of our student populations and they have not made the effort to investigate the absence of parental support in so many of our public schools.

If they did they would discover that many of the parents of our most vulnerable children are themselves victims of an outdated educational process and have no more trust in our systems of education, public or private, than they do in our systems of justice. These reformers would also discover that far too many of these men and women have lost hope and faith in the American dream.

Our systems of public school corporations and the obsolete educational process that functions within may be need a transformation but they provide the only hope to begin narrowing the breach that divides this nation and that we observed so graphically, this week, in an American community. The misguided policies of our corporate and government reformers of education can only divide us even more than we are divided today.

It is time for our professional educators who teach in or manage our public school corporations to step forth and acknowledge that our systems of public education are struggling and to accept responsibility for leading us to a new reality. A new reality in which every child is given the opportunity and the time to learn under the tutelage of qualified teachers, in an environment in which they are evaluated against their own performance rather than against the performance of their classmates.

Creating such a reality is our only hope for a future in which our aggregate dreams can be realized.

Giving Hope to Our Public School Teachers

Last evening, when three members of the leadership team of the Bad Ass Teachers Association made a guest visit to Justin Oakley’s “Just let me Teach” on the IndianaTalks internet radio network there was discussion about getting more public school teachers to join the BATs and to stay active in their unions. It was suggested that many teachers are losing faith in their unions and are not remaining active.

No one knows better than the Bad Ass Teachers Association that American teachers are more discouraged than ever. Everywhere they turn they are under attack and it is easy to understand that they are losing hope that what they are doing for their students is making a difference and that their efforts are appreciated. That many teachers in Indiana and throughout the U.S. live in fear of losing their jobs if ISTEP+ and other standardized test results do not improve borders on criminal, particularly since most educators know that the infamous A to F grading system for Indiana’s schools really stands for “Absurd to Farcical.”

It is difficult to maintain a positive frame of mind when teachers are being blamed for problems over which have little or no control and when they are asked to work in environments in which they are as much victims of a system as their students.

What teachers need more than anything is hope that a better day is coming but to whom do they turn for hope and leadership?

They cannot look to their state and federal governments or the business community because these seemingly unassailable forces are linked together in what can only be perceived by the teaching profession as a relentless quest to destroy public education.

Many are losing hope that their unions and associations can withstand the withering assault on basic purposes that unions were created to serve.

Even the wonderful organization that we know as the Bad Ass Teachers Association and their rallying cry that “we’re not going to take it anymore,” are viewed with skepticism by some. What good does it do, some teachers ask, to stand up and shout that we’re not going to take it when, the reality is that teachers feel such a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that anything they say can make a difference.

As appealing as the mantra of the BATs may be, I hear some teachers saying that no one wants to hear us complain, they want answers!

Teachers can rally around candidates for public office, whether local school boards, or state or federal executive or legislative offices but almost always find themselves supporting candidates who are as short on experience in public office, or in building a successful election campaign strategies as they are short on funding. And, almost always, these candidates for office find themselves running against opponents with strong support of mainstream political parties, powerful political action committees, and a movement that professes to be working to save American children from the shortcomings or our public school corporations.

We live in hope that the miracle of Glenda Ritz’s election to Indiana’s office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was a turning point but how often can we expect the stars to be so perfectly aligned as they were on that election night that we recall with such fondness? Are we to be content to celebrate candidate Zephyr Teachout’s recent primary election defeat in New York City because she won 34 percent of the vote and raised awareness?

We listen with rapt attention to the celebrated champions of public education like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling Hammond who stand for teachers and other educators and who speak with eloquence. Sadly, these few heroic champions must somehow offset the power and momentum of the corporate reformers like Bill Gates, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and the legions of multi-billion dollar businesses and foundations who line up in support to the demise of public education.

The problem is that the champions of the cause for public education and our public schools and their teachers offer so little upon which we can all take hope. These champions cry out that the problems of public education are nothing more than a myth and that our public schools are performing better each year, even if in small increments.

The problem is that such protestations, no matter how eloquent the appeal, ring hollow to the overwhelming number of Americans and even to an overwhelming number of the teachers on behalf of whom such advocacy is offered. It is a message that has precious little credibility.

Advocacy Groups for the support of Public Education can be found in States all over the U.S. with Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education; Indiana Coalition for Public Education just two examples here in Indiana.

Why don’t these advocates and the leadership of our various unions, associations, and other organizations working on behalf of public schools and their students and teachers shout loudly that,

Yes! Public Education in America is in crisis but it is a crisis that exists in spite of the valiant efforts of teachers not because of those efforts.

Why do they not stand and proclaim that:

Professional educators are the only ones who truly understand what needs to be done to return the status of public education to its rightful place as one of the essential components of a democratic society and a healthy economy.

Why do they not shout out that they have:

a real solution to the challenges of public education that will protect rather than damage the all-important relationships between our public schools and their communities, not to mention our students.

Why do they not:

develop an action strategy to transform the educational process and present it to the professional educators to enlist their support and commitment to a real and achievable solution?

And, most importantly, why do they not begin:

the process of selling that solution to the American people?

In recent posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and in a recent tweet on Twitter I shared a message from a poster of Michael J. Fox that read:

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

Our teachers know exactly what must be done to turn our schools around so they meet the needs of all American children and not just those who have an affinity for academic endeavors.

Our teachers know that the educational process is flawed when we don’t assess where a child is when they report for their first day of school and then expect them to move down the same path with a diverse classroom of other children on the same chronological schedule.

Our teachers know that the educational process is flawed when they are unable to give children enough time to learn and instead are told that their job on that lesson is done and then give the student a “C,” “D,” or “F” and ask them to move on to the next lesson; a lesson at which they are even less prepared to succeed.

Our teachers know that the solution is to give children the time they need to learn and that, in the final analysis, what matters is not how long it took a child to learn but rather than they did learn and can now apply what they learned to future subject matter and eventually to solve the everyday problems of living in a complex democratic society.

Our teachers know that standardized testing is not a measure of a child’s level of knowledge or understanding any more that it is a measure of a teacher or school’s effectiveness. A test is snapshot of a student’s grasp of given subject matter at a fixed point of time and is useful only if it determines first, whether or not a student needs more time and assistance from his or her teachers, and second; where that attention should be directed if, indeed, it is needed.

Our teachers know that the most important determinant of a child’s success in school is the level of support and participation of the child’s parents or guardians working as partners with the teacher on behalf of the student. Teachers know the system is flawed when so many young parents have no faith or trust in our schools because they are, themselves, victims of an educational process that did not give them what they so desperately needed when they were kids.

Our teachers understand that we need to reach out to these parents and pull them in as partners in the educational process, to help them learn to trust that the school and teacher are there to help them help their child prepare for the rest of their lives.

Our teachers know that each child needs to feel that they are special and have relationships with people in their lives whom they can both love and trust. Teachers understand that the child who is hardest to love and demands the most attention is the child that needs it the most. Our teachers understand that every child needs to have experienced what many of us recall when we think back to our most favorite teachers. Our teachers understand that the educational process is flawed when it is not structured to support the development of the vital relationships between our children, their parents, and teachers.

Our teachers know the educational process is flawed when children have given up on learning and are no longer willing to try; choosing to act out instead. Our teachers understand that the solution to keep children engaged in learning as a natural, fun, and exciting adventure is to teach them that they can learn. Teachers understand that kids must experience the joy of success rather than repeated failure and humiliation.

Our teachers understand that our educational process is flawed when they lack the resources to spend their time and energy where it can do the most good rather than be bogged down in meaningless record-keeping, bureaucratic demands, and political interference. Teachers know that they need technology that empowers teachers rather than limit their freedom and creativity and mitigate their value.

Our teachers know all of these things so when are we going to empower them to do that which only they can do?

If we want to give teachers hope that they can live out their careers as a professional involved in the noble and loving act of giving of themselves to their students and families we must rethink what it is that we want to accomplish in education and reinvent the educational process to support that purpose.

These are ideas around which teachers can rally. It is something that they can reach out and touch and feel and that they can sell to the parents of their students and to their communities. It is something that is real and achievable and about which they can be enthusiastic and energetic and then be re-energized and re-enthused with every celebrated accomplishment.

The sad reality is that the educational process in place throughout our system of schools, both public and private, is flawed and that everyone knows it. Every time we shout out in loud denial all we accomplish is to confirm that that the assertions and allegations that public education is failing are frightfully and inarguably true.

Employers all over the U.S. know it when they struggle to find capable employees who can not only do good work but can also accept responsibility for doing their best. They know it when they must spend millions upon millions of dollars screening applicants to find a precious few who can do the job right from the get go and must also spend millions more to re-train and re-educate those who cannot.

The corporate reformers and the government officials who pander to them and who are laboring to privatize education did not wake up one morning having experienced an epiphany that there were huge profits to be earned by taking over America’s schools. They discovered that little truth only after they were compelled by their anger and frustration to address what they considered to be the monumental failure of public education in America because no one else seemed prepared to step up and accept responsibility for taking action.

Our military services know the educational process is flawed when a full quarter of the young men and women who are candidates for enlistment into the Armed Services cannot meet the minimum qualifications for enlistment and when many more are unable to score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for the increasingly more skilled and technical jobs that need to be done at a high level of proficiency.

Our communities of the poor and minorities who live separate and apart from mainstream American society know that the performance gap that exist between their children and white, middleclass students is staggering in its breadth and scope and, most of all, in its consequences. The growing cultural disdain for the importance of education in the lives of their children is nothing more than a consequence of a prolonged case of hopelessness and powerlessness on the part of these parents that anything they do will make a difference for their children.

Most of all, as I have pointed out in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America and in articles published in my blog Education, Hope and the American Dream, and elsewhere, our teachers know in their hearts and minds that the educational process is, indeed, failing in spite of their labor and sacrifices. They know that the warn-out insistence that the failure of our public schools is a myth is, itself, a myth the perpetuation of which can only have tragic consequences for our nation’s and our children’s futures.

We must open our hearts and minds to the idea that our professional educators are the only people who can solve the problems of public education. They are waiting for their leaders and advocates to stand up an offer a solution in which teachers and the American people can both believe and trust.

American teachers, the unsung heroes in the battle for the future of our way of life, are at the edge of desperation waiting for their leaders to stand up for the truth.

What are we waiting for?

The November 2014 elections may be the most important election in the history of public education in America.

If you did not see the wonderful editorial, in Sunday’s edition of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Tony Lux, who recently retired as the Superintendent of Merrillville, Indiana Public Schools take a moment and check it out at http://www.jg.net/article/20141012/EDIT05/310119950/1144/EDIT05

Never before has there been so much at stake for our public school teachers and other educators who devote their hearts and souls for the benefit of our nation’s children. Teachers and parents everywhere need to draw upon the election of Glenda Ritz for inspiration. Thanks to the ardent support of teachers and parents, the voters of the State of Indiana rejected the policies of former State Superintendent Tony Bennett and elected award winning teacher, Glenda Ritz to this important office.

Superintendent Ritz garnered more votes than Indiana Governor Mike Pence who, like his predecessor Mitch Daniels, has gone to great lengths to destroy public education and the vital connections between our public schools and the communities they serve.

Voters in Indiana and in states across the nation are encourage to reject candidates who support privatization of education, charter schools, vouchers, the reliance on standardized testing as a measure of teacher and school performance, Common Core, and the other “cars” that make up the “Runaway Train of Misguided Educational Reforms” that have been sweeping the nation.

This is one time when party allegiance must not matter as we pull the curtains and exercise our constitutional right to vote.

Beware of candidates who claim that education is at the top of their priority list but go on to advocate “choice” as if they are protecting the rights of American parents. In the United States of America, parents already have the right to choose a school for their children. Candidates who are advocates of “choice” are really talking about the use of our tax dollars to subsidize with vouchers those parents who want their child to attend charter, private, or parochial schools.

This practice drains critical tax dollars away from our public school corporations on which the overwhelming majority of American children depend. These candidates for public office blame teachers and their schools for all of the problems in education and make no provisions to help the public schools that are left to deal with our nation’s most vulnerable children. What these candidates really support are what I call “the politics of abandonment” and they must be rejected.

Whether you are voting for candidates for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, your state legislature, or local school boards take the time to find out where these candidates stand on the issues of public education, not “tax-payer subsidized privatization” of education in America.

The one thing we learned in Indiana is that teachers and parents have the power to reject all those who threaten the future of our nation’s young people. All we have to do is go to the polls and ask our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers to do the same.

Never before have we had an opportunity to make such a monumental difference on behalf of our nation’s children!

Check out my column in this mornings Fort Wayne Journal Gazette “All pulling together, we can defeat poverty!

Published: July 24, 2014 3:00 a.m.

All pulling together, we can defeat poverty

Hawkins

Citing a U.S. Census Bureau report, The Journal Gazette recently reported that 77 million Americans, nearly a quarter of the population, live in what have been designated as poverty areas and that this population has increased significantly over the past decade. A poverty area is a census tract in which 20 percent or more of the households have incomes below the poverty level.

The relationship between poverty and the failure of so many of our public school students is central to the debate between corporate and government reformers of public education and those who defend traditional public education in America.

Reformers are pushing for privatization of our schools; Common Core; standardized testing to hold teachers and schools accountable; and vouchers to help parents pay for their school of choice. It is ironic that the reformers are focused on enticing the most motivated families away from our “failing schools” while doing little or nothing to fix those schools or to help the families who remain in them. We have described this as the “politics of abandonment.”

The defenders of traditional public education insist that our schools are better than ever and suggest that it is unreasonable to expect more from our public schools until we do something about poverty, which they consider the biggest cause of academic failure. These well-meaning Americans, most of whom are educators, are engaged in what could be described as the “politics of intransigence.”

Neither side seems to recognize that poverty and failing schools are symptoms of the same pathology, nor do they understand how their actions contribute.

This current chapter in the history of poverty has evolved, since the end of World War II, as the population of people for whom neither the free-market economy nor the system of public education has worked has mushroomed. Over time, these Americans have become increasingly less hopeful and more powerless in the face of the challenges of life. What we have also seen is that attempts on the part of a benevolent government to soften the blow have failed to alter the reality for this population. What those efforts have created are dependencies.

We cannot continue to support those dependencies, nor can we simply abandon this population without our society reaching a tipping point after which the people who produce economic value will be unable to support those who do not. If the U.S. is to compete successfully in the dynamic world marketplace of the 21st century, we desperately need the best efforts of virtually every American man and woman.

What we must do is to attack the fabric of hopelessness and powerlessness under which so many Americans have been draped. Here is what we can do if only we work together:

We can repackage and resell the American dream to give people hope that they can, indeed, have a better future.

We can develop an educational process that will teach children that success is a process all can master. We can create this in such a way that it gives teachers the time and resources they need to teach children how to be successful.

We can teach parents how powerful parents and teachers can be, working together as partners and how, with a little help from teachers, they can literally change the world for their children.

Finally, we can create a sense of community in which we are united behind a set of shared values; a community in which we do care about one another and in which we are all willing to help.

We cannot accomplish any of these things, however, until we stop the runaway train of misguided reforms before it can damage, forever, our way of life.

 

 

 

Mel Hawkins, of Fort Wayne, is the author of “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.” He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.