Productivity in the Public Schools
Economists tell us that the recent recovery in the nation's economy has been spurred by increased productivity. How is productivity defined and why is it so important? Productivity is similar to what we think of as efficiency. More specifically, productivity is defined as the ratio of what is produced (output) to what it takes to produce it (input). When productivity increases, more goods and services are available at no increase in their production cost, or the same quantity is produced at a reduced cost. This can translate into lower prices, improved products or services at the same price, and/or increased profit.
While the concept is simple, productivity is difficult to measure. If a factory produces more widgets (of the same type) this year than it did last year for the same production cost, productivity has increased proportionally. But suppose the factory produces computers, and this year's computers are capable of working twice as fast as last years, what is the measure of productivity? You can see how the simple concept can become complicated in application.
When it comes to services, productivity is even more difficult to measure. This is certainly true in education, where the input in the productivity ratio may be thought of as the cost per pupil, and the output, the quality of the education the students receive. While the input here is measurable, how is the output to be determined? A quality education consists of a complex combination of quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors. Academic achievement might be measured by performance on standardized tests. (Some people question this.) But, how is creativity, intellectual curiosity or emotional development to be assessed? How are language skills to be evaluated, particularly for students for whom English is a second language? What weight should be put on each factor? How are the differing ability, skills and backgrounds students bring to their school experience to be factored into the equation?
Despite the difficulties, it is important to evaluate, and to improve, the productivity of the public school system. While it is possible that as a result of recent court rulings additional funding may become available to the schools, it is imperative that the schools make the best use of whatever funds are provided. They owe this to the taxpayers and the students. Productivity of the school system may be difficult to measure, but, like pornography, we know it when we see it. At an annual cost of approximately $11,000 per student (input), and with the poor quality of education so many students seem to come away with (output), it seems to this observer that the productivity of NYC's public schools is abysmally low.
What can be done to improve the productivity of the public schools? This is a challenge that the mayor, chancellor, and educators face. The current contract negotiation stalemate is very much a result of the administration's desire to make changes which they feel would improve productivity, but which the union sees as coming at unacceptable costs to member job protection, working conditions and prerogatives.
I shall be offering my suggestions on how to improve educational productivity in follow-on articles during the coming months. Meanwhile, I invite you, our readers, to submit your ideas and comments. Perhaps together we can help raise the productivity of our schools to an acceptable level.#