The Shortcomings of Efficiency in Education

Andy Smarick, writing for AEI, has penned a piece on the shortcomings of efficiency as an educational goal. Excerpts from his article appear below:

There are very good reasons to resist (or at least be skeptical of) efforts to drive “efficiency” in public education.

One of the biggest reasons is that any attempt to maximize efficiency automatically elevates – some might say inflates – the role of performance metrics. Once we decide which indicators are going to define success and then set people off to find the swiftest and cheapest way to get those outcomes, we can begin to distort complex enterprises. Other outcomes become expendable, even if those outcomes are important.

This phenomenon has been studied in lots of other fields. Yes, you can dramatically increase the lumber production of a forest by planting a single type of tree and arranging them in tidy lines. But that ultimately kills the forest. You can arrange a city’s buildings, streets and homes to maximize commuting efficiency. But that can diminish the city’s livability. You can more efficiently house low-income people by razing old neighborhoods and replacing them with public-housing skyscrapers. But that destroys social capital.

In each of these cases, we have a three-step process: First, we allow the success of a multifaceted endeavor or environment (e.g. a forest) to be defined narrowly (lumber production); second, we develop sophisticated systems (scientific forestry) to efficiently accomplish our now too-narrow goal; third, we later recognize that our efficiency-mindedness came at a cost, namely other important things were neglected.

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