Can P-16 Compacts usher Innovation Districts for Education?

Last week, I met with my colleagues from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) Education Task Force.  The purpose of the meeting was to get an update on how the report recommendation Beyond Tinkering influenced Governor Strickland education budget.  The publication purports to  help guide policy to “Create Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.”  The budget in its current form does little to meet that reality.

The Governor ignored the number one recommendation placed forward by the philanthropic sector which is to create several education  “Innovation Zones” throughout the State.   He also ignored another compelling recommendation which was to establish a Statewide P-16 Education Technology Plan. Instead his staff appropriated $200,000 in the budget to establish a Creativity and Innovation Center within the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).   I suggested the Governor would do well to reallocate that line item to another area because such a center  ultimately serves as another top-down management tool for a system that needs another organizational system.

The education reform – dictated by budge constraints promises to be an expensive Tinkering Project informed by political agendas. It is discouraging as a funder to see incredibly innovative approaches to teaching and learning at places like Case and Oberlin College ignored by the pubic school sector.   It is energizing to meet the vast number of teachers and people across the country who are pushing innovation in schools in informal networks.  It is most disheartening to see how little foundation people, business leaders and school bureaucrats  understand the potential technology has to support innovative approaches to learning and understanding.  Foundations in particular seem to be risk averse when it comes to seeking out true innovation.  Too many of us resist appealing to the god of “Evidence-based practices” which seem only to gain credibilty if funded through expensive consultants from graduate schools of education.  To me, that term is becoming argot or those who fear real change to public schools as we know them.

As I watch this budget develop, I find it tragic that those who advise the governor seem to lack any understanding of the power and impact that new learning technologies can have not only in schools but in the market as well.  The new technologies and approaches come with massive disruptive change in school management and teaching.  Perhaps a concept far too big for policy makers to embrace.

One of the most formidable challenges for this Governor is changing i educational management in communities where the economic downturn continues to erode civic virtue.   The following article appeared in the Elyria Chronicle, the newspaper for a mid-west city where the loss of manufacturing jobs has resulted in decreased population and concentration of poverty in the city core.  Elyria was once a center of commerce in this part of NE Ohio.  Fifty years ago, a working-class family could afford a nice home, have a yard, worship at the church or temple of their choice, join clubs and graduate from schools.  The good life attracted families in the post-war boom years.  The school district has struggled with low-performing outcomes on State Standardized tests coupled with increases in social ills associated with poverty.  On the same day, the paper reported incidents about a shooting of a teen in one neighborhood, the resignation of the county law director who was jailed for drunk driving, a severe beating of one school wrestler with another at a garage party where beer and marijuana was present and a story about the former director of the Community Development Corporation (South Elyria CDC) who is a fugitive from the law – accused of stealing more than $50,000 from the agency.

Many in the next generation of those baby boom families have left the region resulting in population decrease and with that diminished need for the various school buildings.   Last week The Elyria Chronicle  paper announced the board decided to close two neighborhood schools. As a result, students will be bussed to another building which will now serve as a consolidated school.  Note the report on how administration will address the teaching staff.  If you are a new teacher, your abilities mean nothing.  Union rules make it that no matter what the skill level seniority trumps ability.

In addition to the closings, the district — which also has a projected deficit for 2013 — will lay off 23 teachers — eight at the elementary level, 13 secondary and two special education teachers.

(The), district director of human resources, said the 23 teachers will be notified this week of the reduction plan. At the April 8 board meeting, board members will vote to approve the contract termination of each.

He does not anticipate that enough veteran teachers will decide to leave the district before that time, saving some of the younger teachers from losing their jobs.

So far, only three retirements have officially been announced. There are no plans to offer any sort of retirement incentive, he said.

The teachers slated to be lost have one to three years of experience with the district.

Combined, the cost-cutting measures will save the district $2.25 million annually and erase the projected 2012 deficit while decreasing the 2013 deficit to $700,000, (The)Superintendent said.

As I read the article, I drew parallels to what has happened in the manufacturing sector in many towns in this Great Lakes region.  Factories are closing across the county.  We see the empty and furloughed factories of the car manufacturers  who are now in danger of bankruptcy due to obsolete management and product design that make their cars irrelevant to the American buying public. Other businesses have moved abroad or to the South because they cannot meet union demands.  I spoke with one businessman who told me he had a hard time finding workers who could pass random drug tests.  These are the realities contributing to the economic malaise in NE Ohio.  The malaise is transferred to some of the public schools as well. Teachers stick to obsolete curriculum and assessment tools.  Morale is low because they are not treated as professionals and the State pushes them to produce test results in the way a factory pushed workers to produce widgets.  In this envorinment, where teaching can be the last hold-out profession for families, I can understand how fear and protection can govern local policy decisions.  Change is long overdue, but the community does not seem prepared to even ask the right questions to find a way out.

The Fund for Our Economic Future is a unique collaboration of the philanthropic sector which  pooled funds  to support organizations by providing early-stage venture capital to innovative individuals with promising businesses.  In its first year, the Fund supported a region-wide conversation on the economic challenges called Voices and Choices .  This $3 million dollar effort captured community concerns.  Number one concern for the citizens of NE Ohio was addressing the poor educational system and the second was jobs.  The regions leaders were able to respond quite well to the jobs issue.  Working in coordination with the State to leverage   Third Frontier Funds into the region the Fund has worked closely with the business and political leadership to create an engine of economic activity for new and emerging business in the region.  The effort has resulted in tens of millions of new dollars coming into the region and the creation of  jobs.  The Cleveland Foundation has taken a lead role in collaborating with business and the universities directing funds to stimulate innovative businesses in energy and nanotechnology.

Elyria has one of Ohio’s best community colleges, Lorain County Community College with a magnificent new LEED certified building called the Entrepreneurship  Innovation Institute (EII) that provides training to people with ideas and shows them how to bring it to scale.  The Nord Family Foundation provided support to both the Fund for Our Economic Future and to local efforts with Team Lorain County and EII.  At the same time, Elyria, it is a tale of two cities.   On one end, stands this  center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with a vision of moving this economically desperate community to the future.   On the other end  the school district is depressed and managing a response straight out of 1960’s.   There is little hope for true innovation because the bureaucracies will not allow change to happen if it means changing the way things have always been done.  It will not change as long as those in power will protect their jobs  to the detriment of the greater good.

This focused region-wide effort to reinvigorate and innovate in the manufacturing sector in NE Ohio has been seriously lacking in the education sector. There is no focus for discussion and no horizion with a vision of what can be.   Despite remarkable resources in centers like Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, One Community, Cleveland State (to name only a few) the public school system is stagnating with a system that resists any invitation for  innovation.  Few in the public education system in the region even know these resources exist much less how to make use of their innovations.  The public school system appears to be experiencing a random approach to innovation, and seems more concerned with addressing job retention within the system.  There are exceptions.  The success of the MC2STEM school initiatives show promise, but these schools are in the minority.  Rather than stimulating innovation, the  Governor’s draft budget hinder it because it includes language that will cut support to some of the most innovative charter schools in the State.

I cannot understand why a Governor so tuned to the need to stimulate innovation in industry, is so opposed to doing the same in education.  Why not create an innovation  and entrepreneur district in this town of Elyria? (other cities like Cleveland could be candidates as well)   Why not tap into the potential a P-16 compact could have in pushing that agenda.  If the car manufacturers and other industries are changing to meet the needs of the next 25 years, why can’t the bureaucracies that strangle innovation in education do the same?  To do that requires training and work, which many older teachers are – quite honestly – reluctant to do.

As a funder I hear stories from many people as to how the system does not serve the needs of students.  These confessional moments (as I call them) are not mere griping, but passion-felt laments over how “the system” is broken.  Most complaints however are whispered for fear of retribution of colleagues and superiors.  Recently once colleague shared the following thought with me.  He wanted to post it on a blog but was afraid of the consequences.

Title: Ranting, Nightmares and Interactive Whiteboards

I’ve been struggling to write blog posts lately.

My lack of posting isn’t for a lack of things to say. Nor is it for a lack of enthusiasm for my work with children or other educators.

I’ve been quite simply because I don’t want to lose my job for questioning the administration on the WWW. Nor do I want to anger colleagues, dedicated teachers who are indeed working very hard in their classrooms. I also don’t want to sound like a ranting lunatic or a nitpicking critic. I am not a classroom teacher – I’m a technology teacher – so who am I to critique classroom practices and the instructional designs of my colleagues? Although, I hardly call a 10-page purple packet filled with teacher-generated questions and lines on which to write answers a designed project for student learning.

But…I’m having nightmares. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold, panicked sweat. I wonder when they’re coming to get me. Which grant funder will expose me as a fraud? In my latest nightmare I was being charged as an accomplice to “Crimes Against Children.”

Crimes Against Children? No, I’m not a pervert. I’m not skimming money off the budget. Nor am I purchasing materials for personal gain with district funds.

What am I?

I am a silent witness to lessons, projects and activities that either are not engaging, serve only the middle, do not provide opportunities for student choice, or only make use of technology to skill and drill students in hasty preparation for standardized tests. The longer I stay in public education, the more schooled I become. And I’m not using schooled in a complimentary fashion. As each day passes, I’m living out my own version of the situations described by the main character in Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise.

Here’s my latest dilemma: My district spent over $250,000 – that’s a quarter of a million dollars of tax payer money – to place an interactive whiteboard in every single classroom in the school’s building projects. A quarter of a million dollars. We also offered numerous in-house courses for graduate credit where teachers could learn how to use the interactive software – the hallmark of the boards is the interactivity of the software. The company provides a marvelous website with free access to downloadable materials created by teachers, free tutorials, discussion forums, video highlights of teachers using the products in their classrooms, courses for nominal fees; we have our own user group; the company reps have been out to troubleshoot, train, provide 1:1 instruction – sky’s the limit! We have access to the whole nine when it comes to getting our teachers trained on the boards and the software.

Do you know what most of our teachers are doing w/ their interactive whiteboards? Guess. Please.

Using them as nothing more than display devices to complete worksheets. Yup. Giant, expensive overhead projectors.

If I were the curriculum director, the tech director, heck! the treasurer of that district – if I were in an administrative role in this district  – I’d want to see one – just one – one example per month from each building of an interactive lesson – something that STUDENTS do at the board –  an activity created by the teacher, that takes advantage of the interactivity of the board and a sample of what the kids did AT THE BOARD! If I were an administrator I’d want access to a board so I could try out this interactive lesson – see how it feels to learn at the board – try my hand with the magic wand that makes things move on the board – demonstrate my understanding with an innovate piece of equipment.

But…I’m not in charge. I’m not even in a position where I could safely express this observation without being ousted by my colleagues or reprimanded for suggesting that the administration doesn’t know what a technology-rich classroom looks like.

My fear is that my next nightmare will involve a tar and feathering for my unpopular opinions about classroom technology use.

Under normal circumstances, this lament could be considered a complaint by a disgruntled professional.  However, by serendipity or destiny, the article below was shared with me by my colleagues from Ohio Grantmakers Forum on the same day I received the e-mail above.   This article by Mike Lafferty at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Ohio  is a summary of a national report on the successful implementation (or not) of technology in classrooms.

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Ohio earns a D-plus in use of technology in schools

Ohio, birthplace of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Neil Armstrong has received a D-plus in the use of technology in education (see here), according to an Education Week survey.

Oddly, though, the state received a B-minus in the capacity to use technology, so we seem to have it but we don’t know what to do with it.

However, some Ohio education experts say the survey is misleading in that it misuses the term “technology” by implying only computer-related technologies and that it distorts the issue of “technology standards.” Technology includes aerospace, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, environment, energy, and other issues, they said.

In the survey of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Ohio was ranked 47th in the use of technology. Ohio tied Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington (all with D-plus scores). The District of Columbia was last with the lone F.

Education Week evaluated the use of education technology in four categories: Do state standards for students include technology? Does the state test students on the use of technology? Has the state established a virtual school? And, does the state offer computer-based assessments? Ohio met the standard only for having state achievement standards that includes the use of technology.

At the top were Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. They all had scores of 100.

If Ohio needs a model, Colorado provides just that.  This month, the  legislature has approved Bill which allows for innovative districts.

Innovation is the key to education reform

By Dwight Jones

Updated: 04/13/2009 10:19:11 AM MDT

Everywhere we turn, we hear about the need for innovation in education. Four months ago, a Denver Post editorial proclaimed that “tinkering around the edges of reform” is insufficient to produce sustained improvements in public education. I could not agree more.

Education reform is easy to talk about but hard to do. At its core, reform is doing things a better way. With regard to education reform, however, we not only must do things better, we must get better results. Innovation is key.

As highlighted in a recent Post article, Colorado could soon receive several million dollars in federal stimulus money for public education. In addition to a fair share for programs that serve underprivileged students and those with disabilities, there is the prospect of additional funds earmarked for innovation. Known as “Race to the Top” funds, these funds will go to “a handful of states that devise the most innovative ways of improving education” — to the potential tune of $500 million per state.

The article concluded that Colorado has every reason to be optimistic. After all, with initiatives on longitudinal growth, charter school development, updated standards and performance-pay programs, Colorado has been in the forefront with regard to innovation and school reform.

Innovation is more than just a good idea, it’s about putting that good idea into practice. The Colorado Department of Education is presently pursuing a wide variety of innovative education models, including new approaches to teacher preparation, leadership development, school choice and the way in which education is funded. We are organizing strategies and directing resources in ways to innovate intentionally, and, in so doing, increase capacity to take to scale what improves education for Colorado’s students.

At the same time, the department is creating a statewide system of support for districts, built upon internationally competitive standards and greater expectations for ourselves and our students. This system will monitor, measure and foster what matters most — increased student achievement.

The department’s pursuit of innovation began in earnest in September 2007 when the State Board of Education called upon the department to modernize the Colorado Model Content Standards. The spirit of innovation was further kindled last year when Senate Bill 130, commonly referred to as the Innovative Schools Act and led by Peter Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, was enacted into legislation. This bill has allowed Manual High School and Montview Elementary School in Denver to implement new programs outside the constraints of traditional school policy.

This year, through the leadership of state Sens. Evie Hudak and Keith King, Senate Bill 163 promises to streamline accountability and to devote great support to struggling schools and districts. It also promises to shutter those schools that persistently fail. This legislation, if passed, will play a key role in the promotion of intentional innovation by providing a framework for us to fund what works and stop throwing money at what doesn’t. Innovation without accountability is not in our students’ best interests.

Working collaboratively with the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association, the governor’s office and our 178 school districts, it is increasingly clear that we all have a role to play in obtaining “Race to the Top” funds.

As mentioned in The Post, “Colorado is positioned well to win innovation money.” Winning the money, however, cannot be the goal, lest we win the race and miss the top. Instead, we must remain focused on supporting initiatives that transform the delivery of education and improve student achievement.Now that’s a race worth running.

Dwight D. Jones is Colorado’s commissioner of education.

I am skeptical that anything like the Colorado approach could happen in Ohio. I say this because of  the meeting last week.  Those that participated in writing the Beyond Tinkering Report, included representatives from the Ohio Education Association. To the astonishment of the entire group the OEA representatives complained that the Tinkering report that recommended changes in teacher tenure and hiring/firing rules misrepresented their position.  These OEA representatives participated in the working group for at least one-year and were at every session where the details of the issues were worked out.  I witnessed the representatives endorsement of the final edit. When the publication came out, others in the membership rebelled and urged the same representatives to let the Governor know the OGF report misrepresented their opinion. When our group asked the representatives to help us understand how it was they endorsed the final edit with us but renounced the document publicly the response was a marvel at political doubletalk and disingenuous representation of fact. This reaction helped my understand why the Governor and his staff are genuinely afraid of this powerful constituency that can twist fact to meet a political agenda and appease and seething membership. After the meeting, a colleague of mine was shaking his head saying, “If a liberal democrat like me can leave here disgusted with union behavior, they – as a group are in serious trouble.”  It also helped me understand why a Gubernatorial candidate with an eye to another election has disregard innovative recommendations because they will clearly incite t alienate a powerful voting block.

All this being said, allow me to dream for a minute.  Suppose the P-16 compact I described in the earlier post were to stand-up to the legislature, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers and say, Enough!  There is however one glimmer of hope.  The same town of and the Community College are host to a newly created P-16 or (P-20) compact.   Suppose that P-16 were to take similar approach that took place as the Denver districts and demand change in the system as it has been brought to the Ohio public with little change since 1835?

Here is where a P-16 compact could have an interesting impact by possibly crafting legislative language that like the Colorado law,  would allow that body to override state laws and collective bargaining agreements.  P-16’s are comprised of leaders from all sectors of the community including business, nonprofits, government and even education.  Suppose that group were to try to effect legislation in Columbus that would allow for the creation of an extension of the Innovation Zone on one side of town to include and Innovation District?  Would a P-16 have the political courage to suggest that (for example) the Elyria Schools District be declared an Innovation District that would, “…implement new policy outside the constraints of traditional school policy.”  just as Manual High School covered on NPR) and Montview School.

Here is what the  law says:

The Colorado State Legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act in 2008 (Senate Bill 08-130). The law is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making.

The law provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. The law includes procedures and criteria for a school or group of schools within a school district to submit to its local board of education a proposed plan of innovation. A local school board may initiate and collaborate with one or more public schools of the school district to create innovation plans or innovation school zones.

The law:

  • Allows a public school or group of public schools to submit to its school district board of education an innovation plan to allow a school or group of schools to implement innovations within the school or group of schools. The innovations may include but are not limited to innovations in delivery of educational services, personnel administration and decision-making, and budgeting.
  • Requires the local board to review each submitted plan and approve the school as an innovation school or the group of schools as an innovation school zone or reject the plan.
  • Allows a local board to initiate creation of a plan in collaboration with one or more schools of the school district. The law specifies the minimum contents of a plan, including the level of support needed from the personnel employed at the affected schools.
  • Encourages schools, groups of schools, and local boards to consider innovations in specified areas and to seek public and private funding to offset the costs of developing and implementing the plans.
  • Allows a local board to submit the plan to the commissioner of education and the state board of education and seek designation as a district of innovation (following creation or approval of one or more plans by the local board).
  • Directs the commissioner and state board to review and comment on the plan, and directs the state board to make the designation unless the plan would likely result in lower academic achievement or would be fiscally unfeasible.
  • Requires the state board to provide a written explanation if it does not make the designation.
  • Directs the state board to grant any statutory and regulatory waivers requested in the plan for the district of innovation, however, certain statutes may not be waived by the state board.

I am afraid that the first line of this program would result in a collective paroxysm among members of the OEA and teachers union.  But without that type of true leadership, nothing will change.  An Innovation District would take the report from the educational technologist and go back to the classroom to find out why teachers are not using smartboards to their potential.  An Innovation district would encourage teachers to take risks using new technology to enhance learning.  An innovation district would arrange to have a district office to share exciting breakthrough in classroom learning with others and discuss ways in which those practices can be shared.  An Innovation District would make use of  Universal Design for Learning and find ways in which technology can be used to make  implicit understanding of subject matter, explicit and in a form that validates their accomplishments.  In an innovation district teachers would be treated as professionals and be rewarded for success.  An Innovation Zone and a  P-16 district would  be successful if they can go beyond tinkering which has been the case for far too long.  These ailing districts could use the help of Innovation MAN who talks about Innovation but has to be reminded of the most important step – Implementation.

That implementation will require the school bureaucracies to go outside the silo of Public Education and invite the business community to ask questions about how things are done. If the teachers are no using smartboards to their potential, where and or what is the obstacle preventing that? What is the quality of professional development currently offered by the State Educational Services Centers?

A really interesting challenge for the Governor and his advisers is – set up several Innovation Districts across the State.  Initiate a five-year competition to see which one can come up with some of the most cost-effective uses of open-source educational tools and demonstrate cost efficiencies and higher learning outcomes.  Financial incentives could be put into place to reward teachers and/or districts that can bring those innovations to scale.  I am sure many will take on that challenge.

A serious P-16 would challenge the community to ask the same questions posed by Richard Baramiuk of Rice University’s Connextions project, and make use of  technology about one simple issue such as text books and how we use them in schools.  Why not pose a challenge to this district to come up with an alternative to text books which currently cost a district approximately $800, per child per year.  What about challenging a school to become knowledge ecosystems and work with teachers to figure out how to conduct assessment.  A successful innovation district, pushed by a strong P-16 compact could possibly  re-engineer schools to respond to the needs of children and reinvigorate hope into too many communities where parents cry in frustration over schools that are outdated, mismanaged and leaving too many children without hope of achieving the skills they will need to usher in the next few decades.

If this happens, foundations will be ready to provide support.  This is the type of programming will have high impact.  Anything less is just more of the same and, quite frankly not worth an investment of private monies.  Foundation funding portfolios demonstrate that there are too many charter, private and faith based as well as promising online  courses that are meeting the needs of students far more than what the public system currently offers.

If Ohio is serious about stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship in its obsolete manufacturing system, it must make the same honest effort to do the same for innovation in education.  The results are likely to pay off just as well.

One thought on “Can P-16 Compacts usher Innovation Districts for Education?

  1. Jeff Jaroscak

    I’m a big fan of innovation. I even like innovation for innovation’s sake. My motto, in fact, has always been “If it’s not broke, break it.” It strikes me however, that in terms of public education, innovation should be the vehicle not the destination.

    The problem as I see it is that we lack consensus about what we want for our students. Rest assured that there are many citizens who yearn for the “good old days.” I think it would be popular indeed to roll out a “Back to Basics” program that emphasizes the diagramming of sentences and copying of spelling words five times each.

    I think that a clear target in terms of what we want for our students is much more important than how we get there. In your work with OGF, how did you come across the student outcomes that you included in the report?

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