The DeHavilland Blog

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The future of education, part 5

To sum up the four previous posts looking at the current and future state of the public education system (1, 2, 3, 4):

  • There will be a record number of children in the system through 2014, and likely beyond (based on K-8 projections)
  • These students will increase in diversity over time, with particular growth among student groups we’ve been least successful in educating
  • We’ve set a mandate to educate every child, and put into place accountability systems that deny us the opportunity to hide any shortcomings toward this goal
  • We will almost certainly have less money to work with, and at the same time will experience a significant growth in costs

In short – we’ve committed to significantly better results while serving a greater number of students than ever before, and we’ll have fewer resources – perhaps significantly fewer – to do it with.

That’s the data. How will the public education system react to these circumstances?

I think there are five options open to schools and districts:

Cut services. Schools and districts may decide to cut costs by cutting non-core classes (the arts have traditionally been an easy target), resources for other areas (instructional materials, resources for vocational programs), staff (teacher aides, support personnel such as nurses and maintenance staff), employee benefits (particularly in the areas of healthcare and retirement), and the costs of other services (transportation, foodservice, etc.). They may just decide to hunker down rather than pursue the other options listed here.

Improve efficiency. There are undoubtedly efficiencies to be found in large-scale operations like schools and districts. These could range from improving transportation systems to finding more cost-effective instructional programs.

Fake it. Rather than actually improve results among all students, schools can focus on appearances instead, making it look as if things are improving without actually changing true outcomes. This has already happened to an extent: states are reporting much lower dropout rates than are independent researchers, and the cut scores used in reporting on state assessments make it look as if students are performing much better than they actually are.

Fundraise. To make up for a reduction in resources, schools can reach out to their communities for help, soliciting financial support and volunteers. Under this model, nothing changes in terms of the structure and function of the schools: it’s a request for donations to maintain the current state of operations, and nothing more.

Partner. Schools and districts may turn to community partners to help them address the many challenges they face, building collaborative relationships that benefit the schools and their partners. This is more than fundraising: in a fundraising situation, schools remain as sole decision-makers, and community partners simply fund the things the school has decided to do; in partnership models, partners work collaboratively, with equal voices, to identify and meet outcomes. This approach promises far greater returns than a sole focus on fundraising.

Which of these options will schools and districts pursue?

My hope is that we’ll see institutions across the country throw open their doors and welcome community members in as true partners in the learning process. This approach ensures a focus on outcomes that the community wants to see, and is the best opportunity for generating significant levels of support – the support schools need to make up for coming shortfalls.

Other options are possible – it’s certainly hard to move from being a sole decision-maker to working through a collaborative model, and the partnership approach may be resisted for this reason. But the other options (except, perhaps, improving efficiencies) are short-sighted: reducing services or faking it put schools on a bad PR spiral, and putting all your efforts into fundraising without building relationships beyond that will ultimately cause resentment within the community.

If others see the data or likely options differently, please chime in – I’d love to hear different interpretations and predictions.

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