Many of my previous posts have chronicled my involvement in the Ohio Grantmakers Forum’s efforts to gather input from “multi-stakeholders” who, in some way, influence education in the State of Ohio. The result is a publication for the Governor which I have talked about. Several weeks since the publication the blow-back has begun to be felt. The Governor received input from several other constituency groups but none as diverse as OGF’s. In my opinion, the most promising recommendations from our report were not included, but more on that later. I would like to post a few thoughts on this interesting process. The experience revealed many interesting interactions between politics, philanthropy and school-think.
First, it is now very evident to me that dealing with public school is analogous to dealing with institutional religion. The good comes with the bad. The battles are as intense and based in “belief” systems that, at times defy rational thought – and data. Discussion can be stopped by strong convictions by the faithful who are convinced they have a corner on truth. Such is the case in religion, and so it is -(I find) with devotees of public schooling. People I have met who defend public schools defend their belief with the zeal of converts. And as Shakespeare once said, “An overflow of converts – to bad.” It is my experience that when I or anyone else offers a critique of “the public school system” the comments are tolerated at best but received with a low growl making me feel as if I an uttering heresy against the tenants of “public schooling.” In Lorain County, where I live, my questioning of public schooling was met with the ultimate salvo – “Union-buster!” uttered by a university professor who teaches “education.” Given the permissions that power and control offer, criticism of public schooling as we know it are often met with undertones of threat that can only be launched by those who are certain that what they are defending is true. Such people make it very difficult for political leaders and for foundations to make any real impact on changing education. I often think this is what it must be like for a neutral politician having to introduce political reform with mullahs in Iran. So, I have come to learn that one must take small steps when trying to influence education policy – especially when representing an institution that has a large endowment and which, has the ability to exercise some political influence as well. It is an intricate dance.
It is probably no surprise to discover that foundation personnel can bring their own beliefs about public schooling to the table when providing advice to political leaders. In my opinion foundations should try very hard to base their policies on evidence and knowledge drawn from evaluation of projects they have funded. That is the only authority by which they can contribute to political discourse.
In the field of philanthropy, there is no consensus as to how to support public schooling in the United States. There are people and organizations that can tend to attract people of similar mind-set and experience. Grantmakers for Education is a great organization that supports foundations that support a variety of projects. GFE tends to attract foundations that are sincerely interested in reforming public education as we know it. There have few sessions addressing the future of education and influence in alternative ways of learning – although that is changing. Philanthropy Roundtable is a fantastic organization that attracts a more conservative group of funders. Roundtable hosts regional programs and site visits to innovative schools that tend to be charter and sometime voucher schools. It would be fair to say that the Roundtable members would be more likely to support alternative educational business models that demonstrate success in learning.
In many ways, philanthropy and those who work in it, reflect the diversity of opinion held by the general public. Personal belief can influence objectivity when philanthropy begins to take on policy as an organized front. There, we need to exercise supreme caution. As alluded to above, I have come to the realization that offering critique of public education is as dangerous as critiquing a person or group’s religious beliefs. There is a strong cultural aesthetic that if pushed too far, could have negative repercussions for the sector. So again, caution is offered and here’s why.
The American public generally believes in the universal access to education espoused by the founders of this Republic. It should – universal education in the U.S. is the reason why the democratic experience has worked for 250 years. Over the years, that concept has been institutionalized in a public schooling system which is as much a part of the American aesthetic experience as churches. The variety of ways in which education is expressed has been the “public school” – typically a brick building with a flag on the front lawn, run by principals who lord over the function of the teachers in classrooms. There is equal diversity about how the actual curriculum should be conducted and assessed. The storm around the barrage of testing NCLB has produced is only one example of what and how assessment can take place. That’s the way it has been for years and that is the way many people would like it to remain. Public schools have a romanticized aesthetic to it that includes yearbooks, proms and most importantly sport’s teams. Films like like Hoosiers, and Television shows like Friday Night Lights celebrate the American aesthetic experience of high school by romanticizing stories of public schools and the role they play in the civic life of the community. This is American public schools as believers see it, much like Bing Crosby’s role as Father O’Malley in The Bells of Saint Mary’s romanticized but served as the iconic representation of the ideal of the Catholic Church in the 1940’s. Hoosiers does not capture the agony of union disputes nor does the Bells of St. Mary’s capture alcohol or sex abuse that ran parallel to the aesthetic. Probably one of the most relevant films on the role of public schools and their place in the community was the recent series by NOVA on the battle over intelligent design. (A must see).
My frustration withGovernor Strickland’s plan to change public schooling in Ohio is that he seems to be bowing to the romanticized notion of what public schools should be. I mentioned that he got advice from many constituencies with huge influence from leaders in the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Federation of Teachers . Let us not forget that these two entities represent strong voting blocks and as such, a group any political leader does not necessarily want to alienate. The problem is the ODE and the OFT are entrenched entities that have an interest in maintaining power and control over the way the educational system is run. Much like the Roman curia or a Houses of Bishops, mullahs or any other gathering of “elders,” this organization will not only justify but its reason to control how public schooling is shaped but it will also fight if need be. Retribution can be fierce and good lawyers can be hired to contest any opposition. Much like a religious hierarchy, the structure needs to maintain strong vertical reporting structures. Control is easily maintained with a unified understanding and approach to the religious teaching. Organizations of this type cannot handle diversity of opinion and clearly have no room for experimentation.
I have found that the ODE, the OFT and even some program officers in philanthropy can thwart innovative programming by making appeals to what I call the god of research. Clearly there is a need to have solid research around quality programming. In fact there is too little research funded by philanthropy as indicated in the last chapter of Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. The problem I see however is that too much of the education research suffers from what Ellen Gondfliffe Langemann writes in her book An Elusive Science – The Troubling History of Education Research
I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that the most powerful forces to have shaped educational scholarship over the last century have tended to push the field in unfortunate directions – away from close interactions with policy and practice and toward excessive quantification and scientism. p ix.
The Governor had an opportunity to implement some truly innovative programs that could launch education in Ohio into the 21st century appears to have caved to the zealots of public schools who are more comfortable with 19th century schooling because they know it and can control it. His policies to shut down on charter schools, eliminate “early-college” programs and to focus on improved testing looks to me like a reactive attempt by the State to clamp down on opposition and innovation and demand conformity to thought and ultimately this idea of public schools. Much of this is fueled by an important voting block – the Ohio Teacher Union. Some of it supported by program officers who tend to favor quantified educational data before making a move. I think that is an easy out allowing people to hold back support for innovative programs that diverge from the public school norm. In reality hiding behind data can be interpreted as an attempt to appeal to the power brokers like School Superintendents of large metropolitan areas, State Superintendents of Schools and ultimately Governors.
To me, the action from the Governor’s mansion looks like the Vatican and its need to control uniformity of thinking with little tolerance for oppositional thinking. (Women’s ordination, liberation theology, contraception, even teaching faculty at catholic universities are only a few of the issues that have met with little tolerance on the part of the curia). This administration cannot tolerate any innovative change in education that takes place outside the paradigm and control of the State Department of Education and the Board of Regents.
Just as theists accept the proposition that God exists, so too public school devotees posit that public schools (which is different from public schooling), should and must exist for the benefit of the community. How that concept of public schools is expressed is as varied as they way Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and all other religions develop aesthetic. Each has an aesthetic and iconography based on their respective interpretations of what the word of god means to them and their followers. The analogy can easily flip to the area of education where there is certainly no unanimity of thought about how learning can and should take place. Just read my previous post called “Philanthropy, Education and Class -what are we thinking?” which discusses the work of. Dr. Kusserow on how class affects parents educational expectations for their childrens education and the people who teach them.
Elected officials have an ostensible allegiance to the voting constituency who put them in office but politicians must also appeal to general consensus if they want to be reelected. They must also figure out how to raise the general public to act out of virtue and pursue what which is wise. Just like people in philanthropy, elected officials are stewards of that form of public money. Often, what is thought to be general consensus, especially in highly emotional issues such as schooling, might not be grounded in practical wisdom. Too often, irrational belief trumps rational judgement resulting in decisions that might be politically expedient but fundamentally unwise. The challenge for any elected leader is how to manage truly innovative and imaginative education policy dealing with a strong political force that is poised to destroy you if you diverge too far from their own interest.
Unlike politics, foundations do not have to appeal to voters. Their constituency is smaller – i.e. the trustees that serve on the boards and the communities they serve. A community foundation is comprised of members of that community and more often than not, has purview to restrict grants within a geographic area. The board is typically comprised of people who live in the community and experience the rhythm of daily life in places like Cleveland. The director of a community foundation must appeal to current donors who also advise officers on how and where to direct distributions. He or she must also try to find new donors who will be comfortable with making financial contributions that will increase the size of the foundation’s endowment, and thereby increase the amount of funds for charity.
A family and/or private foundation is different from community foundations because it is comprised of members who have ties to those who established the foundation (typically a successful ancestor). Members of these foundations may or may not be living in those communities, and by nature of their election to the board, may be one-step removed from the political pressures a community foundation may have. A family and/or private foundation operates from the endowment established by the ancestor. It does not have to raise new money from the community. As an institution, it does not have to dance as much around the politics that come into play with controversial issues. That being said I must qualify that if a private foundation engages in education funding, that organization has a supreme obligation to conduct research on why education programs succeed. It has a duty to support programs that promise to bring new-thinking to how education is conducted. Free from some of the constraints to think with the rest of the community, the private foundations can seek out and support those who are not afraid to go against the grain and raise our sites to that which is virtuous and right in modeling moral skill. It can and should seek out programs and people that demonstrate wisdom but also brilliance.
A family foundation that fund education must have a high tolerance to permit improvisation and allow itself and organizations to fail occasionally. Its staff and trustees need to be mentored by wise teachers, and the staff must learn how to learn how to respond wisely to brilliant and gifted people in the field. As I will reference below, wisdom without brilliance is not enough.
There is a nuanced but important difference here, and nothing is a better illustration of this than foundation involvement in public school education. Similar to the constituency issue our Governor faces, Community Foundations must be careful not to ruffle the feathers too much of the standard concept of public schools. Community Foundation must also guide the lead the larger community with practical wisdom drawn from experience and research. Most, if not all, succeed in doing that. As I mentioned above, concepts of public schooling are based in what I see as a “religion of public schools” which are grounded in the belief that public school is a good thing. In the ideal, public school levels the playing field for all citizens and is an egalitarian solution to the need to educate all children. Teachers unions are strong voting blocks. In the economically ravaged mid-west, teachers and their unions are a solid source of employment. In challenging times, people are scared so any challenge to the unions and their membership will be perceived as a threat to livelihood. The push-back will be fierce. Community foundations must be sensitive to the political factions in the communities it serves and thereby may be more risk-averse to change in school bureaucracies.
Getting back to practical applications of my theorizing, the philanthropic effort by OGF to involve stakeholders in the effort to advise the governor how to prepare Ohio Schools for the 21st Century had its fallout. The document contains recommendations for significant change to the way teachers can be dismissed, and receive tenure.
In a follow-up meeting with the head of the Ohio Teachers Union, the OGF team was informed by the union head that OGF had “misrepresented” the views of the Union leadership. That was a disappointing response. I was in the meeting when the draft of the final document was being discussed. There was no confusion about what was to be put into the document. The representative warned the “multi-stakeholders” this would be a controversial set of recommendations. When I heard the feedback that the union’s felt the recommendations were “missrepresented” we all wondered what happened. One can only assume that when the recommendations were made to the membership, they pushed back vigorously and the leader had to find an “out.” This is a coward’s game, but one that is all part of the cycnical system depicted in the clips I provide in earlier posts from The HBO series “The Wire.”Therein lies the blowback. When pushed to the wall, political interests will claim they were maligned, or misrepresented. It lacks moral will to do the right thing. It lacks virtue.
Governor Strickland and his staff are beginning to take heat for what came out. The results of thousands of dollars and hours of people’s time, is an education “plan” that reads like a document from the Vatican of the Religion of Public Schools. The plan reads like a dogmatic dictum that will assert the State power of public schools across the country. The Governor’s staff calls the plan “Historic Reform” Yet my read is that is incorporates few of the innovative recommendations from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum group. In fact, it ignores the number one recommendation to create innovation districts in the county modeled on Colorado’s Innovative Schools Act of 2008. This idea, if passed would lift the typical barriers to innovation in schools and allow teachers to be creative in addressing student learning styles. Technology would be introduced to support these learning styles and a focused plan for teacher professional development would complement this plan. Instead, we have a plan that extend the school day (with no allowance for new teaching styles), reformed tests for assessment and – most schocking a clamp down on charter schools and early college programs all of which show early signs of true innovation in learning. The Dayton Daily News for Sunday March 8, 2009 ran an editorial voicing a very succinct and clear protest of the Governor’s attempt to take this drastic and unnecessary action.
Foundations can and should continue to fund charter schools as well as initiative such as the early college programs.
I wish all members of the OGF Task Force including the public school bureaucrats could spend time viewing this remarkable talk by Barry Schwartz during the 2009 TED Conference. Listen especially around miniute 9:30 and on.
In my opinion, philanthropy in general, and family philanthropy in particular should constantly question and challenge the educational system in this country. In fidelity to the successful businessmen and women who created companies that account for the wealth, family philanthropy should push public schools to adopt strategies that will increase efficiency, honor professionalism but most importantly succeed by adopting practical wisdom to the endeavor. This role can be played out by funding models that appear to work – like the KIPP Schools, the National Association of Street Schools, the Cristo Rey and Nativity schools, and successful programs such as CAST and Project Lead the Way. They should support the research that will help bring them to scale in cities and rural areas across the country. Public schools need not be afraid of these models, and would do well to apply practical wisdom among their leadership.
To repeat the words of Dr. Schwartz, foundations and especially political leaders (and even the general public) need to reconnect to a sense of virtue and practical wisdom as it shapes an education plan for the next decade. It must embrace new concepts and technologies and support new and exciting applications of brain research to learning. In fact we need to revise the very way that educational research has been conducted on the district and state level. We must move from an empasis on outdated metrics to more entrepreneurial problem solving approaches to education.
In his book The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship, Frederick Hess writes,
The public dollars that comprise more than 90 percent of all k-12 spending rarely support entrepreneurial problem-solving. This meand that philanthropic giving, which accounts for a fraction of 1 percent of educational spending, has played an outsized role in the launch of new ventures like the KIPP Academies, Aspire Public Schools, New Leaders for New Schools and Teach for America. Because k-12 education is nominated by government spending and because this money is consumed in salaries and operations, precious little is invested in research and development of new ventures. Outside of the limited funding for charter school facilities and start-up costs, almost none of it support entrepreneurial activity.
In the private sector, the torrent of venture capital is accompanied by an ecosystem of institutions and actors that provide quality control, support new ventures and selectively target resources. In education, especially when it comes to directing philanthropic dollars, such infrastructure is sparse. The venture-capital communities that have sprung up in corridors like Silcon Valley and Route 128 in Boston are not plugged into K-12 education and equivalents do not exist in the world of schooling.
History has shown that Religion abhors scientific discovery. Until the national community is willing to break out of its religious belief in a public school model that no longer represents the needs for 21st century learning skills, we will continue to be dominated by the dictums of those who control the religions of public school. Practical wisdom will prevail and foundations have a role by giving voice to those who espouse it in education.