Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Harmon Strikes Again

I have to admit that I felt extreme pride this morning when I read in my Akron Beacon Journal that Harmon Middle School -- my alma mater -- earned a National Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education for excellence -- one of 286 schools so honored around the country.

According to the USDOE,

"Founded in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students' academic achievement. A National Blue Ribbon Schools flag overhead has become a mark of excellence in education recognized by everyone from parents to policy-makers in thousands of communities. Since the program's founding, the U. S. Department of Education has bestowed this coveted award on more than 7,000 of America's schools."
I have to admit I also smiled with more than a smirk of irony upon learning this. During the 2009 budget bill that I helped develop in the Ohio House of Representatives (House Bill 1), I created a commission that was designed to evaluate and distribute grants to schools that demonstrated creativity in their instruction and environments. I named it the Harmon Commission because of my formative experiences in that remarkable building -- where teachers and administrators were unafraid to try anything, opening up their students' own greatness.

The idea behind the Harmon Commission was to de-emphasize the standardized test and emphasize things not easily quantified. If districts could earn additional revenue by encouraging creativity in the classroom, then perhaps more experiences would be available to more children like those that went on in Harmon. For instance, one year a biology teacher brought a cow to school and raised it on the school grounds, making it a key part of the biology curriculum for 6th grade.

Anyone who was around me during the HB 1 debates is probably sick of the cow story, but I thought it really drove home the message that not all learning is strictly measurable or less valuable because it is not measurable. In many ways, we value non-measurables over measurables. Take football, for instance. This last weekend the Cleveland Browns won a game behind a quarterback who threw three interceptions. That's not unusual for Browns quarterbacks. But all I heard after the game was how "lights out" Brian Hoyer was because of the intangibles he brought to the team, despite the 3 picks.

Why don't we recognize educators and buildings that do the same thing? Who knows. However, I find it ironic that the recognition Harmon has so long deserved only came because they scored so well on the measurables -- test scores. Its greatness has always been its non-measurables. Test scores were the reason my dad left that wonderful building. And I'm sure it drove away other remarkable teachers from Harmon as well.

But I prefer to think of this award as a lifetime achievement award for all the things that made Harmon such a remarkable place for me and so many other graduates. Everything from the plays my dad directed to Mr. Luckay's Ohio Trip to the fact that the building had no walls to Mr. Kmetz's endless energy. It all made the place hum like few others I have experienced since.

So congratulations to Harmon. Part of me wants to think that Deb Delisle, who is the top K-12 Assistant Secretary at USDOE, perhaps remembered something of our endless talks about creativity and Harmon from the time we spent together working on HB 1 while she was State Superintendent here. But as much as I'd like to think that, I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

As for the Harmon Commission?

Even though it was the only thing about HB 1 that Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education -- the opposition's chief expert -- agreed was a good idea about the plan, my former colleagues scrapped it. Because apparently the last thing we want to spend money on is a teacher who thinks that bringing a cow to school is a good idea.

And don't forget that the rest of HB 1 was essentially scrapped too, even though the second year of that budget represented the first time on record that the state provided a greater share of education funding than local property taxpayers. Oh well.