Strickland In His Educational Forums Shows Bold Thinking, But Bold Action Is Needed

In his “Education Forum,” Governor Strickland challenges his audience to think of school reform creatively. (See my post here.) “We are not an artist looking at an almost finished painting and wondering where to put that last brush stroke in order to make it a little better,” he says, “What we are is an artist looking at a blank slate and asking what is the best thing we can create here …” The governor challenges his audience to, “Think boldly.”

To think about “what is the best thing we can create here” is a good way to stimulate discussion. When the Twin Trade Towers were destroyed, there was a lot of public discussion about “the best thing” that could replace them. There were many published artist sketches of fanciful and interesting ideas of buildings that might be built in their place. Such imaginative thinking is useful, even if the ideas generated are not practical, and it is this kind of thinking that Strickland is encouraging at his Education Forums. But eventually, building a replacement for the Twin Towers or building a replacement for Ohio schools requires a lot more than the work of an artist working with a blank slate.

To really know how to design this “best thing” to replace the Twin Trade Towers required expert knowledge. To even know how to imagine what to build also required expert knowledge. The process of designing the new Freedom Tower Complex involved public input and competitions and an in-depth “Innovative Design Study,” requiring prolonged analysis. It was a long process. The final design was not approved until June, 2006.

Any architect who wanted to fill that blank slate created by the destruction of the Trade Center had to become educated as to how the purpose the new buildings was defined and had to be aware of the limitations of the buildings’ design. An architect does not have the freedom of unlimited imagination enjoyed by an artist. An architect must live in reality. It would be an incompetent architect who would create a design requiring ten times more money than what could ever be available, or five times more ground area than possible, or a design that defied engineering principles.

Strickland declares, “Education is the central issue I face as governor,” and indicates that he wants his governorship to be evaluated in terms of his success in dealing with Ohio education. His Education Forums seem to have a purpose that is political rather than practical, but Strickland can’t be faulted for working to establish political capital with which to move the system. As he gains voter confidence, his chance of enacting legislation concerning education increases.

But stating goals and painting a wonderful picture is the easy part. George H. Bush in his presidency seemed genuinely interested in improving education and gathered together the nation’s governors for a forum to emphasize his “Goals 2000” for schools: every child will be prepared in world class schools; we’ll be tops in math and science education; blah, blah. But these goals, like so many hopes for schools, simply ended up in some file cabinet and were never really pursued. “Goals 2000” never got beyond the wishful thinking stage. I wrote about it here: “Public Schools Need Radical Reform, Educational Leaders Must Answer the Question: BY WHAT METHOD?”

The picture that Strickland envisions on his blank slate includes the idea of a personalized, child centered education for every child. He quotes John Dewey approvingly that we need a Copernican revolution that realizes that it is not the school or teacher around which education should revolve, but it is the child who should be at the center or his or her own education. This is a huge and bold idea — a personalized, child centered education for every child. If Ohio could have such an educational system we would witness amazing improvements in our whole society. But stating goals is the easy part. Stating goals is a happy process, sort of like an artist enjoying his creativity on a blank slate. What is needed is the type of leadership to show the way that goals can be accomplished.

I offered my thoughts of how Strickland could best lead in this post, Strickland Should Use Charter Schools To Help Fulfill His Promise: “Reform and Renew the System of Education Itself” I quoted Strickland in his inaugural speech as saying, “The goal of making our schools and colleges work cannot be achieved with simply more and more money. We must be willing and brave enough to take bold steps to reform and renew the system of education itself.”

The key word is “brave.” Strickland needs to find a way to deal with the educational establishment. What is apparent in watching the forums is that many of the forum participants, as anyone would predict, are on the lookout to protect their own bailiwicks. Counselors wants the position of counselor to be strengthened; art teachers want more art in schools; Phys Ed teachers want to strengthen the PE program and all teachers want smaller classes. It sounds like more money, more money, more money.

Right now, Strickland has voter support and I hope his Educational Forums help him gain more support. But eventually, the real world has limitations, and authentic school reform will not be easy. Strickland must eventually come up with a realistic answer to the question asked of every goal: By What Method? How will this goal be reached?

Talking about interdisciplinary education or hands on learning, as Strickland does in these forums, doesn’t answer the question of how schools will be renewed or reformed, how education will be personalized for every student. It sounds just like more programs offered up by the same bureaucracy that has already overseen a lot of failed programs. Giving principals more authority, instituting value added system for accountability, creating teacher internship all sound like good ideas, but in the big picture, I’m afraid, simply amount to rearranging the deck chairs. What is needed is systemic reform that starts from a blank slate, not one that starts from the need to appease stake holders. More add-ons to the present system is not the answer. Longer school days and longer school years, that Strickland offers as possible changes, really don’t amount to a method of reform either. As one student at a forum pointed out, students who are already bored, facing more school mandates, will be more likely simply to drop out.

What the public is looking for is a government that can deliver on goals. Strickland in his gut knows the public would support steps that “truly reformed and renewed the system of education itself,” but after watching the four posted forums, I’m not encouraged that this is the end result that Strickland is really working toward. Strickland, by his good manners and competency in handling a meeting, seems to be building additional political support. The question is, will he use this support to make the tough and, in some case, the unpopular decisions that need to be made?

The tenor of the Educational Forums Strickland is hosting does not suggest to me that he is laying the groundwork for the hard work that needs to be done. Bold ideas like personalizing every child’s education, bold ideas like reforming and renewing Ohio’s public education system, are as easy to say as it is for an artist to draw on a blank slate. But bold ideas mean little unless verified by solid knowledge and supported by bold actions to back them up. And offering hope, without providing action, simply makes cynicism and distrust of our democracy grow. I’m pulling for Governor Stickland to find a way to lead this state to authentic educational reform, but, his Educational Forums do not give me encouragement that he will deliver.

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2 Responses to Strickland In His Educational Forums Shows Bold Thinking, But Bold Action Is Needed

  1. Original Eric says:

    The tenor of the Educational Forums Strickland is hosting does not suggest to me that he is laying the groundwork for the hard work that needs to be done.

    We’re actually traveling back in time–to about October, 1999 when the Ohio A&E Coalition did their stakeholders’ meeting.

    The Governor seems to have his sights set on 1973 or earlier, since he’s making mistakes that Dr. Zelman identified in her dissertation 35 years ago.

  2. Brian says:

    “It sounds just like more programs offered up by the same bureaucracy that has already overseen a lot of failed programs. ”

    Really? Sounds like politicking or somethin’.

    His idea is to force every student to attend public schools and give them all individualized educations. mmkay At least it gives me time to plan my homeschooling activities for my kid.

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