The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bad now, or worse to come?

I’ve started seeing data on the levels of educator layoffs happening, and I’m trying to get some perspective on what this will mean to the future of K-12 education. Obviously, at an individual level, such cuts are traumatic – nobody wants to lose their job, and nobody wants to lose their favorite teacher or support person. But at a macro level – projecting the impact of such cuts on student achievement – what can we expect?

According to BusinessWeek’s reporting on the latest BLS employment report, we’ve lost 0.9% of our education jobs – 121,000 positions – between September 2008 and September 2009. A big caveat: this number includes all types of education jobs, including private education, higher education, and technical schools, so it’s impossible to suss out the K-12 losses specifically.

But assume our losses are consistent with the larger category – that K-12 education has lost around 1% of its workforce in the past year. According to BusinessWeek, there have only been three other years since the 50s that education has seen employment drops, and none approaching a 1% drop. Sounds pretty bad on the surface.

But then there’s this, from the US Department of Education:

Pupil/Teacher Ratio
  • A projected 3.7 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) elementary and secondary school teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in fall 2008. This number has risen 15 percent since 1998. The 2008 projected number of FTE teachers includes 3.2 million public school teachers and 0.5 million private school teachers.
  • The number of public school teachers has risen faster than the number of public school students over the past 10 years, resulting in declines in the pupil/teacher ratio. In the fall of 2008, there were a projected 15.3 public school pupils per teacher, compared with 16.4 public school pupils per teacher 10 years earlier.

To sum up, we’ve had a 1% drop in employment over the past year – but that’s after a tremendous run-up of 15% growth over the 10 years prior, a growth rate that so exceeded the growth of the student population that we actually saw the teacher/student ratio drop significantly.

So it looks like things aren’t nearly as bad as advertised, right? I think that’s true for the moment, but that things are turning for the worse for two reasons.

  • Enrollment in public K-12 education is projected to hit record numbers through 2017, seeing 8% growth from 2009 (50 million students) through 2017 (54 million students).
  • It looks like we’re just at the beginning of job cuts in education. Revenue trends, and therefore employment trends, for state and local governments tend to lag behind the private sector, and there are countless reports out about continued freefalls in state revenues. Couple that with the loss of support from the stimulus package after next year, and state/local finance are going to look terrible – with public employment reflecting those numbers.
So while things may not be as bad as they could be at the moment, they will most certainly become far worse – and this at a time when the public expects to see annual boosts in achievement.

It’s pretty easy to see bigger problems coming down the pike, right? But from what I have seen and heard over the past few months, there are many in K-12 leadership roles who either don’t see these problems, or just assume that someone will take care of them (likely through a re-up of the stimulus plan).

I’ve talked about this several times already (here as one example) and have heard similar things from others anecdotally (often off the record). I just came across a blog post by a publisher of classroom resourced named Lee Wilson, who reported the following from a panel of superintendents at EdNet 2009:

The panelists were discussing what will change in the next 5-10 years in education. They were looking globally at the overall system (teacher evaluation, bell schedule, technology, instructional materials, funding flows, etc.). In this context the Superintendent of one of the largest districts in the country (LACOE), in a state (CA) that is experiencing a state of extreme financial distress, stated that she didn't think anything significant would change until we had a "major crisis."

If what we are experiencing right now isn't a major crisis I shudder to think what the hell would fit the definition? National bankruptcy? Nuclear Holocaust?

The Superintendents do expect to see change, but it will be small bore. They believe meaningful reforms will happen on a pioneer basis in a few schools and districts. But the larger issue of systemic education reform will require an even greater crisis than we currently have.

The system is so large and has so much inertia that even those with the will and positions to drive change don't hold out much hope for progress.

Think about that.

It’s pretty clear what we can expect in the next several years in terms of school funding (and, correspondingly, employment); I hope that school and district leaders find an opportunity to take a look at the situation with fresh eyes, realize that business as usual is impossible going forward, and look at some fresh solutions for dealing with the reality of the situation.


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