There are very good reasons to resist (or at least be skeptical of) efforts to drive “efficiency” in public education.
One of the biggest reasons is that any attempt to maximize efficiency automatically elevates – some might say inflates – the role of performance metrics. Once we decide which indicators are going to define success and then set people off to find the swiftest and cheapest way to get those outcomes, we can begin to distort complex enterprises. Other outcomes become expendable, even if those outcomes are important.
This phenomenon has been studied in lots of other fields. Yes, you can dramatically increase the lumber production of a forest by planting a single type of tree and arranging them in tidy lines. But that ultimately kills the forest. You can arrange a city’s buildings, streets and homes to maximize commuting efficiency. But that can diminish the city’s livability. You can more efficiently house low-income people by razing old neighborhoods and replacing them with public-housing skyscrapers. But that destroys social capital.
In each of these cases, we have a three-step process: First, we allow the success of a multifaceted endeavor or environment (e.g. a forest) to be defined narrowly (lumber production); second, we develop sophisticated systems (scientific forestry) to efficiently accomplish our now too-narrow goal; third, we later recognize that our efficiency-mindedness came at a cost, namely other important things were neglected.
High School Isn’t Enough
States need to start thinking about metrics other than graduation rates.
It’s essential to appreciate, however, that such efficiency efforts often work exactly as intended. If you set a goal, able people will figure out how to accomplish it quickly and inexpensively. The root of the problem is found in the setting of the wrong performance metrics.
In K-12 education during the No Child Left Behind era, schools were increasingly assessed based – narrowly – on reading and math scores. So educators, administrators and other stakeholders developed, not unreasonably, strategies for increasing reading and math scores, including devoting more time to these subjects and focusing on kids just below the proficiency line. But we also saw the proliferation of technology-based solutions, especially online-education approaches. “Virtual,” “hybrid” and “blended” schools promised to increase test scores more rapidly and at lower costs than traditional schools.
Some of these models might very well “work.” That is, they could raise test scores quickly and cheaply – as these schools were implicitly asked to do. But that doesn’t mean that this is all that schools are meant to do. We need to ask what influence these approaches have on subjects other than reading and math; how they do or don’t develop citizens; how they do or don’t foster important interpersonal skills; whether they satisfy students, parents and educators; and so on.
States should bring charter school-style accountability to all public schools.
The passage of the new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, encourages states to create new systems for assessing schools. If states take that opportunity and develop more expansive sets of performance metrics that more fully reflect all that we want schools to accomplish, technology-fueled strategies will almost certainly evolve. Innovators will presumably find more efficient ways to meet goals other than test scores.
But we should also keep a close eye on higher education. With the cost of college high and growing, lots of people are keen to wring more efficiency out of universities. For many, technology is the answer. Online courses offered by a wide array of providers have the potential to make more classes available to more people at lower costs. That’s all good.
But just as our pursuit of efficiently raising test scores threatened to distort what K-12 is all about, our pursuit of low-cost course offerings could distort what post-secondary education is all about. That is, it’s entirely possible that technology could make college-level courses more accessible and enable people to acquire more technical skills andneglect the un-measurable but invaluable aspects of higher education.
Consider College Benefits, Not Just Cost
Students and parents should factor in the long-run benefits of college, not just tuition cost.
Over the last decade, I’ve grown more dubious about claims that American education is “inefficient.” Now, to be clear, I have absolutely no doubt that these systems cost lots of money. I also have no doubt that the performance metrics we’re currently using reveal that these systems are not generating some of the results we want.
But as a conservative, I have a tendency to think longstanding, adaptable systems are generally wise and have great value, much of it below the surface. So increasingly, my instinct is that our educational systems are efficient; they are just producing desirable outcomes that we aren’t measuring or even talking about.
So, yes, let’s prioritize efficiency; and, yes, let’s encourage technology to generate it. But let’s also be careful to set those forces off in pursuit of the results we care about most.