The Biggest Problem In Education

My first job in the education field was as a high school janitor. I needed money, was going to school, and the job basically fell in my lap. It was hard work! I admire the dedication of education support personnel. They often do the less glamorous work and their dedication is often much greater than their compensation. I wasn't good at it, and I doubt anyone admired my work. 

I've held many roles in this industry after my first (failed) foray, all of them in business-related fields (primarily marketing and finance). I've mananaged budgets at the school district level, and launched new products and initiatives at charter schools and school districts. I've been a marketing consultant for charter schools, school districts, and private education companies. I've helped launch a handful of online schools, including Method Schools (which currently fills up my time).

Why am I saying all this? It's not to brag. I have much to learn, and much of what I have learned has come through failure. My purpose for the little resume summary above is to say this: in nearly two decades in K-12 education, I believe the biggest problem in this industry isn't lack of funding. It's not lack of innovation. It's not fear of change. These are commonly cited problems in education, and while valid roadblocks, they aren't the biggest problem in education. I believe that without a doubt, the core problem in education is focusing on inputs rather than outcomes (Why outcomes and not outputs? I don't necessarily categorize them as completely different, but for a great article on the difference between these terms, check out this Harvard Business Review article).

Inputs include budgets, salaries, benefits, and even working conditions to some degree (including class sizes). Basically, the resources that go into the education machine in hopes of producing a viable and effective product or service. Test scores are an output, not an outcome. The outcome in that case would be student mastery and demonstrated learning. In education, inputs are often the primary focus, and when inputs are managed rather than outcomes, innovation is stifled and budget - funded by taxpayers - is wasted. It impacts everything, from student achievement to financial solvency to employee morale and culture. It becomes a living example of not seeing the forest for the trees.

What can be done? It's pretty simple. Every time an input is discussed, immediately tie it to a specific desired outcome (or outcomes), and manage for it. Discussions then change from "we need to get class sizes down to 25," to we need to improve student mastery of core subjects, and here are the ways we're going to do it." Or, "average teacher salary needs to be X," changes to "student enrollment is impacted most by teachers. In order to hire and retain quality teachers, we need to pay X." Managing for these outcomes means directly tying expected outcomes and goals to funding. Each input is "rolled up" into a desired outcome, and measured accordingly. While it's easy to measure inputs, it's not easy to clearly connect the impact of inputs on outcomes. But it's possible through responsible and effective measurement, data collection, and analysis. 

I've seen managing for outcomes in action, and it works. And the best part? Thinking in terms of outcomes rather than inputs is applicable to pretty much everything in life - not just education.

Mark Holley
Mark Holley
Mark is the co-founder of Method Schools and SmartFox and has been working in the marketing and finance areas of K-12 education for two decades. He holds a B.S. in Business from Utah Valley University and an MBA from Brigham Young University. In his spare time he’s usually on his mountain bike.
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