Log in
updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

FlynnsHarp logo 042016

Businessman, education activist Don Nielsen's call for ed overhaul drawing national attention

As the 2015 Legislature looks down the double barrels of a pair of multi-million dollar education-funding challenges, one ordered by the court and the other by the voters, a new book by former Seattle school board president Don Nielsen calling for a major overhaul of the basic structure of education is attracting increasing attention.

Don Nielsen 

Nielsen, a successful businessman who turned his attention to education and began a 20-year role as education activist, including two years traveling the country in search of good ideas and a decade on the Seattle school board, says funding isn't the issue. "It is the system and the people who populate it that need to change."

But the Washington State Supreme Court, in a January 2011 ruling that ordered the legislature to fully fund basic education and last fall held the lawmakers in contempt for failing to comply with that order, says funding IS the answer. Then voters, by a bare majority, in November approved Initiative 1351 to limit class sizes. That brought an additional multi-million-dollar reality to legislative deliberations.

And as the issues relating to education funding come under increasing scrutiny, there is increasing visibility for Nielsen, who seems to be at the epicenter of discussion about the future of basic education in this state, and elsewhere. His book, Every School: One Citizen's Guide to Transforming Education, has become a national focal point in discussions about the future of public education.

The book has led to speeches before a long list of Rotary clubs and other organizations, beginning late last year before the Seattle Rotary Club. Another five rotary talks are scheduled for next month, and radio interviews are occurring on talk shows across the country.  

"Most of what we're hearing is that we need more money and lower class sizes, but we have tried that and it hasn't worked," said Nielsen. "We now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970 and we also have four times as many adults in our schools with only eight percent more children."  

While Nielsen confides he has little hope that his ideas will ever pass muster before a legislature in this state because of the power of the forces opposed to dramatic change in the public education system, a legislature closely divided politically may decide that a dramatic education-funding change should be accompanied by other dramatic changes.

It's logical that Nielsen would take a businesslike view of analyzing what changes are needed for basic education to work since dramatic success as an entrepreneur over nearly a quarter century preceded his personal commitment to learn about education's needs, and then seek to bring those about.

His business success involved co-founding in 1969 a start-up biological and chemical testing company that he helped grow into the world's largest company in its industry by the time he had taken it public. He then helped guide its acquisition in 1987 by Corning, which kept him on as CEO of the firm, Hazelton Corp., and over the following five years he doubled the company's annual revenue to $165 million.

Newspaper editorialists, policymakers and lawmakers from both parties have begun to suggest that if more money must be spent on education, then perhaps dramatic change in the system itself should be considered.

And the fact that Nielsen is reaching audiences on talk shows in cities across the country suggests that what he describes as an "obsolete" system is facing serious scrutiny in states other than just Washington.

"Basically, my premise is that the system is obsolete and needs radical change," he told me in one of several phone conversations  in recent days. "However, like a failing business, you don't embark on radical change with the people who created the problem in the first place.  So, to fix our schools, we must first fix the people and we must do so at all levels; teaching, leadership and governance."

As a frank and to-the-point kind of a guy who has brought an entrepreneur's focus, innovation and zeal to his pursuit of improving education, Nielsen has stirred critics who were protective of the status quo while attracting respect and support from those who shared his view that the structure of education needed to change.

Interestingly, the latest Elway Poll shows that for the first time in seven years, economic issues are not at the top of the public's wish list for legislative action. Rather it is education.

Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research, says his poll shows that 65 percent of those polled think the Legislature should do as much as possible without cutting other programs or raising taxes, 51 percent think education funding is the first priority and 48 percent says it will be necessary to raise taxes to meet education's funding needs.

Nielsen, a 1960 graduate of the University of Washington, where he was student body president in his senior year, seeks to have education reform seen as an issue that transcends politics.

"Fixing our schools, so they effectively educate every child should not be a partisan issue," he told me.  "I am hopeful that the Republican Party will soon recognize that and take on education as their primary issue.   The Democrats have claimed schools as their issue for the last three decades and our schools have not improved. Time for a change."

The changes that Nielsen espouses boil down to three key steps.

"First, we have to improve the quality of teachers," suggested Nielsen, who says a key first step is eliminating certification laws, which he refers to as "the culprit" because they give "education schools a monopoly over the supply of human capital that can work in our schools."

"Next we must improve leadership," he said. "A quality principal will give you a quality school but certification laws again hinder our ability to hire top leaders for our schools."

We also must address governance, not just leadership. We need high quality, competent people governing our schools.   In urban systems, I would recommend going to appointed school boards or even eliminating them altogether and have the superintendent become part of the mayor's cabinet.  

Nielsen decided, after his decade of schools leadership at the local level, that the necessary changes couldn't be achieved locally. And he suggests the fact No Child Left Behind Act has produced disappointing results, and may be dramatically altered in this Congress, suggests Washington, D.C., isn't the place to drive necessary changes.

"To improve America's schools, we need to do so at the Statehouse," said Nielsen.

Continue reading
  1397 Hits
  0 Comments
1397 Hits
0 Comments

NIelsen calls for major education overhaul

As the 2015 Legislature looks down the double barrels of a pair of multi-million dollar education-funding challenges, one ordered by the court and the other by the voters, a new book by former Seattle school board president Don Nielsen calling for a major overhaul of the basic structure of education is attracting increasing attention.

Don Nielsen 

Nielsen, a successful businessman who turned his attention to education and began a 20-year role as education activist, including two years traveling the country in search of good ideas and a decade on the Seattle school board, says funding isn't the issue. "It is the system and the people who populate it that need to change."

But the Washington State Supreme Court, in a January 2011 ruling that ordered the legislature to fully fund basic education and last fall held the lawmakers in contempt for failing to comply with that order, says funding IS the answer. Then voters, by a bare majority, in November approved Initiative 1351 to limit class sizes. That brought an additional multi-million-dollar reality to legislative deliberations.

And as the issues relating to education funding come under increasing scrutiny, there is increasing visibility for Nielsen, who seems to be at the epicenter of discussion about the future of basic education in this state, and elsewhere. His book, Every School: One Citizen's Guide to Transforming Education, has become a national focal point in discussions about the future of public education.

The book has led to speeches before a long list of Rotary clubs and other organizations, beginning late last year before the Seattle Rotary Club. Another five rotary talks are scheduled for next month, and radio interviews are occurring on talk shows across the country.  

"Most of what we're hearing is that we need more money and lower class sizes, but we have tried that and it hasn't worked," said Nielsen. "We now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970 and we also have four times as many adults in our schools with only eight percent more children."  

While Nielsen confides he has little hope that his ideas will ever pass muster before a legislature in this state because of the power of the forces opposed to dramatic change in the public education system, a legislature closely divided politically may decide that a dramatic education-funding change should be accompanied by other dramatic changes.

It's logical that Nielsen would take a businesslike view of analyzing what changes are needed for basic education to work since dramatic success as an entrepreneur over nearly a quarter century preceded his personal commitment to learn about education's needs, and then seek to bring those about.

His business success involved co-founding in 1969 a start-up biological and chemical testing company that he helped grow into the world's largest company in its industry by the time he had taken it public. He then helped guide its acquisition in 1987 by Corning, which kept him on as CEO of the firm, Hazelton Corp., and over the following five years he doubled the company's annual revenue to $165 million.

Newspaper editorialists, policymakers and lawmakers from both parties have begun to suggest that if more money must be spent on education, then perhaps dramatic change in the system itself should be considered.

And the fact that Nielsen is reaching audiences on talk shows in cities across the country suggests that what he describes as an "obsolete" system is facing serious scrutiny in states other than just Washington.

"Basically, my premise is that the system is obsolete and needs radical change," he told me in one of several phone conversations  in recent days. "However, like a failing business, you don't embark on radical change with the people who created the problem in the first place.  So, to fix our schools, we must first fix the people and we must do so at all levels; teaching, leadership and governance."

As a frank and to-the-point kind of a guy who has brought an entrepreneur's focus, innovation and zeal to his pursuit of improving education, Nielsen has stirred critics who were protective of the status quo while attracting respect and support from those who shared his view that the structure of education needed to change.

Interestingly, the latest Elway Poll shows that for the first time in seven years, economic issues are not at the top of the public's wish list for legislative action. Rather it is education.

Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research, says his poll shows that 65 percent of those polled think the Legislature should do as much as possible without cutting other programs or raising taxes, 51 percent think education funding is the first priority and 48 percent says it will be necessary to raise taxes to meet education's funding needs.

Nielsen, a 1960 graduate of the University of Washington, where he was student body president in his senior year, seeks to have education reform seen as an issue that transcends politics.

"Fixing our schools, so they effectively educate every child should not be a partisan issue," he told me.  "I am hopeful that the Republican Party will soon recognize that and take on education as their primary issue.   The Democrats have claimed schools as their issue for the last three decades and our schools have not improved. Time for a change."

The changes that Nielsen espouses boil down to three key steps.

"First, we have to improve the quality of teachers," suggested Nielsen, who says a key first step is eliminating certification laws, which he refers to as "the culprit" because they give "education schools a monopoly over the supply of human capital that can work in our schools."

"Next we must improve leadership," he said. "A quality principal will give you a quality school but certification laws again hinder our ability to hire top leaders for our schools."

We also must address governance, not just leadership. We need high quality, competent people governing our schools.   In urban systems, I would recommend going to appointed school boards or even eliminating them altogether and have the superintendent become part of the mayor's cabinet.  

Nielsen decided, after his decade of schools leadership at the local level, that the necessary changes couldn't be achieved locally. And he suggests the fact No Child Left Behind Act has produced disappointing results, and may be dramatically altered in this Congress, suggests Washington, D.C., isn't the place to drive necessary changes.

"To improve America's schools, we need to do so at the Statehouse," said Nielsen.

Continue reading
  1370 Hits
  0 Comments
1370 Hits
0 Comments

Buller, Elway tout a future that brings social media to essential role in decisions

John Buller and H. Stuart Elway, long-time players in the old top-down process of decision-making in Seattle and Washington State, are embarked on separate initiatives whose basic message is that things won't work that way in the future.

 

Both hope to spark new forms of civic engagement aimed at broader inclusion in charting the region's next chapter, but that "broader inclusion" may come in fits and starts, and face challenges before broad acceptance.

 

Buller, a business and civic leader for the past 30 years, summarizes it as "The Seattle Way has to be replaced by a recognition that social media has made the world flat rather than top-down so we have to make discussions about our future much more broad-based."

 
 

Or as Elway puts it, :the whole social media thing has the potential to bring us full circle to the original way Democracy got started."

But both would agree that bringing social media integrally into decision making in a manner that doesn't permit a few strident bloggers or vested-interest Internet sites to drown out the crowd ironically requires some strategy and structure.

 
 

 

Elway, whose Elway Research Inc. with its interactive polling and opinion-tracking has been a key initiator in helping shape business, policy and governmental decisions since 1975, is seeking to attract interest in what he refers to as "The Next Northwest," though his focus has really become "The Next Washington."

Buller, a member of the board of the Washington Athletic Club and the incoming chair of Seattle Seafair, is one of the Next 50 Ambassadors, a group of civic leaders seeking to promote a series of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the six-month run of the Seattle World's Fair.

 

But he's carried the idea into an appeal to dramatically embrace social media to gather an array of visions for the region's future, not merely input from established groups.

While Buller is focused specifically on Seattle 50 years hence and Elway's focus is geographically broader, they are both seeking to not just stir interest in discussing the future but in igniting a desire for broad-based involvement in shaping that future.

 

And both agree that social media is the factor that will negate reliance on the old top-down way of making decisions and that, in a sense, a matured social media can represent a return to the way Democracy itself was born - with all having an equal voice in the decisions.

 

Buller is a Nebraska native who came to the University of Washington in 1965 to play basketball, but injuries and illness shortened his career after he led the freshman team in scoring. He wound up as a graduate-assistant coach while he got his MBA.

 

Among his leadership positions, Buller served as senior vice president of marketing at The Bon Marche/Macy's, vice president of alumni relations at UW, head of the local organizing committee for the 1995 NCAA Final Four and CEO at Tully's Coffee.

 

Elway launched his company soon after getting his doctorate in communications from the University of Washington in 1975. His Elway Poll is the only independent, non-partisan, on-going analysis of public opinion trends in Washington state and the Northwest.

 

Buller and Elway have appeared in recent months before various town-hall and organization meetings to tout the need for the region to focus on mapping a plan for the future, each focusing on his ideas for defining the future. But both concede there hasn't been a rush to seize the initiatives they are offering.

 

Both lament the current state of discourse and suggest that the absence of broad involvement in the conversation is a key reason.

 

"We're having this great debate about the role of government and it's being conducted in the most partisan atmosphere imaginable," notes Elway, most of whose research and focus has been on policy matters and government.

 

What he is seeking to achieve with his "Next Northwest" is having a "systematic, statewide conversation about changing expectations for government and institution." Social media would ideally have a large role in those conversations.

 

Buller is even more forceful. "Journalism has turned into spinism. People tend to find the medium that supports their version of the world and they don't need to talk to anyone who disagrees."

 

"We aren't really discussing Seattle's next 50 years," Buller says, suggesting that current debate about the proposed new arena and its possible impact on the Port of Seattle's future are perfect examples of sound-bite decision-making for the near-term without extending to "long-term, do we want to be a global city or a regional city."

 

Buller, has created both a concept document and creative brief to help guide groups, formal or online, wishing to initiate discussions on "The Next 50 - Changing the Way Seattle Looks at the Future."

 

Buller's and Elway's shared vision of the need for a vision, or visions, merits broader attention, particularly in the social-media arena that they understand will be vital to any meaningful discussion.

 

That attention has thus far proved elusive. Or as Elway quipped ruefully, "I can't find the financial support to carry this out so I guess I'll have to win the Powerball to complete it."

Continue reading
  1556 Hits
  0 Comments
1556 Hits
0 Comments

52°F

Seattle

Mostly Cloudy

Humidity: 63%

Wind: 14 mph

  • 24 Mar 2016 52°F 42°F
  • 25 Mar 2016 54°F 40°F
Banner 468 x 60 px