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America’s schools are at a turning point. Our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized, and our tax dollars are being diverted to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.
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Phil Schlechty was born a few miles from my childhood home near Dayton, Ohio. When I had a chance to meet him later in our lives, I thought and continue to think that he was one the smartest and most visionary people I have ever met. In fact, his insightful work in the field of public education is legendary. One of his beliefs about the way schools ought to be is that they serve their purpose when they develop mechanisms for the active and continuous connection of families and the community to the schools. Not only have I never forgotten this powerful belief, but it became the centerpiece of my career of trying to help educational leaders bring people together to make a difference. In 1999, I asked Phil if he would write the foreword for my book, The Power of Public Engagement: A Beacon of Hope for America’s Schools. In saying yes, I learned that he was more then just intelligent. He was also humble and kind – which is why he occupies a special place in my heart.
“If states seek to build truly public accountability systems, they must give stakeholders a voice in what a given school or district is accountable for. Whether through polling, focus groups, or civic deliberation, the public must have greater power over the way that school quality is conceptualized and tracked.” This is one of the major conclusions reached in a well written and timely article in Phi Delta Kappen titled, “Putting the public back into public accountability.” Initiatives are currently underway in several states to create accountability systems that include more than end-of-year test scores in key subject areas.
Nearly six years ago, a small group of citizens in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District formed a leadership team of 30 people and kicked off a grassroots initiative in support of their local public schools. Today, the Heights Coalition for Public Education is not only alive and well, but it is thriving. Why, you may ask, has the Heights Coalition been able to sustain itself while many, if not most efforts like this, ultimately lose energy and fade into the sunset? The key to the Heights Coalition’s longevity is that this initiative is not relying upon one or two people for its lifeblood but, rather, it is being led by a team of citizens who are able to provide the energy needed to keep it going. This is an important insight for the statewide initiative underway by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to give citizens a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This thought-provoking quote from Albert Einstein was utilized by Jim Lloyd to set the stage for his most recent Superintendent’s Update, “High School Graduation Requirements…Understanding the Problem Before Designing the Solution.” Jim is superintendent of the Olmsted Falls City Schools in Olmsted Falls, Ohio.
I was recently reminded of the importance of having skin in the game. In a policy memo released by the National Education Policy Center and the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, the authors explore how parents and families can contribute as fellow leaders in transforming schools and educational systems to better serve all children, families, and communities. One of their policy recommendations is to design family engagement agendas and activities with family and community members, rather than approaching them as passive recipients. Having skin in the game produces ownership and commitment.
In Georgia, a statewide initiative is under way to measure school effectiveness far beyond state-mandated test scores or A-F rankings. It it is called “True Accountability” and it is being led by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. Propelling this cutting-edge initiative is the belief that true accountability must provide a thorough accounting of school quality to the students, families, and communities for whom educators and schools exist. Current education policy, however, assumes that a thorough accounting isn’t possible, and therefore, tiny windows ― standardized test scores ― into the complex matrix of teaching and learning are the primary performance measures upon which we must rely. The education community largely views these tiny windows and the destructive labeling to which they all-too-often lead – failing students, failing teachers, failing schools – as incomplete, distorted, and highly ineffective. In late August, I will be traveling to Atlanta to see up close and personally what Georgia’s “True Accountability” initiative looks like and the progress being made to turn it into a reality.
In his provocative book, The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change, Joe Hirsch writes that in the current high-stakes testing culture, schools are allowing grades and performance data to undercut real and meaningful learning. He reports that study after study has found that students — from elementary school to graduate school and across multiple cultures — demonstrate less interest in learning as a result of being graded and that the real victim is the knowledge that students might have otherwise gained had the feedback amounted to more than a rating.
The field of brain research has discovered that the more intensely we study a problem, the duller our brains become and that we are unable to supercharge our creative capacities until our mind reaches a more relax state. As a result, each week employees at companies such as 3M and Google devote the equivalent of an entire workday to taking breaks and chasing speculative pursuits. Inspired by these creative corporate strategies, some teachers are starting to do the same thing. For roughly an hour a week, they turn over control to their students and let them explore a topic of their choosing. “Students love the freedom to explore what they are passionate about instead of doing the work they are assigned by the teacher,” reports Nicholas Provenzaro, an English teacher at Grosse Point South High School and Michigan. “That freedom is what motivates them to uncover big ideas and take ownership of their learning.
A small but widely accepted unwritten rule in public education is that school superintendents are expected to set the agenda for what gets discussed. While this cultural norm may appear at first glance to be insignificant, it is an important symbol of the conventional thinking that is keeping citizens on the sidelines. In some ways, it is eerily reminiscent of the time when we were in school and had to raise our hand and gain permission from our teacher before we could speak. Today, many citizens still think they need to gain permission before they can speak.
One of the leaders of a grassroots movement to give Ohio’s citizens a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy testified yesterday during a press conference regarding the state’s school takeover system. Representing the League of Women Voters of Ohio, Susie Kaeser spoke in support (about 2 minutes into the video) of House Bill 154 which dissolves the state’s academic distress commission and restores local control of public education to Ohio’s school districts. Susie, who five years ago helped form the Heights Coalition for Public Education in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, Ohio, is currently providing leadership and support for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network which includes more than 100 school districts throughout the state.