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The challenge to leaders of public education

Positive leaders are guided by three axioms of organizational development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mel Hawkins is the author of Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America