Education Letter to the Editor

Do Usual Measures for Productivity Fit Schools?

January 23, 2009 1 min read

To the Editor:

Greater productivity in education is a fine idea, but one must consider realities as well. Marguerite Roza, Dan Goldhaber, and Paul T. Hill, the authors of “The Productivity Imperative” (Commentary, Jan. 7, 2009), want school districts to glean benefits even as they tighten their budgets. But the constraints of collective bargaining contracts, mandated expenditures, and other factors do not allow for some of the cost-saving measures they propose.

They suggest that school systems not follow seniority in making layoffs and instead retain younger, less expensive teachers. Younger teachers without tenure, however, are easiest to dismiss, simply because they lack tenure. Moreover, contracts may call for dismissals in reverse seniority.

They also observe that premiums for master’s degrees are “unproductive,” and that money might be better used. But such premiums are etched into many collective bargaining contracts and will never be removed without trade-offs.

Some districts now devote four of every five dollars to the compensation and benefits of employees. Everything else must come out of the other dollar. This includes special education costs mandated by the federal government. It can cost $60,000 or more in annual tuition for a single disabled student sent out of district on a nonresidential placement. The district may also pay as much as $300 a day to transport the student and provide a required aide on the bus.

The authors urge school officials to learn precisely what they spend on individual programs—for arts electives and Advancement Placement students, for example—and develop better strategies based on the price of each service. This is the most promising of their ideas, but few costs in education are as straightforward as they seem. Teachers of the same course may receive varying rates of pay. Class sizes for the same course may vary from classroom to classroom. Student outcomes (a function of productivity?) will also vary, and who is to say how much of the difference stems from the skills of the teachers and the size of the classes?

Education defies the usual measures of productivity, which is not to say that the essay’s authors err in trying to make this sprawling, unwieldy enterprise more productive.

Gene I. Maeroff

Senior Fellow

Teachers College, Columbia University

New York, N.Y.

The writer is a school board member in Edison, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Do Usual Measures for Productivity Fit Schools?