I’ve always had kind of a split personality at the start of the school year. There was the little girl who looked forward to donning a new outfit, strapping on a new pair of shoes, and rushing off to meet my new teacher. But there was also the worrier Joan, the one who was in a new school and fretted about making friends, not knowing what to wear or where to sit.
I’m facing this school year in much the same vein.
Money more than learning is likely to be the theme of the coming year as schools start to walk off, fall off, or get pushed off the funding cliff. Some schools and districts will face this with aplomb and not waste the crisis. Others will take a header over the edge, never realizing they had other options.
As districts approach the edge of the cliff, three ideas are likely to generate a lot of heat, if not light. I see possibilities in every one of them, and also reasons for worry.
School district consolidations
As spending ability continues to spiral downward, expect to hear a lot more about district consolidations.
Reducing the number of superintendents and school boards and eliminating duplicated services at the district level would be the name of the game. But there are mixed reviews about how much savings actually accrue from such changes. If those saved dollars are used to preserve classroom jobs or if a consolidation increases district capacity, then consolidations could be a worthy move.
But don’t expect local districts to volunteer for this because the powers-that-be are exactly the ones who would be losing their positions. That means state legislatures would have to find the will to set standards for consolidations. Too bad the money that will be spent lobbying on this question can’t be spent on kids instead.
Standing on the edge of the cliff may finally convince districts to explore opportunities presented by new technologies. Collaborations between districts or colleges regardless of distance would enable schools to offer certain courses through virtual networks and to share the cost of a teacher.
2010 has already witnessed a shift in book sales; textbooks are surely the next frontier. Amazon revealed in July that its sales of e-books had topped its sales of print volumes for the first time. How long will it take before districts turn to e-books as an alternative to printed textbooks for all students in all courses? Equipping every student with an e-reader can’t be that far away.
Embraced wisely, technology can retain or expand options for students and excite them anew with the possibilities of learning. Or the money can be squandered as badly as in the day when districts sold bonds to pay for computers in the classrooms.
The new PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools makes clear that quality teaching is the public’s top national priority for education. But, as adults feel their own belts being tightened, they are increasingly angry at teachers for seeking higher salaries and retaining benefits that the rest of us lost long ago. They are tired, really tired, of the standard pay scale for teachers and want to see pay tied to improvements in student learning. Many in the public perceive teacher pay as the culprit that’s threatening to push districts over the financial edge.
The twin pressures of the march toward the cliff and the aggressive efforts by the Obama-Duncan team to promote performance pay mean lots of action on teacher pay is looming. Because performance pay will go hand in hand with changes in teacher evaluation, introducing performance pay could achieve what the anti-tenure crowd could not: a way to muster out low-performing teachers. And that will be a very popular move with the public.
Not even massive infusions of money from Gates, Broad, and other benefactors can prevent this funding crisis. When we finally land on solid ground again, my guess is that the face of American education will be sharply different than before we began. En route, some districts will surely crash on the rocks, either unable or unwilling to navigate their way down the wall. But some districts will seize the opportunity of the crisis, find their wings, and fly off that cliff to safety. I really hope my kids are in those schools.