Category Archives: Family Philanthropy

Mental Health First AID


A friend of mine who is a federal judge in the county told me once that his biggest lament in this job is the fact that about 60% of the people he convicts to the criminal justice system suffer from some degree of mental illness which is often undiagnosed.


This week the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a sobering article in the Sunday Focus Section describing the fate of the nearly 300 mentally defendants who file into Cuyahoga County jail each day. The article explains that there are Mental Health services sections in the jail and even mental health courts.  The challenges lie in the area of providing the psychiatric support and most importantly, the medications needed to stabilize patients. 


The Nord Family Foundation has a legacy of providing support to the mentally and emotionally ill members of the community.  Founder Walter Nord served on the Lorain County Mental Health board in the 1940’s and with personal investment leveraged with funding from the State Mental Health board established what is now The Nord Center.


Mental Health First Aid is (MHFA) is a public education program that helps the public identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Its importance is articulated best thy the Arizona Department of Health Services.

 “Nearly 1 million people a year suffer a heart attack – making teaching CPR an important element in public health education. But while 1 million is a big number, it represents less than 1 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, about one in four Americans experience depression, anxiety or other mental illness. That means you’re much more likely to encounter someone having a mental health crisis than someone having a heart attack.”

The MHFA program is offered in the form of a 12-hour course that presents an overview of mental illness and substance use disorders in the U.S. and introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, builds understanding of their impact, and overviews common treatments. Those who complete the 12-hour course are then certified as Mental Health First Aiders and learn a 5-step action plan encompassing the skills, resources and knowledge to help an individual in crisis connect with appropriate professional, peer, social, and self-help care. The program is suitable for a variety of audiences including primary care professionals, employers and business leaders, faith communities, school personnel and educators, state police and corrections officers, nursing home staff, mental health authorities, state policymakers, and the general public. 


Suggested by Trustee who had heard about the MHFA our staff has been laying the groundwork for a foundation initiative to bring MHFA to Lorain County. To institutionalize MHFA in Lorain County, we are initiating a Train-the-Trainer option.  One local individual has completed  national instructor training through Mental Health First Aid USA.  This is a five-day training program that results in a three-year certification as a MHFA Instructor, qualified to offer the 12-hour community education course and certify Mental Health First Aiders.  Instructors must commit to provide MHFA training at least three times annually in their community.


The Lorain County Board of Mental Health has committed financial and in-kind resources to assist with the launch of this effort.  

Starting this summer, MHFA courses will be offered in Lorain County, at no cost to Lorain County residents.  The 12-hour course is ideally offered over two consecutive days for a maximum of 25 people at a time.  Each participant is provided with a workbook and a variety of handouts.  . 


A number of suitable training facilities are available in Lorain County. The Lorain County Chapter of the American Red Cross has offered their facility as a community training location, underscoring the intent of MHFA to become as common as the Red Cross’ First Aid training program.


Foundation investment in the pilot is $20,000.  This amount will cover the costs associated with training a local Instructor, then to subsequently offer a total of up to six community trainings over a two-year period for a total of 300 people.  We see this as an important contribution to educating the public on the need to understand mental illness in our communities and respond appropriately.

Many thanks to Senior Program Officer Karen Cook who did most of the research behind this post.

Teach for America: A Review of two programs in two States

In June 2011, the Nord Family Foundation approved  two large grants to support Teach for America in two geographic areas.  The first, in Northeast Ohio is $450,000 over three years and the other was $150,000 as a match to help launch TFA in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina – featured in a Nord Family Foundation supported video, “The Corridor of Shame.”  Their reports reflect the complexity of introducing innovative and effective solutions in two different political, cultural and economic contexts.


Teach for America in NE Ohio anticipated that 100 corps members would be teaching in the Cleveland and Lorain area in 2012-2013.  Many of the corps members were scheduled for placement within the Cleveland Municipal School Districts.   Conversations had already given indication that the Elyria Schools would also hire teachers. In the spring of 2012, due to a massive budget deficit, the CMSD laid off over 500 teachers. Elyria experienced similarly drastic budget cuts and laid-off teachers as well.  Lorain City Schools continued under administrative upheaval with an interim Superintendent, a massive budget deficit and construction of a new high school.    All of the districts mentioned continued to place in the Academic Emergency or Continuous Improvement status, lowest on the State Reports.  Under the 2013 revised report card, each of the districts would earn an F status.   Despite efforts on the part of the major foundations, none of the public districts could hire new teachers given the rules of collective bargaining.  As a result, TFA in NE Ohio reduced its projected numbers to 50, earning placements in some of the highest achieving, charter schools that serve impoverished communities yet continue to place in the range of “Academic Excellence” and/or “Effective” rankings due to excellence in teaching.  Each of the charter schools welcome TFA recruits with open arms and continue to be grateful for the talent and energy they bring to the schools.


Negotiations continue with the CMSD academic leaders as well as with union officials.  It looks at if the CMSD will agree to 15 TFA candidates for 2013-2014 school hear.  We hold out the same hope for Lorain County where Nord Family Foundation staff as well as Stocker Foundation staff continues to meet with the school Superintendents and curriculum directors at both Elyria and Lorain Schools.  In each case the leaders are willing to have the students, but the union leaders are likely to continue to protest those efforts.  In the meantime, corps members will be placed in charter schools. One area of hope is the Innovation Districtsin the CMSD.  These are districts that by law can elect to exempt themselves from many of the administrative restrictions including hiring.    These districts must be in academic emergency for three years or more to qualify.   These districts would be able to hire TFA recruits.  CMSD has schools within the district that meet these qualifications and Nord staff is currently in negotiations with the Superintendent of the Lorain Schools to have his school board consider such a designation.  TFA remains convinced that these innovation Districts will serve as the portal for more TFA staff to participate in the education leadership in the region.  Next year, TFA plans to have 65 new recruits in service.

A personal frustration is that some schools in the State of Ohio are not unlike the schools one could find in the Corridor of Shame in South Carolina.  Despite that reality, Ohio remains resistant to any significant changes to the way schools have always been, despite many incentives from both philanthropy and from the State.  We need to make more concerted efforts to work with School Boards who play a critical role in blocking or ushering innovation into schools.





[1] Innovation Districts were introduced in the 2011-2012 State budget in Ohio

Innovation Districts in Ohio

Innovation is not simply invention; it is inventiveness put to use. Invention without innovation is a pastime.

– Harold Evans – the London Sunday Times
Governor Kasich’s Straight A Fund which will allocate $300 for Innovation Grants for Schools is a gift with remarkable potential but few educators realize it. This idea of an innovation fund has been brewing in the philanthropic sector for the past seven years, and now there is an opportunity to turn that idea to reality. In addition to making grants, foundations seek to stimulate cross-sector collaborations and mobilize stakeholders to create shared solutions. Seeing tremendous challenges in Ohio’s education sector, foundations from across the State collaborated through the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) to consider what real innovation could look like for the State. Basing its analysis on successful projects funded in classrooms from across the country, OGF published documents in 2006, 2009 and in 2013.
In 2006, Education for Ohio’s Future challenged legislators to “Accelerate Innovations and Options throughout the System.” We said, “Schools, new and old, should reflect current research that supports high-quality and relevant curriculum, expanded forms of autonomy, the development of regional schools, the infusion of technology, a longer school day and school year, and accelerated options for combined high school and college coursework.” In 2009, Beyond Tinkering – called for “Creating Ohio Innovation Zones and an Incentive Fund” and to “Seed transformative educational innovation by attracting and building on promising school and instructional models; introduce district-wide innovations that personalize and deepen teaching and learning; and eliminate operational and regulatory barriers.” In the 2011-2012 biennial budget, the Ohio legislature allowed for “Innovation Schools” and “Innovation School Zones” (3302.6 – Designation as an innovation school) that could waive any collective bargaining agreement that would impede implementation of an innovation plan. A caveat was thrown in that would activate the waiver only if 60% of the members of the bargaining unit in each participating school approved the waiver. What a way to kill innovation! Few superintendents took up the challenge due to the cumbersome language and the lack of understanding of what is available on the market and how real innovation can take place within this ossified bureaucracy. For too many, innovation still means a Smartboard™. The recent 2013 OGF report states, “Technology that is overlaid on an antiquated model of schooling only increases the costs – the model must be recreated. “
In the May 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, Stacey Childress of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote that, …”increasing the quality of K-12 Public education is vital to long-term economic growth. The U.S. educational sector has ignored technological advancements that have brought dramatic productivity gains to almost all other sectors and needs to introduce smart, personalized-learning programs into the curriculum.”
The Innovation Grants Fund is a remarkable step toward transforming teaching and learning. Effective use of these grants has the potential to change our centralized “educational system,” into “system for education” that can be more flexible to the demand for personalized learning. To support the Grants superintendents and especially school board members must provide teaching professionals culture of inventiveness in order to bring success in learning to scale. For too long we have supported an evaluation system that appears have been designed to create future game-show contestants rather than learners. Placing the power of innovation into the hands of capable teaching professionals will produce assessments that reflect a child’s true understanding of material. State-of-the-art management tools that increase productivity in the private sector should be available in schools and encouraged to demonstrate scalable cost savings.
Real innovation will be accelerated when the State makes use of the same technologies to update its irrational and wasteful system of professional development. This will not be accomplished by pouring more money into traditional education schools but taking cues from online options That mission can be enhanced when Cleveland makes much better use of its television and media to spotlight what works in education.
Philanthropy has funded successful inventions in classrooms and buildings across the country. Only with the collaboration of the government can successful classroom inventions turn into innovations that will benefit all children. Mr. Kasich has provided educational leadership the opportunity for inventiveness not seen before. Let’s figure out ways to make it happen.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Homeless Populations – a role for Philanthropy?

In October 2011, I attended a session at the Annual Meeting of Philanthropy Roundtable with the title: Four Models for Addressing Chronic Unemployment and Homelessness.  Four Models for Addressing Chronic Unemployment and Homelessness

Homelessness, hunger, and unemployment cry out for solutions. The most sustainable solutions, however, often depend on the homeless, hungry, and unemployed building self-reliance and in turn reclaiming their lives and restoring their positions in their families and their communities. Training programs can help people to accomplish this for themselves in a variety of ways. On this panel, representatives of four exemplary social service organizations will outline the best ways for private charity to help people to help themselves—from faith-based approaches and getting people off the streets to providing permanent housing and re-purposing unused food for job training.

Barbara Elliott, president and founder, Center for Renewal and board member, Work Faith Connection
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director and president, Project Home
Jennifer Vigran, chief executive officer, Second Helpings
Matt Minkevitch, executive director, The Road Home
Betsy Bikoff, vice president and chief grant making officer,Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation (Moderator)

Each of the panelists described programs they developed to assist the homeless as they identify a path to self-sufficiency.  It was evident that the number of homeless people is increasing in each of the geographic areas represented by the panel.  “Overwhelming” was a word used to describe the pressures the increased numbers place on their organizations.     Every one of these programs is able to describe success for a large number of the clients they served; but at the same time, they admitted to seeing an increasing number of people for whom the simplest steps to recovery and “self-help” remains a challenge.

Those studying the homeless populations now make distinctions among the people they serve: (1) those who are homeless due to sudden changes in economic situation or temporary set-back and (2) the “chronically homeless” who appear to be mentally and/or emotionally ill and/or with substance dependency.   Typically this group faces a longer time horizon to stabilization and the rates of recidivism are very high.  Some never reach stabilization.      During the question and answer period, I referenced an article from the December 24, 2010 New York Times called, “The Street Level Solution.” The article cites studies that find a significant number of chronically homelessness people having a history of Traumatic Brain Injury (TMI). The author David Bornstein writes that it is important for providers to distinguish the chronically homeless in order to better understand the true problem.  His research brought him to Dr. James O’Connell,“…a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, (he) estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury. ‘For many it was a head injury prior to the time they became homeless,’ he said. ‘They became erratic. They’d have mood swings, bouts of explosive behavior. They couldn’t hold onto their jobs. Drinking made them feel better. They’d end up on the streets.’ ”     I asked the panelists if they were aware of this and related research and; if so, were they seeing it?  Every one of the panelists shook their heads in agreement and suggested that there was little understanding among those in the public sector about the gravity of this problem.  Matt Minkevitch said he is certain that many clients at The Road Home have had a history of past brain injury.

In his opinion, the crisis is rooted in the fact that clients often present symptoms that look more like those that need to treated by an assortment prescribed psychotropic drugs usually through mental health departments.  He described one client in particular who had been in and out of the mental health system treated as a schizophrenic and sedated.  He never responded to the pharmacopeia of psychotropic medications which puzzled the many physicians and mental health providers. The client who was well-known to all at the Road Home discussed his suffering on many occasions.  He killed himself after a particularly violent episode.  His case was of enough interest that an autopsy was performed.  The autopsy report showed that the man was not schizophrenic at all, but had been experiencing brain seizures related directly to a traumatic brain injury.

Clearly the chronically homeless will remain a challenge for many in the years to come.   Most disturbing to us and the providers is the increasing number of veterans who are appearing at homeless shelters across the country.  This phenomenon parallels the stories of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a subset of whom have experienced brain trauma.

As a foundation that hopes to address the root causes of poverty, I think this apparent link between homelessness and TBI is worth exploring. I would suggest that other foundations that support programs dealing with homeless populations do the same. Since January 1, 2002, The Nord Family Foundation trustees approved 70 grants totaling $1,460,300 that provided support in some form or another to homeless populations.   This number includes grants across both the Health and Human Services &Civic Affairs program areas, and includes supportive programs such as Children’s Garden that provides child care for homeless families and the Lorain County Furniture Bank that provided furniture to families transitioning out of homelessness.   Other foundation grants by geographic areas (excluding matching grants) include:

Lorain County: 

Family Promise of Lorain County
Catholic Charities Family Center and St. Joe’s Shelter

Cuyahoga County:

Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cleveland
West Side Catholic Center


Damen Project
The Delores Project
The Gathering Place
St. Francis Center
Urban Peak
Warren Village
Step 13


Family Shelter
Salvation Army Midlands
Women’s Shelter

The Nord Family Foundation’s concern for the homeless can be traced to the early 1940’s when Walter Nord became invested in creating the Nord Center due to the large number of returning war veterans who suffered from “shell shock” and who had little support.   How many of those men had experienced some form of TBI in their service?  Then, as now, the more severe manifestations of TBI were referred to the mental health system.  Advances in biotechnology have improved the understanding of the brain and its functions.  Doctors are now discovering what many front-line providers have sensed for a long time; that is. the cognitive and physical manifestations in the homeless that people attribute to mental illness, mental retardation and or drug use have deeper idiopathic explanations.  Consequently the way to really help these people is advocating for expanded primary health care access to those suffering from homelessness. Forging partnerships between mental health providers and primary health care workers who can better diagnose TBI will help to relieve the crush on the overtaxed mental health systems and at the same time better address the root causes of homelessness.

In September 2011, I was introduced to the Craig Hospital in Denver Colorado.   Craig is dedicated exclusively to Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  In follow-up to my visit, I asked several staff members if they too were looking at this topic.  I made connection with Kristi Staniszewski, RPT Clinical Specialist from the Research Department.  Kristi let me know the link between TBI and homeless populations is recognized as underreported and an important policy item for the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado.   Kristi asked she thought there might be value in the Nord Family Foundation helping the alliance convene a meeting of clinicians, and providers who are seeking support to advance the recommendations of the Executive Order on Traumatic Brain Injury – Final Report which was presented to Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. in December 2009.     With minimal investment of funding, the foundation is in a position to convene a discussion on the subject to include providers and appropriate medical practitioners to gather more information on TBI and its impact on the social service sector.  My research revealed that in one conference on the topic took place in 2010 in Maine.  I included an opening talk by one of the presenters.   Please notice that she starts her talk saying that few conference on the topic of homlessness every address the link with TBI.  We can serve as a catalyst and hopefully bring this topic to NE Ohio, Columbia, SC; and perhaps Boston.

I welcome any comments from foundation representatives or service providers.

Funding education programs that “teach” the Constitution

Over the past few years, the Nord Family Foundation has received requests to support programs that encourage better knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.  The Liberty Day project, prints pocket-sized copies of the Constitution which are distributed to schools across the country on “Liberty Day”  We provided support to the Bill of Rights Institute for several years but stopped after a sudden administrative house cleaning took place a little over a year ago. (For those in nonprofit work, a turnover of an executive as well as other key staff in a short period of time will flag concern for funders).   Finally, the trustees turned down a request from the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University to support a summer institute for teachers from various States to spend two weeks learning about the U.S. Constitution from a panel of scholars from selected universities across the country.  The blatant political bias left some uneasy providing support to that project.

I find it curious with the apparent proliferation of non-school based non-profits that have taken on the responsibility to provide teacher training on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of  Rights.  I would agree that a majority of teachers do not fully understand the Constitution. The bitter partisan political debates, the acrimony and personal attacks parallel the vituperation between religious sects and denominations. The middle east is a sad and tragic example and in the west, one only look at the bitterness in Northern Ireland between “Catholics” and “Protestants.”  Killing appears to be justified based on one’s interpretation of “truth.”

I struggled with requests to support Constitutional programs, finding hard to discern between what is history and what is political histrionics! Thanks to an article in the January 2011 New Yorker, by Harvard History Profession, Jill Lepore, called “The Commandments-The Constitution and its worshippers.” I think I have better insight.  After reading it, I would be interested to know the trustees thoughts on how we should address requests to “teach” the constitution in schools and among the citizenry.  Comments are welcome!


Philanthropy and Education – too risk averse?

I am sure that many readers have seen the speech from the valedictorian at a US High School.  I shared this with many colleagues in philanthropy, with the hope that we take her words seriously.   I somethings think the generation gap between those who “manage” education portfolios for foundations and those of teachers and students one the ground are so wide that we loose our ability to think creatively.   I remember  Eric Nord (one of the Nord Family Foundation founders) once commenting on a project that would stimulate early stage venture capital in NE Ohio.  He was an enormously successful engineer with more than fifty patents to his name.  After more than 25 years in philanthropy was that the sector was more akin to bankers and lawyers who by nature risk averse.  He thought that most program officers were good managers as their jobs required.  He wondered if the field really allowed for innovative thinking.  Most of the successful patents from the company that bears his name (Nordson) came from spending hours on the “shop floor” with the engineers who worked each day with the equipment and were always thinking of improving the quality of the product.

I wonder sometimes if we in philanthropy being to self select and talk among ourselves in an echo chamber.  “Best practices” “evaluation” best practices, and the like are all important but I know far too many program officers who tend to create a fetish of evaluations.  I have had many teachers, and nonprofit leaders tell me that  visits from some program officers is as happy has having an IRS audit.  Power that comes with having control of lots of money can make us feel like a VERY select and self-inflated crowd.  Many of us seek conciliation with the powers that run public schools at the expense of being true and critical of the “system” we week to “improve.”

I am so happy I found this speech.  I hope that some of my colleagues read it.  I hope that in our dealings with public school systems we will speak for students who have been made pawns in a cruel game created by those who fetishize standardized tests in an effort to manage this unwieldy “system” we call Public Education.

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech

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Last month, Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School. Instead of using her graduation speech to celebrate the triumph of her victory, the school, and the teachers that made it happen, she channeled her inner Ivan Illich and de-constructed the logic of a valedictorian and the whole educational system.

Erica originally posted her full speech on Sign of the Times, and without need for editing or cutting, here’s the speech in its entirety:

Here I stand

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Update 8/7/10 – It was only a matter of time until a Youtube video of Erica’s speech emerged. I’ll warn you now, her delivery isn’t as well put together as her speech.

Some Innovation in Ohio's schools is happening "in spite of" and not "because of" Ohio's Education Bureaucracy

Consider this entry yet another story from the field.   Over the past several months, I have had the honor to work with staff at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lorain County.  The director and his staff are examples of everyday heroes that work in the horribly mis-named “nonprofit” sector in our communities.  These folks demonstrate unwavering dedication to young people, and their passion to get things done, and their actions make them the real social innovators in our country.  Unfortunately, because they work in this so-called nonprofit sector, our society sees them as second-class citizens and treated as “do-gooders” and not respected for the professionals they are.

Dan Palotta’s recently published book Uncharitable provides our society with one of the most compelling arguments for us to reconsider this entire “nonprofit” sector.

Mr. Palotta’s argument is  important as one contemplates creating innovation districts for teaching and learning environments.   The Ohio education bureaucracy by its nature, isolates itself from the nonprofit organizations, most of which do a superb job at providing quality child-care, quality after-school programming, quality mentoring programs and quality college counseling and psychological supports. Over and over again I hear how public school principals make it extremely difficult to link with these organizations offering services to the schools.  Union rules and regulations are such that these nonprofits cannot serve unless the schools have mentors who, must be paid.  In difficult economic times the nonprofits find it harder and harder to find the private dollars necessary to pay for these added budget items.  The schools do nothing to help.  In fairness, many of them cannot because they too are cash strapped. Meanwhile, the nonprofit workers at the schools earn a fraction of what teachers earn and oftentimes have no health insurance or retirement benefits. The whole system lacks any rationality.  It is done because that’s the way it worked forty and fifty years ago.  So the question to consider, ” is there not a way to reallocate the huge sums of state and federal monies that currently go to bloated administrative educational bureaucracies as outlined in the Brookings report I reference in a previous post?”

As a first step, Ohio must shift more K-12 dollars to classrooms. Ohio ranks 47th in the nation in the share of elementary and secondary education spending that goes to instruction and ninth in the share that goes to administration. More pointedly, Ohio’s share of spending on school district administration (rather than school administration such as principals) is 49 percent higher than the national average. It appears from projections in other states and from actual experience in Ohio that school district consolidation, or at the very least more aggressive shared services agreements between existing districts, could free up money for classrooms.

I think there is and here is where I find inspiration. The  Boys and Girls Clubs of Lorain County opened in city of Oberlin in March of 1999. The Club has provided programming in neighboring Elyria since 2004 beginning at Eastgate Elementary School and later expanded its programming to Wilkes Villa a crime ridden public housing project in Elyria, the Prospect School, and the East Recreation Center.  Elyria is a city that  typifies the economic depression in the “rust belt.”  The crime statistics and more importantly the social and economic strife make this one burgeoning mid-west town a case study of how we need to change the way we have always done things!   This area of Elyria has an unusually high number of children in single-family homes, large number of children with one or both parents incarcerated, one of the highest rates of households where grandparents are taking care of the children.  A study conducted by Dr.  Mark Singer at the Mandel School for Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University for the Nord Family Foundation in 2000 found that,  Elyria is one of three blighted urban cities in NE Ohio that has one of the highest rates of child-on-child (and mainly sibling violence) in NE Ohio due primarily to children in homes where parents are not at home because of work or other issues.

In 2005, the Nordson Corporation donated an old and unused assembly and distribution plant on the south side of town to the Boys and Girls clubs.  The Nordson Community Center  evolved with financial contributions from local foundations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers Foundation, the Community Foundation of Lorain County, the Stocker Foundation and the Nord Family Foundation.  An unused factory has become a thriving center for young people and their families. The Clubs have a simple goal which is  to assist youth members in developing skills and qualities to become responsible citizens and leaders.  The  primary programming focus addresses five (5) core program areas including character and leadership development, education and career development, health and life skills, the arts, and social recreation. A membership fee of just $5 per year allows youth to engage in hundreds of hours of safe, after-school activities.  This is part of what schools used to offer before the madness of testing morphed into the punitive system of assessment it now is.

The Nordson Community Center  is half complete and now offers a venue for classes, dramatic performances, celebrations, community meetings, health fairs, and much more.  The Nordson Center which used to be a dirty and decaying monument to the flight of manufacturing, now looks like this.

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Energized from our community conversations about the medically uninsured (Blog post and the need to create medical homes), I introduced the B&G staff, as well as directors from the Lorain County Urban League to the Harlem Children s Zone model.  This innovative model, introduced by Geoffrey Canada, embraces the work of nonprofit and other social service organizations and incorporates them into the entire education of the child.  Drawing from this idea, our idea was to fill the extra space at the Nordson Community Center with medical check-up rooms.  Staffed with volunteers from the medical professions at the local hospitals rooms at the club could be used to address the physical and mental health issues faced by the youngsters and eventually their families.

The Boys and Girls Clubs staff met with the director and physicians at the nearby Elyria Metropolitan Hosptial (a charity hospital that looses about $8 million a year in uncompensated care because the poor use their emergency room as a portal to the health care system).  They have picked up the idea and already have a number of health care professionals ready to serve in the center.  At this writing the assistant superintendent of the Elyria Schools is endorsing the concept of expanding for-credit educational options to young people who attend the Clubs.  This could include online academic credit.  Additionally, the Lorain City Schools is also exploring the idea of linking physical and mental health programming in its schools as they plan for the construction of a new campus.

As the philanthropic community engages in serious discussion about integrating technology to the educational sector, it must give equal consideration to how the school systems can better integrate the hand-on and interpersonal work of the social and medical sector which are critically important to supporting families in severe economic crisis.  That is a very exciting charge for philanthropy.

The challenge for the educational sector will be how to make more effective use of the “nonprofit” sector which serves to enhance not compete with public education.  I discussed this in a post I wrote in 2008,     To do so, this sector will have to re-think its perception of the “nonprofit” sector as a group of “do-gooders” and more as business partners.  That too is an exciting challenge.

Realizing this dream however will require concerted effort on the State’s legislatures to reconsider they way they allocate federal funds through agencies such as mental health, drug and alcohol, juvenile justice and the like.  This is a major challenge for the State and Federal legislators to consider as philanthropy and nonprofits figure out ways to deliver services more efficiently and at lower cost.  Check out the attached video and listen carefully to Vivek Kundra.

“One of the biggest problems in the federal government is that process has trumped outcome. … the biggest reason is that everyone is focused on compliance and no one is thinking about innovation…”

The goals expressed in this video are already emerging with tremendous impact for nonprofit organizations. Check out ReadWriteWeb and see what the public sector can do with this tool!!

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.

Ohio's Zones for Innovation in Education

Yesterday I was asked to complete a survey in anticipation of a conference sponsored by Grantmakers for Education.  The topic is “Designing for Innovation in American Education.”   The highly competent staff at GFE ask,

Despite the increasing attention being given to “innovation” in education, innovation remains a loosely defined concept. How can grantmakers envision a truly innovative future for American education-and use that understanding to ensure our education systems meet the needs of learners today? How can human-centered design drive education innovation, particularly as we strive to engage diverse learners? What new capacities must education philanthropists develop to effect trans-formative change? Join colleagues from across the country as we answer these key questions.

This request arrive the very same day that the following article appeared in the New York Times.  The subject addresses innovation and its demise in one of the world’s largest companies.

Microsoft’s Creative Destruction

Published: February 4, 2010

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

As a result, while the company has had a truly amazing past and an enviably prosperous present, unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.

Innovation and its demise within a large business serves as a lesson to the public school system which, by its nature, thwarts an innovative spirit.  Disruptive technologies can be very threatening to school administrators who feel tremendous pressure from “The STATE” to have their schools perform well on the report cards.   In that sense, schools and school officials spend a lot of time talking about “school improvement” which presupposes that the thing they are trying to improve is inherently good.   Disruption, as in disruptive technologies discussed most notably by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, threatens the very core of what a dutiful school superintendent is trying to achieve which is a kind of  educational “equilibrium.”  How many teachers across the country work with Superintendents whose managerial style mimics those described by the former Microsoft employee.  How many principals, and superintendents have, “created a dysfunctional corporate (educational) culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence.”  To paraphrase Mr. Bass’ article, it is no wonder greatest and most talented younger people wind up leaving the teaching profession after only a few years.  No wonder why schools have a hard time recruiting new teachers.  What young person, raised and nurtured in a system that encourages creativity and thinking wants to work in such a system?

W. Brian Arthur’s book, The Nature of Technology discusses the question raised by my colleagues at the Grantmakers for Education.  This professor and visiting researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center says in his most recent book, “…we have no agreement on what the word ‘technology’ means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what ‘innovation’ consists of … missing is a set of overall principles that would  give the subject a logical structure, the sort of structure that would help fill these gaps.”

Without a common understanding of what innovation can mean, it should be no surprise that school officials react negatively when the concept is introduced.  Unfortunately, these same officials and their teachers do not embrace the urgency that is needed to explore the ways in which technology can and is challenging the way students learn and achieve.  The lack of any state sanctioned Innovation Zones results in too many classrooms across the states tinkering with technology and learning.  This parody, done by students at University of Denver, show the less than optimal results.

My vision for Ohio would be to legislate the establishment of Educational Innovations Zones.  More specifically  the legislation would support the establishment of five Innovation Zones throughout the State.  This concept starts out being consistent with the Ohio School Improvement Program which, is aspirational at best, but which, in my opinion, flounders in implementation.

Ohio’s School Improvement Program

…Rather than focusing on making improvement through a “school-by-school” approach, Ohio’s
concept of scale up redefines how people operate by creating a set of expectations that, when
consistently applied statewide by all districts and regional providers, will lead to better results for
all children. OLAC’s recommendations are supported by recent meta-analytical studies on the
impact of district and school leadership on student achievement, and provide strong support for
the creation of district and school-level/building leadership team structures to clarify shared
leadership roles/responsibilities at the district and school level, and validate leadership team
structures needed to implement quality planning, implementation, and ongoing monitoring on a
system-wide basis.

The two concepts diverge however when I suggest that these “zones” include some of the best teachers from varying districts within the region.  An ideal zone would include teachers from public, charter and private schools as well as home-schools, who can demonstrate a creative approach to education.  The zones would be given a five-year time period to meet regularly and demonstrative clear and effective methods to improve teaching and learning.  More importantly, these zones would be encouraged to demonstrate effective assessment tools to measure success using these new approaches.  Also within these zones, school administrators and teachers would be charged with coming up with tools that will demonstrate clear cost-savings to the business of educating.  For example,  can a ‘zone’ be managed in new ways that would allow the State to reduce the number of high-paid superintendents and curricular officers.  These zones could and should be given levels of autonomy.  Rather than the current Office of Innovation    These offices could report to the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement which by its description is simply another management office to tinker with what is already in place.  It is certainly NOT a way to stimulate the real innovation that needs to take place on the peripheries.  The zones can be virtual places such as SecondLife where people across long physical distances can meet regularly.

These innovation zones would be managed by local boards, consisting of educators from K-12, educators from higher education, business leaders, education technologists and accountants who will help oversee the evolving budgetary implications of innovation.  These board would report out to a State and/or National official on a quarterly basis.  Real innovation would be posted similar to the way that the Lucas Foundation’s site Edutopia reports out on innovative uses of technology by individual teachers and schools across the country.

In an ideal world, these zones would be the targets of Federal Race to The Top funding.  It is not inconceivable that other states could legislate innovation zones and a national competition be underway to demonstrate real innovation in teaching and assessment for learning.  To appease the teachers unions which will likely fight this every step of the way, the legislation should be firm (urgency should prevail), but allow for the entire concept of innovation zones to be scraped if no significant cost-savings or significant gains in learning take place.  We can go back to the way things were.

It is important to realize that real innovation will be a process.  A process similar to medical research in which making mistakes is allowed.  Failures should be published and shared.  Medical researchers can learn as much from failure as they seek to create new and effective protocols for treating disease.  Similarly, risk taking can be encouraged with the understanding that all will learn from success as well as failure.

Referring again to Dr. Arthur’s book one can understand why these innovation zones need not be concentrated in one particular school building or “district” as we have come to know them bound by geographic lines drawn over a century and a half ago.  The zones need to be centers of knowledge as well as ways of thinking.  This thinking by its nature will conflict with the aspiration to equilibrium too many school administrators crave.

…when new bodies of technology – railroads, electrification, mass production, information technology – spread through an economy, old structures fall apart and new ones take their place.  Industries that were once TAKEN for GRANTED become obsolete, and new ones come into being.

Real advanced technology – on-the-edge sophisticated technology – issues not fro knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge.  It is a set of knowings.  Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work.  Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique.  Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to.  This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted.  And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of experience.”

The urgency remains.   Too many good teachers who are indeed professionals are not meeting their potential due to a system that has lost its ability to mange.   Philanthropy can play a role by working with the State to fund these centers of innovation.  President Obama is working with the MacArthur Foundation to stimulate innovation in education with a $2 million competition.  Other foundations across the country could pick up the challenge but I believe that better coordination with the States who ultimately run education would be a better approach.  More on this later.

Ohio's Institutional Intolerance for Innovation in Education

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.