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School Management        < Previous        Next >


Measuring School Productivity


Q. Schools are spending an unbelievable amount of money per pupil these days on things that never used to be associated with K-12 schooling: powerful laptop computers, geothermal systems, all kinds of health insurance and personnel benefits . . . and yet the more they seem to be spending, the less satisfied the public seems to be getting. How on earth can we taxpayers see if this riot of new kinds of spending is cost-effective?


Education is peculiar in that it is a defineable service but it has no profit to gain and no loss to fear. Why? Because it's a government service. Unless we privatize K-12 schooling overnight in this country, we will never be able to tell how productive schools really are, purely, because we will never be able to link wages and "profits" to the net results of what services schools give to our children. Test scores? Dropout rates? Graduation percentages? All of these are just indicators. But they're the best we have, and so data-driven decision-making and more statistical transparency with the public are both good things in public education today.


Ironically, there's ample research on school productivity that is apparently being ignored. Examples:


n       Competition increases both teacher pay and student achievement while actually driving costs per pupil down.


n       Class size has no effect on student achievement, except for ridiculously small or ridiculously large class sizes.


n       The presence of teachers' unions is a negative correlate to student achievement.


n       Phonics-based reading methods are the most cost-effective ways to teach reading, but they are in use in only a handful of schools around the country.


Isn't it odd, then, that so many people within and without public education are adamantly FOR keeping the government monopoly on schools . . . and FOR huge increases in school costs by reducing class sizes for no apparent reason other than to bring more money into the school revenue stream . . . and FOR granting the unions still more money and power through increasingly lavish fringe benefits and employment contracts . . . and educators can't seem to "get it" that they are the ones creating this epidemic of expensive learning disabilities because they are teaching reading wrong?


How productive is it that so much of our education system is based on PR, hooey and self-serving deception? Not very.


Public education has seen huge increases in capital expenditures for buildings and grounds, and for technology, in recent years. Largely because of safety and health concerns, there is more square footage per child in today's schools than ever before. It has to be said that largely because of pride or a keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality, more money is spent on landscaping, luxury carpets, expensive cabinetry, cappuccino machines, and other nonacademic goodies in schools than ever before in our nation's history. As far as technology goes, federal regulators have practically forced the Internet into classrooms at enormous expense, and kids in many districts get free laptops that are more powerful and have more software than even adults who work in computers and communications get to use on their jobs.
Naturally, costs have skyrocketed as a result. Have the additional expenditures been productive in terms of student academic development? Most observers would have to say no.


Meanwhile, class sizes in most schools have shrunk dramatically in the last 30 years. They have fewer students to teach, and yet they are making far more money per hour than they used to. That means that as costs have gone up, teacher productivity has reduced, along with class size. At the same time test scores have stayed mostly stagnant, with only a few areas showing any improvement. And observers say that the tests have been significantly "dumbed down" to conceal declining literacy, numeracy and cultural awareness.


So you have to ask: what free-market sector has seen 30 years of declining productivity despite a massive investment in technology?


What free market sector has seen declining productivity as measured by output?


What business could continue providing raises under these conditions?
It's hard to see how the public will go on much longer granting still more huge investments and salary and pension increases for school staffers if schools won't change their way of doing business. Defending the status quo and stating that teaching must continue to be increasingly labor intensive is not a long-term solution.
The solution? A lot of people say it is in privatizing the education system instead of letting it continue as a bureaucratic government service.


That might be a pipe dream. But continuing to educate yourself and others about how well our schools are using our tax dollars is a good idea, no matter what.


Homework: A good source of information about school productivity is Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby. Read this interview with her:


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 04 2008


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