An Interview with Harlan Hansen: 16 Ways to Fix (or we’ll never fix) Public Education

Aug 22, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Could you tell us a bit about who you are, and your background, education and experienceI?

Harlan Hansen, Professor Emeritus, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Teaching was not always my field. I found myself side-tracked in a six year business career and finally left to enter my main love – teaching. In looking back, I do not regret those six years because they provided me with broader insights into the problems of education and the search for solutions.

I entered a fast-track elementary licensure program at the University of Wisconsin designed to attract people to education who had wanted to move from a business experience to teaching. Upon completion of the program I taught sixth grade for two years and then taught in a middle school for four years. During that time I was enrolled in the graduate school, completing a Master Degree and entering a PhD Program. It was at this point that I was asked to teach two graduate level courses at the University which allowed me to experience the joy of teaching adults and compete my advanced degree.

During that time a college program was set up to explore team teaching – in vogue at the time. My wife, a kindergarten teacher, and I were asked to teach in a demonstration program for four and five year old children. The questions to be answered were “can a husband and wife successfully teach together in the classroom?” and “would that attract more men into working with early childhood programs?” This experience led me to complete a major in early childhood education.

After completion of my PhD program I answered a call to serve on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, as an early childhood specialist.

In mid-career, the department realized that it was not meeting student needs in the area of classroom management and discipline. The staff discussed the situation and I was the only one who expressed an interest. That was logical because the early childhood classroom was the idea training for that position. The daily schedule was integrated into all subjects, children had a mix of individual choices and scheduled group lessons. The children displayed a wide variety of behaviors. Parent involvement was high. As I had been already dealing with the behaviors in those settings, it seem natural for me to extend my learning and applications into higher grades.

It was then that I continued what I had done at the start of my university teaching career – I offered to students in my classes the opportunity to call upon me when they had problems or needed help and I would positively respond. Sometimes it was on the phone but most often I needed to see the problems in their setting. So I spent as much time in schools as I did at the university.

This culminated in an idea that came to me one holiday season. I was feeling blessed that I had been able to experience such a wonderful career and wanted to repay the field that had enriched my life. I decided that, in addition to working with teachers and schools on short-term projects, I would volunteer myself to one school a year per year in a reciprocal project. I would learn specifically what schools were all about and I would help them in whatever ways my expertise would be useful. I concentrated on schools with urban populations.

  1. In the fall I was there before the start of school , helping teachers set up their classrooms.
  2. I led teacher meetings on how to immediately help children learn how to behave within a group setting.
  3. During the first and second week of school I visited lunchrooms and playgrounds to observe these settings.
  4. We then set up one day a week to meet as a staff early mornings or late afternoon for discussion of all-school problems.
  5. This let to my scheduling one morning a week to meet with individual or grade level teachers to address and seek solutions to problems, whether learning or behavior.
  6. This brought me into contact with specialists in speech and language, English as a second language, special education, and Chapter or title I remedial programs.
  7. One year I worked with a school district on the sole task of solving school busing problems.

I continued that experience for six years until my retirement and have continued to work with schools, in some form, ever since. It was the experience of working directly in schools that was my greatest learning. And it was that learning I was able to pass on to the undergraduates and graduates teachers who attended my university classes and professional worshops.

2. What is your view on charter and Alternative Learning Centers?

First, it is unfortunate that these schools have to exist – but the fault lies with regular education programs and their general inability to accommodate special learners.

Alternative schools are secondary school programs created by legislatures to educate students who haven’t done well or who have been expelled from tradition programs. While these schools have served some students very well, the main problems seem to revolve around ineffective administrative management and insufficient training of staff. As a result, a number of alternative schools have suffered in the unevenness of their program offerings and, unfortunately, their varying life span. Efforts are now in progress to have Alternative schools meet the same standards that apply to charter schools.

Charter schools have a broader mission – that of providing alternative education programs for children of all ages and abilities. There are two principals that guide charter schools. The first is that they function as autonomous public schools through waivers from many of the procedural requirements of district public schools. A basic assumption is that schools would be better for students if principals and teachers had more control and flexibility with the curriculum. Charter schools are also set up to accommodate special groups of students where it is felt a focused program would be more useful than the general public school offerings.

The critical point in the setting up of these schools is the feeling that the regular public schools cannot accommodate differences in learning, social standing, or special groups of children. Therein lies the real problem.

As to the effectiveness of Charter schools, a 2009 study was conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University. It was the first detailed national assessment of charter schools. It analyzed 70 percent of students attending charter schools and compared the academic progress of those students with that of demographically matched students in nearby public schools. The repost found 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than public schools, 46 percent showed no difference from public schools; and 37 percent were significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts. Based on that study, charter schools still have a way to go to be seen as the education of the future.

However, that does not change the fact that they exist because traditional public schools are not meeting the needs of all students. That problem needs to be addressed first and foremost if American education is to rise to the level expected by our citizens and to the level of education in other countries.

3. What are the shortcomings of teacher education?

The main problem is that students do not receive sufficient on the job experiences while in training. Students are typically out in the field for one of the semesters in the licensure program. The other semester they take methods courses. Those who are in classrooms in the fall never know what the second half of the school year is and how the students end up performing. Those students who are out in the spring semester have no real idea of how to set up a classroom in the fall nor where their current students academically started. And, obviously, methods courses taught at the university of college had no interaction with that going on in the field. The answer is to put students out into a classroom for an entire year to experience the full tasks of teaching and to learn to observe, evaluate and account for student learning needs throughout the year. With students returning for methods course instruction a week each month, there is a greater understanding of the practical knowledge of methods instruction and the same instruction that goes on in the classroom. I developed two of these programs and the students were seen as equal to first year teachers when they applied for teaching positions.

4. Could you discuss the need for providing for students with health, medical problems, hearing and vision?

(Your use of comparing this to average and above average students is off base. Children with hearing and vision or other medical problems may still be functioning at higher academic levels. This problem is more appropriate for Question 7 where special needs children may take away time from their learning because of uncontrollable behavior problems.)

Money is the root of many problems in schools. For example, when I started in education every school had a registered nurse who took care of these problems. Some ten years later that service was deemed to be too expensive – so a “health aid” functioned (or didn’t function) in that same role. So schools now deal more with referring problems to parents to solve with community agencies. Some districts have attempted to set up schools that included professional staff covering the multitude of health problems and available to the community. By having professionals connected to the building it was hoped that both children’s health problems would be addressed regularly and that parent education could help with preventive care in the future. These schools have met with mixed results – the result showing that they have not taken hold as major programs in American schools.

5. Difficult question, but should we be looking at a longer school day? Longer school year?

Legislators in recent years have reacted to local and national pressures to increase the school day and the school year. The purpose is to keep more children on task for longer periods so the learning has time to become skilled. It all sounded good until they realized that teachers were working under a contract that specified the hours in a day and the days in the year. It became clear to them that teachers would not work longer hours and days just for the joy of it. The plan was dropped quickly – but not the idea. There are some schools working on solving this problem but there have been no major breakthroughs. There are non-academic reasons that support the current schedule – students’ after school and summer jobs that would be affected. For now the school day and year will stay as they are.

6. Could you discuss the role of early childhood education?

Early childhood education is a mess. For example, although forty-three states require school districts to offer kindergarten, only fifteen of them require children to attend. In all but eight states, children are not required to start school until age six or older.

When they do get to school parents may find that there are a variety of options that do not seem to be equal. For example, in Minnesota the following five options are available:

• Half day, every day: state-supported

• Full day every day: state-supported half day and district supported other have day for students at risk

• Full day, every day: state supported half day and parent tuition supported other half day – an option that appears to be discriminatory because there is not space to accommodate all children and families excluded are those whose parents are unaware of the option, who do not understand the language or have travel limitations and miss admission deadlines.

• Full day, three days per week: this and the next format are usually used to cut noon-hour busing costs, especially in rural areas.

• Full day, alternate days: this is usually three days one week and two days the following week.

The obvious problem is that these alternatives provide different education opportunities for the children enrolled in them. Why doesn’t the state make kindergarten mandatory for all children? The answer is the cost. To make full day kindergarten mandatory for all children would cost millions of dollars. Once again, we believe in quality education but find ways to work around it!

As to the curriculum, most kindergartens now concentrate on reading and math skills to the exclusion of a broader curriculum.

But there is another problem. Preschools are feeling pressures to move to skill-based programs to prepare children for kindergarten. Even community-centered foundations are now spending money to support education for four year olds which concentrate on skill development.

The end result? We now having children arrive at kindergarten with the following backgrounds:

Preschool with emphasis on skill development

Preschools with no emphasis on skill development

Children who do not go to preschool

Children cared for by parents

Children cared for by relatives

Children cared for providers outside of the home

Children who are homeless

They enter kindergarten into varied programs and now must compete based on their varied backgrounds. Kindergarten now must deal with those who know a lot, those who know something and those who know nothing through no fault of their own.

In essence, this swirl of positively intended programming has negative outcomes. The largest one is that the range of individual differences now reflects a two or three year period of time rather than a 12 month period in the past!

The answer is to make kindergarten mandatory across the country and to take the emphasis on skill development out of preschool programs. Children have so much to learn about themselves, their colleagues and the world around them that to deny them those experiences is short-sighted given what we know about the positive impact of the early years on later development!

7. Could you discuss the role of inclusion in the public schools in general ?

The term “inclusion” generally means that children are entitled to the least restrictive environment according to their disabilities. The regular classroom is considered the least restrictive so all decisions are made from there to more restrictive classrooms. This has been a solid approach to the education of “special needs” children who experience the wide curriculum.

Where it breaks down is when individual students cause major problems that interrupt the educational program in the classroom. While minor problems can be gently handled, severe problems may, in addition to disrupting instruction, cause harm to other students. In order to assess these students to see if a more restrictive classroom is needed, parents have to agree to the assessment. All parents want their children in what they consider the most regular classroom – hoping that the process will work for the best. For that reason some parents will not agree to the idea of reassment.

I was working in a school where an intermediate student was the bane of the class’s existence. He was loud, interrupting, challenging others to fights, etc. His mother would not agree to a reassessment of his placement. Finally the principal “demanded” that she attend school for two days to observe his actions. On the first day he was almost an angel, but on the second day he lost if completely. It was at that moment that she realized his need for a different program within the school.

Trained teams of teachers – regular and special education – should be teamed to serve as a decision-making body to continually observe classrooms, talk with teachers, talk with parents – and have the authority to make decisions about the placement of children in least restrictive environments – which may not be the regular classroom. It is in the interests of the child involved and the entire class that all students have the right to a maximum environment in which appropriate learning can take place.

8. What do you see as the main issues in terms of classroom management and discipline?

Public schools are still at loose ends about how to handle discipline problems. Because of that, poorly trained administrators too often make top-of-the-head decisions when confronted with new situations that turn out later to be counterproductive.

For example, a high school student was called into the office because security personnel spotted a box opener in the back seat of his parked car. He used it in his after-school job at a grocery market to open food boxes. He had not been in trouble previously and had an excellent grade point average. . Under the “zero tolerance” policy he was suspended from school. Further discussions by administrators ended up with recommending he be transferred to an alternative school. The parents petitioned the administration to continue his attendance in a regular school but were denied. The school board, feeling the need to support the administration, supported the denial. The parents took the school board to court. The court ruled that the box opener in a locked car in the school parking lot did not pose a serious threat to students in the school. He was reinstated to the regular school program.

Did he arrive back at school to be seen by his classmates as an outcast who not only did wrong but, in addition, challenged the sanctity of the board? No. He came back to school a hero because other students also realized the stupidity of the decision making process. The administration had lost the respect of a majority of students who saw the decision process as being highly unfair. That “ripple effect” opened the possibility that future decisions might also go the same way allowing disrespect of administrators to linger when positive school spirit was needed for the school to effectively function. I could list any number of similar situations across the country, starting in kindergarten and up through the grades.

Here’s the historical thinking about this part of the curriculum:

If students enter first grade not knowing how to read – teach them!

If students enter first grade not knowing how to behave – punish them!

Yet the same factors in children’s early environment that caused them to lack basic readiness skills were also the ones that may have affected their misbehavior!

The school is an educational program. The school has to take children where they are when they enter the door and help them become more knowledgeable and better citizens. This demands another look at historical thinking.

If students enter first grade not knowing how to read – teach them!

If students enter first grade not knowing how to behave – teach them!

The time to start is in the kindergarten and first grade when misbehaviors are not as serious. By helping children learn how to deal with themselves and others, this reduces their occurrences in later school years. Bullies don’t just happen in 9th grade. That behavior started in the early home environment with a bullying parent or the opportunity to bully younger siblings or neighbor kids. As first teachers become aware of and report this behavior, and other staff members keep an open eye, there is a greater chance for appropriate school personnel to help solve the bully’s behavior.

The box opener situation could have been handled in a similar fashion. The administrators might have alerted the rest of the school that a box opener had been found in a parked car in the school parking lot, that fixed blade knives were not allowed in the school area, and that in the future this would be dealt with in a serious manner. Every one in the school is “educated.” The particular student is aware of the need to keep it hidden or not bring it at all. Everyone is a winner.

In the 1980’s and 90’s a program was implemented in many schools across the country where students’ names were put on the board when they misbehaved. If they continued to misbehave, there were checks put behind their names, a trip to visit with the principal, assignment to the time-out room, suspension, expulsion, Hell (obviously, the last one is mine!) The reason we needed the last one was because some kids didn’t care. They got their kicks by having their names on the board. But some other kids lived in mortal fear of having their names highlighted – and these were often very good students.

The problem was that the system tried to train kids how to behave. Yet, the human is the only species that can look at itself from inside out, picture a misbehavior that occurred, brainstorm and picture more appropriate behavior and then practice that new behavior in the future. We need to understand and capitalize upon this uniqueness of human behavior and help students learn how to behave.

My upcoming book, “Classroom Management in the Elementary School – Helping Children Insert Reason Between Impulse and Action,” will treat classroom management and discipline as part of the curriculum. It will list behavior outcomes in the same manner as the stated learning outcomes for reading, math, science, social studies, and other curriculum areas. The first half of the book will help teachers understand the nature of children, the nature of their own personalities, the role of more effective instruction in preventing misbehaviors, and the role of more effective classroom environments. The second half contains 60 lessons on how to teach students to deal with all of the everyday misbehaviors – from the mundane to the very serious – so that children learn how to deal with others, not simply react in an impulsive manner.

9 How well are public school principals being trained or is there mis-training of public school administrators?

All of these issues lead to a major need – the more effective training of public school administrators.

  1. Currently, only those teachers who choose to become administrators are considered for those positions.
  2. Their preparation is primarily a course-based program taken at an approved university or college program.
  3. Where required, they must find an appropriate “field experience” to learn the everyday workings of the job. Many of these positions are less than useful in assuming the full role of the principalship.
  4. But 55% of the states require no internship experience at all, leaving candidates wholly unprepared for the actual job.
  5. They then enter a school learning on-the-job which requires them to get to know the ropes and the territory in a hit or miss fashion.
  6. Their experience in assessing instruction and helping new (or experienced teachers) master their craft is nil – so more probationary teachers reach tenure when some are marginal or poor teachers.
  7. The situation as described above has many implications for important administrative decisions on teacher tenure and merit pay.

The answer is to set up programs within all districts to develop potential administrators through a series of real experiences over a number of years. Upon completion of an outcome based program, not a course-based program, they provide the school with seamless transition to the principal role. If there are no openings, they provide other districts with the same expertise.

My current book, “16 Ways to Fix (or we’ll never fix) Public Education” ( or AmazonKindle) discusses these points in detail.

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