Category Archives: policy

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.

From invention to innovation

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

– Harold Evans – former editor of the London Sunday Times

Innovation has become quite the bantered word in philanthropy. The Stanford Social Innovation Review has featured several articles on social innovation. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has dedicated a series of conferences to the challenge of scaling what works.

In too many cases, foundations fund creative programs initiated by nonprofit organizations which prove effective by many measures, but for reasons unknown to many, fail to be replicated in other communities. These are cases where inventiveness is not put to use. Knowing these efforts are more than mere pastimes, many in the philanthropic and nonprofit communities are beginning to ponder these issues.

The Innovator’s Way – Essential Practices for Successful Innovation by Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham is prominent in the business section at most book stores. Geared primarily to the business sector, the book is completely relevant to the nonprofit and foundation sector as well. The writers insist that an innovator can determine success when three factors converge:

Domain expertise – is your skill in the community of practice you aim to change.

Social interaction practices – is your skill at influencing others and mobilizing action around your ideas.

Opportunities – acknowledging that you cannot control your environment, but you can control how you engage with it. Successful innovators have a high sensitivity to people’s concerns and breakdowns, an ability that might be called “reading the world.”

I would argue that most foundations have – by their nature – all three elements for successful innovation. Their interaction with grantees sheds light on domain experience; successful staff members sense opportunities to read the world and convey that to trustees; and finally, the ability to convene people from sectors outside the ambit of the nonprofit world provides singular social interaction practices that can indeed bring “inventions” in the nonprofit world to scale.

The Nord Family Foundation has made several grants to support technological inventions that demonstrate improvements in the ways children and adults learn, as in the case of past support of CAST – The Center for Applied Special Technologies. Early support for this pilot program in Lorain County schools resulted in two highly successful products, the Thinking Reader™ and Science Writer™, which are software tools that embrace CAST’s highly successful Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pedagogy.

The foundation’s support to the Bellefaire Monarch School enabled computer programmers at Monarch’s commercial site (Monarch Teaching Technologies, Inc.) to pilot and refine the interactive software program Vizzle™ that is now being offered for an IPO. In March, Vizzle’s inventor wrote to us to let us know that Vizzle was now being implemented in twenty-eight schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District to help children with autism. Research shows that children with autism pay more attention and retain more of what they learn when lessons are presented interactively utilizing technology. Similarly, The Manila Times announced a significant Vizzle pilot program backed by the Philippines’ Department of Education. This news was reported in at least four Filipino daily papers.  Just last month, Vizzle was featured in Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Recognizing the potential Vizzle had to enhance the ability of special education teachers in public schools to improve their ability to work with the increasing number of autistic children in schools, the Nord Family Foundation trustees approved a grant to the Joshua School in Denver. Joshua School focuses entirely on autistic children and, like the Monarch School in Cleveland, is a personalized but very expensive program. Families without the ability to pay the $20,000 tuition ($60,000 at Monarch) are left to fend on their own. Joshua School, in collaboration with Monarch, provides the program and training for public school teachers. In Denver, public school special education teachers from around the state come to Joshua to learn Vizzle.

This is just one example of how the foundation took an invention in Cleveland and helped bring it to scale nationwide and seed it internationally. That is the essence of inventiveness – a legacy for which this family is both familiar and proud.

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 Race to the Top – The Experience in Ohio

In 2010, The Nord Family Foundation provided support for the Ohio Grantmakers Forum’s (OGF) education initiative making this the third year for such support.  Trustees were provided a detailed report on the role The Nord Family Foundation played in participating in the state-wide stakeholders meetings which resulted in the 2009 publication of, Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.

In 2010, OGF has taken a very active role in working with the Governor’s office and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) in order to secure a potential $400 million in Race to the Top (RTT) funding from the Federal Government.

Ohio was not selected in the first round of applicants for the highly competitive Race to the Top competition.  When the initial request for proposals (RFP) came out, OGF urged ODE to conduct more outreach and stakeholder involvement and encouraged ODE to make use of the working  group teams that had already been assembled for Beyond Tinkering.  ODE made a decision to go it alone.

The first-round application process was not transparent.  Members of the State Legislature asked to see drafts, but this request was denied.  Not surprising, this alienated many in the State Legislature especially from the Republican minority whose endorsement was required by the Feds.  ODE found the process overwhelming given the short timeline.  Its effort to “manage” the process was disastrous.  Ohio went into the competition in Washington in fourth place, based on preliminary criteria.  After the March 2010 presentation in DC, Ohio went from 4th to 10th place among 16 competing states.  Even a phone call from President Obama’s office to put this important swing state into priority was ignored.  It was that bad.

ODE and the Governor’s office justified the lack of transparency claiming they were worried about information leaking out because it was a competitive process. Quite frankly, this is the way they do business at ODE.   The legislature, Governor’s office and the ODE had a field day of finger –pointing.

At this point, OGF once again offered assistance to the Governor’s office stating that without its expertise they would not be successful in Round 2.  The Cleveland Foundation, Gund Foundation, KnowledgeWorks and Martha Holden Jennings Foundations pooled funds allowing OGF to hire a consultant whose prior experience was with the Tennessee RTT application (Tennessee was one of the states to receive RTT funding in the first round.  The Governor demanded that ODE work with the consultant and be more open to stakeholder involvement and input.

OGF’s activities in preparing the application for Round 2 of the Race to the Top application:

1.       The first effort was to help the ODE and the Governor’s office manage communication with the legislature and conduct meaningful outreach with the stakeholders who had been involved with the Beyond Tinkering activities. (These included philanthropy, and organizations like the State School Board Association, the Ohio Teachers Union, district superintendents and teachers (novel thought!) and social service agencies.

2.       OGF partnered with KIDSOhio and tasked specifically for producing regular and accurate information to the legislators, including House and Senate Republicans for their input to the application.

3.       Race to the Top Application Progress Summaries were sent to all stakeholders to keep them informed. Several stakeholder meetings were convened by OGF in service to the Governor’s office.

In August 2010, Ohio was awarded a Race to the Top grant of $400 million to improve education.  It is interesting to note the emphasis on including successful charter schools in eligibility for support.  Another Nord Family Foundation grantee, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) has played a critical role in ensuring the quality of charter school certification and training in the State.  Last month, OAPCS sponsored a state-wide event in which State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Deborah Delisle acknowledged the critical importance OAPCS plays in improving the quality of education in Ohio.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised OAPCS for its innovative seminar called The Ohio Alliance Conference on Collaborative Practices focused on shared learning between traditional public and charter schools.

Lesson learned:

Changing a huge entity like public education is an enormous undertaking requiring focus, discipline and determination.

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.

Philanthropy and Educational Change – Where is the outrage?

As members, trustees and staff of a The Nord Family Foundation, we have the incredible opportunity to travel to conferences and hear some of the world’s civic leader’s talk about their work. More often than not, I return to Lorain County, inspired by what I have heard and ready for action. Few people in the nonprofit and social sector have the budget or time that allows them to hear these great speakers. I think it is very important for foundations to fund programs that bring challenging speakers to their communities. In the schooling sector, few teachers have the time or money or incentive to travel to hear great thinkers in education. We are trying to change that.

In October, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Howard Fuller address a luncheon crowd on the subject of real educational opportunity especially for children in economically stagnant communities. Dr. Fuller is currently the Director for the Institute for the Transformation of  Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Prior to that position, Dr. Fuller served as Superintendent of Milwaukee Schools from 1991-1995. Dr. Fuller describes the school system he stepped into.. “First the high schools were a mess. I wanted to restore discipline and safety in high schools. I also wanted to decentralize authority and funds. I wanted to revamp the curriculum. I also wanted to give parents options for their kids’ education.” During his four-year tenure, Fuller put a rigorous curriculum in place, developed school-to-work programs, decentralized budgetary authority, and made schools responsible for their own students’ achievements. Fuller’s programs led to increasing attendance rates and elevated reading and standardized test scores. Fuller also became a vocal proponent of charter schools and voucher programs. As Fuller explained to School Reform News, “What we’re trying to do is create a situation where there can be some advantage for those parents who most need an advantage: the parents whose children now are forced to stay in schools that simply are not working for them.” He called this issue of quality education the last great Civil Rights challenge facing this country. The audience response to his talk was a five-minute round of applause.

I shared the luncheon table with Dr. Fuller and his wife who is former Superintendent of Detroit Schools. I asked if he would be interested in speaking with teachers and students in Lorain County. He said he would love to.

With discretionary dollars and financial help from both Oberlin College and the Community Foundation of Greater Lorain County, we are able to bring Dr. Fuller to Lorain. He was the keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting luncheon for the Lorain County Urban League and the next day addressed a group of teachers, school superintendents from Lorain County and Cleveland School Districts. He later spoke with students at the Oberlin Public Schools.

He spoke with passion and inspiration at both sessions. He states very openly that the current system for educating inner-city children does not work. “We need to think of a system to educate the public and break out of the mindset that we call the public education system which by with its bureaucracy and teachers unions is choking the life of young people and their families in cities across America. “

He challenged school leaders to embrace the rapid and unprecedented changes in learning that technology is providing students. Mobile phone applications, virtual games and the exploding number of online schools will force the old system to change. Educational leaders must realize that unless they are willing to change, the systems will be unable to support them.

Dr. Fuller’s comments were met with high enthusiasm. The luncheon crowd at the Urban League brought people to their feet with another five-minute applause. Dr. Marcia Ballinger, Vice President of the Lorain County Community College declared that in the history of the Spitzer Conference Center there has never been a more inspirational speaker. Many people have written and/or phoned me to thank the Foundation again for making his visit possible.

A week after Dr. Fuller’s visit, the front page of the Lorain Morning Journal announced that more than 200 positions will be eliminated due to the district’s $9 million deficit. Cleveland Public Schools face laying off more than 650 union workers. Meanwhile, the fact is that 69% of Cleveland residents are functionally illiterate (reading at between 4-6 grade levels) and some of its most blighted neighborhoods this statistic climbs as high as 95% according to the Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change.

The U.S. Department of Labor, estimates that literacy problems cost U.S. businesses about $225 billion a year in lost productivity. (Ohio Literacy Resource Center.)  There are signs of hope, I suppose but pressure from the Federal Government is important.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 19, 2010 reports,

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, D.C., predicts considerable gains in urban students’ achievement but says the improvement won’t result from options alone. Another key, he said, will be using student achievement data to plan instruction and providing schools with training to execute successful approaches.

Prodded by the Obama administration, districts are pressing for use of data to evaluate, assign, fire and pay teachers, And unions, with jobs in jeopardy because of the economy, are showing signs of acquiescing.

Policy groups, concerned about who goes when the budget ax does fall, have begun to take aim at seniority rights. Casserly said that will be a tougher fight.

Dr. Fuller is particularly hard on the adults who are involved in the school unions.  He asks, “…is this about the children or about adults trying to save jobs.  What other group of professionals would band together to thwart innovation in their areas?  Do lawyers, Doctors, Accountants have unions?  Why do unions which were once progressive institutions that fought for rights of teachers, especially female teachers back in the early 20th century turn to become regressive and insular institutions protecting themselves.”   These were hard questions for the audience to hear but to my surprise, most people thought his questions were completely fair.

The video below is a recording of a talk in Denver which captures much of what he had to say to the leaders in Lorain County.  I just wonder sometimes if  we in philanthropy are guilty of the “….talk, talk, talk,”  Dr. Fuller alludes to.  We have a lot of political will but back off when our advocacy could be too controversial for school union leaders and/or State bureaucracies.  Like Dr. Fuller, I too wonder where is the outrage?  Enjoy the video and I welcome comments.

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!!

What can Foundations do to support Online Learning – The Case of Ohio

One of the most intelligent people in philanthropy is Terry Ryan at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Dayton, Ohio . Terry has been a leader in our professional meetings challenging the State to address the proliferation of online learning and its impact, not only in Ohio but across the country. I find myself agreeing with Terry on many of these issues and it my hope that more people in philanthropy will engage in this important question with us.

An increasing number of education and business experts are documenting that the second-wave of computer technology along with adaptations of social software will transform the way “schooling” and “teaching” take place. Online learning, e-learning, e-schools, virtual schools, and cyber-schools are all terms that refer to the phenomena of using online approaches to educate children. Over the past decade, there has been an explosive growth in the use of online learning opportunities across the country and across Ohio. States have seen the growth of stand-alone online schools as well as online programs connected to traditional schools and school support groups like state departments of education and county educational service centers.

As of the fall of 2008:

• 17 states offer significant supplemental and full-time online options for students;

• 23 states offer significant supplemental opportunities, but not full- time opportunities;

• 4 states offer significant full-time opportunities, but not supplemental;

• 34 states offer state-led programs or initiatives to work with school districts to supplement course offerings; and

• 21 states have full-time online schools (often charters, but also district-operated schools that operate statewide).ii

The Florida Virtual School, for example, is an online school built and operated by the Florida Department of Education that has seen course enrollment grow dramatically, from 77 at its 1997 inception to 113,900 course enrollments in the 2007-08 school year. In Ohio, more than 24,000 students attend online schools, based online rather than in school buildings. Thousands of others take some of their courses online while at their traditional schools.

Indeed, this is the fastest growing segment of the new schools’ sector in Ohio and many other states.  Ohio now has it’s own Ohio Virtual Academy for K-12 and the State is uncertain how to respond.   It is clear that the power of information and communication technologies and online learning to improve and customize learning for children is accelerating. If this sector is encouraged in coming years, it will lead to powerful educational innovations, including exciting partnerships between classroom-based instruction and online learning, and increased 24/7 learning opportunities for Ohio’s children. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that “50 percent of all courses in grades 9-12 will be taken online by 2019.”

Online learning opportunities are expanding rapidly because they offer much promise. Full-time online learning opportunities provide an outlet to traditional classroom-based instruction for parents seeking greater customization of learning opportunities for their children. It can also facilitate a parent’s involvement in their child’s education. These programs, done well, offer new learning opportunities for children and a place for parents to turn if they and/or their children are unhappy with the education provided by their traditional school. These programs can also be important supplements for what traditional schools do and provide significant support to classroom teachers. An additional promise of online learning is its potential to help students access rigorous courses and highly qualified teachers despite their location (e.g., rural areas, hard to staff urban schools, or home-bound children). Internet-based learning models remove geographic, physical, and time barriers to learning allowing successful models to expand rapidly.

My colleagues at the KnowledgeWorks Foundation have put together and very impressive video that challenges every educational administrator and teacher serving in the today’s educational sector.  The question to any educational professional viewing this presentation is  to gauge your immediate reaction to the video – Does it scare you? or Does it present exciting challenges to you in how you and those who follow you will continue in the “profession” of teaching?

As with any disruptive organizational change efforts to align online learning to the traditional system are not without controversy.  For example, there is wide variation in the quality of K-12 full-time online learning schools, and some are poorly designed and deliver un-challenging lessons. Others offer little personal attention to children who need it.   Look at the successful marketing frenzy of RosettaStone™ and its move to online language learning.  Some cash-strapped districts such as those in New Jersey and Virginia, are eliminating their high school language departments and replace it with this product in the naive attempt to get on-boad the technology boom.

Despite the growth in online learning there is little research available that measures program quality and rigorous research has yet to be released that informs us what types, and under what conditions, online programs work best. Promising practices have been identified, but more is unknown than is known.

At the same time, legislators have introduced a bill to create a new “distance learning pilot program.” It would offer AP courses via teleconferencing equipment to every Ohio high school, thereby providing access to classes that students wouldn’t otherwise have because those classes are too costly for their schools to provide. Given the state’s potential for terminating a large chunk of Ohio’s extant online learning community while at the same time promoting online learning via other measures, the time is at hand to identify promising initiatives that can be supported, replicated, and scaled up.

Another video, produced by teachers in the system presents us with additional challenges related to the urgency online learning presents to anyone in the educational sector.

One of the teachers presents the following challenge

One of the things I think we have to ask ourselves as school leaders is ‘What’s our moral imperative to prepare kids for a digital, global age?’ Right now we’re sort of ignoring that requirement. . . . I think you would take a look at much of what we do in our current schooling system and just toss it and essentially start over. So the question for school leaders and for policymakers is ‘How brave are you and how visionary are you going to be?’ And you don’t even have to be that visionary. Just look around right now and see the trends that already are happening and just project those out and see that it’s going to be a very different world.

This is the urgency I would like to see propelling the Educational Innovation Zones I spoke about in the previous post. The problem with this video is that it talks about innovation in learning but it continues to take place within a public school “system” as we know it. My read indicates that they are talking about new ways of learning but pouring new wine into the proverbial old skins. The video still pans on aging schools and kids doing their computer work in some type of lab but in reality, even the spaces in which learning take place, will change the way we construct schools. I refer to the example of the architectural innovation in the Seattle Public Library.

Philanthropy has a role to push this challenge to the established educational bureaucracy in this country to help change the system. Specifically, Philanthropy can provide a unique role in working with teachers to help them reshape their role in this new and changing environment. There are many examples of that and I will offer them up in the next post.