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Arne Duncan said what? Good…

Posted by Nov 18th, 2010.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech yesterday at an American Enterprise Institute panel event. Like Rick Hess, my socks were knocked off. You mean, the same Obama official who oversaw billions upon billions in stimulus and Edujobs (not to mention Race to the Top) spending now says:

I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K‐12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less.

My message is that this challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system
lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.

It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat‐your‐broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.

An acknowledgment of new political realities in Washington? An admission of prolonged economic malaise? Perhaps. But all five pages of the transcript must be read. Challenging words for union leaders, administrators and school boards alike that amounts to a strong statement from Secretary Duncan. Is Colorado ready to embrace the challenge? My experience at two recent panel events gives me pause.

Ten days ago I accepted an invitation to drop in on a CU-Denver-hosted panel discussion on how Colorado K-12 agencies can weather the fiscal storm. The panelists — outgoing state treasurer Cary Kennedy, the School Finance Project’s Tracy Rainey, new DPS CFO David Hart and Michael Griffith from Education Commission of the States — offered a bleak picture.

Kennedy herself made the statement that Colorado’s per-pupil funding is at the same inflation-adjusted level in 1989. I’d really, really like to know where that info comes from. A look at NCES data (adjusted by the Denver-Boulder CPI) shows Colorado increased current per pupil spending by 21 percent and total per pupil spending by 28 percent between 1989-90 and 2007-08. Looking just at the primary School Finance Act portion of K-12 budgets, one will find that total program spending grew about 2 percent less than inflation. So while Colorado K-12 per-pupil real operational expenditures may have grown somewhere less than 20 percent, someone will have to explain the correctness of the statement I heard from Treasurer Kennedy that spending has been flat. But I digress….

I had a greater disappointment from the CU-Denver event. When confronted by both the moderator and later by a member of the audience (someone beat me to it!) about ways school districts can innovate and adjust to face the fiscal reality, answers from the panel ranged anywhere from thin and vague to evasive. I refuse to believe K-12′s near-term fiscal challenges can only be addressed on the backs of students. We need to hear from other voices on this matter (including district leaders showing some bold outside-the-box thinking), and Arne Duncan’s certainly will do!

At a second panel event this Monday co-sponsored by many groups and inspired by the theme of the new film Waiting for Superman, most of the representatives of established groups repeatedly came back to the need for more “resources” to advance reform. To his credit, CASB’s Ken DeLay proved a notable exception by emphasizing that Colorado taxpayers expect to see real earnest change before again being counted on to provide more funds. Modest reductions in local and state tax dollars due partly to economic stagnation aren’t the only challenge officials and administrators face. Duncan’s announcement makes clear that K-12 school systems can’t expect to lean on federal dollars again any time soon, either.

One thing I want to know is whether groups that have touted Colorado’s slower-than-other-states’ growth in per-pupil spending as a crisis will start rejoicing if future trends reverse and Colorado’s spending declines in real terms but at a significantly slower pace than other states. That’s one way to close the gap with the national average.

Even if he is a little late to the game, I prefer to follow Duncan’s lead, to think how districts and agencies can do things differently, and to focus on productivity and outputs in Colorado public education. Seems like a good prerequisite for the next commissioner, too.

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9 Responses to “Arne Duncan said what? Good…”

  1. Ben says:

    For clarification, I need to add a phrase to a sentence in the third paragraph after the blockquote [addition in CAPS]:

    “Looking just at the primary School Finance Act portion of K-12 budgets, one will find that total program spending grew about 2 percent less than inflation FROM 2007-08 TO 2010-11.”

  2. jj says:

    You know, when I see my DPS science classrooms crowded 30-40% over capacity with 187 high school students–over the union limit–I honestly don’t know what more you want from me.

    • Ben says:

      If the only variable to be imagined in this entire equation is class size, then our condition is truly hopeless. Here’s a great place to start with lots of ideas to engage and discuss: http://www.aei.org/book/100056

      • Mark Sass says:

        I know that to a point size doesn’t matter (pun intended for you Ben). And we know that size, as a sole variable, and its impact is questionable.

        What I haven’t seen yet, maybe I’ve missed it, is analysis on the impact of the move from ranking and sorting students to all students meeting standards has had on spending. The move to standards based education, with the passage of NCLB, had a huge impact on spending. Education results based on norming can withstand a decrease in funding. Education reslults based on standards necesitates an increased funding stream. While not an unfunded mandate, NCLB was certainly an underfunded mandate. When the mission of public education changes so should funding.

  3. Ed Augden says:

    Arne Duncan is detached from the reality that public schools face. Budget reductions have been commonplace since the 1970s and, yet, “reformers” such as Duncan still call upon classroom teachers and building administrators to “do more with less.” He and others still propose “reforms” that cater to the privileged and the lucky at the expense of the many. China, India and European nations will educate millions while we focus on providing a quality education to those in charter schools and training to those in regular schools. That’s a trajectory toward mediocrity.

  4. Joanne Roll says:

    I remember when DPS canceled summer school in 1991 and instead used the same budgeted amount – $330,000 – to pay consultants to train housewives in “consensus skills.” I think that mentality is an intricate part of DPS culture today. For example, the policy mandating parents must vote on any changes proposed for the school in which their children attend, has been suspended. Instead, there is an elaborate and expensive parent involvement program – in which parents are patronized like adult children and have no real power.

    I remember when there were community meetings, Board Members attended and conducted the actual meeting. Now, we have a Community Consultant who conducts the meetings, and the BOE members stay in the back., if they attend at all. The last North High meeting I went to was led by a consultant hired from Boulder because the “community” did not want the DPS employee (community consultant-coordinator) to conduct the meeting.

    A word about the “Save North HIgh” meetings, which have become almost an annual event. I like to attend even tho I no longer live in the neighborhood. It is a chance to see old friends and how kids have grown up and watch for up and coming politicians working the crowd. The food spread has varied. Back in the olden days, we just had institutional coffee; now it is water and fruit and sometimes little pastries. The best food was when Regis University had that Faith Based Initiative to develop public policy for public schools in North Denver. There was a really great buffet, loaded with sandwiches and all kinds of goodies. Because the community is multi-lingual, I guess the decision was made to have some non-verbal activities. So along with the flip flop charts, dancers would respond with free form steps to the comments. At least, I think that is what they were doing.

    I cite these events and programs because they are all, in my opinion, part of the culture of Denver Public Schools. That culture values process above all else, again in my opinion. Changing culture is the most difficult thing to do. I see no effort at all to change the political culture of DPS. More money just feeds into the same political system.

    Oh, about that beautiful buffet, the only real note was that provided by a teacher friend of mine. She was in tears. Every day, she brought peanut butter, jelly and bread to school to feed “her kids” who were too proud to go the Reduced and Free Lunch route or who were really hungry and took her sandwiches home. All she could think of was how those growing teenagers would have loved that buffet.

  5. noviceteacher says:

    As a new teacher in a Title 1 high school, I don’t know how to work harder or more efficiently. Given the district and school strictures, I don’t know how to innovate without receiving at least a slap on the wrist, if not losing my job.

    The schools and networks that have lately been highlighted as successful, (largely through Waiting for Superman), have much larger budgets or a crew of young teachers who burn out quickly after working ridiculous hours.

    “smart, innovative, and courageous”

    I would like to think that I am all of those things. But I cannot act upon them within my classroom.

    Tell me what I could do. I want to help more students learn. How?

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