Amid the national focus on school safety following the tragic shootings in Parkland, Florida, local school and community leaders throughout our nation now have an important choice to make. They can wait for federal and state government policymakers to tell them what to do to beef up protection for their staff and students or they can take the bull by the horns. They can sit down with their staff and students, design a plan that is tailored to each of their school systems, discuss it with their parents and community and then generate local public support (including money) in order to make it happen. It is clear that the growing concern about school safety has hit a tipping point. As a result, the window of opportunity to provide our citizens with an opportunity to make a real difference has never been greater. It is time to take the bull by the horns.
On January 18, one of the education policy groups working with the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network hosted three of the superintendents who are helping to lead this grassroots movement to provide citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. Sponsored by the Heights Coalition for Public Education and entitled “Superintendents Fight Back,” the panel presentation and discussion featured Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis, Olmsted Falls Superintendent Jim Lloyd and Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Talisa Dixon. In addition to the website article, the 90-minute forum was video-recorded. The goal this year for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network is to create education policy advisory groups in school districts throughout Ohio.
Throughout his 13-career as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Charlie Irish became somewhat of an expert at utilizing the power of public engagement to pass operating levies and bond issues. Today, however, in his post-retirement career working with the Kettering Foundation, he admits that he’s done a flip-flop on his earlier views about engagement: “There was a time when I believed that engaging our residents in conversations about important topics such as voting for levies and rallying around other causes that our school board and I thought were important was enough. While in the short run it did help us build enough community support to pass several school tax issues, it didn’t empower our citizens to assume ownership of education in our community. For me, the lesson in all of this is that the real power of public engagement is empowering citizens to forge their own collective judgement about issues. By providing them with the opportunity to name these issues for themselves and define their own choices for action, they will own the responsibility for addressing whatever is at stake.”
Last evening, Paul Pendleton called me regarding my blog on Wednesday entitled “Need More from Our Public Engagement.” A former school superintendent, good friend and colleague in our work with the Kettering Foundation, Paul said he strongly agreed with the Colorado State University professor who stated that providing opportunities for people to express their opinions is simply the first step to generating public ownership of the challenges facing our public schools. Paul explained that empowerment, not engagement, is what really generates ownership. I can’t agree more. Over the past two decades, we’ve both learned that when citizens are empowered with the responsibility for fixing a problem, they nearly always step up to the plate and make a difference.
I recently read a powerful quote about public engagement that is timely and relevant for the grassroots movement being led by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping education policy in our state. The quote appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Kettering Review from Martin Carcasson, professor of communication studies at Colorado State University and founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation. He states: “Based on our knowledge of wicked problems, we know we need much more from our public engagement. Providing opportunities for people to express their opinions is simply the first step. Beyond that, we need our public process to allow people to develop mutual understanding and trust. We need processes that help us elevate quality arguments and expose weak or manipulative ones. We need processes that incite learning and refinement of opinions. We need processes that spark creativity and innovation, and ultimately lead to co-creation and collaborative action.”
Tom Dunn is superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center. A strong advocate for public education, he is helping to lead a grassroots movement (Ohio Public School Advocacy Network) to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. His column on January 17 in the Troy Daily News, entitled “Taking Care of Our Children,” is thought-provoking, heartfelt and well worth reading.
In Ohio, entering kindergarten students are required to take a state-mandated Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) exam. In recent testimony before the Ohio Senate Education Committee, Jessie Rindler, a veteran kindergarten teacher for the Kettering City Schools, didn’t mince words in sharing how KRA testing is negatively impacting the academic growth of her students: “This test is not used to inform my work with my students. It is getting in the way of my very intentional work of authentically instructing and assessing the needs of my students. It is of little value because it takes so long to administer. The time used to administer it could be used to provide critical interventions. I question the developmental appropriateness of that much testing for young students, some of whom are four years old, have never been in school before, and may not speak English. Many students, especially fragile populations of students, show signs of stress and fatigue during testing. Some are unable to effectively use technology or appropriately seek support for technology problems as they arise. The downfalls are many.”
A champion of public education and author of Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jamie Vollmer discusses how the mountain of social, psychological, and medical responsibilities that have been heaped upon the schoolhouse door has become an ever increasing burden on America’s public schools. John McKnight has reached the same conclusion but from a different perspective. Codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University and a Kettering Foundation senior associate, McKnight reports in “The Educating Neighborhood: How Villages Raise Their Children” that in one or two generations villages have lost their power to raise children and their functions have largely been transferred to the schools. He explains that these transfers have created teachers who often feel overwhelmed by all of these responsibilities and, as a result, diminished their capacity to teach those things for which they were prepared. His article appeared in the 2017 issue of CONNECTIONS, an annual journal of the Kettering Foundation.
On December 6, the former Director of the Office of 21st Century Education for the Ohio Department of Education made an eye-opening acknowledgement. In prepared remarks in support of the Public School Deregulation Act (Senate Bill 216), Dr. Robert Sommers testified before the Senate Education Committee that Ohio’s education reforms haven’t worked:
“Our efforts over the last 10-15 years have been driven by our desire to improve educational results. The reforms we implemented were thoughtful and, at the time of implementation, showed great promise. But now we know they haven’t gotten the results we wanted. Thomas Edison famously tested 3,000 different filaments before he discovered the one that made the electric light bulb possible. Thomas Edison is known for his incredible inventions and for his bringing light and electric power to the world. But his greatest accomplishments came not from being correct, but being willing to fail 2,999 times, learning from the failure, and moving on to new options. SB 216 is the first acknowledgement that our current reforms, just like the failed filaments, must be learned from and then let go. We must move forward into a new generation of reforms.… Continue reading
In a recent interview with the Kettering Foundation, Katherine Cramer was asked if there is anything – given all of the tumult in American politics – that bodes well for the state of democracy. Ms. Cramer is faculty director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and professor of political science at the University Wisconsin-Madison. Her response: “Yes, there is one thing that gives me a great deal of hope, and that is the level of concern about our democracy. Heightened anxiety is not necessarily a good thing, but if it leads to action it is. I have had the unusual experience of suddenly receiving a great deal of correspondence from people I do not know who are feeling the need to express their concern and looking for answers about how we heal our democracy…Most of what I am receiving is correspondence from people who are wanting to understand others in the United States and looking for ways to pressure our elected officials to put more attention on the common good, rather on us vs. them, zero-sum politics.”