More Questions for Administrators, Policy Makers, and Teachers

It is not unusual to hear public school teachers express concern that all the recognition and celebration is directed to “high-achieving students.” Rarely is attention paid to the students who worked hard to receive a lesser grade and many teachers question why the effort of the latter group is not acknowledged and celebrated.

It is a tragedy that so many children go through school without ever having their accomplishments celebrated; the last thing they need, however, is a “participation trophy.” The tragedy is not that we never celebrate the accomplishments of low-performing students rather that they rarely have accomplishments worthy of celebration.

This raises the question, why are we content to preserve an education process that produces such disparate results?

Just because a student does not understand a lesson the first time through, does not mean they are incapable of learning and understanding. It just means they need more time and they need an education process that allows teachers to adapt what they do to respond to a student’s unique needs. Rarely do we give kids an opportunity to keep working until they learn. On the few occasions that we find a way to give kids the extra time to learn, it is because we found a way to circumvent the education process not because the malleability of the process gave us the freedom to innovate.

The current education process is structured like a competition that assumes that all kids are on a level playing field. It rewards the students who learn the most the fastest. Even worse, it requires that we grade kids on how much they have learned in an arbitrary timeframe and then record that score next to their name. Worst of all, we push the students onward without the prerequisite knowledge they will need to be successful on subsequent lessons, not to mention as adult citizens of a participatory democracy.

We go to great lengths to help a student qualify for graduation even though they are unable to perform at the level expected of them with reference to academic standards. It is as if having a piece of parchment that says they qualify for graduation will excuse them when they are unable to qualify for or do a job; when they apply for college admission or seek enlistment in the Armed Services.

What does a young man or woman do when they are unable to obtain and keep a decent job or pursue other meaningful opportunities because they lack the basic skills required to make a place for themselves in mainstream society? If these young adults are black or other minorities the challenges they face are often insurmountable and they are left at the mercy of discrimination. We wonder why so many find themselves in prison or are the victims of an early, violent death. We wonder why so many of them live in poverty and produce new generations of children with needs for which our education process is unequipped to meet.

We shake our heads in bewilderment when so many American voters seem willing to believe anything said by the leaders of whatever political point of view to which they are loyal. Do we not see the connection that we have sent millions of young men and women out into society without the knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate the critical issues of the day and to think independently?

Public school educators seem unable to understand that the motivation of education reformers, as poorly conceived as their solutions might be, is a result of their dissatisfaction with public education and the quality of high school graduates. They are dissatisfied customers seeking to replace their supplier.

The existing education process restricts our teachers’ ability to give students the close personal relationships they need to be healthy, both emotionally and intellectually. The process does not permit teachers to formally assess each student’s level of academic preparedness and, then, design a learning path to meet their unique needs. It does not allow teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn. It does not give kids however many attempts they need to be able to demonstrate that they understand. The education process is not set up to help kids learn as much as they are able at their own best pace. It does not help them learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real-life situations.

Rather than seeking ways to help teachers deal with the stress and frustration of teaching a classroom of kids who have lost hope, have stopped trying, and have begun acting out, why don’t we address the root causes of both the frustration of our teachers and our students’ lost hope. We do not because it is difficult if not impossible for people to stop and look at the big picture when they are immersed in what they are doing; when they are, as the old saying goes, “up to their necks in a swamp full of alligators.”

Low-performing students, particularly the disadvantaged, have become a norm in public education, particularly in racially and economically diverse communities. While I believe most public school teachers and administrators believe that these kids can learn, one must wonder how many teachers and administrators have come to believe this is the best we can expect.

What educators must do is find a vantage point from which they can see the entire education process, as an integral whole, and then ask themselves whether they are doing what they should be doing. The fact that our classrooms, grade-levels, and the way we organize teachers and students has been in place for generations does not mean it is the only way to do what we do.

We should be asking:

• “Does the education process exist to drive our purpose or should our mission drive the education process?”

• “Does the education process exist to serve children and their teachers or are teachers and their students expected to sacrifice their wants, needs, personalities, and unique capabilities in conformance with the structure or process?” and, finally;

• “Are academic standards a representative guideline of what we think kids need to know in order to have meaningful choices in life, or is it both a road map and time table of how students should get from point A to Z, no matter what their individual potential, capabilities, and interests?”

My challenge to public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers is to believe that designing and creating an education model that can be molded around teachers and students is a simple human-engineering project no different than designing any other production process. All it requires is that we open our hearts and minds to the belief that there is a better way to do what we do and the faith and hope that it can be found just beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

I offer my education model, as an example, of an education process that enables teachers to develop and master their craft for the sole purpose of helping every child develop their God-given potential.

Students must be able to build on success, not failure!

It is incredibly frustrating that public school teachers and administrators have been unwilling and/or unable to take seriously the education model I have developed. It is exasperating because I know teachers want to do what is best for their students. I also know how frustrated so many public school teachers are and that the prospect of burnout is something many of these dedicated men and women fear. That teachers are blamed for the problems in public education must be especially galling.

It is even more frustrating that advocacy groups for black children and other children of color seem totally uninterested in a solution that will end the failure of millions of disadvantaged kids and shut down the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline that is transporting these kids to a life of poverty, failure, crime, and early violent deaths.

If only all of these dedicated men and women would open their hearts and minds to the possibility of a new way to educate our nation’s most precious assets.

“This will not work in my classroom(s)!” is what public school teachers and administrators say when they first review my model. I hear it all the time.

Of course, they are correct, but this is exactly my point. In the current education process, nothing different will work because the process is flawed. To paraphrase Linda Darling Hammond, “the existing process is structured to produce the outcomes it gets and we will not get better outcomes if all we do is ask teachers to work harder.”

There are many teachers in high-performing schools who feel good about what they do but there are also many teachers in low-performing schools who are frustrated, daily, because they are unable to get through to unmotivated students.

Odd as it may seem, African-American leaders, who jump through the roof in response to symbols of oppression, do not even bother to respond to the possibility of a solution that will attack the roots of that oppression.

I ask public school educators to take a figurative step back and imagine an environment in which they are expected to give each and every student however much time they need to learn each and every lesson. Imagine an environment in which teachers are expected to develop longer term relationships with students and where the process is structured to facilitate the development of such relationships; with both students and parents.

My challenge to public school teachers and administrators is that they consider that the education process can be re-designed and re-configured to produce whatever outcomes we want.

My challenge to advocates for black children and other children of color to consider the possibility that African-American students and other disadvantaged children do not need to fail.

My education model is constructed on the premise that academic success is no different than success in any other venue. Success is a process of trial and error, of learning from one’s mistakes and applying that knowledge to produce better outcomes. Success is built upon success and the more one succeeds the more confident he or she becomes. The more confident he or she is the more successful one becomes. Success is contagious and can become a powerful source of motivation.

The key, of course, is that one cannot master the process of success until he or she begins to experience success, routinely. In school, kids learn and each lesson learned is a success. Very often, success on subsequent lessons requires that one apply what one has learned from previous lessons. When a foundation of success is laid down in school, young boys and girls approach adulthood with a wide menu of choices in terms of the kind of future that can be built on that foundation.

Imagine, however, when there is no success on which to build. When kids fail, or even learn only part of a given lesson, they are less like to learn the next lesson. A pattern also emerges in this scenario but it is a pattern of failure rather than success.

For many of these kids, failure is the only thing they know. It is only a matter of time before they give up, stop trying, and begin acting out in class. Third grade is when many states begin administering competency examinations. Right from the beginning, a significant percentage of third grade students are unable to pass both math and English language components of their state exams. Although African-American students have the lowest passage rates, the poor performance extends to a percentage of students from all demographic groups, including white students.

By the time these students reach middle school the scores are even lower. In many middle schools, as many as eighty percent of black students fail to pass both exams. Middle school teachers throughout the U.S. can attest to the incredibly low level of motivation displayed by their students. Any illusions that high schools are able to turn the performance of these students around in four years are just that, illusions; high graduation rates notwithstanding.

When they leave school, the overwhelming majority of these low-performing students return to their communities, unqualified for jobs or military service. For many, it is the final station on the schoolhouse to jailhouse line. Far too many suffer early, violent deaths. Those who live spawn a whole new generation of children who will start from behind and will never be given a realistic opportunity to catch up. They are entrapped in a maelstrom of poverty and failure.

It is an American tragedy of unprecedented breadth and scope and it is at the core of our nation’s greatest political, economic, cultural and civil rights challenges. The chasm that divides the American people is very much a function of the bitterness on the part of some citizens because of their resentment that they are asked to support our nation’s poor and infirm.

The magnitude of this reality makes public education the civil rights issue of the 21st Century. That it is a crisis that can be prevented so easily, however, is the greatest tragedy at all. The ambivalence of the people who can bring an end to this tragedy is the greatest mystery of all. Do they not care?

We can end the failure simply by making sure every child has however much time they need in order to learn. If there is a reason why we should not do this, I truly wish someone would explain it to me.

Please check out my model at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/