Group Dissects Education ‘Industry’ With Eye to Improving Productivity

By Lonnie Harp — November 18, 1992 5 min read

WASHINGTON--Frustrated by what they see as a lack of results from a decade-long school-reform movement, a group of education and business officials met here last week to launch an effort to improve the productivity of the nation’s $325 billion precollegiate-education system.

The aim of the two-year project is to study the entire system as an industry to learn why some improvement efforts have been choked off or swallowed up, and to find ways to speed changes and improve student performance.

“It is enormously frustrating to see the efforts at reform but not the results,’' said P. Michael Timpane, the president of Teachers’ College at Columbia University and a co-chairman of the advisory board to the project, known as the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools.

“Why are we not producing the progress that all of us are aiming at,’' he said, “and all of us think we’re working toward?’'

Acting on the hunch that the answer lies in the web that links various levels of government with teachers, curriculum, and students, the consortium last week began mapping the K-12 network and examining the connections, much as business leaders have studied the structure of manufacturing and sales operations in an attempt to improve quality.

“Every industry has its unique properties, but that doesn’t mean the methodologies and strategies for studying them can’t be the same,’' said Sue E. Berryman, an education specialist for the World Bank and the chairman of the consortium.

“There have been so many reports that we’ve all read with interest and in some cases been participants in,’' she said, “but too often we’ve picked up pieces when it is the system that needs to be talked about.’'

“Until we try to understand that, and how the pieces go together, it’s hard to know how to make changes,’' she added. “It isn’t any one thing. It’s all of them.’'

Searching for the results that critics say have yet to follow the school-spending infusions of the 1980’s has gained the attention of other researchers as well. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has funded a study looking at spending in urban districts. The Center for Research in Education Finance at the University of Southern California has pulled census files, school-staffing data, spending figures, and achievement records to tackle the question.

“There is a growing realization that money has been increasing steadily over several decades, but student achievement is flat,’' said Allan Odden, the director of the U.S.C. center. “We have to be able to answer the question: Is this a money problem or a resource-utilization problem?’'

Long Overdue

Members of the consortium’s advisory board, made up of education, political, and business leaders, said at a press conference here that such a study is long overdue and should have preceded the reform movement.

A subsequent work session, however, underscored both the complexity of the issues and the lack of unanimity on what schools should achieve.

In a report that will serve as a blueprint for the consortium, Frank R. Lichtenberg, a member of the productivity panel and an economics professor at the Columbia Univeristy business school, outlines why it is hard to define the inputs and outcomes of education.

There is little disagreement about the raw materials that feed the education system, such as money and the time of teachers, parents, and students, the report concludes and members of the advisory panel agreed. On the other hand, disagreements over issues ranging from curriculum standards to the overall mission of public schools make defining outcomes much harder.

“Productivity is not directly observable. We infer from it the results that we see,’' the study notes, citing education as an area “where knowledgeable people often do not agree on what is to be measured.’'

Jennifer M. Kemeny, a senior consultant with Innovation Associates, an organizational-research firm, said the consortium intends to map the connections that bind teachers, curriculum, students, resources, and governance; trace the pathways that policies must tread; and identify the pit stops and potholes.

In addition to charting a better route, the group will try to identify points at which policymakers can work to raise performance levels.

“Productivity is not just about efficiency, it’s also about effectiveness,’' said Kenneth Lay, the president of the Employment Solutions Corporation, a subsidiary of the International Business Machines Corporation. “Ultimately, this is all about student achievement.’'

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the advisory panel, said the goal of the project should be to foster interconnections much like the education systems of other industrialized nations.

No Preconceptions

While leaders of the panel said they will start with a clean slate and with no preconceived notions, the study prepared for the group suggests strategies for raising schools’ productivity.

Tying pay to performance, adopting governance models that stress quality, and fostering competition through site-based management and parental choice could boost productivity, the report argues.

The report says other suggestions may emerge as the consortium’s research team, made up of professors of education, psychology, and economics as well as business-quality experts, pores over reams of school-improvement research ranging from children’s television-watching habits to data on substance abuse.

Leaders of the consortium said it is essential that the group find ways to hasten change and increase grassroots involvement.

“Much of the best research isn’t reaching teachers in the classroom, and productive change isn’t happening as fast as it should,’' said G. Carl Ball, the chairman of Geo. J. Ball Inc., and the president of the Ball Foundation, the consortium’s sponsor.

“The real thing is the learning, but right now, we can’t even relate what goes into the system to learning,’' Ms. Berryman said. “One of the saddest things all of us keep seeing is people trying to make changes but not really being positioned to do it.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Group Dissects Education ‘Industry’ With Eye to Improving Productivity