I live in Oberlin Ohio and due to my wife’s position as Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College we are active members in the life of the College and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. Located in corn fields about 27 miles west of Cleveland, Oberlin is a town that is rich in history and home to a college with a legacy of excellence in education. It has a reputation for being liberal – sometimes on the fringe. After and expensive “branding” campaign, the school adopted the term “FEARLESS” as its defining slogan. Despite being ranked as one of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country, Oberlin College is located in a town with a public school system that has for many years struggled with low performance scores on state standardized tests. In fact, it was ranked among the lowest performing in the State a few years ago.
The reasons are complex and rooted to some extent in a stratified economic and class system, which may seem odd for a town of only 4,000 permanent residents. I referenced the social stratifications in my previous blog posting called “Philanthropy, Education and Class ‘what are we thinking, ” With one of the best colleges in the country one would think that the public school system would excel. Well, it has not. Two years into his job, the visionary superintendent has had his challenges with a population that has taken him to task on his attempt to introduce a one-laptop per child into the schools as part of a larger goal to move the school to innovation in learning and technology. That attempt was voted down in a school levy in 2006. Most recently, the Superintendent has introduced the International Baccaulaureate Program into this district with approximately 1,200 students as a means of introducing rigor into the academic environment. Starting with the lower grades, teachers have been trained on IB programs and eventually IB will be incorporated into the entire K-12 curriculum. The townspeople have not been unanimous in their support. The foundation I work with provided support to an organization that began a community voice project called, “Community Diaries” We started it around the laptop issue and with word-of-mouth marketing, we saw more than 500 posts in one month!. When the levy failed, the discussions continued with some more strident voices nudging others out. Today, there continues to be a lot of voices against IB, espeically from people who I surmise are from the miniority community. ( The blog allows citizens to post anonymously). Even in this small town of 8,000 college students and permanent residents, running a school district is not an easy task.
As part of the 175th Year Celebration, Oberlin College has held a number of colloquia with speakers from around the country. Tonight, Oberlin College was awarded the Harry S. Truman Foundation‘s 2008 Foundation Honor Institution. Oberlin Alumnus Adrian M. Fenty class of 1992 was the featured speaker tonight. Mr. Fenty is Mayor of Washington, D.C. Mr. Fenty gave an impressive talk about his”…excitement about being back at Oberlin, his excitement for Ohio, his excitement for the District of Columbia and his excitement for the Nation for the hope he sense for the District and the Nation, especially with the President elect Obama.” He was excited that Ohio was a “difference-maker in the national election.” He was impressed with the Oberlin students who, in this past election led a county-wide effort to assist non-registered citizens any way they can to register for vote. He was excited for the nation which has expressed its intolerance for the ways elections used to be done. Voters realized that Obama kept a consistent message even early on and did not change his speeches or platforms to play to a base. Fenty said, “If you campaign to your base, people realize you will govern to your base.” People are at a point and realize that politics should be based on Performance and not Patronage. He mentioned other leaders like the remarkable Cory Booker, in Newark (who I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing at a conference with Philanthropy Roundtable in October) ; Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Gavin Newsom in San Francisco; and Byron Brown of Buffalo, New York and recently elected Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley, as examples of strong leaders who are focused and represent principled leaders who are determined to focus on performance and not patronage.
When the time for questions opened, I asked Mayor Fenty to talk about his number one priority – creating effective schools in the District of Columbia. In my opinion, Mr. Fenty’s Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee is one of the most impressive leaders in American education. He and Ms. Rhee constitute a team of public officials showing singularly strong and effective leadership by taking charge and changing a struggling public school district. (I had the pleasure to meet Ms. Rhee when she was with Project REACH and spoke at Philanthropy Roundtable). I asked Mr. Fenty the following question:
Your partnership with Chancellor Rhee has earned this team national recognition for innovation in transforming districts. Was there anything you felt unprepared for when you took on this task of the appalling state of the district’s schools. What did you learn from the experience and what advice would you give to mayors and leaders of smaller cities such as Lorain, Ohio; Elyria, Ohio and Cleveland?
Mr. Fenty answered, ” We learned early on that there was no mechanism in place for anyone to take decisive action. Someone was accountable (the mayor) and had to take responsiblity for action. People knew what the right thing to do was, but people in the system were so bogged down in the bureaucracy, they couldn’t act. Too many people would shirk responsiblity and blame it on someone else or give excuses. I would recommend to mayors of larger urban areas – “Get Rid of the School Board.” Too many people with agendas and interests (patronage?) are left to make decisions, then public hearings make it impossible for anyone to take decisive and critical action! I (Fenty) passed the changes within 24 hours of being elected. Decisions to close 23 reduntant and underperforming schools was made quickly and by fiat.
Second, you have to have a STRATEGY that is clear and concise. Too few leaders have a strategy that has benchmarks for success along the way. A good leader will roll-out that strategy early on and Chancellor Rhee did that. Fenty is there to support her and do what it takes to make it happen.
Finally, “Get rid of teachers unions!” Fenty said he agrees with and supports teachers organizing. He has learned that teachers unions and especially their leadership are out not for the children but for ways to protect their jobs. Their desire to protect their jobs has for too long shielded individual teachers from accountablity. He quoted his Chancellor who says, ‘Adults have to be held accountable for student performance!” In the union patronage system, too many people blame others or systems or tests ….anything but themselves for poor performance. If they ask themselves if they might be the problem, then doors open to personal and professional improvement. ”
I was sitting next to the Oberlin Superintendent who, along with the rest of the audience was pretty much dumfounded by what he has to say. Oberlin is a town that has prided itself in typical democratic platforms of the past and have been, in general supportive of unions. The school district has had a highy politicized teachers union that some claim have contributed to the schools low performance. I do not have children in the public system so I am in no position to comment on that fact. My children(mine attend independent schools – we only have one chance at it and my children have been better served by private education). Mr. Fenty’s comments left many uncomfortable.
I confess to some jubilation at Mr. Fenty’s comments. In a future blog I will comment on the last days of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum project on providing the governor with ideas on how to introduce innovation in Ohio Schools and prepare students for the 21st Century. In a final review of the process which, for the first time brought us the complete report of the other working group called Teacher/Principal Quality there were some concerns raised. I asked whether a document which will be called
Preparing Students for Success in the Global Economy and Guaranteeing Quality Teaching and Effective School Leadership
and which is charged with providing a vision for innovation in teaching and learning. sould include language with specific langugage for legsilation that would clarify means for hiring and firing teachers. The proposals also included legislative language eo ensure tenure for teachers. My question was whether this document which is sponsored by a membership organization of foundations across the state should include language that is clearly an agenda item for the Ohio Teachers Union and their ongoing issues with the Ohio Department of Education. I suggested that there was wide and varying opinion among foundations about teachers unions and their role in the future of public education. Given that, I suggested the document which is well written and reflecting a lot of work, might be better suited as a separate piece without requesting sign off from foundations? A rather heated discussion ensued. The word “anti-union” agenda was thrown out. That experience helped me realized Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee’s bravery and leadership.
For too long I have heard too many people speak with me in my official capacity “off the record” about the entrenched system of patronage that keeps people in jobs for life in the public school system with little accountability. Too many leaders have spoken with me in confidence of how difficult and self-serving many teachers unions are. For too long, I have heard and seen retired teachers pulled back into the system as patronage, to be reinstated at 80% salary and benefits. the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a lead story this week “What Should Schools Do About Bad Teachers?” which describes one district having to pay $200,000 in legal fees to arbitrate a grievance filed by a teacher who was let go. I have it on fairly reliable evidence that the financially stricken Lorain City School District spent over $700,000 in legal fees one year to address union grievances. Mr. Booker of Newark urged the audience to read about Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial “Rubber room” where teachers who are deemed unfit for class, but not able to be fired, are relegated to a room where they sit all day and collect taxpayers dollars protected by unions. It was announced the other day that the Governor of Ohio is facing a $675 million dollar budget deficit. In the current fiscal situation cities and towns will face economic crisis. This is a time for all people to examine areas where costs can be contained, where patronage can be dropped for real performance and where citizens will be presented with the real cost ovrerruns and waste in this entity we call public schools. The economic crisis and a sense of true citizenship demands we do so.
When one offers critique of unions and the way things have been done, one is readily shot down. I have found that the experience of retort is not pleasant, filled with passion and bordering on unreasonable. Just read letters to the editor when the press critiques unions. It is deemed as having an “anti-union” agenda. These are buzz words that the new political leadership in both the Democratic and Republican parties are beginning to see through and address. I admire people like Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee who have taken such leadership. I think more people in the foundation and philanthropic sectors need to follow the lead and see through old systems of patronage and hold teachers accountable for performance. We can be excited about the emergence of new and forward thinking leaders like Mr. Fenty. Mr Fenty lives up to Oberlin College’s slogan…….FEARLESS! Philanthropy should too!