Eight years ago, I wrote an article called "The Perfect Storm" about the impact of the dot.com collapse in the stock market and the pending implementation of NCLB. Five years ago, I revisited this article with the second installment, entitled "The View from the Eye of the Perfect Storm," where I further delved into the issue and the strategies needed to move us through the storm. I am currently working on the third installment, "Surviving the Wake of the Perfect Storm," in which I will explore all of these issues and the impact a new federal administration will have on music and arts education. However, recent events demanded I share some of my thoughts with you even before the election.
There are a lot of converging forces that has everyone… everyone in this country becoming more fearful of what the future may hold. Just like Dorothy and her posse in the Wizard of Oz were concerned about all of the evil that lurked in that dark forest certain to bring them doom, the refrain "Lions and Tigers and Bears… Oh My" has come to be a metaphor for those things looming just beyond the horizon that we do not control and in many cases do not understand. In today's circumstances, most of us have very little feel for where all this may be going.
Our lions and tigers and bears – both as citizens and as music educators – come to us in the form of the increasing emphasis on testing, the impact of increasing gas and oil prices, and now the near melt down of Wall Street.
So now you may say, "Okay, Bob, I understand the test scores business, but help me understand what oil/gas prices and the near failure of the financial markets have to do with me?" The answer is simple: everything.
Often times as educators we get so tightly wrapped up in everything it takes to successfully run our own programs that we miss some of the larger "macro issues" that can have a significant impact on our programs.
Here we go:
The "Lions" in our tale are embodied by the word "testing." When you look up testing in a dictionary, there could be a picture of a child chained to a desk filling in ovals with a #2 pencil. This is the new symbol of the American education system in the 21st century – which to me looks a lot like the education system that was used at the beginning of the 20th century… except then it was without all the testing!
Over the past several years I have written at length about the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and testing mandates. I will spare you a repeat here. However, I do believe that in the new Congress, NCLB will be significantly altered. But for the next two years, at the classroom level, we will be faced with the challenges created by the mania of testing.
The "Tigers" in our tale are the rising oil and gas prices. The rising price of oil and the rising cost of gasoline impact, well, everything! Anything that is produced in the world is affected by these increased prices. From raw materials to shipping costs, to manufactured goods and services, to the transportation of children from one place to another, everything and anything is impacted (read: more expensive).
In the music education world, we are already hearing about how schools need to find ways to cover the significant increase in fuel costs. Everything is on the table. Several schools have put travel restrictions in place. Activities that involve transportation of students cannot go beyond a certain geographic region. In many places schools may not cross state borders. In other places schools may not even leave the county. There are several schools that have reported canceling field trips (musical and non-musical) as well as cancelled participation in festivals and competitions. Of greater concern is how some schools are looking at the reduction or elimination of programs to fill the holes in the budget. In some places this means fewer staff and reduced music course offerings. In others, it means the end of the programs. Which brings us to the last character in our tale.
The bears in our tales are the financial markets. Unless you have been traveling intergalactically for the past six months, you have read or heard something about the little trauma being played out in our financial markets. Things like the collapse of investment banker Bear Sterns (which we have guaranteed with taxpayer money), the government takeover of 50 percent of the US mortgage market with the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, our collective ownership of the largest insurer in the world, AIG (it is ours since $85 billion in tax payer money was used â€“ you and I are on the hook for $7,000 each!), the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the sale of Merrill Lynch, and, last but not least, the mother of all bailouts: the proposed $1,000,000,000,000 bailout of the financial markets. (That's $1 trillion, for those of you who have never seen it written out before).
I am not a rocket scientist. I am not a financial expert. I do not play one on TV. I am not qualified nor will I imply here to know whether any of these moves to stabilize the financial markets are right or wrong. But I will venture this one little opinion, and I know I am going out on a limb here: this – the turmoil in our global financial markets – is not good. When combined with the Lions and Tigers, this… is probably… bad.
However, there are two bits of good news buried in all of this:
Good News Point 1 – The good news is this is all playing out above our collective pay grades. You and I cannot solve this bigger problem so we should not spend a lot of time worrying about. We do need to pay attention to what is being done since the actions taken could have a long-term impact on our programs.
Good New Point 2 – Economic challenges in our nation take at least 12 months to filter down to the school level. Yes, gas prices are impacting everyone now, but the ripples from the melt down of the financial markets will not be seen at the school level for at least 12 months. This is driven by what happens to state income (largely taxes) and local action on budgets. This means you have time to prepare for next year… right now.
So what can you do?
Organize – It is probably safe to say that most programs will see some impact from our lions and tigers and bears. Organize your parents and concerned citizens to be prepared to support your programs. If there is a silver lining in all of this it is that it will be organize people in the face of a potential problem than to organize when everything is peachy keen.
Communicate – Create communication vehicles to keep everyone keep informed (and as a way to support your organizing efforts). Weekly e-mail newsletters, blogs, Web sites, widgets, YouTube – use all the tools to help make the case.
Do a good job. Do a god job. Do a good job… then tell somone! – Be visible! Constantly promote your programs. Invite administrators to performances. Share the good news about the success of your students and programs with everyone – parents, school board, administrators, the press. Develop a personal connection between the administration and parents and the program. This will help you in the future when hard choices have to be made.
Be Frugal – Show your administration you get it. You know they are under great stress due to the financial pressures. Do your part to proactively provide solutions. Position yourself as someone who is trying to come up with solutions for the administration. Are there items you can do without? A major purchase? A trip or two? Trying to help solve the problem will keep you from being perceived as "part of the problem."
Where will this go… who knows? As a music community concerned about the education of our children we must be proactive to support our programs.
What will you do? E-mail me the actions you will be taking to be proactive in support of your program (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I will share them in an upcoming column. Now is the time for everyone to generate ideas out on the actions we can take to support not only our own programs, but each other's as well.