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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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Corky O'Callaghan

Bertha Gilkey

Examples of how the American spirit is alive and well are not limited to the public schools and the communities they serve.  Kettering Foundation President David Mathews includes in his book, Politics for People (Mathews 1999, 138–39) a story about one person named Bertha Gilkey who embodies this spirit.

Bertha Gilkey is the leader of a tenants’ project in St. Louis and lives in Cochran Gardens, a public housing project which today is noted for flower-lined paths, clean buildings, play equipment, and social cohesion.  She lived in this very same housing project when it was filled with drugs, crime, prostitution, garbage and urine in the halls, broken windows, and graffiti.  While the Gardens may not still be perfect, the changes she helped make were dramatic and profound. Improvements began with a simple but powerful first step.

At the outset, one of the major problems in the project was vandalism of the laundry room.  When the machines were destroyed, the tenants demanded that the project’s management install new ones.  Even when pressured by rent strikes, the management was increasingly resistant to throw good money after bad.  Then one day, the tenants added a new tactic… Continue reading

Undermining Support for Our Schools

As a result of being told by education reformers that our nation’s education system is failing us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to generate state and local support for our public schools.  For example, from 2008 to 2013, state funding for our public schools was reduced in thirty-seven states.  Because of these reductions in state funding, school officials in most states are having to turn to their local communities for financial support.  In forty-one of our fifty states, this support for our schools is contingent upon the passage of local school tax initiatives.  While the rules for local school tax initiatives vary from state to state, all of these initiatives have one thing in common.  When they involve an increase in taxes, they are difficult to pass.  In Ohio, for example, the passage rate is only about 40 percent for school issues proposing an increase in taxes.



Why Superintendents Are Our Best Hope

One of the most serious problems facing our country today is that the vast majority of Americans no longer trust most of our major institutions.  Fortunately, however, the American people still have faith in their local public schools.  In the “45th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” citizens reported that they are highly satisfied with their local schools.  More than 70 percent have trust and confidence in their teachers and 53 percent gave their schools an A or B, the highest rating ever recorded in the poll.  Having worked with hundreds of superintendents throughout my career, the public’s faith in their local schools is nearly always justified because most superintendents are honest, dependable and caring individuals who can see the big picture.  As a result, they are ideally positioned to help lead a frank and open national grassroots conversation about the future of public education.  Superintendents are truly our best hope for insuring that our public schools survive the attacks coming  from the leaders of our nation’s education reform movement.

The Resiliency of the American Spirit

Whether it was the attack on Pearl Harbor, the leveling of the Twin Towers, the hurricane that plummeted the New Jersey coast or the tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, the American people did what they always do when faced with a natural disaster or a threat to our national security.  They came together, opened their wallets, rolled up their sleeves and fixed the problem.  Stepping up to the plate and making a difference when we are needed is a deeply ingrained value in our nation’s culture, and it is not limited to big, life-changing events.  In our communities, citizens are making a difference every day in less dramatic but important ways.  Having worked in more than three hundred public school districts over the past twenty-five years, I have seen firsthand how they nearly always respond to the educational needs of our children when they are asked to help.  Throughout my career—and to this day—I have seen over and over again the resiliency of the American spirit.  Despite national opinion polls reporting that many people are worried about the future of our country, they continue to step up and make a difference…just like what… Continue reading

Support from the North Olmsted City Council

On May 6, the North Olmsted City Council passed a resolution urging Ohio’s Governor and General Assembly to ensure both greater accountability for the state’s charter schools and responsible funding for traditional public schools.  Below is the full text of the resolution.

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By: Council Member Kearney and Council members Barker, Brossard, Hemann, Limpert, Schumann & Williamson


WHEREAS, good local schools are critical for attracting and retaining residents and employers in Ohio’ s communities; and

WHEREAS, a fully funded system of public education is mandated by the Ohio Constitution; and by $515 million dollars in 2014 2015 compared to aggregate state funding in 2010 2011; and

WHEREAS, aggregate state funding for Ohio’ s traditional public school districts remained relatively flat from 2010 to 2014 while aggregate state funding for … Continue reading

How to Generate Successful Coffee Discussions

In my last blog, I referred to the next step in the superintendent-led initiative to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping the statewide education policy affecting them and their local schools.  That step is to begin meeting this fall with local residents and discussing frankly and openly the impact of the education reform movement.  Rather than holding town hall meetings and other large-scale events where the discussions can be easily hijacked by a handful of outspoken individuals, the initial conversations about education reform should be informal and intimate.  The most powerful venue for this kind of productive conversation is the small group discussion (or coffee) where someone hosts people they know in their homes. Here are some tips on how to generate successful coffee discussions:

  • The key to reaching a coffee discussion goal is to assign the job to a team of two or three reliable people who always do what they say they will do.
  • To get started quickly, the coffee team coordinators should host their own coffees.  This will enable them to see firsthand the value of the coffee discussions and make it easier to coach others… Continue reading

Grass Roots Initiative Moving Forward

On November 21 of last year, 60 superintendents met in Columbus to kick off an initiative that I believe will prove to be historically significant for the children who attend Ohio’s public schools.  The initiative is to provide citizens with a stronger voice in shaping the statewide education policy impacting them and their local schools.  In a day-long meeting hosted by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators this past Tuesday, the superintendents leading this grass roots effort provided an update on their work to their colleagues.  Included in the update were:

  • videos produced by the Educational Service Center of Lorain County highlighting how high stakes teting, the charter school movement and the loss of local control are impacting our schools and communities,
  • a resolution passed by the Vandalia-Butler City Schools Board of Education to take back local control,
  • a progress report on how superintendents in southwest Ohio are engaging their citizens in discussions about how education policy in the Buckeye state is impacting them and their local schools,
  • tips on how to generate successful coffee discussions – which is the subject of my next blog,
  • the results of county-wide surveys reporting on how citizens view statewide… Continue reading

Lorain County Videos

In January of 2014, the public school superintendents in Lorain County, Ohio, launched an initiative to engage their citizens in a frank and open discussion about how our nation’s education reform movement is impacting their local schools and communities.  To help stimulate that discussion, they have created videos documenting how the proliferation of charter schools and high stakes testing is affecting the students, teachers and taxpayers in their school districts.  These videos are right on target and well worth taking the time to view.

The Maze of Distrust

A new study from the Kettering Foundation discusses how local politics, distrust, miscommunication and unhealthy relationships caused by lingering suspicions and old grudges play a surprisingly powerful role in stalling efforts to improve public education.  In the introduction to the report, the author states that “despite sweeping reforms under Presidents Bush and Obama, billions of dollars invested by government and philanthropy, and new policies in districts nationwide, results remain disappointing.  Less than half of American students meet proficiency levels in reading and math.  Achievement gaps between richer and poorer students are wide—and still as troubling as ever.  With so much attention given to K-12 education, why has improvement been so hard to come by?  Why do reforms and innovations produce only pockets of change?  What are we missing?”  Maze of Mistrust explores how individual and community patterns of communication and behavior can either smooth the way for change or stymie it at every turn.  The Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation whose primary research question is:  What does it take to make democracy work as it should?  Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the… Continue reading

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