I spotted this television advertisement for GM the other evening. It occurred to me that watching the demise of the American Auto Industry, is tragically analogous to what is happening in public education.
The blog post Daily Finance’s writer Peter Cohan cites five reasons why GM failed. Read and draw analogies to public schools in the United States.
1. Bad financial policies. You might be surprised to learn that GM has been bankrupt since 2006 and has avoided a filing for years thanks to the graces of the banks and bondholders. But for years it has used cars as razors to sell consumers a monthly package of razor blades — in the form of highly profitable car loans.
And the two Harvard MBAs who drove GM to bankruptcy — Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson — both rose up from GM’s finance division, rather than its vehicle design operation. (Read more about GM’s bad financial policies here.)
2. Uncompetitive vehicles. Compared to its toughest competitors — like Toyota Motor Co. (TM) — GM’s cars were poorly designed and built, took too long to manufacture at costs that were too high, and as a result, fewer people bought them, leaving GM with excess production capacity. (Read more about GM’s uncompetitive vehicles here.)
3. Ignoring competition. GM has been ignoring competition — with a brief interruption (Saturn in the 1980s) — for about 50 years. At its peak, in 1954, GM controlled 54 percent of the North American vehicle market. Last year, that figure had tumbled to 19 percent. Toyota and its peers took over that market share. (Read more about GM ignoring the competition here.)
4. Failure to innovate. Since GM was focused on profiting from finance, it did not really care that much about building better vehicles. GM’s management failed to adapt GM to changes in customer needs, upstart competitors, and new technologies. (Read more about GM’s failure to innovate here.)
5. Managing in the bubble. GM managers got promoted by toeing the CEO’s line and ignoring external changes. What looked stupid from the perspective of customer and competitors was smart for those bucking for promotions. (Read more about GM’s managing in the bubble here.)
GM has now produced this mea culpa, promising a new organization with new products and a new attitude. The answer is to reinvent itself.
It is not hard to draw analogies to public schools. Poor financing and financial management. Management (administrative bubbles), inflated salaries for administrators, ignoring the competition…..the list goes on. The list does not mention the tortuous negotiations and battles with organized labor – but that analogy fits as well.
Interesting that the public sector (federal government) has to be in the unbelievable position of having to bail out this failing industry. The act has people from the private sector incredulous. Even the President himself seems uncomfortable with the fact that the government has had to take this unprecedented action.
Public Schools in too many urban districts are a failing industry. Too many administrators, public officials and even some private philanthropists ignore the competition (i.e. charter schools, successful faith-based schools and even advances made in independent schools). These entities are seen not as competition, but as the enemy. In an effort to preserve themselves and guarantee job security, those in the bunker form the bubble.
Too many are afraid of adapting to new technologies that are likely to guarantee, smarter, leaner administrative budgets and more likely than not to improve students learning outcomes. Good administrators will report up to the “management” that revises standards and tests to juke the stats and have the public believe their inferior product is actually working.
Far too many individual school “districts” makes no sense anymore. I live in a county of 280,000 but there are 14 individual school districts each with high-paid administrators including superintendents, principals, curriculum directors. The cost to the public every year exceeds $4 million dollars. Much of that work can be done online through more effective use of management technologies.
Too many public dollars are wasted paying for textbooks. Innovations in online texts are occurring every day, yet too many school administrators are slow to adapt them. Many philanthropists have funded organizations that provide solutions to this unnecessary expense. cK-12 is a private non-profit foundation that is just one example. Another is Currwiki. Schools and school districts – not to mention the multimillion dollar textbook industry has an interest in keeping these innovations out of schools. Too many foundation officers and school administrators – fearful of change, block innovation with the appeal to waiting for results from “evidence-based practice” before they do anything. Where are the “practices” taking place and who is collecting the “evidence?” I know than many foundations have a lot of evidence of what is working, especially in charter, faith-based and indepdendent schools, but this evidence is ignored unless it has imprimatur from “the academy.”
It just seems to me that the time is ripe for foundations across the country to sponsor one or a series of local symposia that will bring together leaders from the field of educational technology, business, K-12 systems, and higher edcuation to re-imagine doing schools. These symposia should be public – coordinated with local newspapers, and newsmedia. Public television stations typically have local afficilates that could foster regularly scheduled converesations about re-inventing school and invite public policy officials to be part of the conversation. Together, these entities can help to reinvent public schools just as the auto industries are about to embark on reinventing themselves.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.