In recent weeks, the following two op-eds were published by the local Norwalk press, in an attempt to get the relevant stakeholders in Norwalk to look at the bigger picture impacting our K-12 public education.
Can K-12 Public Education Derive Any Lessons From the Private Sector? By Lisa Thomson
The political grandstanding needs to STOP. I haven’t heard any significant recommendations. Sadly, the proposed march is just a spectacle, distracting us from the real financial issues. It’s kind of hard not talk about collective bargaining when all but four employees in the public school system are part of one union or another. It’s just the way public sector is structured. No one wants to criticize their local teacher or principal…but the system is broken!
There’s no conspiracy out there. Simply put, healthcare costs and post retirements benefits are trumping the classroom. In our attempt to protect the classroom at all costs, we let our central operations and bookkeeping fall apart. But the elephant in the room is that taxpayers are frustrated that public workers have better packages than the private sector. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the taxpayer is struggling to pay his own rising healthcare premiums, let alone an educator’s.
Sadly, this budget fight is NOT about the kids, quality instruction or the classroom. But it will impact them.
For 20 odd years, I worked at Lucent Technologies and Bell Labs, once the premier R&D manufacturing arm of AT&T, but it lost its way to more innovative Silicon Valley competitors and was sold to the French company Alcatel. Another company we all are familiar with, GM had a cost structure out step with its competitors. A government bailout and restructuring followed. The list is long and the industries varied: Blockbuster, Borders, Woolworths, Sears, Kodak are just a few common names of organizations that lost their way.
Can the private sector shed any light on the challenges we are facing in K-12 Public education? I think so.
Status Quo Organizations: Private companies that faltered lost their way because they resisted change.
K12 has also been slow to change. Achievement in the US has been dropping compared to the rest of the world. Too many kids after 13 years in the system are not prepared for a vocation or college. 1 in 3 college students needs remedial assistance. This is the trend regardless of whether you live in Norwalk, a leafy suburb or private school. Engaged parents have combatted with tutoring and enrichment.
Cost Structure: Private companies failed because the public stopped buying their product. These companies had to restructure, cut costs, and improve. Some went out of business.
K12 needs to get its costs in line with taxpayer’s wallets and deliver better outcomes. 4 out of 5 Norwalkers don’t have kids in the system, and years of tax increases have not improved student achievement. More money hasn’t made the system better.
Outside Influences: Private companies ignored outside influences and in most cases, it was competition that forced them to change.
In K12, it’s the federal government that is trying to change things by releasing states from the No Child Left Behind legislation, in return for organizational reforms. Incentives like Race to the Top funding is driving state legislatures across the US, to introduce changes directed at improving K12 instruction via charters, magnets, performance evaluations, etc. Educators can argue against the reforms, but they’re happening.
Ineffective Use of Technology: Private companies fell behind in their respective technologies or failed in their operational use of it.
Most of us came of age with the Dewey Decimal system, but our children have much more data at their fingertips. Studies reveal K12 students who received their education partially or fully online performed better, on average, than their peers who took the same course in a traditional class setting. One estimate predicts that half of all K12 classes will be taught online in the next decade. Policies prohibiting high school students from getting credit because the subject wasn’t taught by the school must change. Bended learning can and will 1) drive consistency in the classroom, 2) reduce costs and 3) differentiate learning for ALL students.
It’s time for those in leadership positions to stop telling half- truths to the press or at student functions. Norwalk faces a national not local political issue. Relentless attacks waged on the superintendent since her arrival in Norwalk, by some was for trying to bring consistency to 19 schools doing their own thing for over a decade. Their resistance to change and accountability could have been MUCH better served our children by working to drive quality practices across classrooms and schools.
We’ve had 4 superintendents in 10 years and at some stage Norwalk must look within itself. Political tactics that may have worked for the past 20 or 30 years in this town are coming to a close. The money is NOT there.
The other night, as I listened to each school plea their case, I was reminded of my perusal through the various collective bargaining contracts and how there were no parameters for performance. Lots of arbitrary work rules about how staff-interact and no mention of communication or cooperation between elementary, middle and high schools. In fact, quite the opposite, each have very different terms and working conditions. Ironic, when as a parent I bought into the 13 year plan for my child.
I wish that the grown-ups in town, regardless of political affiliation, collective bargaining position, or school would work together and stop the circus like atmosphere. As a parent, I won’t be manipulated, as in past years, to pit one school, program or position over another. What’s happening in the economy isn’t fair –welcome to the club.
Is the Baby Boomer Generation of Pensions & Rising Healthcare Costs Trumping the Classroom? By Lisa Thomson
The head of the union can draw his line in the sand, but so long as the most ineffective educators (administration or teacher) are paid the same as the best with associated pension and healthcare benefits out of step with the private sector, the taxpaying public will continue to throw mud at K-12 and society will suffer. So long as parents take no responsibility for what little Johnny does or doesn’t do in the classroom, society suffers, and so long as an aging population doesn’t think that kids today deserve as good an education as they got 40 years ago…society suffers.
According to our children’s most authoritative source, Wikipedia, the US pension and health care crisis has been predicted for years, as our contractual obligations and resources set aside to fund them have been out of sync. Shifting demographics since WWII, a lower ratio of workers per retiree and, retirees living longer and a lower birthrate have all contributed to this financial crisis.
We are now faced with a $500B shortfall in pensions for teachers across the US according to Time Money. This is NOT an issue specific only to Norwalk.
The continued finger pointing in the press, comments and blogs without enumerating any helpful solutions is counter -productive, wastes energy and creates unnecessary panic. Replacing politically elected volunteers with another set of politically elected volunteers or replacing a Superintendent who came from a highly functioning school district is not the answer either.
We’re in our 4th year of recession, and it’s beginning to look like the new reality. Add a 20-25% drop in property values from the peak in 2005, nominal ECS support from the state compared to other municipalities and a 7.7% unemployment figure across the state and you have private sector, city and state struggling to pay its bills.
According to the 2010 census, Norwalk has a population of about 85,000 residents. This consists of about 32,000 households, where 28% have children under the age of 18. The last census estimated there were about 9000 kids in the school system but we know that we have 11,000. If you divide the total number of households into the 5500 or so families in NPS, you have about 17% of the town using the public school system. As one of those families using the system, I also have to accept responsibility for balancing the educational needs of the town with the money we spend.
Our $10M short-fall is not any one person’s fault nor can one person fix it! This is not about a town not supporting education or its teacher and administrators. This is a STRUCTURAL problem that is only going to get more painful if we don’t sensibly address the issue with all parties concerned.
There have been a number of solutions kicked around for years, but we knew that none of the solutions would satisfy EVERYBODY, so we collectively kicked the can down the road. Taxpayers and parents have watched education and public services decline, all the while, their tax bills have increased. Effective educators have understood these problems, but found lacking in the different stakeholder leadership any support to move beyond the status quo.
As they say, the rubber has hit the road, the kids are not going away and the coffers are stretched. The time is now for all of us to start thinking outside the box in terms of how we move Norwalk education forward and effectively solve both this near term and the longer term crisis or the baby boomer generation can kiss their social security and pension good-bye when this current generation can’t get a job! The ration of workers to retirees was 5:1 in 1960, 3:1 in 2009 and is projected to be 2:2.1 in 2030!
Here are some suggestions, but only if the collective leadership has the courage to implement by not letting a good crisis go to waste:
- Close an elementary school and beef up literacy in Grades K-3
- Close a middle school and turn it into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math ) magnet
- Investigate other relationships like NCC for more on-line learning classes directed at high school students- reducing butts in seats
- Turn Briggs into a good old fashioned vocational school for those not wishing to go on to college – which incidentally doesn’t necessarily guarantee one a job anyway!
Folks need to stop finger pointing with generalities or looking for a smoking gun. This community needs to come up with solutions folks…not rhetoric!