Last year, the trustees of foundation I work for provided a grant of $10,000 to support Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) initiative on education for the state of Ohio. The grant provided funding that convened education leaders from across the State to develop policy recommendations for Governor Ted Strickland. The recommendations were to inform his vision for creating a school system that was ready to teach 21st Century skills.
The process of sharing ideas and knowledge from a variety of perspectives was an intellectual gift. Some of my previous posts address parts of that experience. The result of the year-long process were released last week by the OGF. The day after its release, Governor Ted Strickland announced his long-awaited plan to improve education in the State of the State address on January 29, 2009.
Mr. Strickland’s address has been followed with a budget that is confusing to media pundits who admit they do not understand how many of his proposals will be paid for given the State’s enormous budget deficit. What is clear however is that, two-years into his first tenure, Mr. Strickland ‘s plan is his launch of his campaign for a second term. Curiously, the day after the budget was released, a city councilman from another part of the state announced he would be a candidate to run against Mr. Strickland in 2010.
So the philanthropic collaboration to focus on making profound change in education in Ohio has been tempered by the frustrating realities of politics and negotiation. Our document maps out a series of recommendations with two time horizons. The first is a very short horizon that would address ways to change immediate obstacles to managing a complex organizational structure. The issues in the short term – changes to teacher tenure rules, teacher residency requirements, a change in the tests to determine assessment, and lengthening the school year by 20 days, enable the Governor to garner political attention around an issue which registers high on the interest levels among residents in the state. These changes do absolutely nothing to focus on the longer-range need to disrupt the old way of doing education in the state. Although the governor talks about the need and urgency to change the way education takes place in Ohio if we are to prepare students for the next century, his list of priorities focus on short -term changes that will tinker with the current system as we know it. The longer-term need to introduce technology to innovate and improve student learning is pushed off to what I suspect could be an agenda for a second political term. In the meantime the State will offer no clear and decisive map to guide the disruption that is urgently needed if we are to really transform teaching and learning in Ohio.
The hope that the report engendered related to truly bold programs and initiatives and investigate new approaches to learning and technology were eclipsed by political ballet that will reshuffle state dollars for the funding formula, palaver about firing teachers for just cause and finally changing the Ohio Graduation Test to an ACT test.
In my disappointment I actually saw this image running through my mind as I heard the Governor speak:
I am frustrated that the governor failed to convey the sense of urgency that is needed introduce innovation into education. In my opinion, pushing our recommendations to explore innovation to a back burner, demonstrates a failure of leadership. If I had a chance to have coffee with him, I would suggest that as a leader he can and should focus on finding ways to engage the entire citizenry to understand the role of technology and how it is transforming networks of learning for students and the people who teach them. That means harnessing the media, universities, businesses and teachers in an effort to seek out disruptive technologies that will provide solutions to the complex task of creating new learning environments.
My participation in the drafting the OGF document gave me a new appreciation for the daunting complexity of this thing we call public education. All would admit there is a profoundly urgent need to articulate a clear plan to create a technology infrastructure that will support the promise that things like cloud computing can and will have on curriculum development. I am disappointed with the governor’s adoption of our recommendations because the speech reveals a tacit admission of not having a clue about innovation in learning that is already underway and ready to bring to scale. Any hope of innovation (which typically occurs with a free exchange of ideas) has been relegated to a department within the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). It would be a miracle if anything truly innovative came out of that department unless they were willing to take the bold step of opening collaboration to people outside the ODE who not only know but practice innovation. One can only hope that the directors of that department embrace some of the philosophy of collaboration described by authors Phil Evans and Bob Wolf in the July – August 2005 edition of Harvard Business Review in an article entitled Collaboration Rules.
Extraordinary group efforts don’t have to be miraculous or accidental. An environment designed to produce cheap, plentiful transactions unleashes collaborations that break through organizational barriers.
The authors point to the open-source tool Linux to serve as the example of how to structure collaborative rules.
Corporate (and political) leaders seeking growth, learning and innovation may find the answer in a surprising place: the open-source software community. Unknowingly, perhaps, the folks who brought you Linux are virtuoso practitioners of new work principals that produce energized teams and lower costs. Nor are they alone.”
I find it curious that the Governor’s speech occurred on the same day in which, fifty-years earlier Pope John XXIII announced to the world his intention to convene a Vatican Council. He used the term aggiornamiento which was a call to open the windows and bring the church up to date. As a lapsed catholic with a nostalgic streak, I had placed some expectation that the governors speech might be an exciting call for an educational aggiornamiento or opening of the windows in which the ODE’s tradition as a closed, conservative, controlling and hierarchical structure serving the state might take place. The ODE is not a place to expect miracles!
The list of recommendations in the report … Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come urges Ohio’s leaders to …
- Restructure the traditional model of teaching and learning.
- Refine the state’s academic standards.
- Create an assessment system that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways.
- Ensure that we have the best teachers and principals working in all of our schools.
- Ohio Grantmakers Forum and its partners are saying that we can no longer defend or tolerate an industrial-age school model that is out of step with the demands of the 21st century in which jobs, careers and workplaces are learning-intensive and where people often have many jobs over their lifetimes.
The recommendations reflect these realities …
- 164 Ohio young people drop out of school every day.
- Just 24% of Ohio high school students take a rigorous course of study, which is the best predicator of success in college.
- Ohio colleges and universities report that more than 40% of first year students need remedial courses in mathematics and/or English.
- And Ohio’s higher education attainment rates are among the lowest in the nation.-We’re 38th out of 50 states.
The findings are not intended meant to suggest that Ohio has ignored its education challenges. But it underscores the reality that incremental changes are not getting the job done. It challenges the Governor and policy makers to take Bolder steps and to accelerate the pace of improvement are required.
Here are some of the bold steps OGF and its partners have urged Ohio’s leaders to take:
- Accelerate the pace of innovation by restructuring the traditional, industrial model of teaching and learning.
- Create Ohio Innovation Zones and fund promising school and instructional models.
- Develop a statewide plan for transforming the state’s lowest performing schools.
- Develop a statewide strategy for making better use of technology and its applications.
- Ensure that the state’s expectations for what all students should know and be able to do are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations.
- Benchmark them against international standards and make sure they include 21st century skills.
- Create a balanced assessment system that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways, informs teaching strategies and improves learning, and provides a complete picture of how schools are doing against a consistent set of expectations.
- Refine Ohio’s academic standards and restructure the state’s assessment system
- Ensure that Ohio has the best teachers and principals working in all of its classrooms and schools.
- Strengthen standards and evaluation for teachers and principals, and create model hiring and evaluation protocols based on the standards.
- Provide financial incentives for schools and districts to improve teaching and learning environments.
- Strengthen the awarding of tenure.
- Develop new compensation models that improve the connections among teaching excellence, student achievement and compensation.
- These are tough times … and they call for tough choices.
- The extreme fiscal challenges facing the state of Ohio today provide a great opportunity, if not a mandate, to look at how Ohio invests its current education resources.
Many of these recommended actions do not require new funding. Yet, some may necessitate a re-allocation of existing resources, while still others may demand new investments. Re-allocating existing resources is a political hot-potato but one that is desperately needed. (More on that in a future blog-post).
As a member of the community I sought reaction from teachers on the Governor’s speech. The more than one of the teachers I spoke with had two immediate reactions: 1. “Well, if they extend the school year by 20 days, he’d better pay me.” and 2. Thank god they are using the ACT rather than the OGT. That is hardly the vision I would have wanted were I in a position of taking bold moves to change education across the state.
As far a non-teachers, their concern is that they do not understand the changes in the school funding formula. Clearly this is an important topic since the issues has been a plague on the Ohio educational system since the famous DeRolf decision declared it unconstitutional. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer,
Strickland’s primary pledge was that the state would eliminate a phenomenon dubbed “phantom revenue”– a ghost in the state’s funding machine that assumes school districts receive local education dollars they never actually see…Strickland said his plan would eventually result in the state picking up 59 percent of the tab for education — a level he said would make Ohio’s school-funding system meet the “thorough and efficient” constitutional standard that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times the state has not achieved.
At the end of the day few people really think this formula will change much of anything in terms of quality of teaching and learning in schools. Today’s Plain Dealer reports,
Of the 97 districts in Northeast Ohio, 48 would see no change in the amount they get from the state next year, and 49 would see an increase (no more than 15 percent.)
The second year, 52 would see a decrease (no more than 2 percent) and 45 would see some increase.
The second major issue addresses how to deal with the union stranglehold on employment in the State. The governor did adopt the OGF policy which would allow principals and superintendents to fire under-performing teachers for “just cause.” The governor did assume enormous political risk by standing up to union leadership saying,
Right now, it’s harder to dismiss a teacher than any other public employee. Under my plan, we will give administrators the power to dismiss teachers for good cause, the same standard applied to other public employees,” Strickland said to applause from Republican lawmakers as Democrats held back.
This is an important issue for any Governor to take on. Earlier in January, the Cleveland Plain Dealer did a lengthy report on the fact that looming budget cuts surely meant that some of the most innovative and successful schools in Cleveland would have to lay-off teachers. Most at risk were the promising charter-like academies and magnet schools because firings would go on the old union patronage system of last hired first, fired. Here is how the story reported it,
Just as Cleveland’s new niche schools show signs of leading the district to reform, layoffs may sweep some of their handpicked teachers out the door.
Schools chief Eugene Sanders says the district will have to lay off hundreds of workers if the financially strapped state slashes deeply into aid that accounts for 60 percent of the Cleveland schools’ budget. Big buzz centers on how that would affect 10 single-gender and other specialty schools that have turned in good test scores and won over parents during the last three years.
With union consent, the so-called “schools of choice” select their own teachers, reaching outside the system in some cases. But cuts would follow the contract: Last hired, first fired.
Sanders said he will ask the teachers union to help limit layoffs at the niche schools. But union President David Quolke does not expect to scrap the seniority policy. “All that would do for a union is pit member against member,” Quolke said. “To agree to something that says one member is more important than another member is not something I’d be willing to do.
I suppose this effort by philanthropy to partner with stakeholders to inform a governor can be considered a success. I only wish he had not cherry-picked the policies with the short time horizon to do his plan. Given the mess of dealing with teachers unions, budgetary shortfalls and an assessment system that is strangling students and discouraging teachers to be creative, I suppose he did what he needed to do in the short-term. Despite my personal disappointment, the success can me marked by the fact that it was the first time the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Federation of Teachers sat at the same table at length – ever! They worked out issues jointly and even agreed on several recommendations. I believe that only philanthropy could have made that happen and kept them coming to the table.
It is by now quite evident that I harbor frustration at the seeming inability of the state government to do what is necessary to stimulate and sustain true innovation in learning by encouraging innovation in schools. My assessment is the governor may have stepped only a small length “beyond tinkering,” but I am learning that a politician can only go so far with bold moves, especially in education. If I had my way, I would have wanted the Governor introduce the first recommendation in the report – the creation of innovation districts throughout the state. These schools would be center for innovation in teaching and learning, freed from constraints of labor negotiations and the constraints imposed by the “tech guys” who block more access to the internet in the name of “protecting” children. These would be places where social media experts, educational researchers, higher ed teachers , creators of Multi-user virtual environments and the likes of the New Media Consortium would collaborate with students and teachers to test new media with curriculum. This is a distinct where each student would have an electronic portfolio that would serve as a platform for him or her to demonstrate their learning and understanding of the standards. This district would foster a cadre of teachers who would be able to develop means of assessing that learning into meaningful feedback.
On the first day of class, I would call an assembly and invite Scott Anthony, co-author of “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth” be the convocation speaker and introduce the concept of “disruptive innovation” to establish the framework for the collaborative teams effort to move forward.
I am not a politician and I am not an education bureaucrat. I admit that I do not always appreciate the difficult balancing act these people need to do to survive. I respect and admire their ability to navigate the turbulent waters of managing many people. To accomplish the longer-range goals of transforming education to better serve the needs of individual students – no matter how old they are, philanthropy will need to make investments to support institutional psycho-therapy to help the educational infrastructure overcome its get over Fear 2.0 which is crippling it from really serving students. The soothing words of Dr. Clayton Christensen might be a good start – light a candle, pour a glass of wine and listen carefully.
Listen carefully to the podcast with Clayton Christensen on his book, Disrupting Class….
Hopefully one day we will get there and I think foundations will continue to play a key role in holding out that vision to policymakers who, at the end of the day probably want to see it happen too. Maybe someone will make a video of it so someone 60 years from now might embed it in his or her own blog!