At a Philanthropy Roundtable conference on Education, Chester “Checker” Finn hosted a panel discussion called Rebooting the Education System with Technology. Mr. Finn mentioned his conversation with Clayton Christensen about his book Disrupting Class. Although Mr. Finn praises the book vision, scope and very realistic assessment of where the demands for learning are moving, he considers Mr. Christensen to be remarkably naive to think this vision will be implemented by any State Department of Education. The bureaucracy is just too ossified. Mr. Finn’s prediction proved disappointingly true when the Ohio budget – House Bill-1 (that included funding for education) was passed.
The Nord Family Foundation contributed funding to a State-wide effort to inform the Governor and the legislature on the role of philanthropy. After a year of a multi-constituency task force, including philanthropy and educational leaders from across the state, the final House Bill 1 .virtually ignored the top two recommendations which would have “Created Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come” were all but ignored by the State officials. The top two recommendations were:
Create Ohio Innovation Zones and an Incentive Fund
- Attract and build on promising school and instructional models (STEM, ECHS, charters etc.)
- Introduce innovations w/ district-wide impact
- Eliminate operational and regulatory barriers that preclude schools/districts from pursuing innovations
- There is little to no emphasis in the Bill on removing operational and regulatory barriers, other than the recommendation that districts develop charter schools.
Focus on Transforming Low Performing Schools
- Develop a statewide plan targeting lowest 10% of schools
- Focus on research-based best practices
- Develop rigorous, local restructuring plans w/ state guidance
The first recommendation was based on Innovation Schools Act legislation in Colorado which established the creation of school innovation districts designed to strengthen school-based decision-making by letting schools break free of certain district and state education rules. This legislation allowed schools like the Bruce Randall School in Denver’s inner city to be relieved of the typical State imposed restrictions on access to technology and collective bargaining rules. This act enabled administrators to have significant flexibility over the length of the school year and the use of time during the school day, the hiring of staff, the leadership structure within the schools, and the ability to pay staff above the levels stated in the collective bargaining agreement for certain assignments.
Last month, the Indiana State Board of Education issued a blanket waiver allowing state-accredited public and private schools to use a broad range of multimedia, computer, and internet resources to supplement or replace traditional textbooks.
My work on the Ohio Grantmakers Forum Education Committee has made me come to learn that the political leadership in Ohio acts much like many companies when confronted with the idea of innovation. An article in the November 2008 Harvard Business Review, authors James Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morrison. Teaming Up to Crack Innovation Enterprise Integration write that, “…business innovation and integration have two things in common – both are still ‘unnatural acts. …Businesses are better at stifling innovation than at capitalizing on it, better at optimizing local operations than at integrating them for the good of the enterprise and its customers. The larger and more complex the organizations, the stronger the status quo can be in repelling both innovation and integration.” This assumption is reified when one looks at reports from local charter schools our foundation has supported over the years.
“Advocating for charter school funding has been a challenge this year. Governor Strickland’s first budget reduced funding to charters so significantly that E Prep would have had to close its doors if the budget had been adopted. E Prep joined Citizens’ Academy and The Intergenerational School and hired a state lobbyist to help draw attention to both the success of these schools and the devastating effect of the proposed budget. In addition, many, many E Prep supporters were asked to write letters to the state legislators. The budget that was finally passed restored funding to charters, thankfully. We believe we will have to revisit this issue in two years, however.”
Herein marks an interesting parallel to our work with OGF. Philanthropy as a sector is great at setting up “pockets” of innovative projects and in many cases supporting successful schools that work. When reporting these successes to the public sector, public school leaders repel those concepts, often fueled with activist organizations like teachers unions to tell people why things like successful charter schools or faith-based enterprises rob the system of monies. Try introducing innovative technological solutions in schools and many will not participate in the training that is inevitable required unless stipends are provided. Leaders (including governors and the state and local superintendents and even board members) who do not understand the technology and/or innovations will act similarly to the CEO’s described in the article. They allow the status quo to repel both innovation and integration. The best the legislature could do in response to the explosion of innovative technologies and approaches to learning and assessment available was to appropriate $200,000 to establish an Office of Innovation within the Ohio Department of Education to examine best practices. This is the epitome of command and control economy practices. Ohio’s intolerance for innovative practice outside the public system is known nationally.
The final report on the bill shows where the legislature, and ultimately the governor took recommendations. In short, they went for recommendations that dealt with nominal modifications to recommendations about standards, teacher hiring and firing principals and modest changes in granting public school teachers tenure. The decisions were influenced heavily by partisan politicking on the part of the Governor, his aids and the Head of the Chancellor of the State Board of Regents. Unfortunately, the policy makers adopted least resistance to anything that would jeopardize relations with the ever powerful Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Teachers Union. When setting out on this committee, I was not expecting to become so negative about the teachers unions; however. it is evident to me that unless the system is shaken up, the unions have too much interest in self-preservation and the status quo than they do in promoting innovation.
The OGF Committee remains committed to continuing conversation about exploring options for Innovation Zones across the State. In philanthropy, I think trustees of foundations have a moral obligation to state authorities to focus attention on improving educational opportunities for students who are trapped in under performing public schools. It remains to be seen whether those efforts will result in legislative change in this ossified State School bureaucracy. To be fair, I think Philanthropy needs to do a better job informing the power stakeholders in defining what innovation is and what innovation in a school district can and should look like. It is not only related to technology.
Innovation in education technology – evidenced by the rapid proliferation of Online learning, as well as improvements in technologies that will support the burgeoning number of children in public schools in need of special education is happening at rapid pace. Change is happening and schools must be prepared for how those changes will benefit children and families in poor performing districts. For them, education is their ticket out of poverty.
I do not believe that technology is the answer for all districts, especially districts that are financially challenged. I do however think that innovation includes new ways of approaching teaching and learning that stand outside the box of the top-down structures of the ODE. I have posted previously on successful charter and faith-based schools that have little to no technology, but can and do produce students with academic achievement that far outpaces that which is done in neighboring public schools. I will write more on my ideas on innovation in my next post.