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The Efficiency Opportunity

I spent most of this morning reading Marc Tucker's last few posts on his excellent Top Performers blog here at EdWeek. In this post, he compares the US education and healthcare systems to those in the rest of the developed world, and explores the reasons our systems are so inefficient:

In the health industry, just as in education, other countries are providing much better results overall at significantly lower cost than is the case in the United States. link

He elaborates on this point in The Atlantic, arguing that it is the socioeconomic stratification of education and healthcare services that holds us back.

I can't read Tucker's writing without concluding that we will never catch up to other developed nations as long as we have more than 13,000 local school districts. We don't have an education system; we have a vast number of different systems that bear some similarity to each other, but are nothing like the national systems of Finland or South Korea. Local control is a very American idea, one that may never go away, but one that is tightly linked to the inequities that Tucker identifies. (For more, see his recent book Surpassing Shanghai).

While we may never end up with the same type of system that top-performing nations have (especially since the US is such a large nation in comparison), I do think there are vast opportunities for improvement, and most of these opportunities fall under the heading of efficiency.

Efficiency is something of a bad word in education, because it's often falsely contrasted with effectiveness. Given the choice, I'll take good over cheap, thank you very much. But that's not what efficiency means. From Merriam-Webster:

1: being or involving the immediate agent in producing an effect
2: productive of desired effects; especially : productive without waste

Efficient does not mean cheap; it means effective without waste, so any attempt to pit efficiency against effectiveness is simply wrong.

Perhaps we're wary of efficiency in US public education because of our experience with the factory model of schooling. In a factory, efficiency requires stamping out variation in order to produce a product of uniform quality. We spent decades trying to do this with kids, and it doesn't just not work; it's wrongheaded. In a factory, variation in the raw materials is a problem to be solved; in education, variation among students isn't something to be stamped out, but something to be built upon to help each student set goals and learn.

When I talk about efficiency, I'm not talking about standardized testing and pushing all students through a factory-model school system. I'm thinking about high-quality schools that we would want our own children to experience, performing at a high level, without waste. Let's set aside our baggage about the word, and consider the ways a focus on efficiency could improve our systems.

First, efficiency is an opportunity everywhere, not just when new funding is available; on the other hand, if we refuse to focus on efficiency, we can't improve without more resources. We've come to hate the phrase "do more with less," because we know it just means our budget is being cut, but doing more with less is actually something we should always be striving for. I believe efficiency is the single greatest resource available in our schools today—greater than Race to the Top funding, greater than a new computers, greater than virtually any of the resources we're perpetually waiting for.

Second, efficiency is a focused way to turn around a failing system. We know intuitively that just throwing more money at a mediocre system isn't going to be a great investment, but we usually fail to identify this specifically as an efficiency issue. When textbooks sit unused in warehouses, we know the solution is to get them into classrooms (along with training on the new curriculum). When the buses are late, we know the solution is to find out why and get them running on time. But there are so many more ways focusing on efficiency can impact schools.

I believe efficiency is an incredibly powerful but underutilized lens for improvement. Consider several types of efficiencies schools can exhibit:

  • Customer service—efficient schools respond to inquiries and concerns without giving people the runaround, preventing complaints from escalating and becoming a distraction
  • Instruction—efficient schools use more of the more effective teaching strategies and approaches, and less of the less effective approaches
  • Human resources—efficient schools allocate staff to the areas where they will have the greatest impact, and weed out ineffective staff
  • Prudence—effective schools use the data they collect, and don't waste time compiling information they won't use
  • Iteration—efficient schools learn from their experience, built on it each year, and avoid re-inventing the wheel

Those are just a few examples; you can no doubt think of dozens more (photocopier use, anyone?).

Perhaps efficiency is a boring topic for everyone except me and Marc Tucker, but I think it's one of the most important opportunities schools face today.

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