As members, trustees and staff of a The Nord Family Foundation, we have the incredible opportunity to travel to conferences and hear some of the world’s civic leader’s talk about their work. More often than not, I return to Lorain County, inspired by what I have heard and ready for action. Few people in the nonprofit and social sector have the budget or time that allows them to hear these great speakers. I think it is very important for foundations to fund programs that bring challenging speakers to their communities. In the schooling sector, few teachers have the time or money or incentive to travel to hear great thinkers in education. We are trying to change that.
In October, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Howard Fuller address a luncheon crowd on the subject of real educational opportunity especially for children in economically stagnant communities. Dr. Fuller is currently the Director for the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Prior to that position, Dr. Fuller served as Superintendent of Milwaukee Schools from 1991-1995. Dr. Fuller describes the school system he stepped into.. “First the high schools were a mess. I wanted to restore discipline and safety in high schools. I also wanted to decentralize authority and funds. I wanted to revamp the curriculum. I also wanted to give parents options for their kids’ education.” During his four-year tenure, Fuller put a rigorous curriculum in place, developed school-to-work programs, decentralized budgetary authority, and made schools responsible for their own students’ achievements. Fuller’s programs led to increasing attendance rates and elevated reading and standardized test scores. Fuller also became a vocal proponent of charter schools and voucher programs. As Fuller explained to School Reform News, “What we’re trying to do is create a situation where there can be some advantage for those parents who most need an advantage: the parents whose children now are forced to stay in schools that simply are not working for them.” He called this issue of quality education the last great Civil Rights challenge facing this country. The audience response to his talk was a five-minute round of applause.
I shared the luncheon table with Dr. Fuller and his wife who is former Superintendent of Detroit Schools. I asked if he would be interested in speaking with teachers and students in Lorain County. He said he would love to.
With discretionary dollars and financial help from both Oberlin College and the Community Foundation of Greater Lorain County, we are able to bring Dr. Fuller to Lorain. He was the keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting luncheon for the Lorain County Urban League and the next day addressed a group of teachers, school superintendents from Lorain County and Cleveland School Districts. He later spoke with students at the Oberlin Public Schools.
He spoke with passion and inspiration at both sessions. He states very openly that the current system for educating inner-city children does not work. “We need to think of a system to educate the public and break out of the mindset that we call the public education system which by with its bureaucracy and teachers unions is choking the life of young people and their families in cities across America. “
He challenged school leaders to embrace the rapid and unprecedented changes in learning that technology is providing students. Mobile phone applications, virtual games and the exploding number of online schools will force the old system to change. Educational leaders must realize that unless they are willing to change, the systems will be unable to support them.
Dr. Fuller’s comments were met with high enthusiasm. The luncheon crowd at the Urban League brought people to their feet with another five-minute applause. Dr. Marcia Ballinger, Vice President of the Lorain County Community College declared that in the history of the Spitzer Conference Center there has never been a more inspirational speaker. Many people have written and/or phoned me to thank the Foundation again for making his visit possible.
A week after Dr. Fuller’s visit, the front page of the Lorain Morning Journal announced that more than 200 positions will be eliminated due to the district’s $9 million deficit. Cleveland Public Schools face laying off more than 650 union workers. Meanwhile, the fact is that 69% of Cleveland residents are functionally illiterate (reading at between 4-6 grade levels) and some of its most blighted neighborhoods this statistic climbs as high as 95% according to the Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change.
The U.S. Department of Labor, estimates that literacy problems cost U.S. businesses about $225 billion a year in lost productivity. (Ohio Literacy Resource Center.) There are signs of hope, I suppose but pressure from the Federal Government is important. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 19, 2010 reports,
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, D.C., predicts considerable gains in urban students’ achievement but says the improvement won’t result from options alone. Another key, he said, will be using student achievement data to plan instruction and providing schools with training to execute successful approaches.
Prodded by the Obama administration, districts are pressing for use of data to evaluate, assign, fire and pay teachers, And unions, with jobs in jeopardy because of the economy, are showing signs of acquiescing.
Policy groups, concerned about who goes when the budget ax does fall, have begun to take aim at seniority rights. Casserly said that will be a tougher fight.
Dr. Fuller is particularly hard on the adults who are involved in the school unions. He asks, “…is this about the children or about adults trying to save jobs. What other group of professionals would band together to thwart innovation in their areas? Do lawyers, Doctors, Accountants have unions? Why do unions which were once progressive institutions that fought for rights of teachers, especially female teachers back in the early 20th century turn to become regressive and insular institutions protecting themselves.” These were hard questions for the audience to hear but to my surprise, most people thought his questions were completely fair.
The video below is a recording of a talk in Denver which captures much of what he had to say to the leaders in Lorain County. I just wonder sometimes if we in philanthropy are guilty of the “….talk, talk, talk,” Dr. Fuller alludes to. We have a lot of political will but back off when our advocacy could be too controversial for school union leaders and/or State bureaucracies. Like Dr. Fuller, I too wonder where is the outrage? Enjoy the video and I welcome comments.