The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A failure of imagination

Like most of you, I’ve been paying very close attention to local and national discussions on the education system’s response to the economic downturn – and I’ve been amazed at the narrow scope of the discussion to date. School and district leaders seem to have blinders on: they’re looking at things entirely through the lens of the status quo, a viewpoint that greatly limits consideration of their options.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, consider that systems generally have three components: inputs, processes, and outputs. And we’re experiencing a failure of imagination on the first two points to the detriment of the third.

  • Inputs – The K-12 education system receives almost all of its income (~99%) from government sources, and the discussion to date has centered entirely on the status of funding from those sources. As any private or nonprofit leader can tell you, however, it’s exceedingly dangerous to rely on a single source of revenue, whether it’s a customer or donor: it’s much safer and smarter to develop a broad and diverse base of support. While K-12 education will likely always rely on government funds for the majority of its support, there are great gains to be had by soliciting support from community stakeholders. There are any number of ways that they can contribute, and for systems feeling the pinch of reduced government spending (a pinch that will go on for years, perhaps decades), community support represents a tremendous and relatively untapped opportunity.
  • Processes – Despite a vague call for reform, all of the talk I’ve heard has involved doing the same things we’ve always done. We may have to cut some teachers due to cutbacks, and we may do some more work on teacher training and data systems thanks to ARRA funds. But there’s been no talk at all about real change to accommodate a very different environment. Thanks to ARRA, we have a two-year buffer before funding really drops off a cliff: shouldn’t we be looking at developing more efficient operations? What about academically – is the current model of 12 grades, summers off, paid-employees-only, sitting-in-a-classroom-working-from-textbooks model still the right one? Community stakeholders, with expertise in various areas, could be a tremendous help here in setting priorities (and generating community buy-in), coming up with alternate models, and assisting in shouldering the load on reform and new operations. But they have to be asked, and that hasn’t even been brought up as an option.
  • Outputs – It seems obvious, but if our inputs are declining, and we don’t change our processes, our outputs will inevitably decline as well. Given the need to improve K-12 outcomes on a number of metrics (graduation rates, academic preparedness, workforce preparedness, etc.), that doesn’t seem like a politically viable option. So clearly, either inputs or processes (or more realistically, both) are going to have to change if we want to see the improved results that the public demands.
The question is: how does this happen? How do we introduce the idea of community engagement into the discussion, thereby helping education leaders realize that they’re not locked in to an unwinnable scenario? I don’t have that answer, but I certainly hope that someone sees a path here. Otherwise we’re in for a long and bumpy ride.