Focus on Productivity To Improve America's Schools

There are too many bureaucrats and not enough teachers. It's time to emphasize goals and demand results.

AMERICA'S public schools are caught in a bind. We ask them to educate more children to a higher level than ever before, but without additional money.

Those of us in business have a word for this bind. It's called a "productivity" problem. Its manifestations in schools are familiar to all of us.

School systems, especially in cities, are top-heavy and bureaucratic. Only half of school employees instruct students versus three-quarters in many other countries. If the same proportion worked in classrooms as in Japan or Belgium, we could have 15 more teachers in every school. Meanwhile, American teachers have less control over books, course materials, and methods than many others worldwide. The United States ranks next to last among 13 industrialized nations in the number of decisions made at the school level.

While American students log more hours in school than many of their peers, they spend a smaller proportion of this time learning. Sports, electives, assemblies, study halls cut into the core-academic day.

Education's financing further aggravates these problems. Improvements in student scores disqualify schools for some federal remediation funds. In addition, while businesses support research to transform themselves and invent new products, American education spends only 0.2 percent of operating budgets on research and development. By contrast, the federal government invests 13.2 percent of the defense budget in R&D, 13.6 of the health budget, and even 6.9 percent of the agriculture budget. Without research, there is a lack of quality control over education reforms. Districts constantly bring in new "solutions," but these fads enter and leave the system without altering the status quo.

Key lessons

It is easy to overstate the parallels between the business world and education. Nevertheless, corporations and nonprofit organizations have learned key productivity lessons relevant to public schools. We have learned the importance of developing clear goals as the basis for allocating resources, measuring accountability, and receiving feedback. The education world needs to define its key purposes and jettison functions that interfere with this core mission.

We also have learned that improvement comes only when we examine and reform an organization's interlocking subsystems. Too many attempts to improve education have failed because they focused on only one part of the picture - curriculum, teaching, management, and so on. We need restructuring that improves communication between the subsystems and directs all levels to accomplish the key goals.

This business experience leads to the conclusion that individual schools should be given greater autonomy in return for more accountability. In this model, local school boards would restrict their activities to policymaking and leave implementation to educators and parents in individual schools. Boards would state what they want students to be able to accomplish and how they will measure performance but would not run the school's day-to-day affairs.

School autonomy

Instead, educators would have the autonomy to start, run, and manage schools (subject to state licensing), but they would be held to strict contracts that could be canceled if performance falls short. Schools would shift from being company outlets to franchises, sharing a few services but free to develop their own curricula, specializations, and programs. Since families would be free to choose among these schools, those not chosen by sufficient students could be shrunk or taken over by schools with more students.

This system would develop new ways of measuring productivity and build useful performance evaluations that are cheap enough to allow frequent measurement. The district would reward successful schools and contracting organizations with extensions on their contract and additional schools for them to manage. Federal funds would be tied to the amount of improvement made by students.

We are moving in this direction. Charter schools are a first step; so is contracting for busing, food services, and maintenance. 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 setting stricter standards and demanding higher performance. This would cut the bureaucracy and provide incentives for improvement similar to those in the private sector while maintaining public control and accountability.

We cannot shrink from the responsibility of giving our children the best education possible within our means. America is only as smart as its next generation. We can afford no less than to spend wisely the limited resources we have to help all young people become better learners, better citizens, better workers, and better prepared to adjust to uncertainty and change.

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