Tag Archives: Social Software

From invention to innovation

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

– Harold Evans – former editor of the London Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use of Web-based Board Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of the fall of 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the teachers presents the following challenge

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

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

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

Consolidation in Ohio School Districts – Long overdue but change is happening in some places

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.

This statement if part of a set of recommendations made by Brookings in a report entitled, Restoring Prosperity, Transforming Ohio’s Communities for the Next Economy
The report makes specific recommendations urging the state to:

  • Make the costs of school district administration  transparent to Ohioans
  • Push school districts to enter aggressive shared  services agreements
  • Create a BRAC-like commission to mandate best  practices in administration and cut the number of Ohio’s school districts by at least one-third

The state also needs to catalyze local government collaboration. Ohioans live and work amid a proliferation of local governments. The state has 3,800 local government jurisdictions, including 250 cities, 695 villages, and 1,308 townships. Ohioans have the ninth highest local tax burden in the U.S., compared to the 34th highest for state taxes. While the proliferation of local governments and the fragmentation of the state into tiny “little box” jurisdictions may satisfy residents’ desire for accessible government, it also creates a staggering array of costs, such as duplication of infrastructure, staffing, and services, and a race-to-the-bottom competition among multiple municipalities for desirable commercial, industrial, and residential tax base. Perhaps most damaging is the fact that fragmented regions are less competitive than more cohesive metropolitan regions. To encourage collaboration, save costs, and boost competitiveness, the state should:

  • Change state law to make local government tax  sharing explicitly permitted
  • Create a commission to study the costs of local  government and realign state and local funding
  • Catalyze a network of public sector leaders to  promote high performance government
  • Support the creation of regional business plans
  • Reward counties and metros that adopt  innovative governance and service delivery

The top tier of the administrative-heavy Ohio Education bureaucracy will probably take a very very long time to address some of these critical issues.   It is delightful to go out to the field and find places where shared resources ARE taking place, due to the initiatives of teachers and good administrators who are working on the ground.  Just this past month, the foundation I work with provided a grant of $100,000 to initiate a county-wide shared curriculum for the nationally respected science curriculum known as Project Lead the Way.

Lorain County, Ohio is currently in desperate  need of a skilled, knowledgeable workforce that will help attract new industry to Northeast Ohio.  In order to successfully meet the challenges in the years ahead, it is very important that young students are encouraged to pursue careers in science and technology. This is especially critical when one considers the growing gap between the increasing demands in the workforce and the shrinking supply of professionals in science, engineering and technology.


Established in 1971, The Lorain County JVS provides career-technical training for both the high school and adult populations of Lorain County. The JVS is located on a 10-acre campus on the corners of State Route 58 and 20 in Oberlin, Ohio. It is one of the largest career-technical facilities in the state of Ohio and offers some of the most outstanding, nationally accredited career development programs in Northern Ohio.  The JVS serves 13 school districts: Amherst, Avon, Avon Lake, Clearview, Columbia, Elyria, Firelands, Keystone, Midview, North Ridgeville, Oberlin, Sheffield-Sheffield Lake and Wellington.

The high school annually serves over 1,100 students on campus. In addition, the JVS provides satellite programs for an additional 700 students in 13 associate school districts. These satellite programs include Network Communications Technology, Consumer & Family Science, Teacher Education Exploration, Career Connections, Career Based Intervention and GRADS.

At the JVS, high school students can explore over 30 career options through a wide range of exciting career and technical programs available in the following academies: Building Trades, Business & Marketing, Culinary, Manufacturing & Pre-Engineering, Transportation, Service, and College Tech-Prep.

The Adult Career Center was also established in 1971. It annually serves approximately 4,500 adults from all cities in Lorain County. Many adult students prepare for their careers in 17 full-time career development programs. In addition to the career development programs, the Adult Career Center offers a large number of career enhancement and special interest courses which include customized training, job profiling, and assessment services for business and industry. Services are provided on-site or at the JVS. For on-site training, a self-contained mobile training unit can be taken to the worksite to provide machine trades and computer training programs.


Project Lead the Way© (PLTW) provides unique opportunities to use cutting edge technology and software in activity, project, and problem-based learning.  Teachers must attend summer training where they complete each lesson that they will teach during the course of the school year.  PLTW provides teachers with ongoing support as they implement the program. PLTW pre-engineering curriculum is a three-year sequence of courses which, when combined with college preparatory mathematics and science courses in high school, introduces students to the scope, rigor and discipline of engineering and engineering technology prior to entering college.  Not only is it important to attract students to engineering degrees, this is an opportunity to prepare students for the rigors of college.

Eight school districts in Lorain County (Avon, Avon Lake, Amherst, Firelands, Clearview, North Ridgeville, Wellington, and Oberlin currently participate in the curriculum;  (Elyria is interested in joining in 2011 once their building project is completed).  Additionally, Lorain County Community College (LCCC), early-college students will have the opportunity to study pre-engineering principles and computer aided design beginning in their sophomore year of high school. PLTW was chosen because of its nationally tested qualities that encourage student success:

  • Receiving necessary extra help and support to meet higher standards
  • Experiencing relevant and engaging learning experiences in academic and career/technical classes.

Avon, Avon Lake and North Ridgeville will provide their own instructors.  The JVS will provide instructors to Clearview, Firelands, Wellington, Oberlin and Amherst.

The PLTW Planning Committee is comprised of eight school districts, community and business partners.  Some of the school districts have teachers ready to attend training this summer. All districts involved have signed a school agreement with Project Lead the Way with the national offices.  In the first year of this collaboration, 200 students will be enrolled in the first course.

Once students have completed the first course at their home school, four PLTW pre-engineering courses will be offered at the South site of the JVS and the North satellite location at Lorain County Community College. Pathway options include an Associate of Science degree, Associate of Applied Science, or a Certificate of Proficiency.  Students can choose an engineering school of their choice. Courses planned at the JVS and LCCC include Principles of Engineering, Digital Electronics, Computer-Integrated Manufacturing, Engineering Design and Development and a capstone course where students partner with a business in Lorain County to solve an open-ended engineering problem.  A plan of action is in place to implement PLTW pre-engineering curriculum in eight districts in 2010 (contingent upon computer equipment) and PLTW biomedical science curriculum in 2011.

Once the site labs at the eight districts are in place, the JVS will use these facilities in year two to initiate the PLTW Biomedical Sciences curriculum following the same collaborative design. To move forward, the JVS needs to purchase the computers that have the capacity to support the engineering software and graphic programs at each host site.

The JVS Project Lead The Way pre-engineering program is in its second year.  Two JVS students completed summer internships at NASA in 2009.  Senior Katie Fallon spoke at the Ohio PLTW luncheon on November 4, 2009 in Dayton, Ohio.  Each school district has 25+ students who want to take the Introduction to Engineer course in fall 2010. The JVS is slated to earn national certification in spring 2010.  The JVS will graduate its first PLTW pre-engineering students in June 2010.  This grant will help expand the program to eight additional school districts in Lorain County.  Lorain County Community College is ready for the 2011 school year when the first class of juniors will arrive at the satellite site.  The first biomedical sciences course will start in 2011 at the district site. Each district has completed a signed agreement with Project Lead the Way at both the national and state levels.  The partnership with Lorain County Community College has been established. This coalition supports implementing the PLTW biomedical science curriculum in 2011.

  • Job Placement/Post Secondary: 2008 Grads — 6 months after graduation
  • 52% were pursuing post-secondary education
  • 54% were employed in careers related to their JVS program
  • General Operating Budget: $25 million (58% local funding/42% state funding)
  • Educational Foundation Scholarships, Incentives and Grants: $69,375

Despite the exciting potential for this program, Project Lead the Way will scramble to have to find the additional $150,000 needed to see it to completion.  The Race to the Top frenzy, disqualifies projects like this because a Joint Vocational Services Center is not considered a Local Educational Authority (LEA).  Even the federal funding system works out of an old district model that works against many of the recommendations set forth by the Brookings report.   Nonetheless, the teachers will continue to try and find the funds from private and corporate sources to make this program work.

I have had the great honor to spend a few hours with  teachers from the PLTW at the JVS.  I was so encouraged by our conversation  I did two things.  I want to share with you some of the quotes from our conversation.  And secondly, I asked the faculty to play with a tool called Voicethread.

In a very informal session, I  asked two teachers and one administrator from the Lorain County Joint Vocational Services to share their thoughts on what contributes to successful teaching and learning in a world where technology is changing the very foundations of how students learn.

Dr. Cathy Pugh:  Education has changed dramatically since I began teaching some 30 years ago.  We still have a hard time getting over the “factory model” for educating young people.  Getting kids through an assembly line of courses in order to graduate is a model that no longer works.  Other teachers and I are excited about encouraging youngsters to focus on learning rather than just getting a grade.  A new approach to teaching, supported by technology allows us as science teachers to encourage them to take risks.  Our approach is to help them to understand it is o.k. to fail as long as you learn from mistakes.

Jim Pavlick:  We are trying to reintroduce the concept of “play” into learning, especially in the sciences.  Kids come up with some crazy ideas, but a wise teacher knows this is where really good teaching opportunities arise.  My theory is, ‘if you throw it out, you have to be ready to catch it, so it is ok to respond to new ideas with ‘I don’t know, so let’s find out.’ A lot of kids want to have the answers ready for them.  The exciting educational moment is to help them take responsibility for their learning by explaining to their peers, as well as their teachers the process they used to prove or disprove why their idea can or cannot work.

Mike Bennett:  I worked as an engineer for 25 years before moving to teaching. When I first started in business a young engineer could work in isolation.  Technology has changed that paradigm.  Today, companies encourage collaboration.  These are changes I try to impart in my teaching high school students.   Working in teams, encouraging people to come up with creative solutions to problems is the way to go. Communication  – being able to speak and write well are critical to science, math and engineering skills today. Computer technology such as 3D programs used for engineering and drafting has changed the way teachers and students learn in that discipline.  Thirty-years ago, a student had to memorize theorems and later apply it to drawing.  Today, the 3D programs allow students to readily apply the theory with practice.  Even more exciting is the fact that engineering becomes art with its unique and language.  These are very exciting times to be a teacher.  I love my job.

These teachers are an inspiration to the profession.  It is my sincere hope that the education bureaucracy will see to it that projects like this will get the federal and state support they need to serve the young people of our country.

If you want to listen to the teachers talking about the program, you will probably have to sign up for a voicethread account.  It is worth it!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messers. Lester and Piore write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio's Zones for Innovation in Education

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

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

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

Microsoft’s Creative Destruction

Published: February 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio’s School Improvement Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry King and Sarah Palin talk about the civic fabric

Dear Reader,

I thought the letter would intrigue you, please read on…

When I was in seventh grade, Sister Michael Mary emphasized that, “…to be anything in life, you must always re-read anything you write out loud and to yourself. The task was reemphasized later in high school with my teacher, Sister Kevin Marie. I found myself channeling my inner nun with my high-school aged sons urging them to do the same with each of their essays. Everyone in my family has tried a variety of text-to-voice tools but they never really worked well. My wife is a teacher of languages at Oberlin College and runs a blog called Language Lab Unleashed. She showed me a very interesting tool that teachers are exploring in classrooms. It is called Xtranormal, and could have applications in classrooms. Just to play with it, I decided to use a “Letter to the Editor” which the Cleveland Plain Dealer Published on January 3, 2010. The original letter which comments on a ruling by the Ohio High School Athletic Association with regard to a soccer tournament at a private school in Cleveland.  The result would make Sisters Kevin Marie and Michael Mary happy.

January 03, 2010, 4:07AM

The story of the forfeiture of the Hathaway Brown soccer team’s state title should anger every parent of a child engaged in sports at any high school in the state. The Ohio High School Athletic Association rules were developed to address the inane acts of a few misguided adults and coaches who, instead of serving as role models of good sportsmanship, will stack teams in an effort to win at all costs.Having coached recreational youth soccer over the years, I was amazed at the number of parents who thought they had permission to verbally assault coaches and referees. More shocking was the number of coaches who would try to find “ringers” to win a game. These few adults are the ones to blame for this hideously stupid set of rules developed by OHSAA.

I know of several young people at independent schools who, through no fault of their own, transferred to new schools and were prohibited from participating on the new schools’ teams. Past actions of self-serving adults created a situation that now punishes young people across the state.

Adults need to learn that cheating to meet their own unfulfilled fantasies has an effect on the entire civic fabric. The OHSAA needs to be less punitive, re-examine its rules and consider a policy that will allow the student, his or her parents and the school’s coach and principal to develop a policy on a case-by-case basis rather than submit to a rule like this that creates cynicism and resentment.
John Mullaney, Oberlin

I realize that few people take the time to read letters to the editor, especially on a Sunday.  To enhance the impact of my comments, I decided to turn my letter to the editor into an discussion topic featuring Larry King and Sarah Palin.  I took the time to add additional comments.  The outcome is, if nothing else, mildly entertaining.

So I also did a similar adaptation of a paragraph from the a June 14 2009 post on this blog. Here is how it turned out.

I am not sure yet how these tools can apply to foundations, philanthropy and the nonprofit world. I thought perhaps an entire board book in this format could provide an added dimension to the dreadful anticipation of “the Board Book.” Any viable suggestions would be welcome. One are where there might be some interest is in the area of autism where children seem to relate well to computer games.

Innovation Zones in Education and Government

In previous blog postings, I lament the fact that governments are slow to pick up on implementing Innovation Zones.  On reflection, I realize –as is often the case – the problem perhaps related in our groups inability to provide a more precise vision of what  an Innovation Zone could look like.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Innovation by its nature implies risk-taking.  Government entities (and some philanthropic institutions) tend to be risk averse.

I have struggled with the question how can philanthropy play a role in galvanizing the community around the idea of implementing zones where we can do something about the many glaring inefficiencies we see in our local governments.  I continue to be intrigued by Innovation Zones.  Some municipalities have introduced Innovation Zones but these are typically involve tax incentives between public and private entities to attract new businesses into towns.  The Innovation Zone I propose of are not to attract new business, but change the ineffective ‘business as usual approach to public management.  These Innovation Zones  engage the public, private, university and nonprofit sector in a zone (virtual and real) to demonstrate new collaborations that will result in cost savings and produce greater efficiencies in service delivery.  I hope that soon philanthropy will help to develop just one as a demonstration site that can be replicated in many other communities across the country.

I am going to attempt to answer for myself the following questions.  Anyone reading this blog is welcome to comment and perhaps provide answer I cannot see at this point.

  • What is an innovation zone mean?
  • How does one create and foster innovation zones?
  • What is the goal of an innovation Zone?

Continue reading

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.