Tag Archives: policy

Funding education programs that “teach” the Constitution

Over the past few years, the Nord Family Foundation has received requests to support programs that encourage better knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.  The Liberty Day project, prints pocket-sized copies of the Constitution which are distributed to schools across the country on “Liberty Day”  We provided support to the Bill of Rights Institute for several years but stopped after a sudden administrative house cleaning took place a little over a year ago. (For those in nonprofit work, a turnover of an executive as well as other key staff in a short period of time will flag concern for funders).   Finally, the trustees turned down a request from the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University to support a summer institute for teachers from various States to spend two weeks learning about the U.S. Constitution from a panel of scholars from selected universities across the country.  The blatant political bias left some uneasy providing support to that project.

I find it curious with the apparent proliferation of non-school based non-profits that have taken on the responsibility to provide teacher training on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of  Rights.  I would agree that a majority of teachers do not fully understand the Constitution. The bitter partisan political debates, the acrimony and personal attacks parallel the vituperation between religious sects and denominations. The middle east is a sad and tragic example and in the west, one only look at the bitterness in Northern Ireland between “Catholics” and “Protestants.”  Killing appears to be justified based on one’s interpretation of “truth.”

I struggled with requests to support Constitutional programs, finding hard to discern between what is history and what is political histrionics! Thanks to an article in the January 2011 New Yorker, by Harvard History Profession, Jill Lepore, called “The Commandments-The Constitution and its worshippers.” I think I have better insight.  After reading it, I would be interested to know the trustees thoughts on how we should address requests to “teach” the constitution in schools and among the citizenry.  Comments are welcome!


Philanthropy and Race to the Top – The Experience in Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson learned:

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

Philanthropy and Education – too risk averse?

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

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

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

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech

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

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

Here I stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!!

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 Institutional Intolerance for Innovation in Education

At a Philanthropy Roundtable conference on Education, Chester “Checker” Finn hosted a panel discussion called Rebooting the Education System with Technology.  Mr. Finn mentioned his conversation with Clayton Christensen about his book Disrupting Class.  Although Mr. Finn praises the book vision, scope and very realistic assessment of where the demands for learning are moving, he considers Mr. Christensen to be remarkably naive to think this vision will be implemented by any State Department of Education.  The bureaucracy is just too ossified.  Mr. Finn’s prediction proved disappointingly true when the Ohio budget – House Bill-1 (that included funding for education) was passed.

The Nord Family Foundation contributed funding to a State-wide effort to inform the Governor and the legislature on the role of philanthropy.   After a year of a multi-constituency task force, including philanthropy and educational leaders from across the state, the final House Bill 1 .virtually ignored the top two recommendations which would have  “Created  Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come” were all but ignored by the State officials.  The top two recommendations were:

Create Ohio Innovation Zones and an Incentive Fund

  • Attract and build on promising school and instructional models (STEM, ECHS, charters etc.)
  • Introduce innovations w/ district-wide impact
  • Eliminate operational and regulatory barriers that preclude schools/districts from pursuing innovations
  • There is little to no emphasis in the Bill on removing operational and regulatory barriers, other than the recommendation that districts develop charter schools.

Focus on Transforming Low Performing Schools

  • Develop a statewide plan targeting lowest 10% of schools
  • Focus on research-based best practices
  • Develop rigorous, local restructuring plans w/ state guidance

The first recommendation was based on Innovation Schools Act  legislation in Colorado which established the creation of school innovation districts designed to  strengthen school-based decision-making by letting schools break free of certain district and state education rules.  This legislation allowed schools like the Bruce Randall School in Denver’s inner city to be relieved of the typical State imposed restrictions on access to technology and collective bargaining rules. This act enabled administrators to have significant flexibility over the length of the school year and the use of time during the school day, the hiring of staff, the leadership structure within the schools, and the ability to pay staff above the levels stated in the collective bargaining agreement for certain assignments.

Last month, the Indiana State Board of Education issued a blanket waiver allowing state-accredited public and private schools to use a broad range of multimedia, computer, and internet resources to supplement or replace traditional textbooks.

My work on the Ohio Grantmakers Forum Education Committee has made me come to learn that the political leadership in Ohio acts much like many companies when confronted with the idea of innovation.  An article in the November 2008 Harvard Business Review, authors James Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morrison.  Teaming Up to Crack Innovation Enterprise Integration write that, “…business innovation and integration have two things in common – both are still ‘unnatural acts.   …Businesses are better at stifling innovation than at capitalizing on it, better at optimizing local operations than at integrating them for the good of the enterprise and its customers.  The larger and more complex the organizations, the stronger the status quo can be in repelling both innovation and integration.”  This assumption  is reified when one looks at reports from local charter schools our foundation has supported over the years.

“Advocating for charter school funding has been a challenge this year. Governor Strickland’s first budget reduced funding to charters so significantly that E Prep would have had to close its doors if the budget had been adopted. E Prep joined Citizens’ Academy and The Intergenerational School and hired a state lobbyist to help draw attention to both the success of these schools and the devastating effect of the proposed budget. In addition, many, many E Prep supporters were asked to write letters to the state legislators. The budget that was finally passed restored funding to charters, thankfully. We believe we will have to revisit this issue in two years, however.”

Herein marks an interesting parallel to our work with OGF.  Philanthropy as a sector is great at setting up “pockets” of innovative projects and in many cases supporting successful schools that work.  When reporting these successes to the public sector, public school leaders repel those concepts, often fueled with activist organizations like teachers unions to tell people why things like successful charter schools or faith-based enterprises rob the system of monies.  Try introducing innovative technological solutions in schools and many will not participate in the training that is inevitable required unless stipends are provided.  Leaders (including governors and the state and local superintendents and even board members) who do not understand the technology and/or innovations will act similarly to the CEO’s described in the article.  They allow the status quo to repel both innovation and integration.  The best the legislature could do in response to the explosion of innovative technologies and approaches to learning and assessment available was to appropriate $200,000 to establish an Office of Innovation within the Ohio Department of Education to examine best practices.  This is the epitome of command and control economy practices.  Ohio’s intolerance for innovative practice outside the public system is known nationally.

The final report on the bill shows where the legislature, and ultimately the governor took recommendations.  In short, they went for recommendations that dealt with nominal modifications to recommendations about standards, teacher hiring and firing principals and modest changes in granting public school teachers tenure.  The decisions were influenced heavily by partisan politicking on the part of the Governor, his aids and the Head of the Chancellor of the State Board of Regents.   Unfortunately, the policy makers adopted least resistance to anything that would jeopardize relations with the ever powerful Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Teachers Union.  When setting out on this committee, I was not expecting to become so negative about the teachers unions; however. it is evident to me that unless the system is shaken up,  the unions have too much interest in self-preservation  and the status quo than they do in promoting innovation.

The OGF Committee remains committed to continuing conversation about exploring options for Innovation Zones across the State.  In philanthropy, I think trustees of foundations have a moral obligation to state authorities to focus attention on improving educational opportunities for students who are trapped in under performing public schools.  It remains to be seen whether those efforts will result in legislative change in this ossified State School bureaucracy.  To be fair, I think Philanthropy needs to do a better job informing the power stakeholders in defining what innovation is and what innovation in a school district can and should look like.  It is not only related to technology.

Innovation in education technology – evidenced by the rapid proliferation of Online learning, as well as improvements in technologies that will support the burgeoning number of children in public schools in need of special education is happening at rapid pace.  Change is happening and schools must be prepared for how those changes will benefit children and families in poor performing districts. For them, education is their ticket out of poverty.

I do not believe that technology is the answer for all districts, especially districts that are financially challenged.  I do however think that innovation includes new ways of approaching teaching and learning that stand outside the box of the top-down structures of the ODE.  I have posted previously on successful charter and faith-based schools that have little to no technology, but can and do produce students with academic achievement that far outpaces that which is done in neighboring public schools.  I will write more on my ideas on innovation  in my next post.

The Past speaks to the Present

I recently read the wonderful book by Vanguard Investments founder John C. Bogle entitled  Enough.  This book is filled with wisdom and insight into the accumulation of money with focus on the financial sector.  Enough includes discussion about the salaries that CEO’s of the large financial firms made just as the economy began its nose dive.  Mr. Bogle paraphrases Winston Churchill saying, ” ‘Never has so much been paid to so many for so little’ in the way of accomplishment.”

I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in philanthropy but most importantly for anyone who finds him or herself in a position of owning or being the beneficiary of significant wealth.

After reading the book, I remained disturbed about the newspaper reports of compensation and bonuses offered to investment firms and banks that had been the recipients of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) initiated by the Federal Reserve just short of one year ago.  I need not go into the details.  Suffice to say I was listening to a story about executive compensation on the National Public Radio’s Market place on September 2, 2009.  Bailout bank CEO salaries very healthy.  I listened as I drove through working-class neighborhoods of the Ohio county where I live.  These modest homes owned by people who, for the most part, worked in the manufacturing industries that were once numerous – Ford Motor Plant, Republic Steel, American Shipbuilding not to mention numerous smaller manufacturers.  In one neighborhood alone, I counted fourteen houses for sale.  I am quite certain that most are in foreclosure.

I think a challenge for the philanthropic sector is to set a standard for what people can do with this sudden wealth.  The thought brought me back to exactly ten years ago when, new to my job in philanthropy, I was asked by the then Donors Forum of Ohio to come to Columbus to provide testimony to the State Attorney General Betty Montgomery and her Tobacco Task Force which was called to gather ideas on how Ohio should deal with the approximate $10 billion windfall in tobacco settlement monies.  We argued that the State should set up three Trust Funds overseen by the general public with protections that would ensure that money would be focused on reducing tobacco use in the State and take aggressive measures to improve public health.    The state did establish funds, but did not relinquish power to a general public fund similar to a community fund.  As a result, a significant amount of the funds were used by the governor to pay for budgetary shortfalls beginning in 2006.

After the funds came to Ohio, it became evident that a number of lawyers began receiving huge salaries for their involvement with the funds.   In September 1999, I wrote the following piece addressed to lawyers who benefited from the windfall.   I submit it to this blog asking the reader to imagine the same suggestion to CEO’s and hedge fund managers who have won mightily at the game of risk management, often on the backs of those who have lost savings and their homes.  The Presidents have changed, but the call to give back still holds. not only to CEO’s but lawyers and any professional that stands to earn well in a time when others are loosing everything.

The question is what leader in the political or philanthropic sector is willing to keep the theme in front of those who benefit from the bounty.

September 1999

Tobacco Settlement for Lawyers Fees –

Dreams of What Could Be

About a year ago, I was asked to Testify before the Governors Task Force Committee on Tobacco.  I an my colleague Lyn Hiberling-Sirinack from Donor’s Forum of Ohio stood before the committee which included State Attorney General Betty Montgomery.  In our testimony, we gloated over the fact that we were the only people in the room not requesting money.  Instead, we made a plea that the Governor not spend all the settlement money at once, but reserve a portion (we recommended one third) of the 10 billion dollars in settlement monies into a charitable foundation.  Our testimony demonstrated that placing approximately $3.5 billion in a Trust for all the people of Ohio could increase in value over time, and in doing so, ensure charitable off-sets for inevidtable shortfalls in the State Budget for years to come.  Although we do not pretend to take credit for the decision, the Task Force did make the recommendation to set up two “Trusts” that would be used to support development projects well into the future.  The recommendations were accepted and two Trusts have been set up to serve the citizens of Ohio.

A year later, I find myself stunned at the unprecedented amount of money $265 million dollars that the Tobacco Free Arbitration Panel has decided to award three Ohio Law firms and five out-of-state firms for legal fees for successfully working with the State of Ohio to secure the $10 billion dollars.  I am in no position to make any comment or pass judgment on the size of the legal award and the amount of time that went into the effort.  I do find myself wondering however about how that money will be spent.

A quick scan of recent newspaper articles reveals that many law firms involved in the state tobacco settlements have contributed to the political campaign of a Seattle attorney whose consultations enabled a number of private law firms to reap as much as $20 billion dollars in legal fees.  That is quite an accomplishment.  A New York Times article describes hundreds of thousands of dollars from tobacco settlement legal fees going to support Democratic candidates.  In one instance, a lawyer from Charleston, West Virginia who headed up the legal team for the Florida tobacco settlement gave $30,000 for charities in three cities in that State.

If there were a panel like the one I testified last year,  I would make a plea that the three Ohio and the five out-of-state firms to apportion some of this windfall for public charities.  I would love to challenge the lawyers to think boldly, strategically and bravely and apportion on half of the award  $130 million  – to an existing or new charity to respond to any number of charitable needs.  A Tobacco Lawyers Charitable Trust with an operating corpus of $130 million dollars, invested properly could yield approximately $6.5 million dollars each year for charitable programs throughout the State of Ohio.  If a national charity were established with just a fraction of the $20 billion dollars awarded to legal firms, the impact would perhaps be as significant as

Just as an example, wouldn’t it be great to have the lawyers Trust fund a program that would resurrect speech and debate programs in all Ohio public schools.  Speech and debate programs could encourage young people to engage constructively in public debate and perhaps groom some future lawyers.

Surely the lawyers who have benefited from the Tobacco Settlements have the right to choose how to spend their money.  Supporting political candidates is entirely within character and perhaps to be expected.  Curiously however, each of the Presidential candidates has made a point of encouraging philanthropy.  The Chronicle of Philanthropy quoted George W. Bush as wanting to take a “muscular” approach to encourage giving.  Mr. Bush stated, “”We could be on the verge of one of the great philanthropic periods in America, where enormous wealth has been generated,” he said in an interview. “The next president needs to encourage that wealth to spread. People need to give back.”

Let the lawyers of this State exercise this muscular approach to encourage giving back.

Ten years later, the characters change, but the call has not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A district-wide initiative across the state would require an entities that supports the multi-district application.  I suggest that a good model can be found in a November 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review by authors James Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morrison.  Teaming Up to Crack Innovation Enterprise Integration is written for the business growth with focus on CEO’s, Chief Information Officers (CIO’s) and IT organizations.  The model easily adapts to a State education bureaucracy and includes two elements that would be critical to the success of the Innovation districts.  Their thesis is relatively straightforward.  Here is how they summarize the concept:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAND reports on Charter Schools – thoughts for philanthropy

I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by KidsOhio lead by a true champion for children in Ohio – Mark Real.  KidsOhio and the Columbus Foundation invited education “stakeholders” to hear the results of a RAND evaluation of  Charter Schools in eight states across the country.  The stakeholders included foundations, State elected officials,  Columbus School Board members, representatives of the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Federation of Teachers as well as the State Board of Education.   Ron Zimmer, Co-Author lead the discussion.  Two panelists responding to the findings included Jennifer Smith Richards, Education Enterprise Reporter with the Columbus Dispatch and Scott Stephens, former Education Writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and currently Senior Writer for Catalyst-Ohio.  Mr. is also a former education for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and covered charter schools when they were first authorized in Ohio.  The meeting was well attended and I sensed genuine interest on the part of all who attended.

There are four main findings to the report:

1. Charter schools are not skimming the highest-achieving students from traditional public schools,  nor are they creating racial stratification.

2.  On average, across varying communities and policy environments, charter middle and high schools produce achievement gains that are about the same as those in traditional public schools.

3.  Charter schools do not appear to help or harm student achievement in nearby public schools.

4.  Students who are attending charter high schools were more likely to graduate and go on to college.

Mr. Zimmer was quick to qualify the data saying that this is an average of the data collected across eight States.  Each State has its own legislative restrictions to authorize charter schools, and each has different funding allocations as well. These differences will affect the quality of charters.  There is a very broad spectrum of quality among charters schools, much of which is attributed to authorizing rules.

The research finds that,  for the most part,  all charter schools take children who have some of the lowest performance scores anywhere.   The truly impressive outcome of the meeting was to hear from the RAND researchers and from the panelists themselves that there are several charter schools in Cleveland that are “extraordinary” and reporting remarkably successful results.  These include the E-Prep Charter School and Success Prep.  They found that these schools succeed because they make the investment in training the principals and teachers.  Marshall Emerson, the outstanding director of the E-Prep trained for one-year at the Boston-based  Building Excellent Schools. This organizations was funded initially from the Walton Family Foundation and has produced some of the finest leaders of charter schools across the country.   Building In Excellent Schools has demonstrated tremendous success in many States across the country.   In my opinion, the State of Ohio – including the ODE, the legislature and the Governor would do well to allocate funds to send a core group of promising school leaders to attend this one year program to support charter schools in the State.   After five-years foundations could support an evaluation of the outcome of these schools compared with their public school peers and measure the outcome.  Such a project could be a great opportunity to learn from investments in education.

The audience was respectful.  I felt as though I was in a room with people who were confused with the findings.  Ms.  Smith-Richards commented that she has been covering the charter school movement since its inception.  Initially there was overt hostility toward charters on the part of the education community, but it is her sense that people are now more open and interested in the results of charter schools. Mr. Stevens admitted that laxity on the part of the authorizing bodies resulted in a proliferation of charters schools in Ohio. As he stated, “Some began with well-meaning people who wanted to respond to the education but realized two-years into it that quality schooling is harder than one might initially think!”  Clearly one has to know what they are doing.

Interesting to the discussion however is  the recent opinion on charter schools  from Ohio Federation of  Teachers Director, Sue Taylor.  Ms. Taylor did not attend the meeting but representatives from her department did.  Her May 2009 letter to President Obama excoriates charters schools claiming they have by an large, failed in the State of Ohio.  You can read the excerpt from the letter at the OFT website.   As a funder, it is disheartening to see how far this organization will go to deliberately mis-represent facts to move a political agenda.   It is equally disturbing to me to see how much power organizations like this have to thwart truly innovative programs in education.

I would love to see her do a public debate on the findings, not to  mention address the enthusiasm of  Cleveland Browns player Jason Wright.

The report indicated that there is an increase in the amount of virtual  or e-schools in Ohio which is having an influence on both charter and Public Schools.  The speakers encouraged those in the audience to read carefully Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class.  Clearly people in the room do not know what to make of this disruption and few really understand electronic curriculum and schools.

The most important statistic for anyone interested in education is finding number 4. Why is it that charters across the board have greater success in having students not only complete high-school but complete college! Complete is the operative word here because as we know young people get into college but too many find they are not prepared for the work and wind up dropping out.

RAND wants to explore the reasons why charter schools appear to produce better results for students to stay in school. I think foundations would do well to continue to fund these types of studies.

For a State that is focused on increasing the number of College graduates, this fact warrents investments in schools that show promise to deliver on those goals.

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

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

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

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

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

The author describes P-16 as a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hope for P-16 in a economically struggling community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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