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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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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.
In 1920, the American School Board Journal featured a series of articles telling educators that advertising plays an important role in all well-managed campaigns to secure increased school support. Over the past century, the belief that feeding our citizens a steady diet of good news generates public support for our schools has become deeply embedded in the culture of our educational leaders. As a result, much, if not most, of the communication from the vast majority of our school districts is basically an advertising strategy designed to make everyone feel good about their schools. This feel-good strategy, however, is not working. In fact, it is doing the opposite of what it is intended to do. It is undermining public support for our schools. Telling citizens only the good news about their public schools is manipulative and deceptive, and many people know it. In addition, it comes across as sounding arrogant and boastful and puts to sleep the very people whose active ownership and support is so greatly needed. Instead of lulling our citizens into a false sense of security by telling them all is well and they have nothing to worry… Continue reading
The value of tapping into the power of the silent majority of citizens living in our communities who are not contaminated by conventional political thinking and who just want to do the right thing cannot be overstated. Throughout my career working in hundreds of public school districts throughout Ohio, I have observed up close and personally the heroic feats that can be accomplished when citizens understand what is at stake and step up to do something about it.
David Mathews is not only President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. He is one the most important thought-leaders in our nation. In his closing remarks at this year’s National Issue Forums Institute in Washington, D.C., he said we are at a time when confidence in government is at an historic low and many people are frightened that this loss of confidence is eroding the legitimacy of our democracy. For me, the silver lining in this growing national crisis is that the fear of losing our democracy may very well provide the incentive (ie. sense of urgency) needed to bring our citizens and policymakers together to ultimately save it. I see signs of this already happening in the current roll out of a grassroots initiative supported by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to provide citizens a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. In fact, I believe that many of our elected government officials share the public’s concern about the future of our democracy and welcome the opportunity to engage in productive conversations with the citizens they represent.
On June 20, the leadership team for the public school advocacy network being created in the Boardman Local School District will be hosting Ryan Pendleton for an update and discussion regarding the Fair School Funding Plan recently introduced by State Representatives Bob Cupp and John Patterson. Treasurer for the Akron City School District, Ryan is one the key architects of the plan. Boardman and 19 other Ohio school districts are participating in a pilot initiative supported by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to provide their citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy.