The Great Breakthrough in Education Productivity: What Will It Be?

At last week’s conference on productivity in education, sponsored by the Institute for Productivity in Education in Austin, Texas, an all-star panel of education thought and policy leaders, including ERS, engaged in the long overdue discussion focusing not just on how much money districts are spending, but on how well it is used.

Exploring the causes of the lack of productivity in US education, participants discussed the historically evolved rules and practices that have institutionalized inefficient spending practices or resource misalignments; lack of awareness exacerbated in part by poor data or reports on managerial efficiency; politics, governance and collective interests; little to no use of capital and technology to augment the productivity of labor in education; and a lack of commitment or ability to remove the least productive workers from the education workforce. The conversation made clear that tackling the challenge of improving productivity will require strong district leadership as well as challenging the complex web of tradition, regulation, contracts and political pressures that combine to make changing district resource use so difficult.

Participants also discussed solutions.

Here are some of the ideas that were discussed as ways to bring transformational improvement to education productivity:

Shift students to higher performing teachers. Teachers vary significantly in their ability to teach students.  Eric Hanushek cited research on the variability of performance among teachers that suggests that simply by eliminating the lowest performing 5-8 percent teachers, the US would solve our comparative weakness in education. Specifically, by managing out the lowest 5-8 percent of teachers and replacing them with teachers who perform at average levels, US educational performance would rival that of Finland, a top performer in math and science. Other suggestions include giving the most productive teachers more students or more classes to teach and redesigning compensation to reward them for taking on additional roles or responsibilities.

Redesign compensation structures and careers. There was a broad consensus that narrowly conceived performance bonuses were not a panacea for education but that the best teachers needed ways to be able to be increasingly respected by their peers (promoted to leadership positions) and to earn career and salary advancement (given raises) while still teaching students. At present teachers’ salaries increase almost exclusively because of longevity or through earning a Master’s degree, neither of which is correlated with higher productivity. And ambitious teachers who want significantly higher salaries or a job title that commands respect must leave the classroom, even if their departure from the classroom reduces overall system productivity.

Improve data and change the conversation. Across the country, discussions of education finance focus on “how much” is spent instead of “how well” dollars are spent. This extends from state funding systems that are tied to class sizes mandates down to school principals who view budgeting as a perennial contest to lobby for scarce discretionary budget or programmatic dollars for their schools. Too, the type of data collected by states and districts measure factors such as class size or student teacher ratios. These are easily produced but reveal little about whether or not schools are organizing for success. ERS has long believed that we need a more nuanced set of descriptions that are disaggregated to the extent feasible.  Imagine a set of reports that let you know:  How class sizes in the ninth grade core academic classes compare to twelfth grade electives? Do students who scored poorly on their 8th grade math proficiency test receive more time in math in 9th grade than students who excelled? What percentage of time did elementary school students spend in groups of eight or fewer students that were supported by a certified teacher? And how much of that was focused on math? On literacy? What percentage of teachers met in collaborative teams (daily or weekly) to review lesson plans and student formative assessment data, to adjust instructional practices based on how much students learned? Most districts are unable to produce such reports at present, making it difficult to ask even practical questions about how well resources are aligned to priority goals.

Substitute capital for labor. One of the biggest shifts in labor productivity in the private sector has come about by leveraging capital and technology to increase productivity. While many parents and teachers do not want to see a child placed in front of a computer, the reality is that there are many ways to leverage technology to improve the efficiency of educational services. These include distance learning, using outstanding videos of key lectures, interactive tests and exercises that adjust based on student answers, on-line tutoring services, and the ability to diagnose and intervene in student learning almost instantly on the basis of regular formative assessments, as opposed to the current typical practice of waiting till the end of a year to see whether a student failed an end of course test before intervention.

Rethink time. Time in schools is split across subjects not by how much a student needs to learn or how long it takes but by rules and procedures that require a certain amount of seat time per course and a certain amount of courses per student career. Organizing for a course to end with student mastery would allow quick-learning students to move through easier courses for higher challenges elsewhere.  And it would require different ways of measuring student progress continuously that would provide great benefit for students who need more time or attention to learn the material.

Rethink attention. Classes are also organized so that one teacher teaches them each time they meet and virtually all non-special education classes fall in the 20-30 student range.  Few classes are organized to provide opportunities for small group instruction of less than 8 (with certified teachers) at certain times and larger group instruction at other times. The predominant investment in increased individual attention in the US requires placement in special education where class sizes are routinely one half the size of general education class sizes and are often staffed with more than one teacher. The one-teacher class-room paradigm may be the single largest barrier to increases in education productivity.