Dr. Muhammad Interviewed by NBC 25’s Elizabeth MacFarland

Dr. Muhammad was recently interviewed by NBC 25’s Elizabeth MacFarland. A transcript of Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview is also available.

The Cost of Low Student Achievement

Inequality and varied levels of academic achievement among America’s students based upon cultural, racial, socioeconomic, and gender lines has been status quo for over 100 years. Reports highlighting disparities in academic performance between certain student groups in our nation has become passé, and have only caused alarm in certain pockets within American society. But, with global competition and a slumping domestic economy, Americans may need to rethink the under-performance of students in housing projects, barrios, and rural country-sides.

A new report released in May of 2009 reveals the real economic impact of the so-called Achievement Gap and its effect on the national economy. The report reads:

The study, conducted by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pointed to bleak disparities in test scores on four fronts: between black and Hispanic children and white children; between poor and wealthy students; between Americans and students abroad; and between students of similar backgrounds educated in different parts of the country. The report concluded that if those achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day.

During prosperous economic times, it is easy for people outside of the mainstream to be marginalized and ignored. Time always reveals that all people are valuable and when a society forgets that universal fact, the fate of those in power always seems to come back to how they treated those without power. As the rest of the world becomes more competitive and the economic and political dominance of the past seems to fade away, our country has to turn to those communities who always thought that they were a permanent underclass to survive and grow. As the report cited above notes, by unlocking the intellectual potential of poor and minority children America stands to gain trillions of dollars into its economy and guarantee prosperity for American citizens for years to come.

As I conduct professional development around the country, I remind educators that the true power and fate our nation rests in the hands of our educators. To unlock the intellectual potential of a human being is akin to creating a new life. The only trait that separates humans from the animal kingdom is our ability to think at high levels. In fact, we witness humans turn to animalistic behavior when they do not develop intellectually. So, as I drive through dilapidated neighborhoods in Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other depressed regions of our nation, I do not see thugs and useless people walking the streets, I see potential, and the future leaders of our nation. What do you see? If more of my colleagues in our field, especially those who practice in communities like these, do not see through a new lens, we might all find ourselves in unfavorable positions. Joel Klein, the Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, stated it well when he said, “Schools can be the game changer. We can and should get very, very different (better) results with the same children and we can change the world”

What is an Educational Professional?

The above question is one that has been asked for decades and has yet to receive a uniform and adequate answer. As I travel North America and conduct professional development for educators, I oft-times ask this question to participants and I get a wide range of answers. Some of those answers include qualities like compassion, nurturing, knowledgeable, flexible, patient, and collaborative. All of these traits are noble and would be positive traits in any profession. The problem is that we lack a consensus among educators about what a quality educational professional does. Many professional organizations have come up with their own versions or belief statements, but there has yet to be a consensus on what a consummate educational professional does and how he/she performs and behaves.

Why is this debate so important? The overwhelming consensus among the experts in the field of education is that the most important variable in improving student achievement is a high-quality teacher. This fact brings cause for leaders to ask three questions:

  1. Who are these high-quality teachers and what do they do?
  2. How can school districts find these professionals or can each teacher be taught to be high-quality, model teachers?
  3. Are there parts of the traditional school structure and culture that are detrimental to the concept of guaranteeing every student a high-quality teacher?

These questions have plagued school districts and school district leaders for years and there seems to be no end in sight to desperate attempts to close the gap in performance from teacher-to-teacher.

Recently, the New York City Public Schools created an experiment called the Equity Project. This program is a part of an experimental charter school that seeks to fill every classroom with a “superstar” teacher selected from a nation-wide search that the director styles as an educational version of “American Idol.” Each teacher will be paid a base salary of $125,000 (nearly twice the average for a NYC teacher) and each teacher is eligible for an additional bonus of $25,000, starting in the second year, based upon improvement in student achievement. The school will start with a class of 120 fifth graders and it will expand each year to accommodate an additional grade level up to 8th grade. The students will be selected on a lottery format. The district will monitor the experiment to determine if head-hunting for top-talent and paying a premium wage is the way to guarantee high-quality instruction and improved student performance.

This experiment, like many others, sheds an unfavorable light on the current state of our profession. What these experiments show is the low level of confidence that the public has in the average educational professional to improve, grow, and provide adequate service for all children. It also sends a message that investment in the development of currently employed teachers is a waste of time and money, according to top leaders.

The improvement in teacher quality and performance has to come from a fundamental shift in focus, values, and practices that have to be championed by educators within our culture, not from the outside. I do not fault the New York City Public Schools for their attempts to improve student learning. They owe it to the children and citizens of their city. I am insulted by these types of experiments, not because people have the audacity to try them, but because they have not created any alarm within our field. I am not talking about the traditional alarm around rhetoric in the areas of “stealing money away from local schools” or “protecting jobs.” I am angry about the lack of self-reflection and internal accountability in our field that approves of varying levels of professional performance. I am angry about a lack of internal outcry for professional development and capacity building that would allow us to create high-performing professionals in each classroom instead of going on nation-wide “American Idol” auditions. If we do not develop the internal capacity to look in the mirror and create learning communities of professional educators, we cannot be mad at others who try to fill this need, no matter how goofy their experiment.

Self-Reflection: The Foundation for Improvement

The true path to improvement begins with an honest analysis of performance and schools are no different. Unfortunately, the anxiety caused by recent accountability initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have made schools, school leaders in particular, afraid to be truly self-reflective for fear of affecting ethos or image. This reluctance to critically self-analyze is understandable given the public scrutiny and criticism that educators have been subjected to over the past several years. Many schools find themselves trying to project a positive public image, even in the face of very disturbing facts for mere survival in a hostile environment. This reality has to change because if we are to create the types of transformational schools that we need, educators must feel comfortable critiquing their performance in order to improve.

In the popular and oft-quoted book Good to Great, Jim Collins outlines the variables that distinguish Great companies from Good companies. The first thing that Jim Collins notes is that Great companies confront what he refers to as the brutal facts. These facts or data are evidence of areas of low performance. Collins points out that high-performing companies hunger for this information in order to pinpoint opportunities for improvement and aggressively attack these areas in order to maintain an advantage over their competition. Steven Covey also addresses this issue in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In this book, Covey identifies the difference between the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern. The Circle of Influence embodies the issues that can be controlled and improved, while the Circle of Concern contains those issues beyond our control that we complain about, but do not have the ability nor influence to change. Covey points out that when a person focuses on what they can control, concerns become smaller and influence grows. The evidence is clear, when honest self-analysis is at the core, growth happens.

School leaders must have the courage to break through this barrier and engage their staffs in honest dialogue about their reality and lead them in strategizing on continuous improvement. Even high-numbers of students achieving a proficient score on a state assessment is not nearly enough for a school to stop focusing on improvement. There is not a school or organization on the planet that does not need to improve, and the truly great ones recognize this fact. I encourage my fellow educators to stay focused and push your school to higher and higher heights! Your students deserve it and our society and world need it.

Education is Everyone’s Business — Ending the Recession and Improving America

When the founding fathers of the United States shaped this nation and established the Constitution, public education was not a fact of life. In fact, education is not mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution. Over two centuries later, it may be the public school system that pulls our economy and nation out of the worst economic lull since the Great Depression. Why is education so important and why hasn’t our society realized its true importance to our society?

H. Ross Perot, a prominent business man and presidential candidate in 1992, wrote a stinging critique of the American public school system in the March 2009 edition of the U.S. News and World Report. On page 16, Mr. Perot wrote:

Fifty years ago, when we had the finest public school system in the world, the United States could count on an educated populace to create, design, and produce innovative products and services needed to drive the economy and create jobs. Today our public schools rank near the bottom of the industrialized world, and it’s not for the lack of money. The education system is partly to blame for the financial crisis in which we find ourselves. Unless we do a better job of educating our children, we will be unable to grow our economy at even a moderate rate.

Mr. Perot’s critique is not very flattering, and many educators may find his criticisms insulting, and that is very understandable. The crisis that is on our doorstep and the decline in some areas of student performance is a complex issue and should not be placed completely on the shoulders of the public schools and educational professionals. But, the importance of education to the economic, political, and moral survival of our society emphasized by Perot is correct.

I have had the pleasure to be an educator for twenty years and it is a distinction that I wear with honor. I call on educators to accept and nurture their prominent role in our society. Even though we do not always feel appreciated, we are the backbone of this nation. If we are to expect respect from those outside of our field, we must first respect and value our own profession. Politicians, economists, and other professionals think that they run this nation, but the truth is, educational professionals who prepare the future leaders and citizens control the nation’s agenda. As the saying goes: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. As the nation, and in fact the entire world, teeters on economic disaster, the skills and intellectual development of our children will move us to safe harbor. I implore my fellow educators to consider the following challenges:

  1. End petty and personal issues that interfere with a razor-sharp focus on student development. They are the true purpose for the existence of the system.
  2. Become the life-long learner that we encourage students to become and consistently sharpen your skills, not just because the state requires it for continued credentialing, but because you want to improve your practice.
  3. Call, write, and lobby your legislature to fix the school funding structure that cripples schools in many states and grossly underfunds schools and leaves them without the tools that they need to improve student learning. If we can find money for wars and bailouts for greedy and irresponsible banks, we can find money to support the growth of our students.
  4. We must make a pledge that if we get the increased funding we need, we will commit to presenting our nation with the most educated and progressive group of citizens that we have ever seen. It is the right and patriotic thing to do!

Spreading Hope

January 20, 2009 witnessed the swearing-in of the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack H. Obama. This event was significant for many reasons. The nation, for the first time in its history, elected an African-American to its top office. This act by the American people symbolized to many the end of a brutal era of inequity, discrimination, and human separation along many different lines. Over two million American citizens traveled to Washington, D.C. to witness this event and the theme of the day was hope.

Why are Americans so hopeful? From my observations, it appears that people are hopeful about creating a society where there are limitless possibilities for every citizen, even those who were not blessed with privilege and wealth. The fact that only fifty years ago African-Americans could not drink from the same fountain as white Americans and today an African-American serves as commander-in-chief is significant and should make people hopeful for a more egalitarian society. But, what I hope is not missed is the fact that it was not Barack Obama’s skin color that helped him to ascend to the most powerful position in the world, it was his ability to think, articulate, and connect with the American people. He is a graduate of Ivy League schools and served as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. Barack Obama is not just black, he is smart!

His ascension is only important to traditionally marginalized groups if we produce students, of all races and walks of life, with the same level of skill that President Obama possesses. There is no better place to start this ‘renewal’ of the American promise than in the public school system. Why the public school system? It is the only institution that provides access to education regardless of race, religion, social class, or any other social characteristic.

Hope has to spread beyond Washington if this renewal is going to be real. In a 2007 study published by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), they identified four primary reasons, or risk factors, to explain why students do not perform well at school:

  1. Students living with one parent
  2. Students who miss more than three days of school per month
  3. Students under the age of 5 with parents who do not read to them daily
  4. Students who are in the eighth grade or beyond who watch from 4-5 hours of television daily

Obviously, interpersonal relationships are difficult and it will take a national effort to keep families together to reduce the number of single parent homes, but the other three factors can be easily eliminated by any parent at anytime. If we are going to create the nation that the participants at the inauguration hoped for, we have to do more than admire our forty-fourth president; we have to nurture students who can grow to emulate the substance of President Obama. Why can’t we begin with the students and parents in our schools that are most at-risk and make this historic event more than just a symbolic gesture? With the unity of Americans at all levels, especially at the educational level, we can create “a more perfect union.”

Leading Schools in Tough Economic Times

The extraordinary economic crisis worldwide has caused many people to rethink their priorities. During this crisis, we have witnessed people losing their homes, massive job losses, and banks and other financial institutions going bankrupt. This crisis has touched every segment of our society and we are now witnessing it creep into the financial resources of the public school system.

During this time of crisis, many schools have to tighten their belts. This can mean that schools can lose staff and academic programs and in many places anything beyond the bare necessities are being eliminated in order to weather this financial storm. Things can appear hopeless to school leaders when they assess their resources and they are unable to provide the same services that they did just five years ago.

How does a leader deal with these conditions? He/she must refocus the school on its fundamental purpose, the education of children. Tough economic times can oft times teach us a lesson about priorities. These times can make us assess which things are really critical and which expenditures or resources truly support the goal of student learning. Companies that go into bankruptcy reorganization oft-times emerge more efficient and more viable as a result of a temporary hardship. As long as we have access to students, we can have great schools. Learning can take place anywhere and under any condition if we properly engage the minds of young people.

To leaders who are struggling through these times, I make the following recommendations:

  1. Reconnect your educators to the noble cause of education; educating children
  2. Maximize your resources! Don’t be afraid to spend, but do your research and only spend your scarce resources on the things that support student growth.
  3. Be the example! If leaders whine and constantly voice frustration about lack of resources it will become contagious. Remember, you are the leader!
  4. Look at the current state of affairs as an opportunity to reorganize and become more efficient. The public school system is not going anywhere and good economic times will eventually return. Money is helpful, but money does not teach kids!

Reality Check

As an educator of over twenty years, I have seen a lot in my time in the profession. One reality that I have witnessed is the disconnection from reality that many educators exhibit. Non-traditional educators, those who have chosen education as a second career, are oft-times flabbergasted by some of the attitudes and dispositions displayed by some of their new colleagues.

An unfortunate result of the traditional isolation of the school teacher and schools in general is the perception that educators operate as independent contractor. This isolation does not allow the educator to objectively evaluate his/her performance and an attitude of contempt can easily develop for those students and parents who do not comply or cooperate with the standard education program. Additionally, the traditional relationship between home and school has established that the educator is the expert and therefore his/her judgment in the areas of curriculum and pedagogy is indisputable. This is especially true in areas that serve the children of poor and uneducated parents. Consequently, good parental involvement has been judged through the lens of how successful parents are at convincing their children to comply with the school’s program. Finally, because of the difficult nature of our job, many educators feel as if we are doing the public ‘a favor’, instead of serving the common good as public servants. This attitude has turned many educators away from any discussion of internal improvement and resentment for policies that make schools accountable for improving student learning.

Obviously, educators cannot accomplish universal student achievement alone. They need the cooperation of parents and other members of the community, but there are things that we, as a field can simply do better. Classroom strategies tend to primarily focus on students with auditory and visual learning styles and other forms of cognitive stimulation are not considered, assessment systems are oft-times antiquated and do not accurately diagnose student learning, and constant and institutionalized professional development rarely exists.

If education is going to move forward as a field, there are certain truths that we are going to have to confront as a field:

  1. We are not independent contractors, we are public servants. We are an arm of the government, funded by the public, with the specific purpose of educating the children of our community.
  2. Complaining does not change reality. If we are unhappy with an exorbitant amount of outside regulation, we need to better analyze our performance and place a premium on self-improvement.
  3. We chose this profession. If the conditions and challenges of our schools are too much, there are other things that we can do. If we cannot properly respect or connect with the members of the community in which we serve, we can choose to serve in a different community. Remember, we have many more options than the students that we serve.
  4. We do not educate ourselves; we educate our clients (students). We have the professional obligation to educate the students that we serve using the methods that work best for them, not the methods that make us the most comfortable.

This era of renewed spirit in our country cannot afford to skip the school house. I call on all educators who care about our field to start to speak up in the halls of America’s schools. No longer can we allow a small group of dissatisfied people ruin the climate in which we work. I became an educator because I love kids and I want to see them grow and develop into powerful human beings. It is unethical and unprofessional to want anything else.

The Collaborative Administrator

The Collaborative Administrator, a new book coauthored by Dr. Anthony Muhammad, is now available at Solution Tree. In it, Dr. Muhammad and 12 other practitioners explore the nature of leadership in a PLC. Discover this and other resources by the New Frontier 21 team of consultants at our store.

Overcoming the Bell Curve

The Bell Curve just won’t do anymore. Schools need to ensure that all students learn. Some say this is impossible — that a disparity in student performance is natural. Although when the results are scrutinized, it’s true in nearly every school across the nation that lower economic and minority groups are highly represented in failing populations. Is the Bell Curve really nature or a result of a societal self-fulfilling prophecy that creates the Achievement Gap?

In schools today, it is unethical to continue on that path.

This new school year brings a fresh set of smiling faces to you, kids whose hopes, fears, and loves all rest in the hands of their teacher. For the time shared during the school day, teachers are everything to their students: parent, partner, and mentor. If you know that you are not addressing the educational needs of ten, twenty, or thirty percent of your student population, shouldn’t you do something tangible about it? How would reaching those students change the rest of their lives? What would academic success with all of your students mean to you? What would it mean to them?

The reality is that shining examples of what is possible with student achievement are available throughout the nation. I believe that a core group of educators can begin a revolution to change their school and the lives of the children they serve. I believe this is our duty as educators, to open our students’ minds with carefully crafted curriculum and teaching that is connected to our student’s lives and interests. I believe that teachers who dedicate themselves to the ideals of change and tender their duty with enthusiasm and modern pedagogical philosophies can eliminate the achievement gap in their schools. The result of such practices is nothing short of changing the world, one student, one class, and one day at a time.

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