Category Archives: Social Software

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.

Thoughts on a P-16 Education Compact – a case study

P-16 structural realities that concern me about its likelihood of success in an Ohio community

In recent months there has been great fanfare in my area with the launch of a P-16 compact that promises to revitalize education in this fair county of 280,000 people and 14 separate school districts!

The reaction from this  funders perspective is a mixture of skepticism and excitement. The skepticism is grounded in a seeming lack of true innovation proposed in anything the P-16 projects propose. The excitement lies in the opportunity that could be for a truly innovative P-16 that links the focus and energy of a region-wide push to create innovation in the business and government with education. The opportunity is great and presents funders with exciting investment potential. Those investments should be made with the same scrutiny and vetting that any new business innovation would undergo with a venture capitalist. In this time of scare economic resources, it is morally imperative for foundations to hold the education sector to the highest demands for quality programming.

For those interested in the P-16 programs, I recommend a publication by Dennis McGrath, PhD for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation called Convergence as a Strategy and as Model, linking P-16 Education Reform to Economic Development, published in 2008. The article is an excellent overview of the various P-16 programs launched in Ohio. It provides a comprehensive overview of elements that are exciting but also raise concern for the alert reader.

The author describes P-16 as a

…little understood but vital trend developing in and throughout Ohio.” The article promises that P-16 will serve the communities by, “promoting entrepreneurship and strengthening the education skills of residents (which are) vital to the economic security and well-being of their communities….and must be coordinated with workforce development and the creation of career pathways.

Coordination gives me pause because we have seen too often in education, that coordination translates in to tighter control and increased standardization of learning assessment.

On further reading,  it becomes evident that the P-16 is really a variation on the “workforce development” initiatives launched through the public education network about ten years ago. What is unclear to me is whether P-16 and officials who drive its implementation, envision a workforce that in the 19th century was prepared to take orders in a factory, or will have the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to collaborate on work-teams and communicate new ideas with colleagues and superiors.

I worry that institutionalized education will respond to the latter rather than the former because those driving the bus are used to one way of doing things. My skepticism is rooted in my experience with Ohio Stakeholders, especially those representing the established educational infrastructure (ODE), (OFT) and to a certain extent the Ohio Board of Regents who despite the larger community’s demand for innovation and reform in education – focus their attention on “tinkering” with a system that is clearly overly standardized and not meeting the “customers” need for diversity in learning, in assessment and even type of knowledge acquisition. In this case the customer is parents, students and colleges and universities.

Frederick M. Hess’ book The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship – Possibilities for School Reform contains a chapter entitled, “Attracting Entrepreneurs to K-12that addresses the factors that contribute or detract from true innovation in learning particularly in public schools,

Two unique aspects of the culture of education are also worth noting as constraints on the flow of entrepreneurial talent into the field – one that affects “outsiders” and one that affects “insiders.” Outsiders face the fact that public education’s hiring patterns favor people who have worked there way up the system in the conventional fashion – namely, by becoming a teacher and then an assistant principal and/or principal, and so on. According to a RAND study, for example, 99 percent of school principals had been teachers means that individuals seeking to break into the education industry from other sectors are working against convention. P.52.

The P-16 claims to be  successful because of its ability to produce “convergence” i.e. community conversations that include the business sector, foundations, churches other social service organizations. My fear is that unless the convergence happens on the terms of those invested in the public system, change will not occur. In our county, this Foundation invested more than $4 million in a Center for Leadership in Education which, when established in 1994, had goals similar to those expressed by P-16. The CLE was part of a then, national move, pushed by the Annenberg Challenge of the Annenberg Foundation, to create such centers where private money would be used to establish centers for help reform public schooling. More than 15 years later, the majority of these private institutions struggled due to a lack of full buy-in from the public school systems, and later by competing goals by State established Educational Service Center.

As foundations are approached to fund P-16, they would do well to read all the evaluation reports of the Annenberg and similar foundations that chronicle the difficulty of transforming public schools. Are we simply re-inventing the wheel with P-16? The only change is that the public system is in charge and controlling the agenda.

I am not overly optimistic about P-16 producing an breakthrough in innovative thinking on education and learning. I remember taking part in a community-wide discussion with teachers, superintendents and community leaders. The question on the table was “what does it take to create an adequate school system. I was rather vocal in expressing my concern that the question was not “what does it take to create an excellent school system.” I was told we had to work with what we had.

I will never forget that community session. In the business world or in the medical world what company leader or head of a hospital would tolerate a discussion about creating an “adequate” company or health care institution, yet we allow that to take place in education.

The hope for P-16 in a economically struggling community

I have expressed my concerns, but I need to shift to what I think are exciting possibilities for a P-16.

To start, the P-16 program has been spearheaded by Dr. Roy Church who is a remarkably successful leader in that he has created one of the most robust community colleges in the country. The Lorain County Community College has an impressive variety of educational options for young and adult learners and has a broad menu of career path and training options for residents of this county. LCCC has been the site of the successful early-college program which, in collaboration with the Gates Initiative and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. (The Governor of Ohio has threatened to cut funding for this successful program in favor of supporting traditional P-12 programs.)

The LCCC has emerged as one of the engines of economic development in this former “rust-belt” community by creating two centers to promote and stimulate business entrepreneurship. The Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise (GLIDE) and the Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute (EII) are arguable two of the most impressive incubators for business development in the region. Note the two words Innovation applies to creating new businesses to respond to economic crisis. I have not seen the word Innovation used as the community responds to the educational crisis.

In my mind, a successful P-16 compact would move beyond the palaver about convergence and community sounding sessions. Given its structure for administration and community input, the effort has all the potential of being nothing more than a solipsistic exercise. I would see a P-16 that not only focuses on public schooling as we know it, but embraces serious examination of the many new innovations in education that combine different use of technology and teacher time. Programs that encourage student focused learning. Also, the current public system cannot abide honest and frank discussion with charter schools. Furthermore, there appears to be little tolerance for discussion about how to integrate the elements of successful private and/or faith based schools such as Cristo Rey Schools, the Nativity Schools as well as schools such as the E-prep Academy in Cleveland. Finally Lorain County has one of the best independent schools in the region – Lakeridge Academy. This school is one of several independent schools in NE Ohio that are known for academic excellence and producing students of high caliber and integrity. For the Press, and community leaders, conversation takes place as if these institutions did not exist. I have even heard some people suggest the country would be better if these institutions shut down.

This foundation has provided support to many of the schools mentioned above.  Careful scrutiny of their programs, site visits to the schools and solid outcome data demonstrate to us, these schools are successful,  especially in urban areas, transforming lives of entire families by providing quality education. Why can a community not ask why these schools are able to remediate children from failing public schools in less than a year. Why do these same schools boast 90% college acceptance and more importantly – college completion rates!

Why can’t these schools as well as emerging online programs be invited into the process of innovation in public education. Instead of condemning charter schools why not look at them in the same way a leader in business will look at innovation to improve the company’s product or develop an entirely new line.  I would argue that the nature of the public school system does not allow teachers to engage in meaningful discussions with principals and superintendents to even ask the right questions about where education is going.  Instead the focus is on grades and reports and data. Teachers no longer feel challenges to practice and art of teaching but instead to conform to some rigid standard to produce pro-scribed results.

Northeast Ohio has been lauded by the likes of The Wall Street Journal for the truly collaborative accomplishments of philanthropy with the business sector. The Fund for Our Economic Future is a three-year project that resulted in philanthropy coming together to work with companies to form and support early-stage capital investment in new and exciting businesses in energy, biotechnology and manufacturing. The Fund has proven success in spawing several non-profits such as Jumpstart, Bioenterprise and Nortech which, in turn have fostered development of several promising businesses. Lorain county has pushed this region-wide effort through Team Lorain County whose leverage of State and Federal economic revitalization dollars have resulted in the IIE and GLIDE.

Suppose the P-16 Compact in this region were to harness the that same innovative spirit and apply it to education. The economic reality has shown this region that the old way of doing business has changed forever and will not return. In response the community has adapted brilliantly. The education reality in the county, especially the urban areas also has proven that the old way of doing education is not working and needs to be rethought and injected with a spirit of innovation.

A really exciting P-16 would take inventory of what the market is doing anyway, and demand that tax dollars, earmarked for public education be redirected to products and programs that are known to work in other settings. A sincere P-16, linked to two centers for innovation would set up offices to implement programs – proved effective in a non-public school structure, and look to see how this “product” can improve and/or replace the old. Authors, Joseph Keeney and Daniel Pianko pose a question that any credible P-16 in an area truly looking for innovation needs to ask:

…are there concrete models from outside education that could be employed by government or philanthropies to attract and leverage private investment in K-12. Specifically – in order of formality – an a prize (or pay for performance) model that is increasingly being used in philanthropy, and angel capital model like the Department of Defense’s Venture Catalyst Initiative (“DeVenCI”); and a traditional venture-capital co-investment model like the Central Intelligence Agency’s In-Q-Tel.

Suppose a Community College and a Innovation Zone were to demand that the Governor create an Innovation District allowing the schools leverage to implement exciting technologies that are proving effective in learning. (See the work of Constance Steinkulher at U. Wisconsin on the positive impact gaming has on education outcomes for urban youth).  That zone (perhaps established at the LCCC) would lift all barriers to school innovation including contracting, labor contracts and technological restrictions to create an open environment for educational programming in Lorain Schools.

The P-16 needs to look at the market and what is catalyzing capital investment in education. Imagine an Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center that housed regional affiliates of programs such as:

Teach for America,KIPP SchoolsAchievement FirstYesPrep High Tech High and The New Teacher Project and allowed these programs to set up programs within Lorain County schools.  The teachers union and school board would become apoplectic at first, but if P-16 were to establish benchmarks for success and offered to compare them to typical public school outcomes would in effect set a competition for success and raise the bar.

Since much of the success in schools depends on the often overlooked area of professional development and teacher training, suppose a center for innovation included programs such as Building Excellent Schools or, New Leaders for New Schools and house these organizations in the same edifice with the Educational Services Center.  Put them in the same edifice as one would see at the Entrepreneurship Institute or Jumpstart and see how the culture of professional development changes.  State funding for professional development to the ESC is in the area of $900,000 a year.  Imagine a situation where, with the buy-in and support from the P-16 those dollars were distributed to organizations like those named above based on performance outcome and innovation.  That would be a very different scenario from the one envisioned by the Knowledgeworks publication.  It is also one that would meet with incredible resistance from the entrenched powers of the educational bureaucracy that by its nature serves  as the primary barrier to innovation in education.

Rather than being seen as the enemy, a P-16 community would invite the challenge posed by Kim Smith of the New Schools Venture Fund as posted on Academic Earth.

P-16 is a great idea conceptually.  To be truly innovative, those that believe in creating schools that will work can only do so by opening the doors to creativity and innovation and borrow from success in the business sector.  I fear it cannot be done as long as P-16 is driven by the public education sector.  The public education sector – with its drive to standardize a profession which really should be an art has created a system that does not validate the creativity of individual teachers but dumbs them down into cogs that do their job to push out statistics which happen to be yours a my children. More on that in the next blog post.

As far as convening the community to focus on developing so-called 21st century skills once again, I fear the focus on workforce development and standards does not address the larger challenges youngsters will face in the next decades.  Not asking the right questions will have terrible results.  If you have the time view this amazing lecture by Physician Dr. Patrick Dixon to an audience at the National Association of Independent Schools. After viewing it, ask yourself if you think we are asking the right questions.

I suggest that any foundation – be it community foundation, private foundation or corporate asked to support a P-16 collaborative hold public officials responsible for demanding innovation that goes beyond tinkering we have seen with far too many public school efforts. True innovation will require breaking down barriers that exist which prevent truly innovative thinkers and practitioners from sharing public  tax dollars that shore up far too many ineffective school districts and professional development programs.  Philanthropy has a responsibility to raise the bar and require the public in general to hold educational leaders responsible for creating an environment that will respond to the needs of divergent learning and quality education for all.

I welcome comments from those in the system and those who are simply interested.

Philanthropy, Politics and the "Religion" of Public Schools

Many of my previous posts have chronicled my involvement in the Ohio Grantmakers Forum’s efforts to gather input from “multi-stakeholders” who,  in some way, influence education in the State of Ohio.  The result is a publication for the Governor which I have talked about.  Several weeks since the publication the blow-back has begun to be felt.  The Governor received input from several other constituency groups but none as diverse as OGF’s.   In my opinion, the most promising recommendations from our report were not included, but more on that later. I would like to post a few thoughts on this interesting process.  The experience revealed many interesting interactions between politics, philanthropy and school-think.

First, it is now very evident to me that dealing with public school is analogous to dealing with institutional religion.  The good comes with the bad.  The battles are as intense and based in “belief” systems that, at times defy rational thought – and data.  Discussion can be stopped by strong convictions by the faithful who are convinced they have a corner on truth.  Such is the case in religion, and so it is -(I find) with devotees of public schooling.    People I have met who defend public schools defend their belief with the zeal of converts.  And as Shakespeare once said, “An overflow of converts – to bad.”    It is my experience that when I or anyone else offers a critique of “the public school system” the comments are tolerated at best but received with a low growl making me feel as if I an uttering heresy against the tenants of “public schooling.”  In Lorain County, where I live, my questioning of public schooling was met with the ultimate salvo – “Union-buster!” uttered by a university professor who teaches “education.”     Given the permissions that power and control offer, criticism of public schooling as we know it are often met with undertones of threat that can only be launched by those who are certain that what they are defending is true.  Such people make it very difficult for political leaders and for foundations to make any real impact on changing education.  I often think this is what it must be like for a neutral politician having to introduce political reform with mullahs in Iran.  So, I have come to learn that one must take small steps when trying to influence education policy – especially when representing an institution that has a large endowment and which, has the ability to exercise some political influence as well.  It is an intricate dance.

It is probably no surprise to discover that foundation personnel can bring their own beliefs about public schooling to the table when providing advice to political leaders.   In my opinion foundations should try very hard to base their policies on evidence and knowledge drawn from evaluation of projects they have funded.  That is the only authority by which they can contribute to political discourse.

In the field of philanthropy, there is no consensus as to how to support public schooling in the United States.  There are people and organizations that can tend to attract people of similar mind-set and experience.  Grantmakers for Education is a great organization that supports foundations that support a variety of projects.  GFE tends to attract foundations that are sincerely interested in reforming public education as we know it.  There have few  sessions addressing the future of education and influence in alternative ways of learning – although that is changing.  Philanthropy Roundtable is a fantastic organization that attracts a more conservative group of funders.  Roundtable hosts regional programs and site visits to innovative schools that tend to be charter and sometime voucher schools.  It would be fair to say that the Roundtable members would be more likely to support alternative educational business models that demonstrate success in learning.

In many ways, philanthropy and those who work in it, reflect the diversity of opinion held by the general public.   Personal belief can influence objectivity when philanthropy begins to take on policy as an organized front.  There, we need to exercise supreme caution.   As alluded to above, I have come to the realization that offering critique of public education is as dangerous as critiquing  a person or group’s religious beliefs.  There is a strong cultural aesthetic that if pushed too far, could have negative repercussions for the sector.  So again, caution is offered and here’s why.

The American public generally believes  in the universal access to education espoused by the founders of this Republic.  It should – universal education in the U.S. is the reason why the democratic experience has worked for 250 years.  Over the years, that concept has been institutionalized in a public schooling system which is as much a part of the American aesthetic experience as churches.  The variety of ways in which education is expressed has been the “public school” – typically a brick building with a flag on the front lawn, run by principals who lord over the function of the teachers in classrooms.  There is equal diversity about how the actual curriculum should be conducted and assessed.  The storm around the barrage of testing NCLB has produced is only one example of what and how assessment can take place.    That’s the way it has been for years and that is the way many people would like it to remain.  Public schools have a romanticized aesthetic to it that includes yearbooks, proms and most importantly sport’s teams.  Films like  like Hoosiers, and Television shows like Friday Night Lights celebrate the American aesthetic experience of high school by romanticizing stories of public schools and the role they play in the civic life of the community.  This is American public schools as believers see it, much like Bing Crosby’s role as Father O’Malley in  The Bells of Saint Mary’s romanticized but served as the iconic representation of the ideal of the Catholic Church in the 1940’s.  Hoosiers does not capture the agony of union disputes nor does the Bells of St. Mary’s capture alcohol or sex abuse that ran parallel to the aesthetic.  Probably one of the most relevant films on the role of public schools and their place in the community was the recent series by NOVA on the battle over intelligent design. (A must see).

My frustration withGovernor Strickland’s plan to change public schooling in Ohio is that he seems to be bowing to the romanticized notion of what public schools  should be.   I mentioned that he got advice from many constituencies with huge influence from leaders in the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Federation of Teachers .  Let us not forget that these two entities represent strong voting blocks and as such, a group any political leader does not necessarily want to alienate.  The problem is the ODE and the OFT are entrenched entities that have an interest in maintaining power and control over the way the educational system is run.  Much like the Roman curia or a Houses of Bishops, mullahs or any other gathering of “elders,”  this organization will not only justify but its reason to control how public schooling is shaped but it will also fight if need be.  Retribution can be fierce and good lawyers can be hired to contest any opposition.  Much like a religious hierarchy, the structure needs to maintain strong vertical reporting structures.  Control is easily maintained with a unified understanding and approach to the religious teaching.  Organizations of this type cannot handle diversity of opinion and clearly have no room for experimentation.

I have found that the ODE, the OFT and even some program officers in philanthropy can thwart innovative programming by making appeals to what I call  the god of research.  Clearly there is a need to have solid research around quality programming.  In fact there is too little research funded by philanthropy as indicated in the last chapter of Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class.  The problem I see however is that too much of the education research suffers from what Ellen Gondfliffe Langemann writes in her book An Elusive Science – The Troubling History of Education Research

I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that the most powerful forces to have shaped educational scholarship over the last century have tended to push the field in unfortunate directions – away from close interactions with policy and practice and toward excessive quantification and scientism. p ix.

The Governor had an opportunity to implement some truly innovative programs that could launch education in Ohio into the 21st century appears to have caved  to the zealots of public schools who are more comfortable with 19th century schooling because they know it and can control it.   His policies to shut down on charter schools, eliminate “early-college” programs  and to focus on improved testing looks to me like a reactive attempt by the State to clamp down on opposition and innovation and demand conformity to thought and ultimately this idea of public schools.  Much of this is fueled by an important voting block – the Ohio Teacher Union.  Some of it supported by program officers who tend to favor quantified educational data before making a move.   I think that is an easy out allowing people to hold back  support for innovative programs that diverge from the public school norm.  In reality hiding behind data can be interpreted as an attempt to appeal to the power brokers like School Superintendents of large metropolitan areas, State Superintendents of Schools and ultimately Governors.

To me, the action from the Governor’s mansion  looks like the Vatican and its need to control uniformity of thinking with little tolerance for oppositional thinking.  (Women’s ordination, liberation theology, contraception, even teaching faculty at catholic universities are only a few of the issues that have met with little tolerance on the part of the curia).  This administration cannot tolerate any innovative change in education that takes place outside the paradigm and control of the State Department of Education and the Board of Regents.

Just as theists accept the proposition that God exists, so too public school devotees posit that public schools (which is different from public schooling), should and must exist for the benefit of the community.  How that concept of public schools is expressed is as varied as they way Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and all other religions develop aesthetic.  Each has an aesthetic and iconography based on their respective interpretations of what the word of god means to them and their followers.  The analogy can easily flip to the area of education where there is certainly no unanimity of thought about how learning can and should take place.  Just read my previous post called “Philanthropy, Education and Class -what are we thinking?” which discusses the work of. Dr. Kusserow on how class affects parents educational expectations for their childrens education and the people who teach them.

Elected officials have an ostensible allegiance to the voting constituency who put them in office but politicians must also appeal to general consensus if they want to be reelected.   They must also figure out how to raise the general public to act out of virtue and pursue what which is wise.  Just like people in philanthropy, elected officials are stewards of that form of public money.  Often, what is thought to be general consensus, especially in highly emotional issues such as schooling, might not be grounded in practical wisdom.  Too often, irrational belief trumps rational  judgement resulting in decisions that might be politically expedient but fundamentally unwise.  The challenge for any elected leader is how to manage truly innovative and imaginative education policy dealing with a strong political force that is poised to destroy you if you diverge too far from their own interest.

Unlike politics, foundations do not have to appeal to voters.  Their constituency is smaller – i.e. the trustees that serve on the boards and the communities they serve.   A community foundation is comprised of members of that community and more often than not, has purview to restrict grants within a geographic area.  The board is typically comprised of people who live in the community and experience the rhythm of daily life in places like Cleveland.   The director of a community foundation must appeal to current donors who also advise officers on how and where to direct distributions.  He or she must also try to find new donors who will be comfortable with making financial contributions that will increase the size of the foundation’s endowment, and thereby increase the amount of funds for charity.

A family and/or private foundation is different from community foundations because it is comprised of members who have ties to those who established the foundation (typically a successful ancestor).  Members of these foundations may or may not be living in those communities, and by nature of their election to the board, may be one-step removed from the political pressures a community foundation may have.  A family and/or private foundation operates from the endowment established by the ancestor.  It does not have to raise new money from the community.  As an institution, it does not have to dance as much around the politics that come into play with controversial issues.  That being said I must qualify that  if a private foundation engages in  education funding, that organization has a supreme obligation to conduct research on why education programs succeed.  It has a duty to support programs that promise to bring new-thinking to how education is conducted.  Free from some of the constraints to think with the rest of the community, the private foundations can seek out and support those who are not afraid to go against the grain and raise our sites to that which is virtuous and right in modeling moral skill.  It  can and should seek out programs and people that demonstrate wisdom but also brilliance.

A family foundation that fund education must have a high tolerance to permit improvisation and allow itself and organizations to fail occasionally.  Its staff and trustees need to be mentored by wise teachers, and the staff must learn how to learn how to respond wisely to  brilliant and gifted people in the field.  As I will reference below, wisdom without brilliance is not enough.

There is a nuanced but important difference here, and nothing is a better illustration of this than foundation involvement in public school education.  Similar to the constituency issue our Governor faces, Community Foundations must be careful not to ruffle the feathers too much of the standard concept of public schools.  Community Foundation must also guide the lead the larger community with practical wisdom drawn from experience and research.  Most, if not all, succeed in doing that.  As I mentioned above, concepts of public schooling are based in what I see as a “religion of public schools” which are grounded in the belief that public school is a good thing.  In the ideal, public school levels the playing field for all citizens and is an egalitarian solution to the need to educate all children. Teachers unions are strong voting blocks.  In the economically ravaged mid-west, teachers and their unions are a solid source of employment.  In challenging times, people are scared so any challenge to the unions and their membership will be perceived as a threat to livelihood.  The push-back will be fierce.  Community foundations must be sensitive to the political factions in the communities it serves and thereby may be more risk-averse to change in school bureaucracies.

Getting back to practical applications of my theorizing, the philanthropic effort by OGF to involve stakeholders in the effort to advise the governor how to prepare Ohio Schools for the 21st Century had its fallout.  The document contains recommendations for significant change to the way teachers can be dismissed, and receive tenure.

In a follow-up meeting with the head of the Ohio Teachers Union, the OGF team was informed by the union head that OGF  had “misrepresented” the views of the Union leadership.   That was a disappointing response.  I was in the meeting when the draft of the final document was being discussed.  There was no confusion about what was to be put into the document.   The representative warned the “multi-stakeholders” this would be a controversial set of recommendations.  When I heard the feedback that the union’s felt the recommendations were “missrepresented” we all wondered what happened.  One can only assume that when the recommendations were made to the membership, they pushed back vigorously and the leader had to find an “out.”   This is a coward’s game, but one that is all part of the cycnical system depicted in the clips I provide in earlier posts from The HBO  series “The Wire.”Therein lies the blowback.  When pushed to the wall, political interests will claim they were maligned, or misrepresented.  It lacks moral will to do the right thing. It lacks virtue.

Governor Strickland and his staff are beginning to take heat for what came out.  The results of thousands of dollars and hours of people’s time, is an education “plan” that reads like a document from the Vatican of the Religion of Public Schools.  The plan reads like a dogmatic dictum that will assert the State power of public schools across the country.  The Governor’s staff calls the plan “Historic Reform” Yet my read is that is incorporates few of the innovative recommendations from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum group.  In fact, it ignores the number one recommendation to create innovation districts in the county modeled on Colorado’s Innovative Schools Act of 2008.  This idea, if passed would lift the typical barriers to innovation in schools and allow teachers to be creative in addressing student learning styles.  Technology would be introduced to support these learning styles and a focused plan for teacher professional development would complement this plan.  Instead, we have a plan that extend the school day (with no allowance for new teaching styles), reformed tests for assessment and – most schocking a clamp down on charter schools and early college programs all of which show early signs of true innovation in learning.   The Dayton Daily News for Sunday March 8, 2009 ran an editorial voicing  a very succinct and clear protest of the Governor’s attempt to take this drastic and unnecessary action.

Foundations can and should continue to fund charter schools as well as initiative such as the early college programs.

I wish all members of the OGF Task Force including the public school bureaucrats could spend time viewing this remarkable talk by Barry Schwartz during the 2009 TED Conference.  Listen especially around miniute 9:30 and on.

In my opinion, philanthropy in general, and family philanthropy in particular should constantly question and challenge the educational system in this country.  In fidelity to the successful businessmen and women who created companies that account for the wealth, family philanthropy should push public schools to adopt strategies that will increase efficiency, honor professionalism but most importantly succeed by adopting practical wisdom to the endeavor.  This role can be played out by funding models that appear to work – like the KIPP Schools, the National Association of Street Schools, the Cristo Rey and Nativity schools, and successful programs such as CAST and Project Lead the Way.  They should support the research that will help bring them to scale in cities and rural areas across the country.   Public schools need not be afraid of these models, and would do well to apply practical wisdom among their leadership.

To repeat the words of Dr. Schwartz, foundations  and especially political leaders (and even the general public) need to reconnect to a sense of virtue and practical wisdom as it shapes an education plan for the next decade.  It must embrace new concepts and technologies and support new and exciting applications of brain research to learning.  In fact we need to revise the very way that educational research has been conducted on the district and state level.  We must move from an empasis on outdated metrics to more entrepreneurial problem solving approaches to education.

In his book The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship, Frederick Hess writes,

The public dollars that comprise more than 90 percent of all k-12 spending rarely support entrepreneurial problem-solving.  This meand that philanthropic giving, which accounts for a fraction of 1 percent of educational spending, has played an outsized role in the launch of new ventures like the KIPP Academies, Aspire Public Schools, New Leaders for New Schools and Teach for America.  Because k-12 education is nominated by government spending and because this money is consumed in salaries and operations, precious little is invested in research and development of new ventures.  Outside of the limited funding for charter school facilities and start-up costs, almost none of it support entrepreneurial activity.

In the private sector, the torrent of venture capital is accompanied by an ecosystem of institutions and actors that provide quality control, support new ventures and selectively target resources.  In education, especially when it comes to directing philanthropic dollars, such infrastructure is sparse.  The venture-capital communities that have sprung up in corridors like Silcon Valley and Route 128 in Boston are not plugged into K-12 education and equivalents do not exist in the world of schooling.

History has shown that Religion abhors scientific discovery.  Until the national community is willing to break out of its religious belief in a public school model that no longer represents the needs for 21st century learning skills, we will continue to be dominated by the dictums of those who control the religions of public school.  Practical wisdom will prevail and foundations have a role by giving voice to those who espouse it in education.

Philanthropy's influence on State Education Policy – Bold Ideas or More Tinkering: The Case of Ohio

Last year, the trustees of  foundation I work for provided a grant of $10,000 to support Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) initiative on education for the state of Ohio.  The grant provided funding that convened   education leaders from across the State to develop policy recommendations  for Governor Ted Strickland.  The recommendations were to inform his vision for creating a school system that was ready to teach 21st Century skills.

The process of sharing ideas and knowledge from a variety of perspectives was an intellectual gift.   Some of my previous posts address parts of that experience.    The result of the year-long process were released last week by the OGF.  The day after its release, Governor Ted Strickland announced his long-awaited plan to improve education in the State of the State address on January 29, 2009.

Mr. Strickland’s address has been followed with a budget that is confusing to media pundits who admit they  do not  understand how many of his proposals will be paid for given the State’s enormous budget deficit.    What is clear however is that, two-years into his first tenure, Mr. Strickland ‘s plan is his launch of his campaign for a second term.  Curiously, the day after the budget was released, a city councilman from another part of the state  announced he would be a candidate to run against Mr. Strickland in 2010.

So the philanthropic collaboration to focus on making profound change in education in Ohio has been tempered by the frustrating realities of politics and negotiation.  Our document maps out a series of recommendations with two time horizons.  The first is a very short horizon that would address  ways to change immediate obstacles to managing  a complex organizational structure.  The issues in the short term –  changes to teacher tenure rules, teacher residency requirements, a change in the tests to determine assessment, and lengthening the school year by 20 days, enable the Governor to  garner political attention around an issue which registers high on the interest levels among residents in the state.  These changes do absolutely nothing to focus on the longer-range  need to disrupt the old way of doing education in the state.  Although the governor talks about the need and urgency to change the way education takes place in Ohio if we are to prepare students for the next century, his list of priorities focus on short -term changes that will tinker with the current system as we know it.  The longer-term need to introduce technology to innovate and improve student learning is pushed off to what I suspect could be an agenda for a second political term.  In the meantime the State will offer no clear and decisive map to guide the disruption that is urgently needed if we are to really transform teaching and learning in Ohio.

The hope that the report engendered related to truly bold programs and initiatives and investigate new approaches to learning and technology were eclipsed by political ballet that will reshuffle state dollars for the funding formula, palaver about firing teachers for just cause and finally changing the Ohio Graduation Test to an ACT test.

In my disappointment I actually saw this image running through my mind as I heard the Governor speak:

I am frustrated that the governor failed to convey the sense of urgency that is needed introduce innovation into education.  In my opinion,   pushing our recommendations to explore innovation to a back burner, demonstrates a failure of leadership.  If I had a chance to have coffee with him, I would suggest that as a leader he can and should focus on finding ways to engage the entire citizenry to understand the role of  technology and how it is transforming networks of  learning for students and the people who teach them. That means harnessing the media, universities, businesses and teachers in an effort to seek out disruptive technologies that will provide solutions to the complex task of creating new learning environments.

My participation in the drafting the OGF document gave me a new appreciation for the daunting complexity of this thing we call public education.  All would admit there is a profoundly urgent need  to  articulate a clear plan to create a technology infrastructure that will support the promise that things like cloud computing can and will have on curriculum development.  I am disappointed with the governor’s adoption of our recommendations because the speech reveals a tacit admission of not  having a clue about innovation in learning that is already underway and ready to bring to scale.   Any hope of innovation (which typically occurs with a free exchange of ideas) has been relegated to a department within the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).  It would be a miracle if anything truly innovative came out of that department unless they were willing to take the bold step of opening collaboration to people outside the ODE  who not only know but practice innovation.  One can only hope that the directors of that department embrace some of the philosophy of collaboration described by authors Phil Evans and Bob Wolf in the July – August 2005 edition of Harvard Business  Review in an article entitled Collaboration Rules.

Extraordinary group efforts don’t have to be miraculous or accidental.  An environment designed to produce cheap, plentiful transactions unleashes collaborations that break through organizational barriers.

The authors point to the open-source tool Linux to serve as the example of how to structure collaborative rules.

Corporate (and political) leaders seeking growth, learning and innovation may find the answer in a surprising place: the open-source software community.  Unknowingly, perhaps, the folks who brought you Linux are virtuoso practitioners of new work principals that produce energized teams and lower costs.  Nor are they alone.”

I find it curious that the Governor’s speech occurred on the same day in which, fifty-years earlier Pope John XXIII announced to the world his intention to convene a Vatican Council.  He used the term aggiornamiento which was a call to open the windows and bring the church up to date.  As a lapsed catholic with a nostalgic streak, I had placed some expectation that the governors speech might be an exciting call for an educational aggiornamiento or opening of the windows in which the ODE’s tradition as a closed, conservative, controlling and hierarchical structure serving the state might take place.   The ODE is not a place to expect miracles!

The list of recommendations in the report … Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come urges Ohio’s leaders to …

  • Restructure the traditional model of teaching and learning.
  • Refine the state’s academic standards.
  • Create an assessment system that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways.
  • Ensure that we have the best teachers and principals working in all of our schools.
  • Ohio Grantmakers Forum and its partners are saying that we can no longer defend or tolerate an industrial-age school model that is out of step with the demands of the 21st century in which jobs, careers and workplaces are learning-intensive and where people often have many jobs over their lifetimes.

The recommendations reflect these realities …

  • 164 Ohio young people drop out of school every day.
  • Just 24% of Ohio high school students take a rigorous course of study, which is the best predicator of success in college.
  • Ohio colleges and universities report that more than 40% of first year students need remedial courses in mathematics and/or English.
  • And Ohio’s higher education attainment rates are among the lowest in the nation.-We’re 38th out of 50 states.

The findings are not intended meant to suggest that Ohio has ignored its education challenges. But it underscores the reality that incremental changes are not getting the job done. It challenges the Governor and policy makers to take Bolder steps and to accelerate the pace of improvement are required.

Here are some of the bold steps OGF and its partners have urged Ohio’s leaders to take:

  • Accelerate the pace of innovation by restructuring the traditional, industrial model of teaching and learning.
  • Create Ohio Innovation Zones and fund promising school and instructional models.
  • Develop a statewide plan for transforming the state’s lowest performing schools.
  • Develop a statewide strategy for making better use of technology and its applications.
  • Ensure that the state’s expectations for what all students should know and be able to do are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations.
  • Benchmark them against international standards and make sure they include 21st century skills.
  • Create a balanced assessment system that allows students to demonstrate their  knowledge and skills in different ways, informs teaching strategies and improves learning, and provides a complete picture of how schools are doing against a consistent set of expectations.
  • Refine Ohio’s academic standards and restructure the state’s assessment system
  • Ensure that Ohio has the best teachers and principals working in all of its classrooms and schools.
  • Strengthen standards and evaluation for teachers and principals, and create model hiring and evaluation protocols based on the standards.
  • Provide financial incentives for schools and districts to improve teaching and learning environments.
  • Strengthen the awarding of tenure.
  • Develop new compensation models that improve the connections among teaching excellence, student achievement and compensation.
  • These are tough times … and they call for tough choices.
  • The extreme fiscal challenges facing the state of Ohio today provide a great opportunity, if not a mandate, to look at how Ohio invests its current education resources.

Many of these recommended actions do not require new funding. Yet, some may necessitate a re-allocation of existing resources, while still others may demand new investments.  Re-allocating existing resources is a political hot-potato but one that is desperately needed.  (More on that in a future blog-post).

As a member of the community I sought reaction from teachers on the Governor’s speech.  The more than one of the teachers I spoke with had two immediate reactions: 1.  “Well, if they extend the school year by 20 days, he’d better pay me.” and 2.  Thank god they are using the ACT rather than the OGT.   That is hardly the vision I would have wanted were I in a position of taking bold moves to change education across the state.

As far a non-teachers, their concern is that they do not understand the changes in the school funding formula.  Clearly this is an important topic since the issues has been a plague on the Ohio educational system since the famous DeRolf decision declared it unconstitutional. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer,

Strickland’s primary pledge was that the state would eliminate a phenomenon dubbed “phantom revenue”– a ghost in the state’s funding machine that assumes school districts receive local education dollars they never actually see…Strickland said his plan would eventually result in the state picking up 59 percent of the tab for education — a level he said would make Ohio’s school-funding system meet the “thorough and efficient” constitutional standard that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times the state has not achieved.

At the end of the day few people really think this formula will change much of anything in terms of quality of teaching and learning in schools.  Today’s Plain Dealer reports,

Of the 97 districts in Northeast Ohio, 48 would see no change in the amount they get from the state next year, and 49 would see an increase (no more than 15 percent.)

The second year, 52 would see a decrease (no more than 2 percent) and 45 would see some increase.

The second major issue addresses how to deal with the union stranglehold on employment in the State.  The governor did adopt the OGF policy which would allow principals and superintendents to fire under-performing teachers for “just cause.”  The governor did assume enormous political risk by standing up to union leadership saying,

Right now, it’s harder to dismiss a teacher than any other public employee. Under my plan, we will give administrators the power to dismiss teachers for good cause, the same standard applied to other public employees,” Strickland said to applause from Republican lawmakers as Democrats held back.

This is an important issue for any Governor to take on.  Earlier in January, the Cleveland Plain Dealer did a lengthy report on the fact that looming budget cuts surely meant that  some of the most innovative and successful schools in Cleveland would have to lay-off teachers.  Most at risk were the promising charter-like academies and magnet schools because firings would go on the old union patronage system of last hired first, fired.  Here is how the story reported it,

High School, one of Cleveland's 10 new niche schools. Classes are at the Great Lakes Science Center until a permanent home at GE's Nela Park campus in East Cleveland is renovated.

High School, one of Cleveland's 10 new niche schools. Classes are at the Great Lakes Science Center until a permanent home at GE's Nela Park campus in East Cleveland is renovated.

Just as Cleveland’s new niche schools show signs of leading the district to reform, layoffs may sweep some of their handpicked teachers out the door.

Schools chief Eugene Sanders says the district will have to lay off hundreds of workers if the financially strapped state slashes deeply into aid that accounts for 60 percent of the Cleveland schools’ budget. Big buzz centers on how that would affect 10 single-gender and other specialty schools that have turned in good test scores and won over parents during the last three years.

With union consent, the so-called “schools of choice” select their own teachers, reaching outside the system in some cases. But cuts would follow the contract: Last hired, first fired.

Sanders said he will ask the teachers union to help limit layoffs at the niche schools. But union President David Quolke does not expect to scrap the seniority policy.  “All that would do for a union is pit member against member,” Quolke said. “To agree to something that says one member is more important than another member is not something I’d be willing to do.

I suppose  this effort by philanthropy to partner with stakeholders to inform a governor can be considered a success.   I only wish he had not cherry-picked the policies with the short time horizon to do his plan. Given the mess of dealing with teachers unions, budgetary shortfalls and an assessment system that is strangling students and discouraging teachers to be creative, I suppose he did what he needed to do in the short-term.  Despite my personal disappointment, the success can me marked by the fact that it was the first time the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Federation of Teachers sat at the same table at length – ever!  They worked out issues jointly and even agreed on several recommendations.  I  believe that only philanthropy could have made that happen and kept them coming to the table.

It is by now quite evident that I harbor  frustration at the seeming inability of the state government to do what is necessary to stimulate and sustain  true innovation in learning by encouraging innovation in schools.  My assessment is the governor may have stepped only a small length “beyond tinkering,” but I am learning that a politician can only go so far with bold moves, especially in education.  If I had my way, I would have wanted the Governor introduce the first recommendation in the report – the creation of innovation districts throughout the state.  These schools would be center for innovation in teaching and learning, freed from constraints of labor negotiations and the constraints imposed by  the “tech guys” who block more access to the internet in the name of “protecting” children.  These would be places where social media experts, educational researchers, higher ed teachers , creators of Multi-user virtual environments and the likes of the  New Media Consortium would collaborate with students and teachers to test new media with curriculum.  This is a distinct where each student would have an electronic portfolio that would serve as  a platform for him or her to demonstrate their learning and understanding of the standards.   This district would foster a cadre of  teachers who would be able to develop means of assessing that learning into meaningful feedback.

On the first day of class, I would call an assembly and invite Scott Anthony, co-author of “The Innovator’s Guide to Growth” be the convocation speaker and introduce the concept of “disruptive innovation” to establish the framework for the collaborative teams effort to  move forward.

I am not a politician and I am not an education bureaucrat. I admit that I do not always appreciate the difficult balancing act these people need to do to survive. I respect and admire their ability to navigate the turbulent waters of managing many people. To accomplish the longer-range goals of transforming education to better serve the needs of individual students – no matter how old they are, philanthropy will need to make investments to support institutional psycho-therapy to help the educational infrastructure overcome its  get over Fear 2.0 which is crippling it from really serving students. The soothing words of Dr. Clayton Christensen might be a good start – light a candle, pour a glass of wine and listen carefully.

Listen carefully to the podcast with Clayton Christensen on his book, Disrupting Class….

Hopefully one day we will get there and I think foundations will continue to play a key role in holding out that vision to policymakers who, at the end of the day probably want to see it happen too.    Maybe someone will make a video of it so someone 60 years from now might embed it in his or her own blog!

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!

Foundations as Convenors for Civic Discussion – another case study

It is becoming common for foundations  to serve an important function in the communities they operate.  That function is convening “stakeholders” or “community leaders” to discuss issues and in particular  – thorny issues.  They can do this for several reasons.  As funders of nonprofits, they have an interest in collaborating with colleagues who may need an audience to advocate with government officials and other stakeholders for the populations they serve.  The nonprofits typically are recipents of government funds and, as such, are players in a larger network of fiscal exchange that include private and “public” dollars.  (I define public dollars as those raised through taxes).  City and/or state agencies distribute these tax dollars to nonprofit collaborators tying them to the cohort involved.

The “thorniness” arise when discussion opens to critique the way in which the various iterations of public dollars flow and exchange among the entities.  Too often critique is mistaken for criticism and agency directors can revert to defensive postures.   This is particularly true when entrenched entities and the ways  they doing business are suddenly open to public scrutiny.

Business leaders  have an interest in the communities served by nonprofits by dint of living in the same community but also having a direct or indirect financial investment in that community.  The private sector may sneer at the way government entities function.  We suggest that it is healthier for the community to bring that critique to a common ground rather than lob salvos at an agency that might raise and individuals ire.

Foundations play a unique role in this civic environment.  If they call the meeting most people will come.  There is the power of money and the high probability that good food will be part of the deal  inevitably an incentive for people to attend the meetings.  If the meetings are choreographed carefully ahead of time it is very likely that the intellectual discussion will provide enough nourishment to sustain the conversations.

I propose that family foundation’s might have the advantage over community foundations and corporate foundations in this arena since they are inurred from “interests.” Community Foundations must raise money from the community and therefore must be careful not appear endorsing a position that could alienate a (funding) constituency.  Similarly corporations must be somewhat risk averse to issues that could result in a public relations (PR) controversy.  Of course there are exceptions to my broad comments.  Community foundations can and have taken a lead role in conferences that are meant to be conciliatory. Case in point – the Cincinnati Community Foundation’s initiative to address racial tensions in that city a few years ago was a national model and the Pittsburg Foundation‘s efforts (in collaboration with the Heniz Endowment) to address thorny issues in the public schools.  The Columbus Medical Association and Foundation is a national model for convening stakeholders around the crisis of health care in that city.  The Cincinnati Health Foundation is another standard for how to engage a community around this critical issue.  With far fewer resources than our colleagues in Columbus or Cincinnati, we explored their methods as we embarked on our own response.

At the February 2008 Board meeting The Nord Family Foundation made a grant of $100,000  to the Community Foundation of Lorain County to initiate a community engagement and planning process to improve access to health care for the uninsured and under insured. (A great snapshot of the Lorain County Health statistics are found at the Public Service Institute) The initiative was a response to several critical factors.  The two charity hospitals Community Health Partners of Lorain and the Elyria Memorial Hospital are reporting approximately $20 million and $12 million in uncompensated care each year.  In addition to the two charity hospitals, the Lorain County Health and Dentistry is a beacon of hope for the scores of  medically uninsured and under insured in Lorain County.  LCHD had applied several times to receive funds from the Federal government to receive support as a Federally Qualified Health Care Center (FQHC).  Unfortunately it is considered a FQHC look alike because it has all of the services but does not get the Federal Funds.  The requests were turned down several times because demand exceeds supply of federal funds.  Equally disturbing was the increased pressure from the charitable group Lorain Free Clinic (headed by a remarkably talented and passionate executive director Paul Baumgartner)  to meet the increased demands of serving the rising number of medically indigent people in a county with staggering job loss and poverty.

Adding to the complexity is the aggressive move of the Cleveland Clinic Family Health satellite offices in Lorain and Elyria which is perceived as skimming the full-pay insured patients from the other two hospitals and FQHC.

So, when LCHD received a turn down of a $700,000 federal grant we sensed the community needed help.  A convening was in order!

We knew the task was enormous, but the urgency of the situation demanded a response.  Funds were used to support the work of the Altarum Institute of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in partnership with the local Public  Services Institute of Lorain County Community College. The overall project is currently referred to as Health Care Lorain County.

Upon approval of the grant, a Steering Committee was formed to provide community leadership for what became known as Health Care Lorain County. This ten-member committee has been chaired by the Executive Director of the Lorain County United Way and includes high-level representatives from the two main hospital systems, a local health departments, the Lorain County Medical Society, a local business leader, two nonprofit healthcare providers, a Lorain County Commissioner, and the President & CEO of the Community Foundation of Lorain County. This committee came together for a strategic planning retreat facilitated by staff of the Altarum Institute.

In preparation for the retreat, the Public Services Institute (PSI) conducted a basic environmental scan using existing data sources, to help define the prevalence and nature of the problem and to identify unanswered questions to inform future data needs. PSI and later United Way of Lorain County and Community Foundation staff also conducted one-on-one interviews with all members of the Working Group (key stakeholders, including members of the Steering Committee) to garner their expertise on the issue and input into the planning process. This compiled information was then presented at the retreat, to assist the Steering Committee in determining a shared understanding of the problem to be addressed, and to begin identifying project objectives and benchmarks for success. The Steering Committee developed into a highly dedicated group of community leaders with expertise and interest in the topic at hand and a commitment to serve the health care needs of the community. Meetings continued throughout the year, and included large stake-holder meetings  to continue data analysis, fine-tune the project direction, and determine the best steps for action.

After more than a year of meetings, the following conclusions were made:

  1. There is a need to continue exploring this very complex issue of providing quality health-care to medically uninsured and under insured people in the county.
  2. There must be a new technology infrastructure put in place to facilitate data sharing.
  3. There is a desire to provide every citizen a sense of a medical home.  People desire a relationship with a personal health care provider rather than an impersonal institution.
  4. The community needs to explore open-source charts so every patient can have an online chart that will follow him or her to their port to the health care system. The Cleveland Clinic’s remarkable on-line health record called My Chart is a great example of what an electronic health portfolio for medically under insured and uninsured could look like.
  5. There is a need to examine how health dollars currently flow into the county.  There are tremendous inefficiencies and possible duplication of effort among  three distinct health departments (Elyria, Lorain City and Lorain County Health) which draw most of their funding from federal and state programs.  These departments which were established initially to address infectious disease in the earlier decades of the 20th Century, are not equipped to handle comprehensive chronic care that the majority of the population needs.  Competition from for-profit clinics such as Walgreens raise questions about the place of these health departments in a 21st century health care model.
  6. The economic pressure necessiate collaboration between the two charitable hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.

I am pleased to report that the undertaking has the active engagement of Senator Sherrod Brown and House Representatives, the Honorable Marcie Kaptur and Honorable Betty Sutton. The project has taken on a life of its own and stakeholders who would have otherwise had no incentive to come to the table have and continue to do so.  Their is consensus among the stakeholders that the large number of medically uninsured and under insured is a case of tragedy of the commons.  The response requires a willingness of leaders to listen, learn and possibly give up power in the years ahead.  That is a threatening prospect, but and genuine possibility.  It is a conversation that would not have taken place were it not for the foundation’s willingness and financial commitment to step in and assume a leadership role.

We do not know at this point where the effort will end up.  We do know that others have agreed to chip in to pay the costs to continue the facilitation.  It is our sincere belief that this effort will have positive impact on the access to health care that every family in this country deserves.  If nothing else in a age of disease resistant microbes, increased mental illness and poverty access quality health care and drugs is a public health issue that should concern all citizens.

So the challenge for any foundation deciding to take on a major effort in convening, you must determine{

  • what role you want to  take
  • have flexibility built into the expectations you have for the outcome
  • know the level of risk you  will tolerate (the outcome could result in stakeholders walking away from the table) and
  • be honest about much staff time and money you are willing to put into the effort
  • look for innovation outside the conversations so to better inform the conversations
  • be willing to stick with it – conversations of this magnitude can take year
  • We are making good progress with our effort. I admit to frustration about the ponderous pace the effort can take. It is my sincere hope that our stakeholders will embrace innovation in thought to explore interactive maps such as those developed by the Cincinnati Health Foundation, as well as virtual environments like those featured below that become places to test their theories.

    Doing so will encourage even wider and broader horizions of possiblities.

    Should the project work well, there can be nothing more rewarding than knowing you have created a space where citizens can leave their official interests at the door and collaborate as colleagues challenged with solving an enormous social problem.

Philanthropy Social Software and Multi-User Virtual Environments

The National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) held an annual conference in mid-November.  There was a gathering of some of the most innovative thinkers in figuring out ways to make use of technology to enhance education and nonprofits, but more importantly to introduce ways in which these technologies can make curriculum  and everyday computer use accessible to people who are blind, deaf or even cognatively challenged. It was tremendously exciting to be with people who are not only passiontate but practical in making the lives of the “dis-abled” easier.

What one sees in attending the conference and its Tech-Expo is the spectacular proliferation of new social media and its potential to enhance learning.  It is clear that these technologies have had unimaginable impact on companies in their ability to achieve efficiency and increased market share. Despite amazing advances in social media or “web-2.0” technologies, the global society is only beginning to see the implications of increased computer capacity and interconnectivity. In an impressive presentation by Gregg Downey eSchool News, we were introduced to the shift from the phase of Parallel Computing in which one computer server handles the information input of an organization or company, to the more exciting phase of Cloud Computing in which multiple servers share and sort information with unimaginable speed.

Despite this tremendous innovation pubic schools and the nonprofit sector lag behind pathetically. Philanthropy and program officers have a responsibility to be aware of these tools to seek out opportunities where investments in the application of these tools can, create greater efficiencies in nonprofits.

One of the main obstacles to philanthropy taking the lead here is too many programs officers do not realize the potential because they do not use them and/or have no idea of what is out there. Too many of us use the computer as that thing on which you get e-mail, go to websites, maybe read the paper and occasionally chuckle at funny YouTube videos – not much else when it comes to the tools. Shared learning is the primary attractions of social software to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Unfortunately, the sector has not thusfar done a good job of doing that but hopefully things will change soon.

Blogs, wiki’s twitters, and to some extent photo sharing such as Flickr are forms of shared knowledge with transforms into learning. Tagging is a means of coding that enables others to reference your area. If a program officer keeps a written blog on site visits and brings up issues of concern to the community such as “foreclosure” that blog can be tagged and others who have interest in foreclosure will be directed to that blog post and able to comment or share relevant information.  Similarly, if a nonprofit director keeps a blog about challenges to the organization, tagging is a way others can find you and, in an ideal situation, offer advice, help or assistance).   In many cases responses can come from around the world.  The power of these tools however is that, put in the hands of creative people, uses I cannot imagine can emerge. (For an extraordinary discussion on this topic, I recommend David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous).

Truth is however, this is a sector that does not know how to share information well.  Some foundations fund and produce research that is published in remarkably slick folders.  Large foundations such as Ewing Marion Kaufmann, to name one, do a stunning job producing documents on education and innovation.  Unfortunately, few high school teachers or even university professors can access this information easily.   I chose Kaufmann only because I had the pleasure to hear Dennis Cheek, Education Program Director, give a remarkably exciting presentation on use of Games in Education at a conference by Philanthropy Roundtable in November.  There is simply too much great research by foundations that is not getting out there.  The Cleveland Foundation and the Gund Foundation in Cleveland jointly published an important document on schools in Cleveland called, Cleveland Schools That are Making a Difference.   The document covers schools, private and public that are transforming the lives of students.  In my opinoin the document has not had follow-up primarily because what it takes to produce a great school cannot be easily accomplished within traditional public schools.  The tenents of making these schools work, despite having little or no State support is that they have administrative structures that threaten the way school has always been done.  A region-wide or even national conversation is simply too threatening to public entities especially those that have to deal with the political powers that hamper real progress in public schools.  A web-based discussion would be great way to start.  But we have seen in that a public blog on public schools can be too threatening to public school officials and school board members.  One experience was the Oberlin Community Diaries which opened a public blog for the town to discuss a tax levy for laptops.  The site had over 500 contributions in the first month but when conversation became threatening, most school board members shut out the conversation, the superintendent stopped participating.  School officials stated publicly that they would respond only to conversation in a school board meeting (Tuesday nights at 6 pm when many parents are unable to attend).  Later the school created its own blog.  It was readily transparent that conversation there could be controlled much easier and was therefore less threatening.   Control of information is an issue that policy makers and even foundations will have to address in years to come.  Information is power.  Few of us like to loose control of power, especially those who hold the purse strings.  That is another topic for another post, but if you want to jump ahead, Everything is Miscellaneous, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicolas, and Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky are great examples of how the new flow of knowledge is changing many presuppositions about the locus of knowledge control).

The NCTI offered a few great sessions on the Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE).  Herein lies another area program officers need to understand . These are immersive learning environments that have remarkable application to the health, education and business sectors. Despite the boom in the multi-billion dollar gameing  industry, few people in positions of funding responsibility understand the impact these and other technology tools have on transforming education, health care and the social environments in which we live. New organizations like Serious Games Director Ben Sawyer is a brillant and earnest advocate who merits serious consideration and note.  There is also Games for Change sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundations Journalism Program are informing nonprofits and schools on games such as Peacemaker, Free Rice, Budget Hero (to name only a few) because these environments provide important educational and collaborative tools for learning.  Games for Change  Director, Alex Quinn informed the audience that when former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor realized that more people knew the American Idol judges than the judges on the Supreme Court, she became a participant in the development of a prgram with Georgetown University called Our Courts. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer program is developing exciting uses of games to promote health not only with young people but for retired individuals. RWJ’s Pioneer program does have a blog that invites the world to submit their innovative ideas on improving health care and health care delivery.

A challenge facing the gaming groups is how to help teachers assess these learning tools to be included as part of a students overall learning portfolio. Chris Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education introduced the audience to the Harvard River City Project.  This multi-user enviornment includes features that will enable the participant to write, blog and chat.  These are features which put in the hands of creative teachers will be easily and readly assess-able to determine how the user understands the content.  The powers that be simply have to allow teachers to experiment with the tools and trust that with their intelligence and creativity the means to develop assessment tools will emerge.  Unfortunatly, the likihood of this happening in the nation’s public schools is not high at the moment.

In my work with the OGF Education Work group I recommended Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. I suggest everyone in this sector should take the time to read it. particular interest is Dr. Christensen’s discussion of the role disruptive technologies are having in the way people learn in ways that were unimaginable before innovations in social networking.

The Pew Internet& American Life Project is producing important research on applications these games have in the lives of young people and their teachers.  All teachers, superintendents and administrators should read these reports carefully.  One day maybe public television and radio will dedicate a show or even a program on this topic which is of such profound importance to American education.

Philanthropy can have an important role in working to usher responsible and effective use of these important tools to a sector that if given the opportunity will make highly creative application of them to serve the larger society.

Philanthropy – Evaluation of Education grantmaking

The foundation has considered the importance of strategic grantmaking and the idea of having high impact. What does it mean to have impact when the average grant in education is around $25,000 to $50,000.

What do we know?

Private/faith-based schools have remarkable success with inner city kids. Remediation takes place within the first year; reading seems to be easier to remediate than math and science. In most cases adherence to one particular faith is not mandatory. Most schools welcome families of all faiths. Students thrive in an atmosphere that is safe, and has rules. This seems to be the case across geographic funding areas.

Public Schools pose a more formidable challenge when looking for impact, but the foundation has made significant inroads in shifting the direction of some of these large ships. The work of CAST in schools in Lorain County has generated enthusiasm, contributed to a change in discussion about delivery of curriculum to divergent learners. It has added to conversation in schools about brain function and development and its impact on curriculum. It is exciting to see small pockets emerging where teachers are eager to shift the focus from assessment of learning to a concept of assessment for learning.

There are promising programs in isolated public schools that will address assessment of student performance such as the assessment for learning programs as well as programs that develop co-teaching. We see in these programs an attempt to bring to large public schools methods that have worked well in smaller, private school environments.

Structure of the school day

For inner city schools, a traditional public school day of 8-2:30 is not in place. In the Denver Street School, students are taught in blocks of 90-100 minutes as opposed to the typical 45 min schedule. This, teachers say, allows more time for challenged students to talk and reflect on the matter at hand rather than the typical – here’s the lesson, take it in, and report back to me on a standardized test and we will see how we do.

An environment that incorporates individual attention

In the National Association of Street Schools (NASS), each student has a faculty advocate who watches out for that youngster throughout the year. At Nativity Prep, Epiphany, Arrupe Prep and even the Urban Community School of Cleveland , the school days provide structured environments for students from early morning until the evening. All schools agreed that the after-school hours are when youngsters are most vulnerable.

Each of the schools incorporate into their behavior the reality that educational needs are not divorced from the social needs. For most of these schools the average teacher student ratio is 10/1. In the Cristo Rey model schools, young people who are teachers in training also serve the students by being available for them after the school day is over, for mentoring, coaching. The students live modestly and have little cost impact on the administration.

Respect for individual learning styles and adaptation

We have learned that whether it be in a small nurturing environment that a small private/faith-based school creates, or in larger public school classrooms, teachers know they teach better and students actually learn when the curriculum is adapted to the individual learning styles CAST has been phenomenal in helping teachers understand the link between brain research, and translating that into excited learning.

What we see on the horizon.

Using web-technologies students will develop electronic portfolios for their work which is open to each other (peers) for critique and discussion as well as with teachers. These educational portfolios contain the work that a learner has collected, reflected, selected and presented to show growth and change over time, representing an individual or organization’s human capital. The portfolios are not so much an instructional strategy to be researched, but more of a means to an end: to support reflection that can help students understand their own learning and to provide a richer picture of student work that documents growth over time.”

The Governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland has called for something like this in his very impressive set of Conversations on Education which include an appeal to “personalized learning.” People have yet to figure out what that means. As of 2008, there were no plans in place for the State of Ohio to implement electroinc-portfolios that could follow students throughout their careers (and also be used as a solid record should students transfer to another district or out of the State).

Islands of excellence

In a conversation with Mr. Geoff Andrews, Superintendent of the Oberlin City Schools, I talked about the wealth of learning the foundation has gained by funding a diversified portfolio of schools. After listening he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the foundation could figure out a way to bring all this learning and leverage it in one district somewhere and create an “island of excellence” that could serve as a model. I said, yes it would be great.

Two months later, my esteemed colleague Helen Williams, Education Program Director of The Cleveland Foundation informed me of legislation in the State of Colorado that would create just that. The Innovation Schools Act of 2008

The Innovation Schools Act is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making. The Act provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements.

The suggestion could not have come at a better time. It is my hope that philanthropy can suggest the Ohio legislature examine this act and seek advice from experts to do the same in Ohio.