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The Productivity Paradox

Improving productivity is a daily focus of most American organizations in all sectors – both for profit and nonprofit – and especially so in tight economic times. Education has not, however, incorporated many of the practices other sectors regularly use to improve productivity and manage costs, nor has it leveraged technology to enable or enhance them. We can learn much from the experience in other sectors.

During the 1970s and 1980s, economists puzzled over what they called the “productivity paradox.” Businesses were rapidly deploying technology in the belief that it would help them perform better and more efficiently. But when economists looked for hard data to demonstrate that U.S. economic output per unit of investment was increasing, they turned up empty handed. In the 1990s, economists were finally able to find evidence of substantial improvements in productivity related to technology (Brynjolfsson & Hitt, 1998). They discovered that when businesses first introduced technology, they tended to use it to automate existing processes and procedures, without regard to whether they might be flawed or inefficient. Such uses may have had some benefit in terms of accuracy or speed, but the cost and complexity of acquiring technology, implementing it, and training staff in its use far outweighed its contributions.

Later still, in the 2000s, economists concluded that dramatic improvements in productivity were the result of structural innovations and a thorough redesign of business processes made possible by technology (Black & Lynch, 2003).

What education can learn from the experience of business is that we need to make the fundamental structural changes that technology enables if we are to see dramatic improvements in productivity. As we do so, we should recognize that although the fundamental purpose of our public education system is the same, the roles and processes of schools, educators, and the system itself should change to reflect the times we live in and our goals as a world leader. Such rethinking applies not just to learning, assessment, and teaching processes, but also to the infrastructure and operational and financial sides of running schools and school systems.

Redesigning education in America for improved productivity is a complex challenge that will require all 50 states, the thousands of districts and schools across the country, the federal government, and other education stakeholders in the public and private sector coming together to design and implement solutions. It is a challenge for educators – leaders, teachers, and policymakers committed to learning – as well as technologists, and ideally education leaders and technology experts will come together to lead the effort.

An appropriate role for the Department of Education is to identify strategies for improving productivity in education and to work with states and districts to increase their capacity to implement them. This should include encouraging changes to practices, policies, and regulations that prevent or inhibit education from using technology to improve productivity.

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