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

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

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

A Breath of Fresh Air

Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost is a breath of fresh air.  Yost recently spoke at a conference of the Ohio Association of EMIS Professionals and told the school data managers that he wishes state leaders could set more durable policies to govern education:  “I can’t think of another product anywhere in the world that would have a 13-year development cycle — K-to-12, our product is an educated child — and we change the metrics, the definitions, what we’re looking for, and the process, and the manufacturing line every single year. How do you do that?”  I’m hoping the next governor…I hope that they come to the Legislature on their first day…and say ‘Folks, I know you all care about our kids.  I know you care about education.  I want you to send me one bill, do it before June 1, and I’m going to sign it.  And then don’t send me anything else because if you send me anything else in the next four years I’m going to veto it.  These people deserve to know what the rules of the road are.”

Consequences of Opting Out of State Testing?

If a public school district in the state of Ohio formally opted out of participating in state and federally mandated testing, what would occur?  This was the question posed on April 22 by Little Miami Local Schools Superintendent Greg Power and his Board of Education to Dr. Richard Ross, State Superintendent for Public Instruction for the Ohio Department of Education.  Here is the response from J. Christopher Wollard, Senior Executive Director, Agency Fellow, Harvard Strategic Data Project:

Thank you for your question.  Information related to student participation on state tests can be found at here<http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Testing/News/Guidance-on-Testing-Refusal-Cases-Offered>. Unfortunately, the Ohio Department of Education is unable to speak to the specific consequences that may come as a result of your district choosing not to participate in state testing.  You would need to consult with your district’s legal counsel for a comprehensive answer.  Furthermore, you can reach out to the US Department of Education to discover what they would do as a result of this choice.  In an effort to provide some guidance, the links below may be able to give you some context for how the USDOE has responded to similar inquiries in… Continue reading

How Citizens Participate in Civil Society

Benjamin Barber is currently a Senior Research Scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society of The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, the President and Founder of the Interdependence Movement, and Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Rutgers University.  While serving as Director of CivWorld and Distinguished Senior Fellow at DEMOS, a research and policy center founded in 2000, he was interviewed by the Kettering Foundation and talked about the various ways in which citizens participate in civil society.

The Power of Community Conversations

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together to find solutions.  In this 2:48 minute video clip, Dr. Will Friedman, Director of Center for Advances in Public Engagement at Public Agenda, shares how the power of community conversations about improving the schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has spread from addressing education issues and concerns to other challenges facing the Bridgeport community.

A Friend’s Concern

In reviewing the manuscript for America’s Schools at a Turning Point:  And how we THE PEOPLE can help shape their future, one of my friends and colleagues brought up a great point regarding the thought of putting the future of our public schools solely into the hands of the American people.  Her concern is the squeaky-wheel problem.  She said that as communications liaison to parents and the community in two school districts and as a school board member in one district, she listened to many parents complain about their local school because “the work is too difficult, there is too much homework, their children should be able to graduate (even though they have a horrible attendance record and have failed one or two classes)” and on and on.  Then, when those parents would stand in front of their school board members and demand that the curriculum be “dumbed down,” in many instances those school boards would cave in to their demands.  She added that while she thinks parents and other community members should work more closely with their public schools and have greater influence over education policy, she also feels there is a need… Continue reading

The Magic of Dialogue

Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen firsthand how citizens have put aside their differences, stepped up to the plate and tackled major problems impacting their schools and communities.  How did it happen?  In the words of Daniel Yankelovich, it was the magic of dialogue.  An advisor to corporations, government, and professional organizations, Yankelovich has spent over half a century monitoring change in the American culture and is regarded as the dean of American public opinion research.  To help explain how this magic works, he makes an important distinction between debate, which describes the tenor and focus of most political conversations, and dialogue.

When debating, the assumption is that there is a right answer, and we have it.  When engaging in dialogue, the assumption is that many people have pieces of the answer and that together we can all craft a solution.

When debating, we are combative and attempt to prove the other side wrong.  When engaging in dialogue, we are collaborative and work together toward common understanding.

When debating, it is about winning.  When engaging in dialogue, it is about exploring common ground.

When debating, we listen to find flaws and… Continue reading

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