Category Archives: Higher Education

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.

Public Schools and Private Auto Companies

I spotted this television advertisement for GM the other evening. It occurred to me that watching the demise of the American Auto Industry, is tragically analogous to what is happening in public education.

The blog post Daily Finance’s writer Peter Cohan cites five reasons why GM failed. Read and draw analogies to public schools in the United States.

1. Bad financial policies. You might be surprised to learn that GM has been bankrupt since 2006 and has avoided a filing for years thanks to the graces of the banks and bondholders. But for years it has used cars as razors to sell consumers a monthly package of razor blades — in the form of highly profitable car loans.

And the two Harvard MBAs who drove GM to bankruptcy — Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson — both rose up from GM’s finance division, rather than its vehicle design operation. (Read more about GM’s bad financial policies here.)

2. Uncompetitive vehicles. Compared to its toughest competitors — like Toyota Motor Co. (TM) — GM’s cars were poorly designed and built, took too long to manufacture at costs that were too high, and as a result, fewer people bought them, leaving GM with excess production capacity. (Read more about GM’s uncompetitive vehicles here.)

3. Ignoring competition. GM has been ignoring competition — with a brief interruption (Saturn in the 1980s) — for about 50 years. At its peak, in 1954, GM controlled 54 percent of the North American vehicle market. Last year, that figure had tumbled to 19 percent. Toyota and its peers took over that market share. (Read more about GM ignoring the competition here.)

4. Failure to innovate. Since GM was focused on profiting from finance, it did not really care that much about building better vehicles. GM’s management failed to adapt GM to changes in customer needs, upstart competitors, and new technologies. (Read more about GM’s failure to innovate here.)

5. Managing in the bubble. GM managers got promoted by toeing the CEO’s line and ignoring external changes. What looked stupid from the perspective of customer and competitors was smart for those bucking for promotions. (Read more about GM’s managing in the bubble here.)

GM has now produced this mea culpa, promising a new organization with new products and a new attitude.    The answer is to reinvent itself.

It is not hard to draw analogies to public schools.   Poor financing and financial management.  Management (administrative bubbles), inflated salaries for administrators, ignoring the competition…..the list goes on.   The list does not mention the tortuous negotiations and battles with organized labor – but that analogy fits as well.

Interesting that the public sector (federal government) has to be in the unbelievable position of having to bail out this failing industry.    The act has people from the private sector incredulous.  Even the President himself seems uncomfortable with the fact that the government has had to take this unprecedented action.

Public Schools in too many urban districts are a failing industry.  Too many administrators, public officials and even some private philanthropists ignore the competition (i.e. charter schools, successful faith-based schools and even advances made in independent schools).  These entities are seen not as competition, but as the enemy.    In an effort to preserve themselves and guarantee job  security, those in the bunker form the bubble.

Too many are afraid of adapting to new technologies that are likely to guarantee, smarter, leaner administrative budgets and more likely than not to improve students learning outcomes.   Good administrators will report up to the “management” that revises standards and tests to juke the stats and have the public believe their inferior product is actually working.

Far too many individual school “districts” makes no sense anymore. I live in a county of 280,000 but there are 14 individual school districts each with high-paid administrators including superintendents, principals, curriculum directors. The cost to the public every year exceeds $4 million dollars. Much of that work can be done online through more effective use of management technologies.

Too many public dollars are wasted paying for textbooks. Innovations in online texts are occurring every day, yet too many school administrators are slow to adapt them. Many philanthropists have funded organizations that provide solutions to this unnecessary expense. cK-12 is a private non-profit foundation that is just one example.  Another is Currwiki.  Schools and school districts – not to mention the multimillion dollar textbook industry has an interest  in keeping these innovations out of schools.  Too many foundation officers and school administrators – fearful of change, block innovation with the appeal to waiting for results from “evidence-based practice” before they do anything.  Where are the “practices” taking place and who is collecting the “evidence?”  I know than many foundations have a lot of evidence of what is working, especially in charter, faith-based and indepdendent schools, but this evidence is ignored unless it has imprimatur from “the academy.”

It just seems to me that the time is ripe for foundations across the country to sponsor one or a series of local symposia that will bring together leaders from the field of educational  technology, business, K-12 systems, and higher edcuation to re-imagine doing schools.  These symposia should be public – coordinated with local newspapers, and newsmedia.  Public television stations typically have local afficilates that could foster regularly scheduled converesations about re-inventing school and invite public policy officials to be part of the conversation.  Together, these entities can help to reinvent public schools just as the auto industries are about to embark on reinventing themselves.

Innovation Districts – An Exciting Initiative to Transform Education in the State of Ohio

I was a member of the education task force for the Ohio Grantmakers Forum which produced a set of recommendations for changing education in the State of Ohio for the Governor and legislature.  Beyond Tinkering was the report and I have written about the effort in previous posts.  The full document can be found at.

One of the most satisfying results of the effort was gathering information from colleagues from other foundations to push the idea of innovation districts.  We used legislation out of Colorado as the inspiration.  The call for creating innovation districts in Ohio is the first recommendation in the report.  When the report was published, I did not think the Governor or the legislature would seriously consider the idea of innovation districts. It had certainly hoped it would and my colleagues can attest to the fact that I pushed for it every meeting we had.   It appears however that both the Ohio House and Senate are intrigued by the idea and have written it into the education budget.  It has to go to conference and perhaps will actually become a reality.  Should that happen, the state has opened up an exciting opportunity for transforming education and establishing national models.

Among the many excellent recommendations in the report, several have particular relevance to legislators who are genuinely interested in transforming education in the state. The idea of creating innovation districts has all the potential  to develop budget-neutral programs that could serve as models for all districts in the state. In a time of budgetary constraint, it is my guess that if they are developed carefully, and with strong leadership from the top offices in the state, innovation districts could result in cost-savings over time.

I underscore the call to create innovation districts rather than schools.  There are many school-based programs spearheaded by exceptionally creative teachers.  Unfortunately, these programs are restricted too often to one classroom.  In some cases, we see school buildings implementing innovative use of technology to support learning, but it is once again,  more often-than-not these innovations lack any alignment with the other buildings in the same district. In my travels I have heard disturbing news that successful schools are often scorned by peers in their districts.  I had the great pleasure to explore the  Macomb Academy in Michigan.  The leadership there has implemented a highly successful approach to learning with emphasis on Sciences based on the approaches advocated by the Natural Learning Institute. Despite the demonsrable success, Macomb teachers and leaders are resented by peers in their district because they have developed their own method of teaching and assessment that diverges from the norm.

I bring up this case because  a. it is not the first time I have heard cases of professional jealousy of this type crippling innovation in schools and b. because I think it illustrates a reason why we need to stop creating innovation schools as isolated entities within districts that may or may not be on board.  The emphasis must be on the district as a whole.  An innovation district would focus efforts on an entire community, and put benchmarks in place that could measure success.  Foundations could be called upon to help support these districts and direct funding to the support positive outcomes to the benchmarks put into place.

An innovation district would focus efforts on an entire community, and put benchmarks in place that could measure success.  Foundations could be called upon to help support these districts and direct funding to the support positive outcomes to the benchmarks put into place.

The language in the OGF Byond Tinkering report is very clear.  It calls for, “A bold plan for accelerating the pace of innovation – for restructuring the traditional industrial model of teaching and learning and for addressing the lowest-performing schools in our state.”  That includes a recommendation to create innovation districts. I purposely put emphasis on districts and not innovation schools.  Further in the report, is the call to “Develop a statewide P-16 education technology plan.” “Which includes improving teacher capacity in using technology.”  What better way to set this off than a district whose mission and focus would be to develop a plan that will train teachers on appropriate use of technology to meet the student learning objectives.

These recommendations are the primary ingredients for developing districts which – if properly carried out – could serve as a model for public schools across the country. The leadership would have to have the political will to take on the political battles which will be waged by interest groups.  It would prove the political leadership is finally willing to move Beyond Tinkering and transform learning opportunities.  Set the bar high and challenge these districts to carry out the plans in a budget-neutral environment and it is my guess most administrators and teachers would meet that challenge.   Ideally there would be five or more districts set up and given a five to ten-year exoneration from current collective bargaining and technological rules that could thwart the overall effort. For example, teachers in the district would not be able to “opt out” of professional development programs that would be essential to creating the districts.  If teachers do not want to participate fully in the learning opportunity they can be ushered to other districts or find employment elsewhere. That is where extreme leadership is required from multiple stakeholders in the state including union leadership, superintendents the ODE, the Oho Federation of Teachers and the Ohio School Board.  Getting them to agree means providing a coherent vision and establishing certain benchmarks to measure quality improvement.

The objective would be to create districts focused on excellence in learning. We are speaking of a new understanding of learning from pre-conceived ideas.  That means educating the stakeholders to the remarkable opportunities that new technology provides.  I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Helen Parke, Director of the Cisco Learning Institute.  During the Sunday evening keynote, Ms. Park presented a vision of education technology to a group of K-6 math teachers from across the state of Ohio.  This was a vision of Web 3.0 solutions to problems.  The conference continued for two days with the task of finding solutions to the challenge of improving the quality of math teaching in schools across the country.  Teachers were treated to presentation from education “experts” from universities across the country. As the weekeind went on however, teachers were challenged with coming up with solutions to the problem – To improve Math scores in schools across the state.  Unfortunately, the so-called solutions called for more funding to provide “math coaches” in buildings across the districts.  It was as if the presentaion from Ciso never happened.  Teachers were unable to make the connection between 3.0 software and its potential to solve their problems.  In short, we had 1.0 solutions to problems in a world where 3.0 can provide easy answers.  The experience convinced me that a better job needs to be done to invite teachers to experience and understand the technology.  Short of that, they will never understand the potential these technologies hold.  Professional development needs a complete 360 evaluation and (I would guess) a complete overhaul.

In such these innovation districts, a district adults would learn as well as  the students.. Teachers would be respected as the professionals they are, and encouraged to work with administrators and technologists to find ways in which technology can be used to find solutions to issues like student-centered learining, new ways of assessment and rethinking the way we establish standards.  Teachers would be encouraged th think of new ways to help children understand the content.

In these districts, goal would be to use technology to support student engagement and understanding of the content. Technology cannot and should not be expected to replace  learning that takes place between and among human beings.  It is not to create innovation for the sake of innovation, but to establish a culture of learning that will likely change the current model of one-teacher in a room in front of twenty students each of whom is expected to pass a testing pattern based on a pre-established set of standards.  Technology presents students and teachers with new ways to gather, assemble and demonstrate knowledge that exposes the shortcomings in the current system of assessment.  A challenge for the district would be to allow teachers in shared learning communities, to develop meaningful systems of assessment that make use of the tools available.  The result could be an incarnation of the “student-centered” learning module that has gotten a lot of lip service with few demonstrable models.

A major challenge to the district leadership would be to demonstrate reasonable cost savings as a resulting from use of social software. (For example why would five districts each need a “curriculum director” when one could possibly suffice. Could each of these districts demonstrate effective use of open-source tools to reduce the cost to the district (approximately $800 per student for textbooks used only one-year).

A district-wide initiative across the state would require an entities that supports the multi-district application.  I suggest that a good model can be found in a November 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review by authors James Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morrison.  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.

An effective DIG and EIG could be set up within an office within the Ohio Department of Education but that is likely to be too insular and protective.  My suggestion is that  an outside agency such as the Cisco Learning Initiative or the OneCommunity in Cleveland could be a better locus for the activity.  I say that only because a good innovation district would want to gather ideas from both public and non-public schools.  Foundations could provide a service by funding the costs of the DIG and EIG officers for the course of the five-year period.   Paying salary and benefits for a year is well within ambit of  funding levels tolerated by foundations, even in this challenging economic environment.  Additionally, outside funding could guarantee that the data gathered is open to all who may want to benefit from it.    So, if we imaging these two offices set up to serve the five-districts their scope of work could be defined pretty much by what is presented by the HBS authors.   This is what they would recommend including my insertions between parentheses:

A distributed innovation group (DIG) … doesn’t “do” innovation but rather fosters and challenges  it.  Innovation is an inherently distributed activity, encompassing innovators across and outside the corporation ( ‘districts’).  The DIG serves as the center of expertise for innovation techniques, scouts for new developments outside the company ( ‘district’) and provides experst for internal innovation initiatives.  And it deploys technologies and methods that facilitated collaboration and innovation.

An enterprise integration group (EIG) is dedicated to the horizontal integration of the corporation (‘districts)’ and among the buildings w/in the district).  It picks from among competing integration projects and provides resources that enable them to succeed.  It develops the architecture and management practices that make business (educational) integration easier over time..  It may also manage of portfolio of integration activities and initiatives;  serve as the corporation’s ( ‘district‘) center of expertise in process improvement,  large project management,  and program and portfolio (curricular) management; and provide staff and possibly leaders for mager business (school) integration initiatives.

The money for this undertaking could be secured from private  sources but in the longer term, funds are likely to be found with more efficient use of funds that currently feed the Educational Service Centers across the state.  Another foundation or group of foundations can and/or should coordinate with the ODE and hire a group like the RAND Education corporation to conduct a complete evaluation of the efficacy of professional development in the state and the role of the Education Service Centers in light of this new initiative.   I would imagine their is opportunity for a vast overhaul of the administrative function of the ESC'(s) across the state.

Technology should not be focused only on the curricular components of the project.  Innovative approaches to addressing the social service supports need to be integrated into the process.  Social services as well as primary health and mental health programs must be brought to the schools in new ways.  Achieving this goals will require new ways of working the the multiple state and nonprofit agencies that provide support to families in some of the more impoverished districts.  Why can’t mental health and primary health screening programs be place right in school buildings.  School buildings can be a logical catchment for families who will bring their children to schools.  It is essential that innovation districts consider new ways in which social support services can be ushered into the schools. It is common knowledge that too many teachers are expected to teach children who do not have access to essential primary health care or mental health services. A local physician our foundation has supported conducted a study in a Lorain City elementary school and found that more than 25% of the children suffered from chronic asthma which accounted for about 40% of the absences from school. Children that suffer from undiagnosed chronic illness cannot be expected to learn. If a child is not feeling well, no increase in mentoring, after-school programs or mandatory extended days will enhance learning. Currently State programs for help these youngsters are funneled through a variety of public entities and/or nonprofit organizations but few of these entities (if any) have a presence in the school buildings. State regulations and sometimes collective bargaining rules keep these services from being performed in the building.

I would propose that a Ohio Innovation district(s) would lift all restrictions that keep essential social services out of schools thereby creating a place where schools can be a center for families rather than just students. The Harlem Childrens Zone serves as an interesting model. Getting there would be a process – probably six-months to a year, where health officials (public and private providers), school board members, teacher and administrators would form a task force to articulate a plan of how these services would be made available for each school. The plans would be posted on an open site and other districts could have input. The plans would be compared and funneled to the DIG. A goal for each plan would be to demonstrate where the plan could result in cost savings to the entire community served by this new Innovation district.

A third and final goal would be to create a place where leaders from higher education meet regularly with leaders and teachers from K-12 to ensure that the two areas are seamless. Almost every educator I speak with agrees that in the United States, there is virtually no formal communication between K-12 and “higher-Ed.” The technology available to citizens of this country is making that disjuncture a serious threat to the goal we have to create and educational system that will set the stage for young people to succeed in college and beyond.

Take a look at two Youtube video’s by Dr. Richard Miller from Rutgers University. He provides a vision for what university/college teaching will look like in the not too distant future. Although geared to an audience in higher education, his vision casts shadows on the K-12 environment.  He talks about transforming pedagogy and even learning spaces. If this vision is even remotely true, the question facing K-12 teachers across Ohio are preparing children for this future?

It is time for some state or group of state to introduce the idea of innovation districts to create  a space where innovation can combine with tried and true best practices and create new approaches to learning that can be brought to scale and save money.

Can P-16 Compacts usher Innovation Districts for Education?

Last week, I met with my colleagues from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) Education Task Force.  The purpose of the meeting was to get an update on how the report recommendation Beyond Tinkering influenced Governor Strickland education budget.  The publication purports to  help guide policy to “Create Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.”  The budget in its current form does little to meet that reality.

The Governor ignored the number one recommendation placed forward by the philanthropic sector which is to create several education  “Innovation Zones” throughout the State.   He also ignored another compelling recommendation which was to establish a Statewide P-16 Education Technology Plan. Instead his staff appropriated $200,000 in the budget to establish a Creativity and Innovation Center within the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).   I suggested the Governor would do well to reallocate that line item to another area because such a center  ultimately serves as another top-down management tool for a system that needs another organizational system.

The education reform – dictated by budge constraints promises to be an expensive Tinkering Project informed by political agendas. It is discouraging as a funder to see incredibly innovative approaches to teaching and learning at places like Case and Oberlin College ignored by the pubic school sector.   It is energizing to meet the vast number of teachers and people across the country who are pushing innovation in schools in informal networks.  It is most disheartening to see how little foundation people, business leaders and school bureaucrats  understand the potential technology has to support innovative approaches to learning and understanding.  Foundations in particular seem to be risk averse when it comes to seeking out true innovation.  Too many of us resist appealing to the god of “Evidence-based practices” which seem only to gain credibilty if funded through expensive consultants from graduate schools of education.  To me, that term is becoming argot or those who fear real change to public schools as we know them.

As I watch this budget develop, I find it tragic that those who advise the governor seem to lack any understanding of the power and impact that new learning technologies can have not only in schools but in the market as well.  The new technologies and approaches come with massive disruptive change in school management and teaching.  Perhaps a concept far too big for policy makers to embrace.

One of the most formidable challenges for this Governor is changing i educational management in communities where the economic downturn continues to erode civic virtue.   The following article appeared in the Elyria Chronicle, the newspaper for a mid-west city where the loss of manufacturing jobs has resulted in decreased population and concentration of poverty in the city core.  Elyria was once a center of commerce in this part of NE Ohio.  Fifty years ago, a working-class family could afford a nice home, have a yard, worship at the church or temple of their choice, join clubs and graduate from schools.  The good life attracted families in the post-war boom years.  The school district has struggled with low-performing outcomes on State Standardized tests coupled with increases in social ills associated with poverty.  On the same day, the paper reported incidents about a shooting of a teen in one neighborhood, the resignation of the county law director who was jailed for drunk driving, a severe beating of one school wrestler with another at a garage party where beer and marijuana was present and a story about the former director of the Community Development Corporation (South Elyria CDC) who is a fugitive from the law – accused of stealing more than $50,000 from the agency.

Many in the next generation of those baby boom families have left the region resulting in population decrease and with that diminished need for the various school buildings.   Last week The Elyria Chronicle  paper announced the board decided to close two neighborhood schools. As a result, students will be bussed to another building which will now serve as a consolidated school.  Note the report on how administration will address the teaching staff.  If you are a new teacher, your abilities mean nothing.  Union rules make it that no matter what the skill level seniority trumps ability.

In addition to the closings, the district — which also has a projected deficit for 2013 — will lay off 23 teachers — eight at the elementary level, 13 secondary and two special education teachers.

(The), district director of human resources, said the 23 teachers will be notified this week of the reduction plan. At the April 8 board meeting, board members will vote to approve the contract termination of each.

He does not anticipate that enough veteran teachers will decide to leave the district before that time, saving some of the younger teachers from losing their jobs.

So far, only three retirements have officially been announced. There are no plans to offer any sort of retirement incentive, he said.

The teachers slated to be lost have one to three years of experience with the district.

Combined, the cost-cutting measures will save the district $2.25 million annually and erase the projected 2012 deficit while decreasing the 2013 deficit to $700,000, (The)Superintendent said.

As I read the article, I drew parallels to what has happened in the manufacturing sector in many towns in this Great Lakes region.  Factories are closing across the county.  We see the empty and furloughed factories of the car manufacturers  who are now in danger of bankruptcy due to obsolete management and product design that make their cars irrelevant to the American buying public. Other businesses have moved abroad or to the South because they cannot meet union demands.  I spoke with one businessman who told me he had a hard time finding workers who could pass random drug tests.  These are the realities contributing to the economic malaise in NE Ohio.  The malaise is transferred to some of the public schools as well. Teachers stick to obsolete curriculum and assessment tools.  Morale is low because they are not treated as professionals and the State pushes them to produce test results in the way a factory pushed workers to produce widgets.  In this envorinment, where teaching can be the last hold-out profession for families, I can understand how fear and protection can govern local policy decisions.  Change is long overdue, but the community does not seem prepared to even ask the right questions to find a way out.

The Fund for Our Economic Future is a unique collaboration of the philanthropic sector which  pooled funds  to support organizations by providing early-stage venture capital to innovative individuals with promising businesses.  In its first year, the Fund supported a region-wide conversation on the economic challenges called Voices and Choices .  This $3 million dollar effort captured community concerns.  Number one concern for the citizens of NE Ohio was addressing the poor educational system and the second was jobs.  The regions leaders were able to respond quite well to the jobs issue.  Working in coordination with the State to leverage   Third Frontier Funds into the region the Fund has worked closely with the business and political leadership to create an engine of economic activity for new and emerging business in the region.  The effort has resulted in tens of millions of new dollars coming into the region and the creation of  jobs.  The Cleveland Foundation has taken a lead role in collaborating with business and the universities directing funds to stimulate innovative businesses in energy and nanotechnology.

Elyria has one of Ohio’s best community colleges, Lorain County Community College with a magnificent new LEED certified building called the Entrepreneurship  Innovation Institute (EII) that provides training to people with ideas and shows them how to bring it to scale.  The Nord Family Foundation provided support to both the Fund for Our Economic Future and to local efforts with Team Lorain County and EII.  At the same time, Elyria, it is a tale of two cities.   On one end, stands this  center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with a vision of moving this economically desperate community to the future.   On the other end  the school district is depressed and managing a response straight out of 1960’s.   There is little hope for true innovation because the bureaucracies will not allow change to happen if it means changing the way things have always been done.  It will not change as long as those in power will protect their jobs  to the detriment of the greater good.

This focused region-wide effort to reinvigorate and innovate in the manufacturing sector in NE Ohio has been seriously lacking in the education sector. There is no focus for discussion and no horizion with a vision of what can be.   Despite remarkable resources in centers like Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, One Community, Cleveland State (to name only a few) the public school system is stagnating with a system that resists any invitation for  innovation.  Few in the public education system in the region even know these resources exist much less how to make use of their innovations.  The public school system appears to be experiencing a random approach to innovation, and seems more concerned with addressing job retention within the system.  There are exceptions.  The success of the MC2STEM school initiatives show promise, but these schools are in the minority.  Rather than stimulating innovation, the  Governor’s draft budget hinder it because it includes language that will cut support to some of the most innovative charter schools in the State.

I cannot understand why a Governor so tuned to the need to stimulate innovation in industry, is so opposed to doing the same in education.  Why not create an innovation  and entrepreneur district in this town of Elyria? (other cities like Cleveland could be candidates as well)   Why not tap into the potential a P-16 compact could have in pushing that agenda.  If the car manufacturers and other industries are changing to meet the needs of the next 25 years, why can’t the bureaucracies that strangle innovation in education do the same?  To do that requires training and work, which many older teachers are – quite honestly – reluctant to do.

As a funder I hear stories from many people as to how the system does not serve the needs of students.  These confessional moments (as I call them) are not mere griping, but passion-felt laments over how “the system” is broken.  Most complaints however are whispered for fear of retribution of colleagues and superiors.  Recently once colleague shared the following thought with me.  He wanted to post it on a blog but was afraid of the consequences.

Title: Ranting, Nightmares and Interactive Whiteboards

I’ve been struggling to write blog posts lately.

My lack of posting isn’t for a lack of things to say. Nor is it for a lack of enthusiasm for my work with children or other educators.

I’ve been quite simply because I don’t want to lose my job for questioning the administration on the WWW. Nor do I want to anger colleagues, dedicated teachers who are indeed working very hard in their classrooms. I also don’t want to sound like a ranting lunatic or a nitpicking critic. I am not a classroom teacher – I’m a technology teacher – so who am I to critique classroom practices and the instructional designs of my colleagues? Although, I hardly call a 10-page purple packet filled with teacher-generated questions and lines on which to write answers a designed project for student learning.

But…I’m having nightmares. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold, panicked sweat. I wonder when they’re coming to get me. Which grant funder will expose me as a fraud? In my latest nightmare I was being charged as an accomplice to “Crimes Against Children.”

Crimes Against Children? No, I’m not a pervert. I’m not skimming money off the budget. Nor am I purchasing materials for personal gain with district funds.

What am I?

I am a silent witness to lessons, projects and activities that either are not engaging, serve only the middle, do not provide opportunities for student choice, or only make use of technology to skill and drill students in hasty preparation for standardized tests. The longer I stay in public education, the more schooled I become. And I’m not using schooled in a complimentary fashion. As each day passes, I’m living out my own version of the situations described by the main character in Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise.

Here’s my latest dilemma: My district spent over $250,000 – that’s a quarter of a million dollars of tax payer money – to place an interactive whiteboard in every single classroom in the school’s building projects. A quarter of a million dollars. We also offered numerous in-house courses for graduate credit where teachers could learn how to use the interactive software – the hallmark of the boards is the interactivity of the software. The company provides a marvelous website with free access to downloadable materials created by teachers, free tutorials, discussion forums, video highlights of teachers using the products in their classrooms, courses for nominal fees; we have our own user group; the company reps have been out to troubleshoot, train, provide 1:1 instruction – sky’s the limit! We have access to the whole nine when it comes to getting our teachers trained on the boards and the software.

Do you know what most of our teachers are doing w/ their interactive whiteboards? Guess. Please.

Using them as nothing more than display devices to complete worksheets. Yup. Giant, expensive overhead projectors.

If I were the curriculum director, the tech director, heck! the treasurer of that district – if I were in an administrative role in this district  – I’d want to see one – just one – one example per month from each building of an interactive lesson – something that STUDENTS do at the board –  an activity created by the teacher, that takes advantage of the interactivity of the board and a sample of what the kids did AT THE BOARD! If I were an administrator I’d want access to a board so I could try out this interactive lesson – see how it feels to learn at the board – try my hand with the magic wand that makes things move on the board – demonstrate my understanding with an innovate piece of equipment.

But…I’m not in charge. I’m not even in a position where I could safely express this observation without being ousted by my colleagues or reprimanded for suggesting that the administration doesn’t know what a technology-rich classroom looks like.

My fear is that my next nightmare will involve a tar and feathering for my unpopular opinions about classroom technology use.

Under normal circumstances, this lament could be considered a complaint by a disgruntled professional.  However, by serendipity or destiny, the article below was shared with me by my colleagues from Ohio Grantmakers Forum on the same day I received the e-mail above.   This article by Mike Lafferty at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Ohio  is a summary of a national report on the successful implementation (or not) of technology in classrooms.


Ohio earns a D-plus in use of technology in schools

Ohio, birthplace of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Neil Armstrong has received a D-plus in the use of technology in education (see here), according to an Education Week survey.

Oddly, though, the state received a B-minus in the capacity to use technology, so we seem to have it but we don’t know what to do with it.

However, some Ohio education experts say the survey is misleading in that it misuses the term “technology” by implying only computer-related technologies and that it distorts the issue of “technology standards.” Technology includes aerospace, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, environment, energy, and other issues, they said.

In the survey of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Ohio was ranked 47th in the use of technology. Ohio tied Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington (all with D-plus scores). The District of Columbia was last with the lone F.

Education Week evaluated the use of education technology in four categories: Do state standards for students include technology? Does the state test students on the use of technology? Has the state established a virtual school? And, does the state offer computer-based assessments? Ohio met the standard only for having state achievement standards that includes the use of technology.

At the top were Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. They all had scores of 100.

If Ohio needs a model, Colorado provides just that.  This month, the  legislature has approved Bill which allows for innovative districts.

Innovation is the key to education reform

By Dwight Jones

Updated: 04/13/2009 10:19:11 AM MDT

Everywhere we turn, we hear about the need for innovation in education. Four months ago, a Denver Post editorial proclaimed that “tinkering around the edges of reform” is insufficient to produce sustained improvements in public education. I could not agree more.

Education reform is easy to talk about but hard to do. At its core, reform is doing things a better way. With regard to education reform, however, we not only must do things better, we must get better results. Innovation is key.

As highlighted in a recent Post article, Colorado could soon receive several million dollars in federal stimulus money for public education. In addition to a fair share for programs that serve underprivileged students and those with disabilities, there is the prospect of additional funds earmarked for innovation. Known as “Race to the Top” funds, these funds will go to “a handful of states that devise the most innovative ways of improving education” — to the potential tune of $500 million per state.

The article concluded that Colorado has every reason to be optimistic. After all, with initiatives on longitudinal growth, charter school development, updated standards and performance-pay programs, Colorado has been in the forefront with regard to innovation and school reform.

Innovation is more than just a good idea, it’s about putting that good idea into practice. The Colorado Department of Education is presently pursuing a wide variety of innovative education models, including new approaches to teacher preparation, leadership development, school choice and the way in which education is funded. We are organizing strategies and directing resources in ways to innovate intentionally, and, in so doing, increase capacity to take to scale what improves education for Colorado’s students.

At the same time, the department is creating a statewide system of support for districts, built upon internationally competitive standards and greater expectations for ourselves and our students. This system will monitor, measure and foster what matters most — increased student achievement.

The department’s pursuit of innovation began in earnest in September 2007 when the State Board of Education called upon the department to modernize the Colorado Model Content Standards. The spirit of innovation was further kindled last year when Senate Bill 130, commonly referred to as the Innovative Schools Act and led by Peter Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, was enacted into legislation. This bill has allowed Manual High School and Montview Elementary School in Denver to implement new programs outside the constraints of traditional school policy.

This year, through the leadership of state Sens. Evie Hudak and Keith King, Senate Bill 163 promises to streamline accountability and to devote great support to struggling schools and districts. It also promises to shutter those schools that persistently fail. This legislation, if passed, will play a key role in the promotion of intentional innovation by providing a framework for us to fund what works and stop throwing money at what doesn’t. Innovation without accountability is not in our students’ best interests.

Working collaboratively with the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association, the governor’s office and our 178 school districts, it is increasingly clear that we all have a role to play in obtaining “Race to the Top” funds.

As mentioned in The Post, “Colorado is positioned well to win innovation money.” Winning the money, however, cannot be the goal, lest we win the race and miss the top. Instead, we must remain focused on supporting initiatives that transform the delivery of education and improve student achievement.Now that’s a race worth running.

Dwight D. Jones is Colorado’s commissioner of education.

I am skeptical that anything like the Colorado approach could happen in Ohio. I say this because of  the meeting last week.  Those that participated in writing the Beyond Tinkering Report, included representatives from the Ohio Education Association. To the astonishment of the entire group the OEA representatives complained that the Tinkering report that recommended changes in teacher tenure and hiring/firing rules misrepresented their position.  These OEA representatives participated in the working group for at least one-year and were at every session where the details of the issues were worked out.  I witnessed the representatives endorsement of the final edit. When the publication came out, others in the membership rebelled and urged the same representatives to let the Governor know the OGF report misrepresented their opinion. When our group asked the representatives to help us understand how it was they endorsed the final edit with us but renounced the document publicly the response was a marvel at political doubletalk and disingenuous representation of fact. This reaction helped my understand why the Governor and his staff are genuinely afraid of this powerful constituency that can twist fact to meet a political agenda and appease and seething membership. After the meeting, a colleague of mine was shaking his head saying, “If a liberal democrat like me can leave here disgusted with union behavior, they – as a group are in serious trouble.”  It also helped me understand why a Gubernatorial candidate with an eye to another election has disregard innovative recommendations because they will clearly incite t alienate a powerful voting block.

All this being said, allow me to dream for a minute.  Suppose the P-16 compact I described in the earlier post were to stand-up to the legislature, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers and say, Enough!  There is however one glimmer of hope.  The same town of and the Community College are host to a newly created P-16 or (P-20) compact.   Suppose that P-16 were to take similar approach that took place as the Denver districts and demand change in the system as it has been brought to the Ohio public with little change since 1835?

Here is where a P-16 compact could have an interesting impact by possibly crafting legislative language that like the Colorado law,  would allow that body to override state laws and collective bargaining agreements.  P-16’s are comprised of leaders from all sectors of the community including business, nonprofits, government and even education.  Suppose that group were to try to effect legislation in Columbus that would allow for the creation of an extension of the Innovation Zone on one side of town to include and Innovation District?  Would a P-16 have the political courage to suggest that (for example) the Elyria Schools District be declared an Innovation District that would, “…implement new policy outside the constraints of traditional school policy.”  just as Manual High School covered on NPR) and Montview School.

Here is what the  law says:

The Colorado State Legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act in 2008 (Senate Bill 08-130). The law is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making.

The law provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. The law includes procedures and criteria for a school or group of schools within a school district to submit to its local board of education a proposed plan of innovation. A local school board may initiate and collaborate with one or more public schools of the school district to create innovation plans or innovation school zones.

The law:

  • Allows a public school or group of public schools to submit to its school district board of education an innovation plan to allow a school or group of schools to implement innovations within the school or group of schools. The innovations may include but are not limited to innovations in delivery of educational services, personnel administration and decision-making, and budgeting.
  • Requires the local board to review each submitted plan and approve the school as an innovation school or the group of schools as an innovation school zone or reject the plan.
  • Allows a local board to initiate creation of a plan in collaboration with one or more schools of the school district. The law specifies the minimum contents of a plan, including the level of support needed from the personnel employed at the affected schools.
  • Encourages schools, groups of schools, and local boards to consider innovations in specified areas and to seek public and private funding to offset the costs of developing and implementing the plans.
  • Allows a local board to submit the plan to the commissioner of education and the state board of education and seek designation as a district of innovation (following creation or approval of one or more plans by the local board).
  • Directs the commissioner and state board to review and comment on the plan, and directs the state board to make the designation unless the plan would likely result in lower academic achievement or would be fiscally unfeasible.
  • Requires the state board to provide a written explanation if it does not make the designation.
  • Directs the state board to grant any statutory and regulatory waivers requested in the plan for the district of innovation, however, certain statutes may not be waived by the state board.

I am afraid that the first line of this program would result in a collective paroxysm among members of the OEA and teachers union.  But without that type of true leadership, nothing will change.  An Innovation District would take the report from the educational technologist and go back to the classroom to find out why teachers are not using smartboards to their potential.  An Innovation district would encourage teachers to take risks using new technology to enhance learning.  An innovation district would arrange to have a district office to share exciting breakthrough in classroom learning with others and discuss ways in which those practices can be shared.  An Innovation District would make use of  Universal Design for Learning and find ways in which technology can be used to make  implicit understanding of subject matter, explicit and in a form that validates their accomplishments.  In an innovation district teachers would be treated as professionals and be rewarded for success.  An Innovation Zone and a  P-16 district would  be successful if they can go beyond tinkering which has been the case for far too long.  These ailing districts could use the help of Innovation MAN who talks about Innovation but has to be reminded of the most important step – Implementation.

That implementation will require the school bureaucracies to go outside the silo of Public Education and invite the business community to ask questions about how things are done. If the teachers are no using smartboards to their potential, where and or what is the obstacle preventing that? What is the quality of professional development currently offered by the State Educational Services Centers?

A really interesting challenge for the Governor and his advisers is – set up several Innovation Districts across the State.  Initiate a five-year competition to see which one can come up with some of the most cost-effective uses of open-source educational tools and demonstrate cost efficiencies and higher learning outcomes.  Financial incentives could be put into place to reward teachers and/or districts that can bring those innovations to scale.  I am sure many will take on that challenge.

A serious P-16 would challenge the community to ask the same questions posed by Richard Baramiuk of Rice University’s Connextions project, and make use of  technology about one simple issue such as text books and how we use them in schools.  Why not pose a challenge to this district to come up with an alternative to text books which currently cost a district approximately $800, per child per year.  What about challenging a school to become knowledge ecosystems and work with teachers to figure out how to conduct assessment.  A successful innovation district, pushed by a strong P-16 compact could possibly  re-engineer schools to respond to the needs of children and reinvigorate hope into too many communities where parents cry in frustration over schools that are outdated, mismanaged and leaving too many children without hope of achieving the skills they will need to usher in the next few decades.

If this happens, foundations will be ready to provide support.  This is the type of programming will have high impact.  Anything less is just more of the same and, quite frankly not worth an investment of private monies.  Foundation funding portfolios demonstrate that there are too many charter, private and faith based as well as promising online  courses that are meeting the needs of students far more than what the public system currently offers.

If Ohio is serious about stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship in its obsolete manufacturing system, it must make the same honest effort to do the same for innovation in education.  The results are likely to pay off just as well.

Family Philanthropy – How to Respond in the Economic Downturn

Imagine yourself a trustee of a charitable foundation. It is your job to collaborate with 11 other trustees to decide how to distribute charitable funds to organizations that have requested your support. In a typical year you would have $1 million to distribute but the requests this year amount to $2.5 million. All the organizations have proven themselves to be effective in contributing to the social and financial well being of some of the poorest citizens.  Your job is to choose how to distribute those dollars.

Your decisions will be informed by written analysis provided by competent program officers who have conducted all the “due diligence” on the organizations making sure the administration is solid, that the board is contributing to the operational expenses and that the financials are in order.

The meeting begins and you are informed that due to the economic collapse, the money you have to give out is reduced from $1 million this quarter, to a mere $350,000. You know that some of these organizations and the great programs they deliver will receive much less funding from you than in prior years. Other organizations will not likely survive because your past grants gave a credibility to them that enabled them to leverage funds from other foundations and some governments.

Included on the list are: The Second Harvest Food Bank (read their intro page)

Also, there  are several requests to support alternatives to failing public schools like those described in my favorite HBO series The Wire.

Given the crisis in education in public schools and knowing that each year thousands of  young people are lost, do you consider the request from  schools like those of the  Cristo-Rey network that are transforming the lives of children and families in inner city neighborhoods.   These schools like other faith-based receive no State support and will not survive without private individuals and  foundation support.  The total requested from four of these schools is $125,000.

In the Health and Social Services areas, there is  a request from  Providence House that provides a shelter for homeless women and their infants. They need a new roof on the building which costs $150,000.

Then there is the Youth Arts Program for schools.  Without the support of the foundation they will have to cut their artist in residency programs in schools.  Children in seven targeted  public schools will NOT get any exposure to art curriculum unless they get at least $50,000.

There is the Free Clinic, serving the needs of the ever-expanding number of medically uninsured and underinsured.   They have asked for $50,000 to assist with a pharmacy respository that will provide desparately needed medicines to those in need, especially the alarming number of uninsured patients with clinical mental illness.

Their counterpart, the Federally Funded Community Health Center lost out on a $700,000 federal grant they hoped to secure and must now ask for $250,000 to help them get through a cash flow challenge.

There are many other worthy organizations on the list.

So, how do you make your decisions?

Direct all money to the Second Harvest Food Bank that will provide another six months of food to hungry families? What about that great faith-based schools which over the past ten years accepted children from failing public schools and in one year provides remediation that gets them to grade-level reading and math. Ninety-eight percent of their children go to college whereas their friends who remain in the public schools drop out or fail to graduate and never get to college.

Do you direct all money to the free clincs to help the unisured.  What happens next year when they ask again but at increased levels?

Trustees at the foundation I work with will be faced with very similar situations when we meet. This will not be the first time difficult decisions are to be made, but the current economic climate has made it even more difficult.

Family foundations function under a  set of rules established by the Federal government and the Internal Revenue Service.  The States Attorney General has the duty to make sure the charitable institutions are registered and that they are complying with the federal regulations.  The State Attorney General has the power to revoke the charitable status of an organization.  If you are interested in the federal rules and regulations on foundations and nonprofits Marion Freemont-Smith’s book, Governing Nonprofit Organizations: Federal and State Law and Regulation,is by far the most comprehensive.

Briefly, the  government allows families of wealth to establish foundations as charitable entities .  Instead of going to the government as taxes, this money is invested in with managers and typically include a mixed portfolio that inclues equities (stocks) and fixed income (bonds).  Whereas taxes would collect the dollars and direct them to general funds for immediate needs, foundation dollars are invested with the hope that they would earn between 10 and 17% interest on the principal.  Rather than congressional representatives appropriating laws that will spend tax dollars, family foundations are overseen by  citizens who serve as stewards of these funds.  They are charged with allocating those funds, just as congressional representatives approve laws that allocate funds for many projects, including bridges to nowhere 🙂

The IRS is very specific about how these foundation funds must be directed.  For the most part only agencies that IRS determines to be charitable entieis are eligible recipients of foundation dollars.  There are exceptions for individuals but in all cases, the funds must be used for charitable purposed or to benefit the community at large.

As stewards the trustees must abide by the government rule that requires of minimum of 5% of the interest earnings on the endowment must be “paid-out” for the benefit of the community.  So, a family foundation with $100 million dollars must pay out an  minimum of $5 million year on a rolling average of three years.   Ninety-nine and 44/100% of family foundations I know take their job VERY seriously.  Distributing $5 million responsibly to worthy institutions is a complicated endeavor.  Doing it well requires time, research analysis.  There are a few stories of foolish and/or ignorant foundation trustees that misappropriated funds for their own enrichment.  The press loved those stories which resulted in an expensive and public witch hunt against foundations and people of wealth headed by a federal bureaucrat named Dean Zerby serving as  Sancho Panza to the quixotic and self-aggrandizing  Sen. Chuck Grassley.  Fortunately most legislators have realized the value philanthropy plays in this country and the punitive legislative responses by Sen. Grassley have subsided for the moment.

One useful way to understand how philanthropic decisions can be made by trustees of family foundations or by individuals for that matter is the Philanthropy Toolbox which I believe was developed out the Center on Philanthropy at University of Indiana.   The toolbox is really a spectrum of philanthropy that categorizes types of philanthropic giving.  I used the following slide show to demonstrate the types of giving.

Philanthropy Toolbox

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: civicfabric philanthropy)

The categories serve as headers and we “plot” all grant requests under each of the categories to get a sense of where the family is directing its giving.   This exercise allows the trustees to see where they have concentrated their giving over periods of time.  Of the organizations I described above, think of where you would place them among the categories within the toolbox.  The try to determine which request and category on the spectrum would give one organization priority over another.  Now you have entered the world of a family foundation trustee.

All the requests that come to the trustees for consideration are organizations that are doing great work and having positive impact on the lives of people they serve.   Decisions as to where to allocate funds and why can be personal and vary from one individual to another.  What makes foundations exciting places to work is that each person shares his or or reason for making the decisions they do.  the others listen to their points . Some agree and some don’t.  Debate is likely to ensue.  At the end of the meetings decisions are arrived not by secret ballot but by consensus.  On other occasions, I have described board meetings to be similar to deliberations by congressional delegations either federal or state.  Trustees are usually people of varying backgrounds and even level of wealth.  They range on the political spectrum and have deeply held passions.  Representatives from one generation often have points of view and interests that differ from their parents; so in many ways their portraits reflect the diversity of opinion, character and even race that one sees among citizens serving in elected office.  The image of foundation trustees as a homogeneous club of bow-ties and boiled wool is simply not true.  It is a miniature version of any civic organization gathered to enhance the common good.

The economic crisis is placing pressure on State, Federal and local governments budgets that have not been seen since the early 20th Century.  Scarce resources may place pressure on family foundations in the cross-hairs of government and question whether they and their endowments should continue to exist.  This is a challenging question that was discussed recently at a conference at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.  One of the sessions addressed the role of family philanthropy in a democratic society.  It is worth listening to the panel moderated by my colleague Lance Lindblom, Director of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

If you were to be part of the decisionmaking on the board, you would be reminded that the Federal government requires a minimum payout of 5%.  You and board could make a decision to pay well beyond the 5% minimum to meet the needs of the community in times of economic distress.  Of course one would need to balance generosity with prudence.  Anyone who creates a foundation must be an optimist by nature.  Doing so assumes that a carefully managed endowment will grow and will remain as an asset to draw upon to help those in need and, at times, support innovative and creative programs that challenge the status quo.  The two brothers Eric and Evan Nord who established the Nord Family Foundation were men of profound optimism and faith in the community.  They were known to say on many occasions, when the times are difficult the foundation has a responsibility to make sure it does not cut back on grantmaking, but be extra careful about directing funds that will have the greatest impact on the community.  Most importantly, the funding should challenge the larger community to give what they can – personal giving – that will help their neighbors.  With that in mind, I anticipate some of our grantmaking in the future will be challenge grants that will require others to give of themselves in either money or time.

Your decision to choose one group over the other is neither right nor wrong. Just the fact you bothered to read this far into the blog reflects your own interest in philanthropy and giving. Your thoughts of giving to benefit the lives of others honors not only those you consider, but yourself.  I leave you with a quote by Thomas Jefferson

The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world.

Foundation Support for Independent Schools – new opportunities for public school education

The publicity about the Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School shed light on the apparent contradiction of those who support public schools but elect to send their children to private schools.  I am sure this fact makes the Obama’s and others like them feel a bit defensive when attending parties.  In Oberlin, Ohio where I live, people who send their children to the independent school are literally shunned by those who keep their children in the public system.

One of the great challenges facing Independent schools, and the foundations that support them is how to make the excellent quality of education available to those outside the walls of these relatively small institutions.  The winter 2006 edition of Independent School, published by the National Association of Independent Schools gave voice to a growing number of members who struggle with perception that independent schools are institutions only for the elite. In an environment where the gap between wealthy families and poorer families grows, fewer middle class families are able to afford private school education. The quality of Independent School education, such as the institution I send my children (Lake Ridge Academy) can not be disputed. In fact trustees of  foundations tpically send their children to independent schools places like:   Noble and Greenough School, Heathwood Hall, Buckinham, Browne and Nicols and others of pedigree based on a history of quality education. Read the mission statments of any of them and compare that aspiration to those of public schools.  This reality presents an unease because these same trustees approve grants that try to improve the quality of public school education.  We all know that undertaking can have pockets of success but due to the enormity of the task of reform  rewards are elusive.

Faith-based schools such as Epiphany School, Nativity Prep, Arrupe Prep as well as non-denominational charter  KIPP schools. supported by the foundation I serve, offer the quality education that rivals the atmosphere, academic dicipline and values of  higher priced independent schools.  However these schools are expensive to maintain and require constant funding from private sources.  The State simply will not fund these entities.  In the case of KIPP and Charter Schools, the national discussion is typically met with a vitrol accompanied by public policies that keep State funding to a minimum.  Tacitly, the policy carries a hope  that charters will fail and, like apostates, will someday realize the waywardness of their action and return to the public school system as we know it.    That system of course is failing millions of children in the U.S. daily, but there remains no strategy to address that reality.

How can one make the quality of Independent School education available to families of the middle class and even children of low-income families has remained elusive.  D. Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School in Cleveland  suggested, “The benefits of having the broadest possible exposure to students with other backgrounds, races, ideas, and experience must be part of that education, and must include children from families in the bottom 50 percent of the socioeconomic tier.”

How can an independent schools do that when the availability of scholarship monies is limited? Technology provides answers.

Independent Schools can make better use of web-based technology to break down the walls of their institutions and make their curriculum available to a larger number of students.

The Harvard Crimson reported an innovative adaptation of SecondLife™ at Harvard University in 2006 whereby students at the Harvard Law School will co-learn with students at the Harvard Extension School – linking a divergent student body in a cooperative learning process.  Independent Schools can and should do the same thing with outreach to public schools.  Foundations can support these activites.

SecondLife offers very tremendously exciting  opportunities to explore how the quality of independent school education may be open to others who cannot afford a typical four-year education.  What can that look like? Check out the site that explains how Secondlife works for educators.

Independent schools can and should explore the possiblity of creating their schools in Secondlife and inviting their professors and other educators to work with selected students in a virtual envorinment.  This is particularly true of the children in the lower 50% of the economic tier Mr. Lowney mentions.

Phillips Exeter Academy is known for the Harkness Table.  This seminar-styled approach to high school education was developed in 1931 and invites young people to share thought together in a collaborative learning experience.  Why not re-create a Harnkess Table in Secondlife whereby children from schools across the country could benefit from this educational style and interact with students who typically will not have access to these inistitutions of privilidge.

The Burton D. Morgan Foundation in Hudson, Ohio funded one of the first business/entrepreneurship programs at the high school level to Lakeridge Academy.  The teachers developed a very fine curriculum which serves the 20 or so students in that program.  I can imagine a very interesting project where, for example students from the business/entrepreneurship at Lakeridge Academy participated in SecondLife with students from the E-City program and the related Entrpreneurship Academy or E-Prep in Cleveland. (E-Prep received a start-up grant from The Nord Family Foundation and continues to receive yearly operating support s0 I disclose my interest and passion for this great school). A project of this type would expand the number of people who share in the curriculum and widen the perspectives on what entrepreneurship means in the suburbs and what it means on “corners” in Cleveland.

Foundation should consider funding these types of projects as a means of opening quality education they can (and often do) provide their own children and to talented and able children attending failing public schools.

I have had the priviledge to get to know some of the people at The Center for Institutional Technology and Academic Computing (ITAC) .  This institution is currently supporing several innovative uses of Secondlife in the educational settings including pioneering work in the high school curriculum.

Although SecondLife has been tremendously successful in higher education, the potential for its use in high school settings has been thwarted because SecondLife restricts its users to a minimum age of 18.  Students under that age are pointed The Teen Grid.  It is the hope of many educators that someday soon, SecondLife and its creators at Linden Lab will  allow for less restrictive use by high school teachers.

Another very interesting organization to watch for application for Independent schools is the work of the remarkable Aaron Walsh at MediaGrid at Boston College.  This organizations provides high quality virtual environments that rival those of expensive interactive games.

Foundations that restrict themselves only to supporting projects in public education are selling themselves short by not opening themselves to exploring these new ways to blend independent school and public school education.  It is my experience that most independent school faculty would welcome this innovation to expand their educational mission to those outside their walls.

It is time the philanthropic sector open itself to this important discussion with colleagues from Independent and Public Schools.  For those unsure about all this, may I suggest reading a report published by the MacArthur Foundation’s and the Digial Youth Resesarch at U.Cal. Berkeley.  Great reading!

Philanthropys Challenge – College Success

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by the grantmaking affinity group called Grantmakers for Education. The meeting challenged colleagues from grantmaking institutions to think beyond College Access, i.e. programs that ensure high school students get in to colleges, and focus instead on College Success. College Success considers the number of students who not only get into college, but complete it. The line up of speakers was impressive by any measure bringing together some of the most serious thinkers in the area.

This is a problem in the NE Ohio and in other areas the Nord Family Foundation provides support. Lorain County Community College is one of Northeast Ohio’s treasures. Its University Partnership Program is a gateway to higher education that opens opportunity for students who would otherwise not have either the funding or the time to leave home to get a college degree. Dr. Church and LCCC board are examples of how American “can-do”, tenacity and focus can realize hope in a part of the world that sees economic challenge and hardship increasing every day. The unfortunate news however is that approximately 40% to 60% of the students entering LCCC are not prepared for college work. A good many are students coming from public schools but there is also an increasingly large adult population that is returning to school after time in the workforces.

This problem is not reserved for Lorain County or Northeast Ohio. It is a national problem found at other Community Colleges across the country. Jamie Meristosis of the Lumina Foundation for Education suggests there are two levels at the Community College level that challenges to the remediation issue. First is the challenge of unprepared public school students and secondly, the problem or adults returning to the workforce.

Foundations seem to focus on the first challenge as they try to play their role in improving public schools. My own involvement with the issue leads me to the analysis of public schools in inner cities provided by Christopher Barbic, founder and head of YES Prep Public Schools, “The system is broken. The way we provide public education to inner city kids in this country does then a great disservice.”

One of the featured speakers was Dr. Michael Kirst Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University. Check hise blog site. Unprepared high school students is is a focus of his research. pondered by Dr. Michael Kirst. His main topic was the dis-articulation between how learning takes place in high school, and what is expected of students when they begin college.

A GREAT review of the issue of remediation and its definition can be found at Crosstalk. In this article, Dr. Kirst addresses the issue of remediation and college preparedness in public schools saying,

College Success Begins in High School

More than 70% of high school graduates now go on to postsecondary education. Yet, a new study of high school student engagement reveals some major concerns about the level of college preparedness of those students. See Voices of Students on Engagement: A Report on the 2006 Survey of Student Engagement out of Indiana Univeristy School of Education.

Using a national sample of grades 9-12, the survey found that:

· Fewer than half of the students go to high school because of what happens within the classroom environment
· A great majority of students are bored every day, if not in every class
· 43% spend 0-1 hour doing written homework, 83% spend 5 hours or less
· 55% spend 0 or 1 hour per week reading and studying for class, 90% spend 5 hours or fewer
· Students want more active learning such as peer working groups and presentations
· Girls report being more engaged across all dimensions of high school engagement than boys. (Girls were 58% of 4 year college graduates in 2006).

Engagement within a high school context is about a student’s relationship with the school community (adults, peers, curriculum, facilities, etc). More importantly, however, Kirst states, ” I believe that this study should raise concerns that many of these high school students will become at-risk college students who will not experience college success for the very reason that they were not sufficiently engaged in high school.” posted by The College Puzzle at 4/01/2007

Dr. Kirst’s analysis gives pause to any grantmaker attempting to “reform” schools in this country. As more foundations and affinity groups envision schools that will prepare students to succeed academically and intellectually in college.

The challenge for philanthropy is I thin, to find places where true innovation in learning is taking place and challenge the school infrastructure to bring it to scale. We would do well to visit schools and find programs that foster student engagement. In my experience, these schools make innovative use of technology to enhance already good teachers. In many instances, finding such institutions is difficult. Innovations in schools is almost impossible because public schools have become risk-averse institutions. Schools are so focused on performing well on tests, that few teachers will take the time and fewer principles will take the risk of implementing programs that will risk having students not peform well on the tests. Philanthropy will continue to have a role to serve as informed voice against the unintended negative consequences of No Child Left Behind legislation.