Ohio's Race to the Top for "21st Century Learning" – cocktails and conversation

A relatively small family foundation has to be realistic about the type of impact it can have on achieving what we perceive as excellence in teaching and learning. The politicization of education in the State system in Ohio creates an environment where foundations work at cross-purposes with the State. Many want to support ongoing programs in public schools realizing there can be little sustainable outcome.  Others support charter schools and/or faith-based and parochial schools to encourage viable and oftentimes excellent alternatives to failing inner-city schools.  All would agree about the importance of education in this country and most would argue that public schools are and will remain a viable institution for years to come.  As foundations assist the States in preparing students for the challenges in the next century,  confusion and ambiguity surround the term “21st Century Learning.”  Given the rapid change in technology, it is almost impossible to define what 21st Century Learning will actually look like even ten years from now.  Lacking an interest or incentive or even the space to explore what 21st century learning really holds for the truly imaginative, the language of what one local superintendent calls “The State” devolves into rhetoric wrought with  clichés.  As a result few have a clue as to its implementation.   Pressure to perform leads many educators to focus on the very short-term with an eye on that looming state report card. The rhetorical  language in this context is understandable.  It reflects the way the State is structured to do its business – i.e. achieving educational equilibrium and maintaining what some authors call, boundary management.  It is practically impossible to stimulate innovation in a system when that is the end goal.     Foundations can play a pivotal role as provocateur in the same way a good CEO would challenge his company to really “think-outside-the-box.”  Based on a really great book I just read, I submit that educational innovation zones are the only way to extract the innovators from the culture of equilibrium we find in most schools and most districts.  The best way to do it is to help the State Superintendent tap into her inner cocktail hostess.


Race to the Top funding has all the potential to address this challenge to the educational system.  Lacking a clear framework however, the Federal Government initiated it’s typical Request for Proposals (RFP’s) with its requisite short time-line to submit proposals.  This approach set the States in a double frenzy a. to demonstrate numerical achievement on State standards and b. to spin wildly in its efforts to qualify for the Race to the Top monies.    As an observer, the process  distorts the purpose of a State system to manage and promote excellence in learning and preparing students for the so-called 21Century learning.  It also is a harbinger of colossal waste of Race to the Top Funding, especially in Ohio and some foundations will contribute to the problem.

When the Race to the Top competition was announced, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) invited a group of foundations  to provide input as they planned to shape the application.  Foundations have amassed considerable wisdom on the topic by nature of their investments in education over many years.  The State obliged the Ohio Grantmakers Forum  with an hour-long session with the foundations to provide input.  The deputies from the ODE were only vaguely aware of the OGF report entitled Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.   The opportunity for public input devolved into a lecture by a  stressed and overworked State bureaucrat whose job was to get this application done!  There was little room for discussion and little tolerance on the part of the person from the State for questions from the foundation representatives on the call.  Several interesting points were brought up and the bureaucrat in question promised to follow-up with phone calls.  None of those follow-up calls were made.

Despite the call two large operating foundations in the State with access to the Governor’s educational inner circle have managed to insert themselves in to the Race to the Top proposal with lucrative benefit including allocations of  $10,000 a day for consulting for five to ten days a year.  Based on their own template for assisting public schools you can be sure the monies will be used to produce a farrago of sounding sessions from teachers across the state who, for the most part, have little exposure to innovation in teaching and, according to teachers I interviewed last week, are fearful of taking risks that might derail kids from current assessment systems.

The governor’s task force’s demonstrated a mistrust of outside advice and assistance can be attributed presumably to pressure to produce a document in such a short period of time.  Wary of outside advice the ODE has again resorted to developing a proposal by “insiders” i.e. career state educational operatives whose very ability to work their way up “the system” will tend to put them in the equilibrium camp and suspicious out new ideas coming from “the edge.”  This is the very system that, within leading companies has stifled innovation with predictable demise.  I say this not to excoriate people, but to put it in a context to understand why the system can’t work as it now stands.   A new structure – such as the innovation zones – hold some potential as to how federal dollars to the States might be better utilized.  These innovation zones would be charged with explore new opportunities to (a) enhance teaching and learning, and (b) with appropriate use of technology, leverage cost savings to the system itself.    Rather than spreading the Race to the Top dollars among a smattering of qualified Learning Education Authority, the focus on innovation zones would provide an opportunity for those in the districts to bring innovation to scale, which is what the Race to the Top monies hope to achieve.

The video below is a conversation with the State Superintendent of Schools, Deborah Delisle  Listen carefully to her conversation. I have great respect for Ms. Delisle, but the poor woman’s aspiration is bogged down by the divergent political interests that pull every which way on the system she is charged with managing.  Her goals for the Race to the Top funds comes across as a mash-up of clichés and betray an anxiety about trying to manage than to think introduce innovation into a school system.  Ms. Delisle is a consummate manager having come to the position as a Superintendent in a Cleveland area school district.  From my experience, she is also a very bright woman and capable of real visionary leadership, however the current political environment thwarts her from finding really creative solutions to the problems that plague Ohio public schools, especially the under-performing districts.  In the absence of a gubernatorial or legislative vision,   Ms. Delisle has little choice by to resort to what authors Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore in their book, Innovation – The Missing Dimension call boundary management.

Within the State Educational system, far to many boundaries exist.  Boundaries between and among departments, boundaries among districts, boundaries among teachers and administrators, between special programs, boundaries between high-performing and under-performing districts and of courses boundaries between charter and traditional public schools.

Innovations in some of the more simple technologies such as on-line learning present new boundaries whose potential presents terrifying challenges in a system already wrought with boundaries listed above.  Part of her job is to attain an equilibrium among those entities to keep the ship moving forward.  As the waters become more turbulent with pressures from new technologies that threaten the very structure of this ship, the reaction to hunker down is understandable.

Messers. Lester and Piore write:

In recent years, management theorists have devised a storehouse full of tools for managing across boundaries.  These include flat, decentralized structures, network organizations, matrix management practices, multifunctional teams, team leadership skills, and a wide array of techniques for listening to the voice of the customer.  But among the practicing managers with whom we spoke, these models and maxims often seemed to be mere placeholders.  Lacking the content to be operable in the real world, they quickly degenerated into clichés.  When prompted, the managers in our cases could usually spout the rhetoric of integration.  But in the real world of new product development, most of them were much more comfortable talking about policing boundaries than about breaking them down.

Unfortunately for Ms. Delisle and for the State of Ohio, this is precisely the situation the State Superintendent finds herself.  Foundations would do well to help the State break this management conundrum within the system by encouraging both the governor and legislatures to create centers for innovation that will encourage boundary free zones where true cross-disciplinary collaboration can take place.  Given the political interests, this would take enormous courage and singular leadership.

It is not an understatement to say, The State of Ohio is at a critical juncture in history.  Pressures from rapid development in technology coupled with increasing “customer” dissatisfaction with the schools as well as a insecure revenue stream, bears the same hallmark as huge companies that are facing unanticipated pressures from outside the company.  In these circumstances, there is an urgency to encourage change and innovation while at the same time trying to manage the company and its responsibility to its shareholders. The two use case studies to drive their point through the book.  The most pertinent case study is that of AT&T  and the synergy between the corporate management structure and its innovation center Bell Labs which, among many other innovations, patented the technology that would become the cell phone.

The initial development of cell phone technology took place at Bell Labs, a sheltered enclave within AT&T that enjoyed the research ethos of an academic laboratory.  Bell Labs was insulated from commercial pressures and hospitable to collaboration among different scientific and engineering disciplines.

…The companies that pioneered cellular typically came from either the radio or telephone side of the business.  At&T was a telephone company.  Motorola and Matisushita were radio companies.  Each faces the major challenge of finding a partner to create the new product.  Not an easy task.  The cultural differences between radio and telephone engineering were deep-rooted…..there were difficulties merging these two industries…

Once it was established as a new and innovative means of enhancing communication, the cell phone section  was moved from Bell Labs.

.. into a separate business unit that was subject to the conventional AT&T bureaucratic practices and hierarchy.  None of the other companies ever had a sheltered environment like Bell Labs in which to start development of cellular.  Most of them began by assembling groups of engineers into newly created but poorly defined organizational entities, where they worked in teams with and ambiguous division of labor and sometimes confused lines of authority.  Like AT&T however, they all ended up adopting more formal, systematic decision making processes and creating better defined organizational structures in which to house the cellular business.

They compare creating innovation within businesses to that of a person hosting a cocktail party. Innovation is spawned by structuring intentional conversations

Cell phones emerged out of a conversation between members of the radio and telephone industries…the manager’s role was to remove the organizational barriers that would have prevented these conversations from taking place.

Here is where the book becomes fun.  Reading this section Deborah Delisle manager blends with Deb Delisle, educational cocktail hostess. Educational Innovation in Ohio could hinge  on her ability to party,

How does a manager initiate these interpretive conversations and keep them going in the face of pressure to solve problems and bring them to closure?  Here the metaphor of the manager as hostess at a cocktail party provides a useful guide.  At most cocktail parties the guests are relative strangers.  They are invited because they might have something interesting to say to one another, but only the hostess really knows that that is, and even she is not always sure.  To make sure the party a success, she will often invite enough people so that it does not really matter if any one pair of them fails to hit it off.

Once the party is under way, her job is to keep the conversation flowing.  A skilled hostess will introduce new people into groups where conversation seems to be flagging, or she will intervene to introduce a new topic when two people do not seem to be able to discover what they have in common on their own.  She may break up groups that do not seem to be working or are headed for an unpleasant argument and steer the guests to other groups.

The lessons of the cocktail party can be summarized in a series of distinct but closely related roles for the manager:

  • Step One: choose the guests
  • Step Two: initiate the conversation
  • Step Three: keep the conversation going
  • Step Four: refresh the conversation with new ideas

The governor’s office and the Ohio legislature can create one of the most exciting models to realize a vision for introduce innovation in so called 21st century teaching and learning. Create five places where these allegorical cocktail parties can  take place on a regular basis.  The superintendent will encourage conversations among some of the best people from the field of education, academia,business, technology, neuroscience, as well as teachers, students and union representatives.   Conversations will take place simultaneously and within the context of working school zones. Ambiguity is welcome, encouraged and processed to contribute to creative solutions to problems.  The State will not dictate the parameters of the discussion but be a party to the discussions and seek to find ways to adopt the findings to its way of doing business throughout the rest of the State.


The conversations are too large, and too critical to be diffused among districts throughout the state.  Everyone has to want to be at the party.

The legislature would need to mandate the zones  through the State budget.  The zones would be akin to the Bell Labs.   The zones would be distributed throughout the State.  They would have the appropriate technological support and communication networks to make it happen.  (See my blog post of June 8, 2009)

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.

Their charge would be to create boundary-free zones where participating teachers and administrators realize their task is to encourage change and innovation by encouraging collaboration and inter-disciplinary approaches to problems.

Schools buildings participating in the Innovation zones would bridge what is all too common chasm  in today’s schools, i.e. the teachers are different from the “tech-support” offices. These two entities would work hand-in-hand to observe students, monitor progress, look for obstacles and challenges and find solutions that will solve those problems. In many cases those solutions can be resolved with appropriate technological supports. Technology will NEVER replace human interaction which is critical to successful education. Technology can however serve to make good teachers great if it is used to help them become the true professionals they are.

The innovation zones would have an initial life expectancy of five years. In that time the districts will be challenged to come up with unique solutions that will address the challenges facing schools in Ohio. Challenges will not be limited to advances in teaching, learning and assessment, but also to demonstrate administrative costs savings to the State by more appropriate use of technologies to create administrative efficiencies. Advances in these innovations zones will be shared with colleagues in other districts outside the innovation zones.

The task of the Superintendent will be to foster conversations among people with varieties of experiences. Foundations can partner with the States by focusing their grantmaking to programs within the innovation zones that have promise to meet these goals.

I submit that using Race to the Top funds to establish this type of culture for innovation would be far superior to what is currently in the application.