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April 3, 2010

Doomsday or just another cycle?

by Chris Lindholm

Uplifting title I know, but hey, we live in a democracy that needs crisis to actually do something productive.  Discussions regarding the future of public education in MN and in America often lead to opinions in one of two camps: "we've seen all this before… it's just another part of the cyclical progress of time and economics… tough times haven't ruined education before and won't this time…" OR "the structure of public education as we know it will soon come to an end… and the process of collapse and restructuring won't be pretty…"  The Minneapolis Star Tribune this morning included an article called "Finances, aging baby boomers portend sea change in schools" that shared opinions from both camps but clearly favored the latter.  What really caught my attention in this article was who was quoted – state demographer Tom Gillaspy and head of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts Scott Croonquist.  These are two gentlemen that superintendents listen to.  These guys are heavy weights in the political battles of St. Paul and the planning work of local school boards.  Hmmmm….

Superintendents pay attention to numbers.  Number of students x state aid formula (plus about a thousand other formula variables put in place by some special interest group passionate about something in the past 55 years) = total revenue.  It's the state aid formula that has state demographer Tom Gillaspy worried.  "You can't cut enough, nor can you tax enough to cover it," said state demographer Tom Gillaspy of schools' funding woes. "We have to do something radically different. … This is not a short-run kind of thing. This isn't because of the recession. … This is very much a long-run issue. And we've seen it coming: It's been a slow train-wreck for decades."  The long run issue is the increased costs to the state budget due to other issues mostly tied to an aging baby boom generation.  We've seen this coming for decades yet instead of planning ahead and banking resources for the upcoming expenditure, we're hitting it head on with empty accounts and an incredible deficit.  This isn't the same scenario as the recessions of the 70s or the 80s or the 90s…  This is a bigger deal…

Ironically, I have again been reviewing futurist Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave recently.  I continue to be amazed by his incredible insight about our current time – 30 years ago and more.  His work has helped me enormously in my struggle to make sense of the political discourse surrounding education work.  The heart of his thesis illustrates the realities in a civilization when two or more waves of history collide pitting people, systems, cultures, governments, and bureacracies against each other. 

The wave idea is not only a tool for organizing vast masses of highly diverse information.  It also helps us see beneath the raging surface of change.  When we apply the wave metaphor, much that was confusing becomes clear.  The familiar often appears in a dazzlingly fresh light.

Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself.  In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.  p5-6 

Toffler's work sheds "dazzingly fresh light" on the realities that AMSD director Scott Croonquist and state demographer Tom Gillaspy speak of in the Strib article today.  Indeed this isn't a simple hiccup in the economy that will play out just like all of the recessions seen by our baby boomer leaders today.  A perspective that accounts for hundreds of years of history illustrates that the "hiccups" of the 70s, 80s, and 90s were simply small symptoms of the greater changes taking place across the globe. 

We shall see that Second Wave civilization was not an accidental jumble of components, but a system with parts that interacted with each other in more or less predictable ways – and that the fundamental patterns of industrial life were the same in country after country, regardless of cultural heritage or political difference.  This is the civilization that today's "reactionaries" – both "left-" and "right-wing" – are fighting to preserve.  It is this world that is threatened by history's Third Wave of civilizational change.  p18

Yes Scott Croonquist, some people are talking about going over a cliff.  It is scary.  It's also incredibly exciting.  The recession just might be the crisis necessary to get this democratic society reacting to the "slow train wreck we've seen coming for decades."  Technology will be part of the answer, and strong leadership will be critical to our success.  In the end, we just might be better at preparing our students for the challenges ahead – instead of the challenges of the Second Wave. 

What a time to be in education!

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