Accountability Opinion

Making Schools Productive

By Alan D. Bersin — April 19, 2005 9 min read
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The tools for achieving productivity common in virtually every other sector in America are not used systematically in our schools.

A generation ago, Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the concept of “paradigm shift” to characterize transformational changes in ways of seeing and thinking that have produced progress in the history of science. Our central perspective on a matter, he suggested, implies much about how we fill in the remaining details. Ptolemy’s “humancentric” view of the universe, which placed Earth at the center of the solar system, influenced the shape of the surrounding culture. When it was replaced by the Copernican concept, which moved the sun to the core and Earth to the periphery, the paradigm shift changed not only the way we viewed ourselves and our world, but also how we conducted our affairs.

The governing paradigm in public education today holds that in urban school systems, changes made around the edges and on the margins will, over time, produce the dramatically different results we all want for our children. Were we to adopt an alternate paradigm, one that centered on maximizing productivity, our view of what ails public education and the prescriptions for improving it would shift dramatically.

Growth in student achievement, reflected in multiple indicators, must be the outcome measure we use to gauge productivity in public education. Of every program in place, and every reform proposed, we must ask: Does it improve student achievement? This notion may seem obvious outside education, but inside the public education community, it is met with resistance. So it is not surprising that the tools for achieving productivity common in virtually every other sector in America—flexibility, competition, incentives, efficiency, and innovation—are not used systematically in our schools. Instead, they are conspicuously absent.

By grasping how our system has become immune to harnessing self-interest in support of the common good, we gain an understanding of why there has been so little change in public education over the past 40 years in spite of endless and recurring reform.

A fundamental question we have to ask about our large school systems is whether they are primarily sources of employment for adults or education for children. If we are trying to maximize productivity, the answer is clear: Our mission is to educate children. In doing this, we have to take into account the interests of the adults who work in our school systems. They are the crucial “input” in the schooling. But striking the right balance between the needs of students and the interests of teachers is among the central challenges facing public education today.

Because economic benefits in education are perceived to be low compared with other sectors, the negotiated compromises on work rules have been enormous, and the relinquishment of ordinary management prerogatives routine. While I agree wholeheartedly that bashing unions is unwarranted because they are doing their job in terms of asserting employee interests, the long-term health of the educational enterprise requires that their efforts also take into account the question of how to improve student achievement.

A handful of extraordinary labor leaders are embracing this responsibility. But the typical union leader’s incapacity or unwillingness to do so—combined with the inability of parents, from inside the system, or political interests, from outside, to balance union power effectively—has contributed to our unacceptable status quo. That is why the power curve in large urban systems is leaning toward mayoral control, as down-ballot, low-interest school board elections and stricter campaign-finance laws combine to produce employee-dominated governance structures.

Existing power relationships, and the fiscal allocations that follow, are absurd from the standpoint of productivity. Consider the peculiarities of teacher assignment. No one would expect a doctor fresh out of medical school to take on the responsibilities a surgeon with years of experience must shoulder. Yet in education, we regularly assign our newest practitioners to our most challenging inner-city classrooms. This is a function of both rigid seniority systems and anachronistic personnel systems. Seniority makes all the sense in the world based on individual choices. Systemically, though, it adds up to educational catastrophe.

With novice teachers regularly assigned to the most intractable classrooms, we end up with what we prescribe: Many children remain significantly untaught, and half of our beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years of practice. The so-called teacher shortage is much more the result of our incapacity to retain teachers than our inability to recruit them in sufficient numbers.

Many children remain significantly untaught, and half of our beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years of practice.

This is not to denigrate new teachers. On the contrary, if novice law students were assigned to try singlehandedly multimillion-dollar antitrust cases, or recent medical graduates were required to conduct open-heart surgery, attrition rates in those professions would be no better than education’s. What marks both of those fields as professions is a continuum of study, mentoring, and experience that prepares practitioners for solving the hardest cases. The absence of this in education is a major handicap.

One consequence of this handicap is the invariable frustration that leads us to believe that the condition of the students, not any lack of professional capacity on the part of adults in the system, is the problem. We point to students’ absence of motivation and their low socioeconomic standing or family dysfunction as prime reasons for the system’s failure. Cold opposition follows any suggestion that teachers must improve their practice for student achievement to improve, or that substantial changes in teachers’ education and training are needed.

This logic produces a central anomaly: In public education, the evaluation of teachers and administrators rarely involves linking their performance to levels of improvement in student achievement. In no other sector is this disconnect in the measurement of productivity so firmly rooted: Teachers don’t fail; only their students do. This helps explain why productivity reforms have never taken hold in public education, and why we should not underestimate the political challenges to their implementation today.

In contemporary school reform theory, all of the stakeholders, particularly teachers’ unions, must “buy in” for reform to succeed. Because it is so difficult for educators to change, the conventional wisdom says that change must take place incrementally over time. Seven to 10 years may be required before results become apparent.

The difficulty with this analysis is that reformers have been trying to change urban school systems for decades in this country, with only a handful of urban systems ever seeing significantly improved student achievement.

Even in those systems that seem to succeed, the results have been neither dramatic nor sustained. It may well be that the conventional reform view of the change process itself is as flawed as the components of the various programs it continually proposes. Rather than viewing the change process as one calling for “collaborative” strategies to be applied continuously over time, we may come to see (as virtually every other sector has) that the process of change involves cycles that require different strategies for different circumstances. The phases of change must be sequenced, so that follow-up reforms actually draw on strengths produced by changes previously made.

This elementary concept of reform cycles has been resisted, because it suggests that, in the beginning of change, there may be significant conflict, struggle, and tumult as basic power relations that have paralyzed the system are challenged.

Implicit in the collaborative view of reform is the assumption that each major stakeholder retains a pocket veto over any agreement. Thus, if any stakeholder is unwilling to proceed, the status quo is maintained. This is a perversion of the concepts of consultation, collaboration, and cooperation, and it tends to drive agreements to a lowest-common-denominator consensus level. The result has been paralysis and virtual immunity to systemic change—all in the interest of what former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch calls “superficial congeniality.” New programs are layered in over the existing structure of programs, practices, and budgetary allocations. The hope is that each succeeding program will prove to be the silver bullet that can energize the entire resource base, both human and fiscal, to accomplish greater gains in student achievement. This cannot happen, and never does.

The causes of our paralysis have come to be routine. It would be so much easier if we could assign blame to any one of the actors. The opposite is true. What we have has been built into the foundation of our governance arrangements, political accommodations, fiscal allocations, and cultural ties. To change it will require a paradigm shift centered on productivity that evaluates everything we do and every change we consider from evidence of its impact on improving the quality of instruction, and hence student achievement.

Striking the right balance between the needs of students and the interests of teachers is among the central challenges facing public education today.

The situation may be comparable to what faced the U.S. automobile industry after 1975. Business and union leaders developed together a unified response to international competition that preserved the industry in America and the economic infrastructure that rested on it. This was accomplished by ruthlessly focusing on productivity, and productivity alone.

Competition also will be crucial to the reinvention of public education that is necessary for its survival in large urban areas. For every success in the industrial sector comparable to Detroit’s, there are 10 examples where management and labor were unable to come together enough to recognize the common danger they faced and the jointly pursued solutions that were possible to overcome them.

We educators should remind one another of this fact: It’s the teaching and learning that matters. If our students and teachers don’t succeed at greater rates and in greater numbers, the franchise is doomed. We should therefore welcome the competition that charter schools, for example, present to our continued existence. Only when faced with the risk of loss will we summon the urgency to make productivity reforms and accept the terms of accountability key to public education’s renewed viability in urban America.

If we do not, over the next generation our case will go to the jury, and the American people will decide. One suspects that, as has generally been true throughout our history, the people will choose ultimately in favor of children and their welfare. Should this result in severing the historic link between public finance and public schools, the implications are profound for both public education and the democratic culture that nurtured it—and then permitted it to decay, beginning in the inner city.


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