Solving the Productivity Puzzle

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America's schools are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is that they are being asked to deliver more teaching and learning than ever. The quality of American schools has not been declining; students today are pursuing more-rigorous curricula and scoring higher on standardized tests. But the demands of the workplace are rising faster. To function in today's global economy the majority of workers must possess the reading, mathematics, and thinking skills--and the ability to learn--that previously were needed only by the elite few.

The hard place is that money is tight. America's schools currently spend $1.5 billion a school day, and many question whether the money is spent productively. For a variety of economic, political, and social reasons, the steady increases in per-pupil spending that public schools have enjoyed in recent decades have come to an end.

So there's the bind. America's schools are being asked to educate students to a higher level than ever before, but without additional resources. We must recognize that our funding, teachers, and conditions in which students live will not transform themselves overnight. Instead, educators, policymakers, and the public must find ways to make our schools more productive.

Most educators flinch at the cold word "productivity." It evokes images of tons of steel, not children and learning. However, "productivity" applies to every field, including education. It simply measures how effectively resources are used to produce results--the ratio of outputs to inputs. In education, productivity is the relationship between the school's resources (dollars, physical space, teachers, instructional materials, time, etc.) and the school's product (student achievement).

Historically, educators and policymakers rarely thought about creating a system to make education productive. While they have examined resources, requirements, and outcomes, they have looked at each of these factors separately rather than in relation to each other. The challenge of increased productivity cannot be met with any single program. Nor can adding resources, regulations, or standards succeed unless improvements in one area are linked to improvements in other areas. Productivity improvement requires a framework to guide decisions that connects resources, use, and outcomes together. In the absence of such a framework, despite reform after reform, education has frozen itself in a 19th-century model. Education still revolves around a lone teacher talking in isolated classrooms and students working in unconnected classes.

Organizations that have raised productivity know the first step is to set a few simple goals and plan how to achieve them. Businesses have specific products and can judge their success by their net profits. However, education's mission is constantly in flux. Every new problem in society--children's health, intolerance, nutritional needs, and so on--is thrust into the school to solve, which reduces the time for traditional education. While American students spend more hours per year in class than many of their foreign peers, they spend a smaller proportion of their time in core academic subjects.

Unstable goals and rapid proliferation of goals and mandates make it impossible for school staff members to focus all the functions of schooling around only a few key purposes; this situation wastes resources. While schools change all the time, they do so in random and contradictory ways, not cumulatively improving ones. Fragmentary fads enter and exit the education system without altering its fundamental structure. Such "reforms" are not enough to alter a complex system that lacks clearly defined goals and basic mechanisms for monitoring and encouraging improvement. The hefty documents produced by various subject-area standards committees, more than a teacher could ever cover, show that reform has done nothing to stop this "goal loading."

Each new goal and regulation forces the system to expand its middle management and support staffs. Only half of all education employees work in classrooms--as opposed to three-quarters in many other countries. (If the United States put the same proportion of its education employees to work in classrooms as do Japan or Belgium, the number of classroom teachers would jump from three million to five million--about 15 more teachers per school.) This makes the American system more top-heavy and bureaucratic than education systems in other developed countries. American teachers have less control over their textbooks, course material, and teaching methods than many of their peers worldwide. The United States ranks next to last among 13 industrialized nations in the number of decisions made at the school level and has by far the largest percentage made at the district level.

This system's multiple goals and rules enable minor goals to supersede the true business of schooling--teaching and learning. This leads to a situation in which each of the subsystems in education--finance, governance, management, adaptation, etc.--pursues its own agenda rather than organizing together to raise student achievement.

Without stable goals, there can be no measuring of success. Although students constantly take tests, these examinations rarely are linked to improvements in instruction. And, except for student learning, there is little measurement of systems performance. We have no way of measuring the effectiveness of administrators, school boards, and legislatures on improving education. We do not know what to measure, let alone how to use that knowledge to improve productivity.

Furthermore, the incentives in the education system are not aligned with our key goals. Unlike the business world, which spends large amounts developing new products and ways to accomplish goals, American education spends virtually nothing--less than one-tenth of 1 percent of operating budgets--on research and development. Moreover, the incentive structures in schools stifle innovation and encourage the status quo. While other industries use rewards to spur their workers to higher achievement and continuous improvement, America's best teachers are rarely acknowledged, let alone rewarded. Meanwhile, unfunded mandates, such as for special education, drain resources from schools.

This problem is not unique to education. Other fields faced with this situation have made productivity gains that raised quality while lowering costs. The business and manufacturing sectors have used new technology and new management to reverse declines. Even our health-care system has shown a remarkable ability to create, implement, and evaluate improvements.

Previous attempts to translate these lessons from businesses to the public schools have failed because they treated individual schools as if they were independent businesses. However, when the school is seen as part of the larger education system, with its own subsystems and goals, educators and policymakers can adapt the corporations' methods and build continuous improvement into the public schools.

What we need is a system that would take into account all levels and subsystems within education and build ways for them to work together to raise productivity. It would have a few clearly defined goals, with specific target activities and ways to measure performance. This new system of education would renegotiate the existing governance and management contract by offering the schools autonomy in exchange for accountability. In such a system local school boards would grant suppliers autonomy to start, run, and manage schools (subject to state licensing requirements) but would hold them to strict performance contracts and cancel the contracts if performance proved unsatisfactory. Families would have the autonomy to choose schools. While there would be little regulation of how these schools educate, in exchange for this autonomy the schools would be required to meet performance criteria developed by the community, the state, and the nation.

Such a system would not only make schools and teachers more responsive to the needs of parents and students, it would also make our politicians, parents, and community members more accountable. In our current education system, responsibility is passed around like a hot potato, but in a system in which schools contract for services the states would set specific standards for what students should do and would require the communities to enforce them. It would set performance criteria for each important subsystem in education and build ways of measuring performance that were cheap enough to allow frequent measurement and useful feedback.

Educators, with the assistance of the federal government, can build quality controls for innovations by creating organizations that set and enforce standards for judging the validity and effectiveness of new knowledge and practices. Like the federal Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, these institutions also should help the professional community reach consensus about the best practice.

The district would reward schools and contracting organizations that demonstrated results with extensions on their contracts and additional schools for them to manage. Tying federal funds to the amount of improvement made by students would eliminate the perverse incentives in current programs that give schools more money when children fail than when they learn. The state and federal governments can pool R&D funds to improve knowledge about productivity, including relationships between resources and outputs and where payoffs are greatest. And they can reveal the full cost of programs to the total education system.

When schools have greater incentives to produce results, they will be forced to change how they view teachers. Currently, school systems treat educators as commodities that are assigned one to a classroom, regardless of whether the teacher shares the school's philosophy or has experience in a certain area. Reorganizing the schools around productivity would create incentives for the schools to schedule greater time for teachers and administrators to improve their craft and interact professionally. And states could institute high credentialing standards for new teachers and encourage experienced teachers to become certified through organizations like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Charter schools are a first step in this direction. So are contracting for busing, food services, and janitorial services. Now, school districts need to move from day-to-day oversight to larger governance by granting schools the freedom to run and manage themselves while simultaneously setting stricter standards and demanding higher performance.

We cannot shrink from the responsibility of giving the next generation the best education possible within the resources available. The productivity challenge requires that we stretch our imaginations and efforts to create a capacity for improvement. America is only as smart as its next generation and as skilled as the students it prepares. We can afford no less than to spend wisely the limited resources we have to help all young people become better learners, citizens, and workers who are better prepared to adjust to the uncertainty and change endemic to our society.

Vol. 15, Issue 10, Pages 36, 48

Published in Print: November 8, 1995, as Solving the Productivity Puzzle
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