The K-12 death spiral
In many ways, the problems of K-12 and higher education institutions are more similar than ever. Both face accreditation pressures, money problems, enrollment issues, and rising health-care and pension costs. On some days, it seems as if both public education and public higher education are legacy-carrier airlines—high-cost, low-profit, maybe even dinosaurs.
The two share similar dynamics as well. The situation most dreaded by school systems and universities alike is a “death spiral.” Under such a scenario, student enrollment declines, leading to budget cuts, program cancellations, and further enrollment declines as a result. This cycle is hard to escape from, as the funding to develop new programs might simply not be there, prompting the school or university to offer less and less to fewer and fewer students.
School districts or universities in a cycle of decline are often extremely isolated. They find it difficult to trust outsiders and are loath to accept help from institutions that try to aid them. A kind of “groupthink” often develops, in which wishful thinking replaces real planning for the future. Without intervention from the outside, these situations do not turn around on their own.
Will budget problems lead K-12 education into a death spiral? I don't know. But what I do know is that many systems are isolated, without strong ties to their communities, and maintaining a wariness of working with community partners despite clear evidence of the benefits and the need to do so.
The author talks about the alternative: "virtuous circles," where small successes lead to larger ones and result in a vibrant institution. Let's hope that's the path we choose to take.