Are you ready for the new normal?
August 10, 2011 at 3:17 PM
Back to School in the “New Normal”
The hot days of July and August have always been a period of excitement for me. As a former high school band director, this was time for band camp and preparation for the upcoming football and marching band season. As a principal, it was time for finalizing schedules and completing the hiring of teachers. As a superintendent, it was time to make certain that school facilities and grounds were ready and that budgets were ready to meet the needs of our students and teachers.
But, this July and August are different. This is a time I have never seen in my 40 years of education. Many are calling these days the “New Normal.” What is the new normal, why are things so different now compared to previous years, and what can schools and districts do to address the new normal?
Secretary Arne Duncan made the following comments at the American Enterprise Institute on November 17, 2010.
“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 great challenge of
doing more with less. My message is 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.”
On the CBS broadcast of “Sixty Minutes” on December 19, 2010, Steve Kroft did a piece on the looming meltdown of state budgets.
“By now, just about everyone in the country is aware of the federal deficit problem, but you should know that there is another financial crisis looming involving state and local governments. It has gotten much less attention because each state has a slightly different story. But in the two years, since the "great recession" wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes. There is also a trillion dollar hole in their public pension funds. The states have been getting by on billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, but the day of reckoning is at hand. The debt crisis is already making Wall Street nervous, and some believe that it could derail the recovery, cost a million public employees their jobs and require another big bailout package that no one in Washington wants to talk about.”
All education leaders know there is a funding cliff looming for 2012 and beyond. State and local education budgets have been propped up by federal stimulus funds for the past two years and through 2011. However, those stimulus funds are drying up, and most pundits predict the federal government will not be able to support another round of stimulus funding to help state and local budgets.
Frederick Hess and Eric Osberg in their book Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best offer several other reasons behind the New Normal:
- Education has always been seen as the “sacred cow” in federal, state and local budgets. For over 100 years with very few exceptions, the per-pupil expenditure for education has increased. Even during times of recession education has seen increases in spending per pupil. Since the late ’50’s, education has almost tripled the amount spent per pupil while at the same time, our ranking among international comparisons and national assessments show stagnant performance while other countries are moving rapidly past the U.S.
- Over the past few years the American public has signaled less support for continued increases in education spending. Given the constant bombardment of criticism placed on public schools and the current economic recession, the public has been persuaded that money is not the fix for public schools. Citizens reason that if they have to tighten their home budgets, then schools should be forced to do the same.
- The competing interests of other special interest groups have influenced education budgets and will continue to compete for declining federal, state and local resources. Education is facing competition with health care, criminal justice, and the needs of an aging population.
- Public employee benefits are not sustainable and will become the final “brick” that breaks the back of federal, state and local budgets. The public pensions and other retirement benefits are structurally unsustainable. Current projections place an unfunded requirement of over $1.3 trillion.
So the New Normal is certainly real and school and district leaders will have to address higher expectations for learning outcomes in a time with fewer funds. What can schools and districts do to address this New Normal? I offer below several suggestions for consideration. Understanding processes and issues from a systemic framework, which is the focus of the Lean Operational Excellence approach, will always lead to better decisions as we deal with the New Normal. A key tool I recommend using in any process improvement effort is the Baldrige National Quality Program criteria. As a superintendent and now commissioner of education, I use that combination every day to inform my decisions.
- Structure of schooling – the current education structure is delivering exactly what it was designed to deliver. However, the structure cannot possibly deliver on the multitude of stakeholder requirements. How can we develop new processes of teaching and learning that utilize advancements in technology and understanding of how children learn?
- Benchmarking processes – while we always look to adopt new reforms, we do very little in the way of looking at operational and support processes to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes. Enormous amounts of waste are inherent in public education processes. Through benchmarking within and outside of the education industry there are enormous opportunities to reallocate resources to key processes of teaching and learning.
- Labor costs – Given that education costs are usually 80-85% labor related, we must address this area. Are we certain that class size, salary schedules, and support personnel costs CANNOT be addressed to identify more effective and efficient deliver?
While this period of New Normal is a highly stressful time, it is also a time to be creative and innovative. I highly recommend the use of Lean Operational Excellence methods and the Baldrige criteria as a tool combination for creativity and innovation to address the challenges of the New Normal.
Best wishes for a great start to the new school year.