As the year comes to a close I thought it might be interesting to look back and see what progress there has been in creating better schools for students. This is no easy task since there is no definitive way to measure such a thing, but there is some anecdotal evidence we might consider.
First of all, the economy has been murder. Many states are allocating capital funds for operations leaving school construction out in the cold. Where construction is funded locally, there have been far fewer bond and capital levy elections than in the recent past, and where there has been elections many measures have failed. the third leg of this crooked stool is the decline in property values. In California, as in many states, property values have plummetted with the result being that school districts can't legally sell the bonds their voters approved! This is because the lower property values have caused districts to exceed their statutory debt limits and until values go up, or bonds are paid off, they can't legally sell more bonds.
On the operations side administrators and teachers have been laid off so class sizes are getting larger. Fewer classes and electives are being offered. Schools are not being maintained, and tech upgrades have been postponed.
Even with all of this there actually is some news that helps to ameliorate these trends. The Feds have pumped billions into schools through Race to the Top, assuming your state was one of the ones selected for the program. The Feds have also made loans available and provided money to "fix-up" schools - more on this later.
Some states have passed bonds even if these are not in the quantity that existed in the past. See: http://www.schoolconstructionnews.com/articles/2010/03/19/voters-pass-466-billion-in-school-improvement-plans (Note that most of the money described in this article is emergency supplemental operating funds not capital dollars)
What I wonder though is why more schools, districts, and states haven't used these terrible conditions to rethink the way they go about the business of building and operating schools? Federal money helps, but spending money to fix-up "bad schools" does not seem like the best of investments. It certainly makes sense to spend the money on "warm, safe, and dry" but spending money that avoids change only perpetuates archaic practices. Similarly, overcrowding of schools could be an opportunity to change the way you teach. Why not enlist students in class to help teach those who need more help? Both the students helping and those being helped would benefit. You might need to rearrange the classroom to do this but that's a good thing. What about using online learning more robustly? It is growing by leaps and bounds and has real potential to enhance in class teaching in a blended learning environment. Some districts and schools are trying these approaches and succeeding, but its a big job.
2010 was a tough year but there are hopeful signs. The Christmas shopping season was positive, the commercial sector is showing some life, and the stock markets are up. Looking ahead to 2011, all of us who care about the environments in which our children learn need to continue our advocacy and spread the word that the environment you learn in is important.
Happy New Year.