Tag Archives: Universal Design for Learning

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.

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.

Can P-16 Compacts usher Innovation Districts for Education?

Last week, I met with my colleagues from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) Education Task Force.  The purpose of the meeting was to get an update on how the report recommendation Beyond Tinkering influenced Governor Strickland education budget.  The publication purports to  help guide policy to “Create Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.”  The budget in its current form does little to meet that reality.

The Governor ignored the number one recommendation placed forward by the philanthropic sector which is to create several education  “Innovation Zones” throughout the State.   He also ignored another compelling recommendation which was to establish a Statewide P-16 Education Technology Plan. Instead his staff appropriated $200,000 in the budget to establish a Creativity and Innovation Center within the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).   I suggested the Governor would do well to reallocate that line item to another area because such a center  ultimately serves as another top-down management tool for a system that needs another organizational system.

The education reform – dictated by budge constraints promises to be an expensive Tinkering Project informed by political agendas. It is discouraging as a funder to see incredibly innovative approaches to teaching and learning at places like Case and Oberlin College ignored by the pubic school sector.   It is energizing to meet the vast number of teachers and people across the country who are pushing innovation in schools in informal networks.  It is most disheartening to see how little foundation people, business leaders and school bureaucrats  understand the potential technology has to support innovative approaches to learning and understanding.  Foundations in particular seem to be risk averse when it comes to seeking out true innovation.  Too many of us resist appealing to the god of “Evidence-based practices” which seem only to gain credibilty if funded through expensive consultants from graduate schools of education.  To me, that term is becoming argot or those who fear real change to public schools as we know them.

As I watch this budget develop, I find it tragic that those who advise the governor seem to lack any understanding of the power and impact that new learning technologies can have not only in schools but in the market as well.  The new technologies and approaches come with massive disruptive change in school management and teaching.  Perhaps a concept far too big for policy makers to embrace.

One of the most formidable challenges for this Governor is changing i educational management in communities where the economic downturn continues to erode civic virtue.   The following article appeared in the Elyria Chronicle, the newspaper for a mid-west city where the loss of manufacturing jobs has resulted in decreased population and concentration of poverty in the city core.  Elyria was once a center of commerce in this part of NE Ohio.  Fifty years ago, a working-class family could afford a nice home, have a yard, worship at the church or temple of their choice, join clubs and graduate from schools.  The good life attracted families in the post-war boom years.  The school district has struggled with low-performing outcomes on State Standardized tests coupled with increases in social ills associated with poverty.  On the same day, the paper reported incidents about a shooting of a teen in one neighborhood, the resignation of the county law director who was jailed for drunk driving, a severe beating of one school wrestler with another at a garage party where beer and marijuana was present and a story about the former director of the Community Development Corporation (South Elyria CDC) who is a fugitive from the law – accused of stealing more than $50,000 from the agency.

Many in the next generation of those baby boom families have left the region resulting in population decrease and with that diminished need for the various school buildings.   Last week The Elyria Chronicle  paper announced the board decided to close two neighborhood schools. As a result, students will be bussed to another building which will now serve as a consolidated school.  Note the report on how administration will address the teaching staff.  If you are a new teacher, your abilities mean nothing.  Union rules make it that no matter what the skill level seniority trumps ability.

In addition to the closings, the district — which also has a projected deficit for 2013 — will lay off 23 teachers — eight at the elementary level, 13 secondary and two special education teachers.

(The), district director of human resources, said the 23 teachers will be notified this week of the reduction plan. At the April 8 board meeting, board members will vote to approve the contract termination of each.

He does not anticipate that enough veteran teachers will decide to leave the district before that time, saving some of the younger teachers from losing their jobs.

So far, only three retirements have officially been announced. There are no plans to offer any sort of retirement incentive, he said.

The teachers slated to be lost have one to three years of experience with the district.

Combined, the cost-cutting measures will save the district $2.25 million annually and erase the projected 2012 deficit while decreasing the 2013 deficit to $700,000, (The)Superintendent said.

As I read the article, I drew parallels to what has happened in the manufacturing sector in many towns in this Great Lakes region.  Factories are closing across the county.  We see the empty and furloughed factories of the car manufacturers  who are now in danger of bankruptcy due to obsolete management and product design that make their cars irrelevant to the American buying public. Other businesses have moved abroad or to the South because they cannot meet union demands.  I spoke with one businessman who told me he had a hard time finding workers who could pass random drug tests.  These are the realities contributing to the economic malaise in NE Ohio.  The malaise is transferred to some of the public schools as well. Teachers stick to obsolete curriculum and assessment tools.  Morale is low because they are not treated as professionals and the State pushes them to produce test results in the way a factory pushed workers to produce widgets.  In this envorinment, where teaching can be the last hold-out profession for families, I can understand how fear and protection can govern local policy decisions.  Change is long overdue, but the community does not seem prepared to even ask the right questions to find a way out.

The Fund for Our Economic Future is a unique collaboration of the philanthropic sector which  pooled funds  to support organizations by providing early-stage venture capital to innovative individuals with promising businesses.  In its first year, the Fund supported a region-wide conversation on the economic challenges called Voices and Choices .  This $3 million dollar effort captured community concerns.  Number one concern for the citizens of NE Ohio was addressing the poor educational system and the second was jobs.  The regions leaders were able to respond quite well to the jobs issue.  Working in coordination with the State to leverage   Third Frontier Funds into the region the Fund has worked closely with the business and political leadership to create an engine of economic activity for new and emerging business in the region.  The effort has resulted in tens of millions of new dollars coming into the region and the creation of  jobs.  The Cleveland Foundation has taken a lead role in collaborating with business and the universities directing funds to stimulate innovative businesses in energy and nanotechnology.

Elyria has one of Ohio’s best community colleges, Lorain County Community College with a magnificent new LEED certified building called the Entrepreneurship  Innovation Institute (EII) that provides training to people with ideas and shows them how to bring it to scale.  The Nord Family Foundation provided support to both the Fund for Our Economic Future and to local efforts with Team Lorain County and EII.  At the same time, Elyria, it is a tale of two cities.   On one end, stands this  center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with a vision of moving this economically desperate community to the future.   On the other end  the school district is depressed and managing a response straight out of 1960’s.   There is little hope for true innovation because the bureaucracies will not allow change to happen if it means changing the way things have always been done.  It will not change as long as those in power will protect their jobs  to the detriment of the greater good.

This focused region-wide effort to reinvigorate and innovate in the manufacturing sector in NE Ohio has been seriously lacking in the education sector. There is no focus for discussion and no horizion with a vision of what can be.   Despite remarkable resources in centers like Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, One Community, Cleveland State (to name only a few) the public school system is stagnating with a system that resists any invitation for  innovation.  Few in the public education system in the region even know these resources exist much less how to make use of their innovations.  The public school system appears to be experiencing a random approach to innovation, and seems more concerned with addressing job retention within the system.  There are exceptions.  The success of the MC2STEM school initiatives show promise, but these schools are in the minority.  Rather than stimulating innovation, the  Governor’s draft budget hinder it because it includes language that will cut support to some of the most innovative charter schools in the State.

I cannot understand why a Governor so tuned to the need to stimulate innovation in industry, is so opposed to doing the same in education.  Why not create an innovation  and entrepreneur district in this town of Elyria? (other cities like Cleveland could be candidates as well)   Why not tap into the potential a P-16 compact could have in pushing that agenda.  If the car manufacturers and other industries are changing to meet the needs of the next 25 years, why can’t the bureaucracies that strangle innovation in education do the same?  To do that requires training and work, which many older teachers are – quite honestly – reluctant to do.

As a funder I hear stories from many people as to how the system does not serve the needs of students.  These confessional moments (as I call them) are not mere griping, but passion-felt laments over how “the system” is broken.  Most complaints however are whispered for fear of retribution of colleagues and superiors.  Recently once colleague shared the following thought with me.  He wanted to post it on a blog but was afraid of the consequences.

Title: Ranting, Nightmares and Interactive Whiteboards

I’ve been struggling to write blog posts lately.

My lack of posting isn’t for a lack of things to say. Nor is it for a lack of enthusiasm for my work with children or other educators.

I’ve been quite simply because I don’t want to lose my job for questioning the administration on the WWW. Nor do I want to anger colleagues, dedicated teachers who are indeed working very hard in their classrooms. I also don’t want to sound like a ranting lunatic or a nitpicking critic. I am not a classroom teacher – I’m a technology teacher – so who am I to critique classroom practices and the instructional designs of my colleagues? Although, I hardly call a 10-page purple packet filled with teacher-generated questions and lines on which to write answers a designed project for student learning.

But…I’m having nightmares. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold, panicked sweat. I wonder when they’re coming to get me. Which grant funder will expose me as a fraud? In my latest nightmare I was being charged as an accomplice to “Crimes Against Children.”

Crimes Against Children? No, I’m not a pervert. I’m not skimming money off the budget. Nor am I purchasing materials for personal gain with district funds.

What am I?

I am a silent witness to lessons, projects and activities that either are not engaging, serve only the middle, do not provide opportunities for student choice, or only make use of technology to skill and drill students in hasty preparation for standardized tests. The longer I stay in public education, the more schooled I become. And I’m not using schooled in a complimentary fashion. As each day passes, I’m living out my own version of the situations described by the main character in Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise.

Here’s my latest dilemma: My district spent over $250,000 – that’s a quarter of a million dollars of tax payer money – to place an interactive whiteboard in every single classroom in the school’s building projects. A quarter of a million dollars. We also offered numerous in-house courses for graduate credit where teachers could learn how to use the interactive software – the hallmark of the boards is the interactivity of the software. The company provides a marvelous website with free access to downloadable materials created by teachers, free tutorials, discussion forums, video highlights of teachers using the products in their classrooms, courses for nominal fees; we have our own user group; the company reps have been out to troubleshoot, train, provide 1:1 instruction – sky’s the limit! We have access to the whole nine when it comes to getting our teachers trained on the boards and the software.

Do you know what most of our teachers are doing w/ their interactive whiteboards? Guess. Please.

Using them as nothing more than display devices to complete worksheets. Yup. Giant, expensive overhead projectors.

If I were the curriculum director, the tech director, heck! the treasurer of that district – if I were in an administrative role in this district  – I’d want to see one – just one – one example per month from each building of an interactive lesson – something that STUDENTS do at the board –  an activity created by the teacher, that takes advantage of the interactivity of the board and a sample of what the kids did AT THE BOARD! If I were an administrator I’d want access to a board so I could try out this interactive lesson – see how it feels to learn at the board – try my hand with the magic wand that makes things move on the board – demonstrate my understanding with an innovate piece of equipment.

But…I’m not in charge. I’m not even in a position where I could safely express this observation without being ousted by my colleagues or reprimanded for suggesting that the administration doesn’t know what a technology-rich classroom looks like.

My fear is that my next nightmare will involve a tar and feathering for my unpopular opinions about classroom technology use.

Under normal circumstances, this lament could be considered a complaint by a disgruntled professional.  However, by serendipity or destiny, the article below was shared with me by my colleagues from Ohio Grantmakers Forum on the same day I received the e-mail above.   This article by Mike Lafferty at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Ohio  is a summary of a national report on the successful implementation (or not) of technology in classrooms.


Ohio earns a D-plus in use of technology in schools

Ohio, birthplace of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Neil Armstrong has received a D-plus in the use of technology in education (see here), according to an Education Week survey.

Oddly, though, the state received a B-minus in the capacity to use technology, so we seem to have it but we don’t know what to do with it.

However, some Ohio education experts say the survey is misleading in that it misuses the term “technology” by implying only computer-related technologies and that it distorts the issue of “technology standards.” Technology includes aerospace, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, environment, energy, and other issues, they said.

In the survey of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Ohio was ranked 47th in the use of technology. Ohio tied Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington (all with D-plus scores). The District of Columbia was last with the lone F.

Education Week evaluated the use of education technology in four categories: Do state standards for students include technology? Does the state test students on the use of technology? Has the state established a virtual school? And, does the state offer computer-based assessments? Ohio met the standard only for having state achievement standards that includes the use of technology.

At the top were Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. They all had scores of 100.

If Ohio needs a model, Colorado provides just that.  This month, the  legislature has approved Bill which allows for innovative districts.

Innovation is the key to education reform

By Dwight Jones

Updated: 04/13/2009 10:19:11 AM MDT

Everywhere we turn, we hear about the need for innovation in education. Four months ago, a Denver Post editorial proclaimed that “tinkering around the edges of reform” is insufficient to produce sustained improvements in public education. I could not agree more.

Education reform is easy to talk about but hard to do. At its core, reform is doing things a better way. With regard to education reform, however, we not only must do things better, we must get better results. Innovation is key.

As highlighted in a recent Post article, Colorado could soon receive several million dollars in federal stimulus money for public education. In addition to a fair share for programs that serve underprivileged students and those with disabilities, there is the prospect of additional funds earmarked for innovation. Known as “Race to the Top” funds, these funds will go to “a handful of states that devise the most innovative ways of improving education” — to the potential tune of $500 million per state.

The article concluded that Colorado has every reason to be optimistic. After all, with initiatives on longitudinal growth, charter school development, updated standards and performance-pay programs, Colorado has been in the forefront with regard to innovation and school reform.

Innovation is more than just a good idea, it’s about putting that good idea into practice. The Colorado Department of Education is presently pursuing a wide variety of innovative education models, including new approaches to teacher preparation, leadership development, school choice and the way in which education is funded. We are organizing strategies and directing resources in ways to innovate intentionally, and, in so doing, increase capacity to take to scale what improves education for Colorado’s students.

At the same time, the department is creating a statewide system of support for districts, built upon internationally competitive standards and greater expectations for ourselves and our students. This system will monitor, measure and foster what matters most — increased student achievement.

The department’s pursuit of innovation began in earnest in September 2007 when the State Board of Education called upon the department to modernize the Colorado Model Content Standards. The spirit of innovation was further kindled last year when Senate Bill 130, commonly referred to as the Innovative Schools Act and led by Peter Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, was enacted into legislation. This bill has allowed Manual High School and Montview Elementary School in Denver to implement new programs outside the constraints of traditional school policy.

This year, through the leadership of state Sens. Evie Hudak and Keith King, Senate Bill 163 promises to streamline accountability and to devote great support to struggling schools and districts. It also promises to shutter those schools that persistently fail. This legislation, if passed, will play a key role in the promotion of intentional innovation by providing a framework for us to fund what works and stop throwing money at what doesn’t. Innovation without accountability is not in our students’ best interests.

Working collaboratively with the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association, the governor’s office and our 178 school districts, it is increasingly clear that we all have a role to play in obtaining “Race to the Top” funds.

As mentioned in The Post, “Colorado is positioned well to win innovation money.” Winning the money, however, cannot be the goal, lest we win the race and miss the top. Instead, we must remain focused on supporting initiatives that transform the delivery of education and improve student achievement.Now that’s a race worth running.

Dwight D. Jones is Colorado’s commissioner of education.

I am skeptical that anything like the Colorado approach could happen in Ohio. I say this because of  the meeting last week.  Those that participated in writing the Beyond Tinkering Report, included representatives from the Ohio Education Association. To the astonishment of the entire group the OEA representatives complained that the Tinkering report that recommended changes in teacher tenure and hiring/firing rules misrepresented their position.  These OEA representatives participated in the working group for at least one-year and were at every session where the details of the issues were worked out.  I witnessed the representatives endorsement of the final edit. When the publication came out, others in the membership rebelled and urged the same representatives to let the Governor know the OGF report misrepresented their opinion. When our group asked the representatives to help us understand how it was they endorsed the final edit with us but renounced the document publicly the response was a marvel at political doubletalk and disingenuous representation of fact. This reaction helped my understand why the Governor and his staff are genuinely afraid of this powerful constituency that can twist fact to meet a political agenda and appease and seething membership. After the meeting, a colleague of mine was shaking his head saying, “If a liberal democrat like me can leave here disgusted with union behavior, they – as a group are in serious trouble.”  It also helped me understand why a Gubernatorial candidate with an eye to another election has disregard innovative recommendations because they will clearly incite t alienate a powerful voting block.

All this being said, allow me to dream for a minute.  Suppose the P-16 compact I described in the earlier post were to stand-up to the legislature, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers and say, Enough!  There is however one glimmer of hope.  The same town of and the Community College are host to a newly created P-16 or (P-20) compact.   Suppose that P-16 were to take similar approach that took place as the Denver districts and demand change in the system as it has been brought to the Ohio public with little change since 1835?

Here is where a P-16 compact could have an interesting impact by possibly crafting legislative language that like the Colorado law,  would allow that body to override state laws and collective bargaining agreements.  P-16’s are comprised of leaders from all sectors of the community including business, nonprofits, government and even education.  Suppose that group were to try to effect legislation in Columbus that would allow for the creation of an extension of the Innovation Zone on one side of town to include and Innovation District?  Would a P-16 have the political courage to suggest that (for example) the Elyria Schools District be declared an Innovation District that would, “…implement new policy outside the constraints of traditional school policy.”  just as Manual High School covered on NPR) and Montview School.

Here is what the  law says:

The Colorado State Legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act in 2008 (Senate Bill 08-130). The law is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making.

The law provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. The law includes procedures and criteria for a school or group of schools within a school district to submit to its local board of education a proposed plan of innovation. A local school board may initiate and collaborate with one or more public schools of the school district to create innovation plans or innovation school zones.

The law:

  • Allows a public school or group of public schools to submit to its school district board of education an innovation plan to allow a school or group of schools to implement innovations within the school or group of schools. The innovations may include but are not limited to innovations in delivery of educational services, personnel administration and decision-making, and budgeting.
  • Requires the local board to review each submitted plan and approve the school as an innovation school or the group of schools as an innovation school zone or reject the plan.
  • Allows a local board to initiate creation of a plan in collaboration with one or more schools of the school district. The law specifies the minimum contents of a plan, including the level of support needed from the personnel employed at the affected schools.
  • Encourages schools, groups of schools, and local boards to consider innovations in specified areas and to seek public and private funding to offset the costs of developing and implementing the plans.
  • Allows a local board to submit the plan to the commissioner of education and the state board of education and seek designation as a district of innovation (following creation or approval of one or more plans by the local board).
  • Directs the commissioner and state board to review and comment on the plan, and directs the state board to make the designation unless the plan would likely result in lower academic achievement or would be fiscally unfeasible.
  • Requires the state board to provide a written explanation if it does not make the designation.
  • Directs the state board to grant any statutory and regulatory waivers requested in the plan for the district of innovation, however, certain statutes may not be waived by the state board.

I am afraid that the first line of this program would result in a collective paroxysm among members of the OEA and teachers union.  But without that type of true leadership, nothing will change.  An Innovation District would take the report from the educational technologist and go back to the classroom to find out why teachers are not using smartboards to their potential.  An Innovation district would encourage teachers to take risks using new technology to enhance learning.  An innovation district would arrange to have a district office to share exciting breakthrough in classroom learning with others and discuss ways in which those practices can be shared.  An Innovation District would make use of  Universal Design for Learning and find ways in which technology can be used to make  implicit understanding of subject matter, explicit and in a form that validates their accomplishments.  In an innovation district teachers would be treated as professionals and be rewarded for success.  An Innovation Zone and a  P-16 district would  be successful if they can go beyond tinkering which has been the case for far too long.  These ailing districts could use the help of Innovation MAN who talks about Innovation but has to be reminded of the most important step – Implementation.

That implementation will require the school bureaucracies to go outside the silo of Public Education and invite the business community to ask questions about how things are done. If the teachers are no using smartboards to their potential, where and or what is the obstacle preventing that? What is the quality of professional development currently offered by the State Educational Services Centers?

A really interesting challenge for the Governor and his advisers is – set up several Innovation Districts across the State.  Initiate a five-year competition to see which one can come up with some of the most cost-effective uses of open-source educational tools and demonstrate cost efficiencies and higher learning outcomes.  Financial incentives could be put into place to reward teachers and/or districts that can bring those innovations to scale.  I am sure many will take on that challenge.

A serious P-16 would challenge the community to ask the same questions posed by Richard Baramiuk of Rice University’s Connextions project, and make use of  technology about one simple issue such as text books and how we use them in schools.  Why not pose a challenge to this district to come up with an alternative to text books which currently cost a district approximately $800, per child per year.  What about challenging a school to become knowledge ecosystems and work with teachers to figure out how to conduct assessment.  A successful innovation district, pushed by a strong P-16 compact could possibly  re-engineer schools to respond to the needs of children and reinvigorate hope into too many communities where parents cry in frustration over schools that are outdated, mismanaged and leaving too many children without hope of achieving the skills they will need to usher in the next few decades.

If this happens, foundations will be ready to provide support.  This is the type of programming will have high impact.  Anything less is just more of the same and, quite frankly not worth an investment of private monies.  Foundation funding portfolios demonstrate that there are too many charter, private and faith based as well as promising online  courses that are meeting the needs of students far more than what the public system currently offers.

If Ohio is serious about stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship in its obsolete manufacturing system, it must make the same honest effort to do the same for innovation in education.  The results are likely to pay off just as well.

Philanthropy, Politics and the "Religion" of Public Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philanthropy and the Games We Play – virtue redux

A few years ago I met with a school superintendent of one of the districts in the county.  We had lunch at a now defunct Friday’s located on the periphery of a dying mall in Elyria, Ohio.  It must have been in the early spring because the school year was coming to an end and the results of the State standardized tests were revealed.   As we talked about potential funding projects within the district  we were interrupted with greetings from a group of about five other men who had just finished their meal and were on their way out.  The men were superintendents from other districts and of course knew the man I was with.  The greetings were hearty and the topic immediately focused on the test scores. ” How’d you do Larry,” said one of the guys.   The guys were comparing the scores.  They were talking the same way they would about a national football, baseball or basketball championship.  The guy with the poorest results  withstood the jousting.  It was all good fun ending with chortles and high-fives.  The guys left the restaurant.  Larry looked at me and said, “John, these tests are just a big game but we have to play it if we want to survive.”  The comment struck me as tragic.  Here was a talented creative man stuck in a system he knew was not serving its purpose and yet – there he was.  More tragic was the thought of  individual children who are the afterthought in this  system that makes fetish of statistics and numbers.

That was my first glimpse into the public school system which, like many of our public institutions,  has a disproportional number of people suffering cynicism and an overall loss of virtue. In college, I  took it upon myself to read all of John Updike’s novels. Fast forward thirty years and in that restaurant in Elyria; over my “calorie conscious” club chicken salad,  it occurred to me I was living an Updike chapter.  Wikipedia tells us that Updike describes his subject as “the American small town, Protestant middle class.”    Joyce Carol Oats says,

JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art.

Suffering was  my sense in the restaurant that day.  I knew instinctively I was experiencing the first of many Updike-ian experiences in Ohio.  Too many good teachers and their students suffer because we are stuck in a game that is about quantifying learning in ways that are totally incapable of capturing that elusive topic.  Yet in an effort to please authorities and follow the law, people get stuck in a looping game.  No wonder the entire teaching profession is suffers from a malaise. Unlike the novels, I cannot find the comic relief in reality so I turn to film to find it.

We all play games.  In philanthropy, the game with grantees goes something like this.  “Last year we asked for $50,000  but the foundation gave us $35,000.  This year we really need the $50,000 so should we ask for $65,000?  It has been my experience that when we get into the game, we loose sense of our values and loose the ability to have honest conversation.  If we play that game too long, we risk loosing our moral compass.

I am writing about the games we play having just spent the holidays watching the entire five seasons of the HBO Series, The Wire.  I  would make this required viewing for anyone intending to engage in charitable work in any urban area of the United States.  This incredibly well-written and acted series validates the analysis of Dr. Kuserow which I published. in a previous post “Philanthropy and Class- What are We Thinking.”   The Wire provides a glimpse into the workings of urban drug rings, police homicide and drug units, the venality of city government and the cynicism and hopelessness of urban public schools.  The series hired local people to act in the film with the leads carried by professional actors.  The result is a more violent but realistic  portrayal on film of what Updike conveys in literature – “…the general sense of doom of American expansion and decay.”  If Bach had put this series to music, the recitative would be, “It’s all in the Game.”

Let’s look at the first group – the  police department.  The Baltimore Chief of Police has gotten word from the Mayor to reduce the alarmingly high crime statistics.  The high numbers of homicides and felonies in particular jeopardize the Mayor’s ambitions to win the upcoming Gubernatorial election.  The Chief and his Deputy Chief for Operations are good bureaucrats and realize that their fealty to the  Mayor will position them for promotion.  Their own ambition increases the pressure on their subordinates – the district directors and the cops on the street to make the crime stats go down.  The cops and their officers realize the futility of the strategies used to combat the drug wars in the city.  They know their tactics of arresting street pushers is pointless since the suppliers and kingpins elude arrest.  People are murdered with impunity.  The Mayor demands a decrease in the stats, the Chief and the Superintendents know their orders and tell the cops  they must comply.  The cops play a game to keep their jobs.  The “game” devolves into a cynical game of beat the chumps.  Authority looses all respect.  The cops change the  stats and the “system” appears to improve.  The game is called jukin’ the stats.  Check out the meaning of Jukin’ to understand the depths of cynicism.  On the ground, nothing changes.  In  the third this episode of the series only one cop has the courage to stand up and tell the leaders the truth.  This is how that session goes – beware, the language is strong!:

A British friend of mine once stated, “In the U.S. when your legislators make a law they think the whole affair is ‘done and dusted’ ” once it is signed.   The Urban Dictionary defines the term thus –

When something is “done and dusted”, it’s not merely created or accomplished, it’s also polished and cleaned up after. Nothing else is needed, so it can be considered “case closed”.

In our case, the Feds made the law (No Child Left Behind) and case is closed.  The Congress wrote the law, the President signed it.  People were reelected.  The States were left with implementation.  With no money.  The result has been a system that demeans professional teachers, opens the doors to venal and ambitious personalities that will use reporting to gain recognition, access and ultimately rewards in terms of professional promotion.

In series three of The Wire one of the sharpest police officers leaves policing to become a teacher in the Baltimore public schools.  There he is faced with kids from the same corners he busted their older siblings.  He learns quickly bring the attitude of the corner into the classroom.  The game is how to get around real learning, to test authority and ultimately assert oneself in a world of chaos.   Check out this clip –  I love these kids. I don’t know how many times I have seen classes just like this in my travels around the country.

B-5 “And I’m an Audi 5000!

Eventually the teacher “Mr. Prezbo” figures out these kids are not going to learn seated  in rows  reading from outdated and used textbooks.   He senses that and realizes they can learn the material but he needs to do that by opening the learning process from their experiences.   The superintendent pressures him to teach to the text. He argues they are not learning. He is told that if he wants to keep his job he must use the text. He figures out that these “corner” kids live a life of gambling and play dice in the streets. Using their experience of the game he find out they understand probability. Here is a great scene.

But save the best to last. Now into the semester, with progress made, the first-year teacher is called to a general meeting with the school principal. She describes the terms in which teaching will take place during the remaining weeks of the semester.  Compare this dynamic with the first scene in the police headquarters.

Anyone I know who has seen The Wire agrees that the directors capture the reality of  public education in most schools in urban areas in the U.S.  It is a portrait not only of Baltimore, but New York, Cleveland, Boston….the list goes on. It is a sad and tragic case that the system is allowed to go on. Clearly there are successful classrooms and good students. The reality is those successes take place because of dedicated teachers and typically have nothing to do with the added “rigor” the legislators and designers of NCLB intended. What we have created is a sense of doom in our public schools.

I think it is the role of philanthropy to speak out against the games. Funding programs we know work. Finding and supporting teachers who are making a difference in classrooms despite the system – not because of it – remain the challenge.  It is interesting to me that Al Sharpton and Joel Klein wrote and article for the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal entitled “Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap – it is not acceptable for minority students to be four grades behind.” They tell us, “Genuine school reform, you stated during the campaign, “will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn from students and teachers . . . about what actually works.”

Much like the cops on the corner or the teachers that work with the kids day in and day out, the truth will come only if we are humble enough to listen and open to learning.  Doing so can open individuals to virtue.

I am happy to report that my superintendent friend retired from the system leaving behind one of the most dynamic schools in the county. The project we discussed involved implementation of the Universal Design for Learining UDL developed at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in Winchester, Massachusetts. The foundation provided the support and worked closely in fostering healthy relations between the colleagues in Massachusetts and Ohio.   He made UDL the required approach to learning for all teachers in every building in the district.   By focusing on UDL and linking UDL, with Co-Teaching and appropriate use of technology, this district has had an excited teaching core and children of all abilities engaged in learining. Incidentally their test scores have gone up too.