The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The hidden danger to the K-12 system (funding)

Yesterday, an article in the Chicago Tribune highlighted problems with Illinois’ college tuition investment plan, specifically a 30% funding deficit that resulted from a poor return on the fund’s investments. This works out to a $560 million shortfall in meeting the program’s projected obligations.

While not related to the K-12 system directly, it illustrates perfectly one of the biggest – and most ignored – dangers in school funding today.

The issue is that many funds related to education – including teacher retirement funds – rely on a high annual rate of return, typically 8% or thereabouts, in order to be able to grow sufficiently to cover future obligations. Unfortunately, as seen in this chart from MSN, over the last ten years the Dow Jones Industrial Average has only grown around 2% annually, from 9811 on December 14, 2001 to 11954 on December 13, 2011:

So what happens if these funds can’t get the investment return they need to cover the promises made to teachers and administrators? In most cases, districts then have to step up their contributions, which will result in a dramatic outflow from district budgets. That means that all other spending, including salaries, buildings, buses, textbooks and everything else, will have to be reduced, quickly and significantly.

Barring some investment bonanza (unlikely, unless we invent a second internet), funds will not make the returns they need; if that’s the case, expect to see them requiring much more from districts in very short order.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It’s worse than you think (career/college readiness) reported today on a 2010 study that looked at whether high school students were being prepared for career or college. The results were shocking – and they were actually worse under the surface.

According to the report, produced by researchers at the University of Arizona and Johns Hopkins University, 40% of high school students graduate without being prepared for college or for a career. These students, researchers contend, are “’a virtual underclass of students’ who finish high school with a transcript filled with watered-down general education courses and few prospects for success either in traditional college or in professional training.”

The authors note that 33% of high school students graduate on a ‘college prep’ track, with an additional quarter of students on a career prep pathway. But there are a few basic facts that make these numbers worse than they initially appear:

  • The report specifically speaks to high school graduates, which ignores the 30% of students who drop out before graduating. Add those students back in to the calculations (specifically, to the ‘generally unprepared’ category) and the numbers change to 55% of all students leaving school unprepared (diploma in hand or not), 26% graduate on a college track, and 19.5% on a career pathway.

  • The authors note the truly alarming facts about students who go on to two-year or four-year postsecondary education: Namely, that right now, just two states award more than 20 degrees per 100 students in community college, and only eight states award more than 20 degrees per 100 students in four-year colleges.

  • The definition of career pathway, though commonly accepted, is particularly weak: Taking at least two CTE courses. That’s it. Certainly some students are taking a full array of CTE courses and becoming prepared for work – but how many are taking no more than two courses, and of those, how many are really career-ready?
These facts are daunting, and the authors’ suggested solutions – namely integrating instruction both within the school walls and with outside parties – are good ones. But they ignore the reality of how we got here in the first place – unless you address the problems that led us to where we are, you’ll never be able to change the system going forward.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Normalcy bias

Normalcy bias is one of the greatest challenges facing education today – but recognizing its existence opens up tremendous opportunities for those who can step outside the box and react accordingly.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it basically means this: If you’ve been traveling on a straight road for a long period of time, you tend to think that road will continue to be straight well into the future. We look at the progression of our lives and assume that the status quo will continue rolling forward on a linear path. And it is something we are all naturally very susceptible to.

Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” (the business book, not the movie!), writes about it from the perspective of the Happy Turkey. Every day for a couple of years, a farmer comes out and gives the turkey water and tasty food; the turkey has a covered place to sleep and is kept safe from predators. Based on these past two years, this is how he expects to live out his life; however, those who celebrate Thanksgiving know that a very different fate awaits him.

I’m not suggesting that anyone in education is going to lose their head, of course. I share the story as an example of how our views of the future are built from our experiences up to this point. In education, we had a long period – 60 years or more – of relative prosperity, every year seeing growth in spending and an increase in services. That prosperity went on for so long that today, even after a few years of belt-tightening, many expect us to end the current financial detour and get back on that road.

But what if our road is no longer straight? What if we’re in the middle of a turn, and we haven’t even realized it?

If that’s the case – and I believe it is, based on some of the reasons I’ve laid out elsewhere – then K-12 education is going to start looking very different from what we see today. I can’t say that I know where we’re headed, but I do believe that enlisting local communities as full and equal partners is the single best strategy available to us to counter the challenges we face and revitalize our entire approach to educating our children.

For that to happen, we must all recognize our own tendencies toward normalcy bias – and realize that while the future will very likely not look like the past, we can make it look better if we engage our communities and make it happen.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The big, ugly picture in K-12 education

When I started this blog in 2005, my focus was primarily on partnership practices: who was working with whom to do what, what research had come out to highlight effective approaches, or who was saying something editorially that was relevant to the field. It was a targeted focus, worthwhile if one’s assumptions about the world in which we worked were somewhat stable.

But in the fall of 2007, while doing my annual business planning, I stepped back to look at that larger environment, and saw that things were changing. (You can see the five-part blog series by scrolling through
here.) And, while I continued writing about practices (at the blog and, later, through the short-lived K-12 Partnership Report), I also began thinking and writing more about the economic background to all of this.

Now, three years after the economic crash of 2008, I’m drawing the inexorable conclusion that this has not been the temporary dip we all hoped it would be, but rather a major turning point. I don’t believe there is any chance that we’ll recover in the traditional sense and hit good times again with renewed growth and blue skies. Our expectations, and the resources we have to reach them, have fundamentally diverged – and it’s going to be an uncomfortable journey as we realize this and take the steps needed to realign the two.

This is true for the country in general and for K-12 education in particular. We add more and more expectations (college for all, more standards, more STEM education, more equity) but we’re able to put less into the system. We can handle this divergence for a little while, but as the gap increases, the stresses are going to grow.

You can see it happening in the UK – it hasn’t been covered here very well, but right now, more than 70% of their schools are partially or completely closed while the unions strike against pension reform (see “
Generation’s Largest Strike Closes UK Schools”). Less resources there mean teachers’ pay packages are being adjusted, and it’s disrupting public education.

I don’t know how it’s going to play out here, but I believe that we’re in for big changes in the near future. It could turn out to be a positive thing (as in a cleansing of some dysfunctional aspects of the system) or a bad thing, but I’m sure it will be disruptive. I’ll post more soon on the evidence that leads me to these conclusions and additional thoughts on what to expect next.