Tag Archives: Family Philanthropy

From invention to innovation

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

– Harold Evans – former editor of the London Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philanthropy and Race to the Top – The Experience in Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson learned:

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

Philanthropy and Education – too risk averse?

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

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

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

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech

Author Note: Over the past four days, this post has received 110K+ hits and over 300+ comments. If you are interested in the education reform conversation, please follow us via RSS, Email, or Twitter.

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

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

Here I stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use of Web-based Board Book

There are many books and articles that instruct foundation chairs and CEO’s on how to conduct a successful board meeting.  No one has written a book on what happens between board meetings and yet that is where some of the most productive time can take place.  The challenge for our foundation is: “how to engage trustees and members in the activities of the foundation especially when board meetings are limited to just a few hours three times a year.?”

We realized that by asking this rhetorical question of ourselves we established one of the most fundamental issues when anyone considers navigating they way into the “social media” market which is flooded just too many choices.  One must discern between applications that are simply fads and which can have serious applications to the field of philanthropy.  So two of the most fundamental question for us to ask  is, a.  “What is something we would like to do, but can’t.” and b. “What media tools are available that can help us get to where we want to go?”

For the Nord Family Foundation, our challenges were – how to enhance communication among the board that lives in many geographic areas and has limited time to spend at meetings?  How can we enhance knowledge-sharing among board members, and the larger community?  How can all this be done on a reasonable budget?, and finally who will take control of the data management in input when our staff is so small?

We were in process of redoing our website, and I knew that ours could be a website that was more than an electronic version of what is readily available in paper.  We also knew that we did not need to spend the typical $30,000 fee to pay for a web design. – which when you want to add features typically costs thousands of additional dollars.  We made use of an open-source tool called Drupal which is a shell that supports and amazing array of  two-way communication packages.  We also know there is an active “drupal community” that are willing to help organizations construct websites and add applications tools at relatively low cost.  With very little training, almost any approved person (staff and/or trustee) can add information to the website.  The site supports not only text, but an ability to embed video, audio as well hyperlinks to related websites.

In short, our website contains both a public and a private component.  The public side includes our website as well as an online application form.  This form links to our in-house grants administration system Gifts for Windows. We include the contact information and links to websites for each of our grantees.   The community can use a key-word search to find information about grantees who might be engaged in similar work.  The community is encouraged to leave comments which are open to the public.  We make use of this blogging tool to solicit ideas and input from the larger community.  On the member’s side, which is private, all information relevant to the foundation is contained on the website.  This includes all policy-related documents, members and trustee contact information.  Each trustee and member has an assigned blog and can write about issues of interest to them that might related to the work of the foundation.  Other members can leave comments on those blogs thereby creating a “conversation” about topics. Most interesting for us, is our board book is online.  All grant requests for the docket are placed online.  Trustees can read, and comment on each requests prior to the meeting.  Other members are able to see those comments ahead of time.  The board book includes an on-line voting tool that allows the trustee to register their vote on the staff recommendation as “approve” “disapprove” and “for discussion.”  As each individual vote is cast, it is aggregated into a program that will allow the Board Chair to see ahead of time which g rants have unanimous approval, which need discussion and which are disapproved.  Comments posted ahead of time will help inform discussion around the table.  These votes are pre-voting.  It is interesting to see how decisions made prior to the meeting can possibly change when the grant is discussed by the full board.

Not only does our online solution enhance the meeting, but it enhances the quality and quantity of communication among trustees between meetings.

Philanthropy and Educational Change – Where is the outrage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of the fall of 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the teachers presents the following challenge

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

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

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

Ohio's Race to the Top for "21st Century Learning" – cocktails and conversation

A relatively small family foundation has to be realistic about the type of impact it can have on achieving what we perceive as excellence in teaching and learning. The politicization of education in the State system in Ohio creates an environment where foundations work at cross-purposes with the State. Many want to support ongoing programs in public schools realizing there can be little sustainable outcome.  Others support charter schools and/or faith-based and parochial schools to encourage viable and oftentimes excellent alternatives to failing inner-city schools.  All would agree about the importance of education in this country and most would argue that public schools are and will remain a viable institution for years to come.  As foundations assist the States in preparing students for the challenges in the next century,  confusion and ambiguity surround the term “21st Century Learning.”  Given the rapid change in technology, it is almost impossible to define what 21st Century Learning will actually look like even ten years from now.  Lacking an interest or incentive or even the space to explore what 21st century learning really holds for the truly imaginative, the language of what one local superintendent calls “The State” devolves into rhetoric wrought with  clichés.  As a result few have a clue as to its implementation.   Pressure to perform leads many educators to focus on the very short-term with an eye on that looming state report card. The rhetorical  language in this context is understandable.  It reflects the way the State is structured to do its business – i.e. achieving educational equilibrium and maintaining what some authors call, boundary management.  It is practically impossible to stimulate innovation in a system when that is the end goal.     Foundations can play a pivotal role as provocateur in the same way a good CEO would challenge his company to really “think-outside-the-box.”  Based on a really great book I just read, I submit that educational innovation zones are the only way to extract the innovators from the culture of equilibrium we find in most schools and most districts.  The best way to do it is to help the State Superintendent tap into her inner cocktail hostess.


Race to the Top funding has all the potential to address this challenge to the educational system.  Lacking a clear framework however, the Federal Government initiated it’s typical Request for Proposals (RFP’s) with its requisite short time-line to submit proposals.  This approach set the States in a double frenzy a. to demonstrate numerical achievement on State standards and b. to spin wildly in its efforts to qualify for the Race to the Top monies.    As an observer, the process  distorts the purpose of a State system to manage and promote excellence in learning and preparing students for the so-called 21Century learning.  It also is a harbinger of colossal waste of Race to the Top Funding, especially in Ohio and some foundations will contribute to the problem.

When the Race to the Top competition was announced, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) invited a group of foundations  to provide input as they planned to shape the application.  Foundations have amassed considerable wisdom on the topic by nature of their investments in education over many years.  The State obliged the Ohio Grantmakers Forum  with an hour-long session with the foundations to provide input.  The deputies from the ODE were only vaguely aware of the OGF report entitled Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.   The opportunity for public input devolved into a lecture by a  stressed and overworked State bureaucrat whose job was to get this application done!  There was little room for discussion and little tolerance on the part of the person from the State for questions from the foundation representatives on the call.  Several interesting points were brought up and the bureaucrat in question promised to follow-up with phone calls.  None of those follow-up calls were made.

Despite the call two large operating foundations in the State with access to the Governor’s educational inner circle have managed to insert themselves in to the Race to the Top proposal with lucrative benefit including allocations of  $10,000 a day for consulting for five to ten days a year.  Based on their own template for assisting public schools you can be sure the monies will be used to produce a farrago of sounding sessions from teachers across the state who, for the most part, have little exposure to innovation in teaching and, according to teachers I interviewed last week, are fearful of taking risks that might derail kids from current assessment systems.

The governor’s task force’s demonstrated a mistrust of outside advice and assistance can be attributed presumably to pressure to produce a document in such a short period of time.  Wary of outside advice the ODE has again resorted to developing a proposal by “insiders” i.e. career state educational operatives whose very ability to work their way up “the system” will tend to put them in the equilibrium camp and suspicious out new ideas coming from “the edge.”  This is the very system that, within leading companies has stifled innovation with predictable demise.  I say this not to excoriate people, but to put it in a context to understand why the system can’t work as it now stands.   A new structure – such as the innovation zones – hold some potential as to how federal dollars to the States might be better utilized.  These innovation zones would be charged with explore new opportunities to (a) enhance teaching and learning, and (b) with appropriate use of technology, leverage cost savings to the system itself.    Rather than spreading the Race to the Top dollars among a smattering of qualified Learning Education Authority, the focus on innovation zones would provide an opportunity for those in the districts to bring innovation to scale, which is what the Race to the Top monies hope to achieve.

The video below is a conversation with the State Superintendent of Schools, Deborah Delisle  Listen carefully to her conversation. I have great respect for Ms. Delisle, but the poor woman’s aspiration is bogged down by the divergent political interests that pull every which way on the system she is charged with managing.  Her goals for the Race to the Top funds comes across as a mash-up of clichés and betray an anxiety about trying to manage than to think introduce innovation into a school system.  Ms. Delisle is a consummate manager having come to the position as a Superintendent in a Cleveland area school district.  From my experience, she is also a very bright woman and capable of real visionary leadership, however the current political environment thwarts her from finding really creative solutions to the problems that plague Ohio public schools, especially the under-performing districts.  In the absence of a gubernatorial or legislative vision,   Ms. Delisle has little choice by to resort to what authors Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore in their book, Innovation – The Missing Dimension call boundary management.

Within the State Educational system, far to many boundaries exist.  Boundaries between and among departments, boundaries among districts, boundaries among teachers and administrators, between special programs, boundaries between high-performing and under-performing districts and of courses boundaries between charter and traditional public schools.

Innovations in some of the more simple technologies such as on-line learning present new boundaries whose potential presents terrifying challenges in a system already wrought with boundaries listed above.  Part of her job is to attain an equilibrium among those entities to keep the ship moving forward.  As the waters become more turbulent with pressures from new technologies that threaten the very structure of this ship, the reaction to hunker down is understandable.

Messers. Lester and Piore write:

In recent years, management theorists have devised a storehouse full of tools for managing across boundaries.  These include flat, decentralized structures, network organizations, matrix management practices, multifunctional teams, team leadership skills, and a wide array of techniques for listening to the voice of the customer.  But among the practicing managers with whom we spoke, these models and maxims often seemed to be mere placeholders.  Lacking the content to be operable in the real world, they quickly degenerated into clichés.  When prompted, the managers in our cases could usually spout the rhetoric of integration.  But in the real world of new product development, most of them were much more comfortable talking about policing boundaries than about breaking them down.

Unfortunately for Ms. Delisle and for the State of Ohio, this is precisely the situation the State Superintendent finds herself.  Foundations would do well to help the State break this management conundrum within the system by encouraging both the governor and legislatures to create centers for innovation that will encourage boundary free zones where true cross-disciplinary collaboration can take place.  Given the political interests, this would take enormous courage and singular leadership.

It is not an understatement to say, The State of Ohio is at a critical juncture in history.  Pressures from rapid development in technology coupled with increasing “customer” dissatisfaction with the schools as well as a insecure revenue stream, bears the same hallmark as huge companies that are facing unanticipated pressures from outside the company.  In these circumstances, there is an urgency to encourage change and innovation while at the same time trying to manage the company and its responsibility to its shareholders. The two use case studies to drive their point through the book.  The most pertinent case study is that of AT&T  and the synergy between the corporate management structure and its innovation center Bell Labs which, among many other innovations, patented the technology that would become the cell phone.

The initial development of cell phone technology took place at Bell Labs, a sheltered enclave within AT&T that enjoyed the research ethos of an academic laboratory.  Bell Labs was insulated from commercial pressures and hospitable to collaboration among different scientific and engineering disciplines.

…The companies that pioneered cellular typically came from either the radio or telephone side of the business.  At&T was a telephone company.  Motorola and Matisushita were radio companies.  Each faces the major challenge of finding a partner to create the new product.  Not an easy task.  The cultural differences between radio and telephone engineering were deep-rooted…..there were difficulties merging these two industries…

Once it was established as a new and innovative means of enhancing communication, the cell phone section  was moved from Bell Labs.

.. into a separate business unit that was subject to the conventional AT&T bureaucratic practices and hierarchy.  None of the other companies ever had a sheltered environment like Bell Labs in which to start development of cellular.  Most of them began by assembling groups of engineers into newly created but poorly defined organizational entities, where they worked in teams with and ambiguous division of labor and sometimes confused lines of authority.  Like AT&T however, they all ended up adopting more formal, systematic decision making processes and creating better defined organizational structures in which to house the cellular business.

They compare creating innovation within businesses to that of a person hosting a cocktail party. Innovation is spawned by structuring intentional conversations

Cell phones emerged out of a conversation between members of the radio and telephone industries…the manager’s role was to remove the organizational barriers that would have prevented these conversations from taking place.

Here is where the book becomes fun.  Reading this section Deborah Delisle manager blends with Deb Delisle, educational cocktail hostess. Educational Innovation in Ohio could hinge  on her ability to party,

How does a manager initiate these interpretive conversations and keep them going in the face of pressure to solve problems and bring them to closure?  Here the metaphor of the manager as hostess at a cocktail party provides a useful guide.  At most cocktail parties the guests are relative strangers.  They are invited because they might have something interesting to say to one another, but only the hostess really knows that that is, and even she is not always sure.  To make sure the party a success, she will often invite enough people so that it does not really matter if any one pair of them fails to hit it off.

Once the party is under way, her job is to keep the conversation flowing.  A skilled hostess will introduce new people into groups where conversation seems to be flagging, or she will intervene to introduce a new topic when two people do not seem to be able to discover what they have in common on their own.  She may break up groups that do not seem to be working or are headed for an unpleasant argument and steer the guests to other groups.

The lessons of the cocktail party can be summarized in a series of distinct but closely related roles for the manager:

  • Step One: choose the guests
  • Step Two: initiate the conversation
  • Step Three: keep the conversation going
  • Step Four: refresh the conversation with new ideas

The governor’s office and the Ohio legislature can create one of the most exciting models to realize a vision for introduce innovation in so called 21st century teaching and learning. Create five places where these allegorical cocktail parties can  take place on a regular basis.  The superintendent will encourage conversations among some of the best people from the field of education, academia,business, technology, neuroscience, as well as teachers, students and union representatives.   Conversations will take place simultaneously and within the context of working school zones. Ambiguity is welcome, encouraged and processed to contribute to creative solutions to problems.  The State will not dictate the parameters of the discussion but be a party to the discussions and seek to find ways to adopt the findings to its way of doing business throughout the rest of the State.


The conversations are too large, and too critical to be diffused among districts throughout the state.  Everyone has to want to be at the party.

The legislature would need to mandate the zones  through the State budget.  The zones would be akin to the Bell Labs.   The zones would be distributed throughout the State.  They would have the appropriate technological support and communication networks to make it happen.  (See my blog post of June 8, 2009)

Teaming Up to Crack Innovation Enterprise Integration is written for the business growth with focus on CEO’s, Chief Information Officers (CIO’s) and IT organizations.  The model easily adapts to a State education bureaucracy and includes two elements that would be critical to the success of the Innovation districts.  Their thesis is relatively straightforward.  Here is how they summarize the concept:

  • IT has long been a catalyst of business innovation and essential to cross-functional integration efforts, but few large companies have systematically leveraged technology for these purposes.
  • Close study of 24 U.S. and European businesses reveals a model for systematically doing that that through the formation of two IT-intensive groups for coordinating these two processes that are critical to organic growth
  • A distributive innovation group (DIG) combines a company’s own innovative efforts with the best of external technology to create new business variations.  The enterprise innovation group (EIG) folds yesterday’s new variations into the operating model of the enterprise.
  • The two groups help better identity, coordinate, and prioritize the most-promising projects and spread technology tools, and best practices.

Their charge would be to create boundary-free zones where participating teachers and administrators realize their task is to encourage change and innovation by encouraging collaboration and inter-disciplinary approaches to problems.

Schools buildings participating in the Innovation zones would bridge what is all too common chasm  in today’s schools, i.e. the teachers are different from the “tech-support” offices. These two entities would work hand-in-hand to observe students, monitor progress, look for obstacles and challenges and find solutions that will solve those problems. In many cases those solutions can be resolved with appropriate technological supports. Technology will NEVER replace human interaction which is critical to successful education. Technology can however serve to make good teachers great if it is used to help them become the true professionals they are.

The innovation zones would have an initial life expectancy of five years. In that time the districts will be challenged to come up with unique solutions that will address the challenges facing schools in Ohio. Challenges will not be limited to advances in teaching, learning and assessment, but also to demonstrate administrative costs savings to the State by more appropriate use of technologies to create administrative efficiencies. Advances in these innovations zones will be shared with colleagues in other districts outside the innovation zones.

The task of the Superintendent will be to foster conversations among people with varieties of experiences. Foundations can partner with the States by focusing their grantmaking to programs within the innovation zones that have promise to meet these goals.

I submit that using Race to the Top funds to establish this type of culture for innovation would be far superior to what is currently in the application.

Ohio's Zones for Innovation in Education

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

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

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

Microsoft’s Creative Destruction

Published: February 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio’s School Improvement Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on a Foundation's Role to Address the Medically Uninsured

The economic depression continues to decimate families in communities throughout the area served by The Nord Family Foundation.   The President was in town last week and spoke about jobs.  The legislative quagmire over addressing health-care has thwarted meaningful conversation about this important topic.  Hope for a resolution to the challenge of the rapidly growing number of medically uninsured people is dissipated.  As politicians focus more on gaining political points for partisan camps, community members of this part of the rust belt still try to find solutions to this massive problem.

The Context – According to results from the 2008 Ohio Family Health Survey, there are an estimated 29,326 uninsured adults, age 18 to 64, in Lorain County.  This number represents 15.9% of adults in Lorain County, a statistically significant increase of 4.9% (9,160 persons) over 2004 figures.  Further, there are 2,723 uninsured children, under the age of 18.  This, however, represents 1% fewer uninsured children over 2004 figures.

The improvement in the rate among children is attributable in large part to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) which provided insurance for children in families with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty level.  In 2008, eligibility was increased from 200% of the federal poverty level.

Some of the characteristics of the adult uninsured population are as follows:

  • Males were more likely to be uninsured than females.
  • Younger adults have higher estimated uninsured rates than older adults.  In Lorain County, 34.1% of adults ages 18 to 24 were uninsured versus 8.4% of adults ages 45 to 64.
  • Married couples have much higher health insurance rates than others.  In Lorain County, 32.4% of unmarried adults ages 18 to 64 were uninsured versus 4.8% of married adults.
  • Adults ages 18 to 64 who are less educated are also less likely to have health insurance.  In Lorain County, those with a four-year college degree had an uninsured rate of 8.1% versus 47.6% for those with less than a high school diploma or equivalent.
  • Differences in employment status are also related to insurance status.  In Lorain County, 7.8% of full-time workers were uninsured, compared to 19.9% of part-time workers and 29.4% of unemployed adults.
  • In Lorain County, adults in households with income of at least twice the federal poverty level (FPL) had an uninsured rate of 8.5%. Those below poverty (less than 100% FPL) had an uninsured rate of 34.6%, and almost half (48.6%) of those with incomes between 101% and 150% FPL were uninsured.

The two primary hospital systems located in Lorain County are Community Health Partners Regional Medical Center and EMH Regional Healthcare System. Both systems do their share to provide care to those without coverage and/or the ability to pay.  In 2007, EMH provided approximately $17 million in charity care.  This was an increase of 15% over 2006, a 54% increase since 2004, and more than double 2001.  The same year, CHP provided $4.8 million in traditional charity care, and an additional $11.7 million in unpaid costs for Medicaid.

The Response – In 2008, The Nord Family Foundation contributed $129,000 to the Community Foundation of Greater Lorain County, to initiate HealthCare Lorain County.  These funds leveraged local grants allowing the group to contract with the Altarum Institute and the Public Services Institute of Lorain County Community College to facilitate a year-long community engagement and planning process aimed at improving access to health care for the uninsured in Lorain County.   The two contractors, guided by Robert Woods Johnson’s Communities in Charge, initiative  diagrammed stakeholders’ perspectives of the current and desired Lorain County health system, completed a local environmental scan, outlined key problems, and mapped provider resources.

Contributions from local funders included

Participants – Approximately forty (40) community leaders, referred to as the Working Group, participated on this initiative at some level and are committed to addressing/improving the health care situation in Lorain County.  This Working Group was comprised of individuals from all aspects of the health care field (hospitals, health departments, mental health board, medical society, etc.), as well as state and local government, law enforcement, social services, local funders, faith-based organizations, and business representatives.   A Steering Committee of ten (10) members acted as a sort of Executive Committee and met when the Working Group did not – vetting data and information and taking suggestions back to the larger Working Group.  Between August 2007 and December 2009, the Working Group and the Steering Committee each met five times, under the guidance/facilitation of the consultants.

Goal – HealthCare Lorain County focused its efforts around providing access to Medical Homes for the uninsured.  In a medical home model, primary care clinicians and allied professionals provide conventional diagnostic and therapeutic services, as well as coordination of care for patients that require services not available in primary care settings. The goal is to provide a patient with a broad spectrum of care, both preventive and curative, over a period of time and to coordinate all of the care the patient receives.  This “Medical Home” decision was reached by the Steering Committee in June 2008 and presented to the Working Group in late July 2008 after much data analysis regarding the statistics of the uninsured in Lorain County, and the current rates/usage stats of the two main hospital systems.   Over the next several months the group reviewed examples of other communities’ successful solutions to the same problem Lorain County is facing and ways in which those communities adopted medical home models or something similar.  December 2009, the Committee recommitted to the long-term goal.


Charity Hospitals

Currently, Community Health Partners has started a very small Medical Home pilot program with the assistance of the Lorain County Free Clinic – both of whom served on the Steering Committee.  The two main hospitals, CHP and EMH, along with the Steering Committee Chair and two of the larger foundations funders, met in November 2009 to discuss how the two hospitals are prepared to commit to/expand on a full Medical Home program for the Lorain County community.  The most viable option for the two appeared to be the Toledo CareNet model which serves a triaging center to make sure the medically uninsured and under-insured have a human being ushering them to an appropriate care.  CareNet’s strength is in providing a continuum of care for the medically indigent requiring chronic care.  At this writing, the hospitals are reluctant to make a financial commitment to what could amount to a $300,000 operating budget for CareNet to function in Lorain County.  The foundations are continuing to meet with the hospital directors to determine why this is the case.

Public Health Departments –

In 2008, The Public Services Institute (PSI) of Lorain County Community College was contracted by the Lorain City public health department to initiate a strategic plan.  The plan was published in July 2008 with little discussion from the Health Care Lorain County group. The plan calls for a need for the three entities to “collaborate,” but fails address Health Care Lorain County’s call to explore consolidation of the three separate health districts into one.  PSI had engaged in low-level negotiations with the health departments to push the idea of merger forward in 2009.   In January 2010, Nord Family Foundation inquired about the PSI’s efforts and received the following response from the Elyria Public Health Director,

We have been unable for many reasons to meet with Lorain City. We have of course had financial reductions in grants and have laid  two positions and eliminated the well child program. We just received an 100,000 cut in the general fund from Elyria — and so are anticipating  other major changes within this year — because so much of our budget depends on grants and those grants are on a fed fiscal year, we have until June to complete whatever we  decided to do about consolidation of some of our remaining programs, etc. This has been — due to our early and constant involvement withH!N! — a very difficult and challenging year. The Board has worked and supported us — but we all know we need to come up with a new business plan that will fit our budget. Unfortunately at a time when our services are really needed on a lot of fronts, we are at risk! But the Board is still interested in some kind of collaboration with Lorain city. There has been no enthusiasm or cordiality on their part re. to invitations — but they are also under stress.

PSI’s message to Nord Family Foundation is,

You will notice the strategic priority regarding collaboration.  Honestly, unless someone funds a neutral convener and facilitator to take these two entities to the next level, I doubt much will happen until either Kathy (Elyria director)  and/or Terry (Lorain director) retire.  Both individuals have to be close to this point so the time is now.

As these conversations continue, the Nord Family Foundation awarded $297,000 in grants to unrelated health-delivery organization in Lorain County between 2008-2009.  The recipient organizations are: Community Health Partners Regional Foundation; Family Planning Services of Lorain County; The Lorain County Free Clinic; The Lorain County General Health District and the Lorain County Health and Dentistry.

Progress is being made in that the foundations continue to engage in conversations with the hospitals, the federally qualified health centers and the free clinic.  An ad hoc committee on the medically uninsured continues to meet regularly with focus on sustaining the Lorain County drug repository.  The Nord Family Foundation hosts those monthly meetings.

After more than a year of meetings, the following challenges remain:

  1. There is a need to continue exploring this very complex issue of providing quality health-care to medically uninsured and underinsured 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 underinsured 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 Take Care Clinic raises questions about the place of these health departments in a 21st century health care model.
  6. The economic pressure necessitates collaboration between the two charitable hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.
  7. All eyes are on the negotiations with the impending federal health care legislation in Congress.

Lessons Learned

The challenge for the Nord Family Foundation (or any foundation) deciding to take on a convening effort of this magnitude trustees must determine

  • How visible a role you want the foundation 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)
  • determine how much staff time and money you are willing to put into the effort
  • look for innovation from players outside the local cohort
  • be willing to stick with it – conversations of this magnitude can take years but n the long run, the Medical Home is likely to result in savings to patients, employers, and health plans.  Increasing the emphasis on primary care could produce large dividends throughout our health care system