The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, August 28, 2009

Back from hiatus

After such a long – and unannounced – break from the blog, I’d be surprised if anyone was still checking in here. But I’m re-committing to posting regular updates, so hopefully people will start to filter back in to share their thoughts on education in general, business/community engagement in particular.

I’ve spent a lot of time keeping tabs on developments in the K-12 market over the past few months. A few thoughts as I get back up to speed after the slow summer days:

The USDE has fundamentally missed the boat.
The US Department of Education is in the process of completely squandering $100 billion. They see what’s happening to K-12 revenues at the state and local levels, and they’re smart enough to realize that the picture only looks worse once we get a couple of years out. So how do they want schools and districts to spend their stimulus money? Retaining teachers and boosting academic achievement – and that’s it. Both are noble goals in principle, to be sure; but they’re both akin to buying better paddles as you’re rafting towards a waterfall.

What happens when the stimulus money runs out? By then, state and local budgets will almost certainly have deteriorated further. Therefore many of the teachers we’ve retained, and spent money training, will be let go; the academic gains we’ve made with the immediate batch of students may benefit them, but they’ll be reversed after a year or two in the new learning environment, and the students coming up behind them will only face a bleak learning landscape.

USDE’s approach has been to seek instructional solutions to a financial crisis. Why not use this two-year funding buffer to mandate that schools streamline operations and find operating efficiencies? Why not give them an opportunity to cut expenses by 10-20% so that they’re prepared for lower levels of funding? As it stands, that $100 billion will wash through the system with no systemic change (specifically, no change on the operations/financial side) and we’ll have wasted an opportunity to prepare to live in the new funding environment.

Short-term thinking rules the day.
The public voices in education, made up of players ranging from publications to associations to education leaders to wonks to blogs, are ignoring the long-term realities of some fundamental changes in school funding. Yes, there are stories in Education Week about tight budgets, and about the mechanics of ARRA. But there’s been virtually no analysis of the fundamental economic challenges we’re facing, and what those will mean to the K-12 system once stimulus money runs out. Why has no one looked at the implications of a drop of 30-40% in home prices on public education? Property taxes make up 30% of K-12 funding, and some say that it’s going to take decades for home prices to reach their recent highs. What about how rapidly-growing entitlement systems like Medicare are going to increasingly compete for funding with schools? There are dramatic long-term implications to be addressed, but I have yet to see any coverage of the issue beyond what we’re dealing with at this exact moment. Yes, we need to know about the mechanics of ARRA, and we need to be told how districts are responding to the immediate situation. But shouldn’t we also look down the road a bit?

The orbit of the status quo is exceptionally strong.
As a corollary to the second point, those with public voices have so far failed to break out of a status quo viewpoint: looking at the current model of public education as sole reality, and refusing to envision alternate models that may be more compatible with a reduced funding environment. People are talking quite a bit about how they’re cutting back in certain areas – reduced bus routes, trimming staff around the periphery, and in some cases cutting a handful of school days. But these are only examples of their being reluctantly forced to tinker around the edges, within the context of the current system as the only possible model of schooling.

Why are we not questioning the current model and looking at ways of doing more with less? One example is the relentless call to minimize class size, a prohibitively expensive approach (and one without a supporting evidence base). Why not consider alternate ways of boosting performance, in light of research that shows rapid formative assessment is 124 times more cost-effective than class size reduction? Why not look at year-round schooling, better utilizing online instruction, eliminating sports (gasp!) and the like? Or actually incorporating community involvement in ways that reduce costs and improve outcomes, both in terms of instruction and operations? There’s no commandment that dictates schools have to function the way they do – let’s get under the hood and see how we can soup this baby up.

Anecdotally, I have heard that some district leaders are pushing their principals to build partnerships, but there’s no training or accountability behind the mandate. While it’s a start, it will severely limit the potential and duration of any relationships they build. And I fully expect that it amounts to more tinkering around the edges: find people to give us money to keep things going the way they are, not bring in people as partners to jointly plan initiatives that can improve or replace current ways of doing things.

But again, it’s a start. And, I expect, as budgets continue to shrink (and they will), hopefully community/school engagement will become enough of a priority that people will be willing to take the time to understand its potential and invest in doing it right.

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