The “New Normal” in Education: Doing More with Less

At today’s American Enterprise Institute event, “Bang for the Buck in Schooling: A Conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan”, Rick Hess set the context for Secretary Duncan’s remarks about doing more with less. Hess stated that there has been a three generation spree of education spending – education spending up each year since 1933. Per pupil spending since 1960s tripled. But the recent Congressional elections show that it will be hard to maintain this level of spending in education, despite the need for schools to do better. He suggests one way to save money is for schools and districts to use more technology.

Secretary Duncan spoke about 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.” While this new reality sounds daunting, he was optimistic that this could be an opportunity to make dramatic changes if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.

While there has been much talk in recent weeks about the amount of federal education funding and the need to cut spending, Duncan stated that the federal investment in K-12 education is just eight percent. State funding makes up about half of education spending, while local spending represents 44 percent. With half of all education spending coming from the state level, the following points were alarming:

  • With few exceptions, state budgets have yet to recover from the Great Recession.
  • Thirteen states project they will drain their rainy day reserve funds this year.
  • Forty states reduced their general fund expenditures in fiscal 2010.
  • And most states do not expect revenues to return to their pre-recession peak until 2012 or 2013–at the earliest.

Duncan stressed the importance of making cuts that would not impact the classroom, such as deferring maintenance and construction projects, cutting bus routes, lowering the costs of textbooks and health care, improving energy use and efficiency in school buildings, and reducing central office personnel. But while these changes are essential, they are hardly sufficient.

“By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States,” said Duncan. Some of the key areas that he felt we must focus on are reducing dropout rates, boosting college and career readiness, and ensuring that there is no longer a need to spend billions of dollars a year on remedial education because students should have learned these skills in high school.

Duncan also talked of doing away with “factory model of education” which has no place in the 21st century when schools must prepare all students for college and careers. Instead, he would like to see more personalized instruction, the smart use of technology, rethinking policies around seat-time requirements and class size, and compensating teachers based on their educational credentials.

He also encouraged districts to maintain a diverse and rich curriculum, which can be tough when money is tight. But, as he said, it is this diverse curriculum that makes school exciting, fun, and engages young people in coming to school every day. This comment immediately made me think of CTE. As we all know, CTE has been shown to help keep students engaged in school, and cutting it would do a great disservice to students in every district. So, at a time when state and local budgets are tighter than ever, we must make the case for CTE as a way to keep students in school and for transforming the “factory model of education.”

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