Innovation Districts – An Exciting Initiative to Transform Education in the State of Ohio

I was a member of the education task force for the Ohio Grantmakers Forum which produced a set of recommendations for changing education in the State of Ohio for the Governor and legislature.  Beyond Tinkering was the report and I have written about the effort in previous posts.  The full document can be found at.  www.ohiograntmakers.org

One of the most satisfying results of the effort was gathering information from colleagues from other foundations to push the idea of innovation districts.  We used legislation out of Colorado as the inspiration.  The call for creating innovation districts in Ohio is the first recommendation in the report.  When the report was published, I did not think the Governor or the legislature would seriously consider the idea of innovation districts. It had certainly hoped it would and my colleagues can attest to the fact that I pushed for it every meeting we had.   It appears however that both the Ohio House and Senate are intrigued by the idea and have written it into the education budget.  It has to go to conference and perhaps will actually become a reality.  Should that happen, the state has opened up an exciting opportunity for transforming education and establishing national models.

Among the many excellent recommendations in the report, several have particular relevance to legislators who are genuinely interested in transforming education in the state. The idea of creating innovation districts has all the potential  to develop budget-neutral programs that could serve as models for all districts in the state. In a time of budgetary constraint, it is my guess that if they are developed carefully, and with strong leadership from the top offices in the state, innovation districts could result in cost-savings over time.

I underscore the call to create innovation districts rather than schools.  There are many school-based programs spearheaded by exceptionally creative teachers.  Unfortunately, these programs are restricted too often to one classroom.  In some cases, we see school buildings implementing innovative use of technology to support learning, but it is once again,  more often-than-not these innovations lack any alignment with the other buildings in the same district. In my travels I have heard disturbing news that successful schools are often scorned by peers in their districts.  I had the great pleasure to explore the  Macomb Academy in Michigan.  The leadership there has implemented a highly successful approach to learning with emphasis on Sciences based on the approaches advocated by the Natural Learning Institute. Despite the demonsrable success, Macomb teachers and leaders are resented by peers in their district because they have developed their own method of teaching and assessment that diverges from the norm.

I bring up this case because  a. it is not the first time I have heard cases of professional jealousy of this type crippling innovation in schools and b. because I think it illustrates a reason why we need to stop creating innovation schools as isolated entities within districts that may or may not be on board.  The emphasis must be on the district as a whole.  An innovation district would focus efforts on an entire community, and put benchmarks in place that could measure success.  Foundations could be called upon to help support these districts and direct funding to the support positive outcomes to the benchmarks put into place.

An innovation district would focus efforts on an entire community, and put benchmarks in place that could measure success.  Foundations could be called upon to help support these districts and direct funding to the support positive outcomes to the benchmarks put into place.

The language in the OGF Byond Tinkering report is very clear.  It calls for, “A bold plan for accelerating the pace of innovation – for restructuring the traditional industrial model of teaching and learning and for addressing the lowest-performing schools in our state.”  That includes a recommendation to create innovation districts. I purposely put emphasis on districts and not innovation schools.  Further in the report, is the call to “Develop a statewide P-16 education technology plan.” “Which includes improving teacher capacity in using technology.”  What better way to set this off than a district whose mission and focus would be to develop a plan that will train teachers on appropriate use of technology to meet the student learning objectives.

These recommendations are the primary ingredients for developing districts which – if properly carried out – could serve as a model for public schools across the country. The leadership would have to have the political will to take on the political battles which will be waged by interest groups.  It would prove the political leadership is finally willing to move Beyond Tinkering and transform learning opportunities.  Set the bar high and challenge these districts to carry out the plans in a budget-neutral environment and it is my guess most administrators and teachers would meet that challenge.   Ideally there would be five or more districts set up and given a five to ten-year exoneration from current collective bargaining and technological rules that could thwart the overall effort. For example, teachers in the district would not be able to “opt out” of professional development programs that would be essential to creating the districts.  If teachers do not want to participate fully in the learning opportunity they can be ushered to other districts or find employment elsewhere. That is where extreme leadership is required from multiple stakeholders in the state including union leadership, superintendents the ODE, the Oho Federation of Teachers and the Ohio School Board.  Getting them to agree means providing a coherent vision and establishing certain benchmarks to measure quality improvement.

The objective would be to create districts focused on excellence in learning. We are speaking of a new understanding of learning from pre-conceived ideas.  That means educating the stakeholders to the remarkable opportunities that new technology provides.  I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Helen Parke, Director of the Cisco Learning Institute.  During the Sunday evening keynote, Ms. Park presented a vision of education technology to a group of K-6 math teachers from across the state of Ohio.  This was a vision of Web 3.0 solutions to problems.  The conference continued for two days with the task of finding solutions to the challenge of improving the quality of math teaching in schools across the country.  Teachers were treated to presentation from education “experts” from universities across the country. As the weekeind went on however, teachers were challenged with coming up with solutions to the problem – To improve Math scores in schools across the state.  Unfortunately, the so-called solutions called for more funding to provide “math coaches” in buildings across the districts.  It was as if the presentaion from Ciso never happened.  Teachers were unable to make the connection between 3.0 software and its potential to solve their problems.  In short, we had 1.0 solutions to problems in a world where 3.0 can provide easy answers.  The experience convinced me that a better job needs to be done to invite teachers to experience and understand the technology.  Short of that, they will never understand the potential these technologies hold.  Professional development needs a complete 360 evaluation and (I would guess) a complete overhaul.

In such these innovation districts, a district adults would learn as well as  the students.. Teachers would be respected as the professionals they are, and encouraged to work with administrators and technologists to find ways in which technology can be used to find solutions to issues like student-centered learining, new ways of assessment and rethinking the way we establish standards.  Teachers would be encouraged th think of new ways to help children understand the content.

In these districts, goal would be to use technology to support student engagement and understanding of the content. Technology cannot and should not be expected to replace  learning that takes place between and among human beings.  It is not to create innovation for the sake of innovation, but to establish a culture of learning that will likely change the current model of one-teacher in a room in front of twenty students each of whom is expected to pass a testing pattern based on a pre-established set of standards.  Technology presents students and teachers with new ways to gather, assemble and demonstrate knowledge that exposes the shortcomings in the current system of assessment.  A challenge for the district would be to allow teachers in shared learning communities, to develop meaningful systems of assessment that make use of the tools available.  The result could be an incarnation of the “student-centered” learning module that has gotten a lot of lip service with few demonstrable models.

A major challenge to the district leadership would be to demonstrate reasonable cost savings as a resulting from use of social software. (For example why would five districts each need a “curriculum director” when one could possibly suffice. Could each of these districts demonstrate effective use of open-source tools to reduce the cost to the district (approximately $800 per student for textbooks used only one-year).

A district-wide initiative across the state would require an entities that supports the multi-district application.  I suggest that a good model can be found in a November 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review by authors James Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morrison.  Teaming Up to Crack Innovation Enterprise Integration is written for the business growth with focus on CEO’s, Chief Information Officers (CIO’s) and IT organizations.  The model easily adapts to a State education bureaucracy and includes two elements that would be critical to the success of the Innovation districts.  Their thesis is relatively straightforward.  Here is how they summarize the concept:

  • IT has long been a catalyst of business innovation and essential to cross-functional integration efforts, but few large companies have systematically leveraged technology for these purposes.
  • Close study of 24 U.S. and European businesses reveals a model for systematically doing that that through the formation of two IT-intensive groups for coordinating these two processes that are critical to organic growth
  • A distributive innovation group (DIG) combines a company’s own innovative efforts with the best of external technology to create new business variations.  The enterprise innovation group (EIG) folds yesterday’s new variations into the operating model of the enterprise.
  • The two groups help better identity, coordinate, and prioritize the most-promising projects and spread technology tools, and best practices.

An effective DIG and EIG could be set up within an office within the Ohio Department of Education but that is likely to be too insular and protective.  My suggestion is that  an outside agency such as the Cisco Learning Initiative or the OneCommunity in Cleveland could be a better locus for the activity.  I say that only because a good innovation district would want to gather ideas from both public and non-public schools.  Foundations could provide a service by funding the costs of the DIG and EIG officers for the course of the five-year period.   Paying salary and benefits for a year is well within ambit of  funding levels tolerated by foundations, even in this challenging economic environment.  Additionally, outside funding could guarantee that the data gathered is open to all who may want to benefit from it.    So, if we imaging these two offices set up to serve the five-districts their scope of work could be defined pretty much by what is presented by the HBS authors.   This is what they would recommend including my insertions between parentheses:

A distributed innovation group (DIG) … doesn’t “do” innovation but rather fosters and challenges  it.  Innovation is an inherently distributed activity, encompassing innovators across and outside the corporation ( ‘districts’).  The DIG serves as the center of expertise for innovation techniques, scouts for new developments outside the company ( ‘district’) and provides experst for internal innovation initiatives.  And it deploys technologies and methods that facilitated collaboration and innovation.

An enterprise integration group (EIG) is dedicated to the horizontal integration of the corporation (‘districts)’ and among the buildings w/in the district).  It picks from among competing integration projects and provides resources that enable them to succeed.  It develops the architecture and management practices that make business (educational) integration easier over time..  It may also manage of portfolio of integration activities and initiatives;  serve as the corporation’s ( ‘district‘) center of expertise in process improvement,  large project management,  and program and portfolio (curricular) management; and provide staff and possibly leaders for mager business (school) integration initiatives.

The money for this undertaking could be secured from private  sources but in the longer term, funds are likely to be found with more efficient use of funds that currently feed the Educational Service Centers across the state.  Another foundation or group of foundations can and/or should coordinate with the ODE and hire a group like the RAND Education corporation to conduct a complete evaluation of the efficacy of professional development in the state and the role of the Education Service Centers in light of this new initiative.   I would imagine their is opportunity for a vast overhaul of the administrative function of the ESC'(s) across the state.

Technology should not be focused only on the curricular components of the project.  Innovative approaches to addressing the social service supports need to be integrated into the process.  Social services as well as primary health and mental health programs must be brought to the schools in new ways.  Achieving this goals will require new ways of working the the multiple state and nonprofit agencies that provide support to families in some of the more impoverished districts.  Why can’t mental health and primary health screening programs be place right in school buildings.  School buildings can be a logical catchment for families who will bring their children to schools.  It is essential that innovation districts consider new ways in which social support services can be ushered into the schools. It is common knowledge that too many teachers are expected to teach children who do not have access to essential primary health care or mental health services. A local physician our foundation has supported conducted a study in a Lorain City elementary school and found that more than 25% of the children suffered from chronic asthma which accounted for about 40% of the absences from school. Children that suffer from undiagnosed chronic illness cannot be expected to learn. If a child is not feeling well, no increase in mentoring, after-school programs or mandatory extended days will enhance learning. Currently State programs for help these youngsters are funneled through a variety of public entities and/or nonprofit organizations but few of these entities (if any) have a presence in the school buildings. State regulations and sometimes collective bargaining rules keep these services from being performed in the building.

I would propose that a Ohio Innovation district(s) would lift all restrictions that keep essential social services out of schools thereby creating a place where schools can be a center for families rather than just students. The Harlem Childrens Zone serves as an interesting model. Getting there would be a process – probably six-months to a year, where health officials (public and private providers), school board members, teacher and administrators would form a task force to articulate a plan of how these services would be made available for each school. The plans would be posted on an open site and other districts could have input. The plans would be compared and funneled to the DIG. A goal for each plan would be to demonstrate where the plan could result in cost savings to the entire community served by this new Innovation district.

A third and final goal would be to create a place where leaders from higher education meet regularly with leaders and teachers from K-12 to ensure that the two areas are seamless. Almost every educator I speak with agrees that in the United States, there is virtually no formal communication between K-12 and “higher-Ed.” The technology available to citizens of this country is making that disjuncture a serious threat to the goal we have to create and educational system that will set the stage for young people to succeed in college and beyond.

Take a look at two Youtube video’s by Dr. Richard Miller from Rutgers University. He provides a vision for what university/college teaching will look like in the not too distant future. Although geared to an audience in higher education, his vision casts shadows on the K-12 environment.  He talks about transforming pedagogy and even learning spaces. If this vision is even remotely true, the question facing K-12 teachers across Ohio are preparing children for this future?

It is time for some state or group of state to introduce the idea of innovation districts to create  a space where innovation can combine with tried and true best practices and create new approaches to learning that can be brought to scale and save money.

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