John Jensen: Resolving the Productivity Debate

To resolve the productivity debate, we need only figure out how to get better education with less money.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

This is not impossible. We have the word of the top educational authority in the land, the U.S Department of Education, with its project “Increasing Educational Productivity” (cf. It frames the emerging issue thus:

1. Resources will probably go down.

2. We increase productivity by improving competency-based or personalized learning, technology, new sources of funding, community resources, process, results orientation, flexibility, organization, professional development, and compensation.

It strikes one that these points largely describe what any school district does already in attempting to improve. Even with existing levels of support, the efforts are familiar, appear to have non-decisive results, and do not offer a clear route to doing better with less. Enhancing productivity with resources guaranteed fewer is a different ballgame, commented on in one way or another by many including Bruce D. Baker, Kevin O. Welner, Margaret Rosa, Paul Hill, Dan Goldhaber, Roddy Theobald, Eric Hanushek, and Sara Mead.

For the sake of the discussion, we can assume that what is probable will actually occur:

1. Resources will go down.

2. Efforts to improve by familiar means will not make up the difference.

Foreseeing these conditions, we contemplate downhill. Things are going to get less manageable, harder, more confusing, more contentious. If this were a cruise liner taking on water, our forecast would be “It’s probably going to sink,” which might encourage us to double check any detour that could turn us around. The urgency of the situation, and the recognition that little that is widely generalizable has appeared to work, might well drive us to think basically: What are we up to?

Before we can even begin to discuss productivity-with-less, a qualifier begs attention: productivity for what? Given the many angles from which to view education, we cannot take for granted that we even talk about the same thing from one moment to the next. What purpose enables us to recognize productivity when we see it?

A way to assess success in any field is to pose an intent and then observe progress toward it. How does an explicit purpose provide a measure for what to do? Any activity involving human beings incorporates the whole person, so that group enterprises gather up a spectrum of values to be integrated. Yet organizing the others is usually a single purpose that can be expressed in a sentence:

Space program? Place men on the moon and return them safely.

Merchant ship? Transport goods as efficiently as possible from San Francisco to Tokyo.

Commercial enterprise? Make a profit by providing good services to willing customers.

Sport? Make more goals than the other team.

Orchestra? Produce sound pleasing enough that people support the orchestra.

Highway construction? Transport vehicles speedily and safely.

Comparably, we might step outside education far enough to consider it as a whole and figure out what organizes it. What scalpel separates what helps from what doesn’t? Let’s consider a few possibilities:

After the earth orbit of Sputnik shocked the world in the 1960s, many questioned whether we might learn something from Soviet education. At the time, Royce Van Norman wrote in the Phi Delta Kappan:

Is it not ironic that in a planned society of controlled workers given compulsory assignments, where religious expression is suppressed, the press controlled, and all media of communication censored, where a puppet government is encouraged but denied any real authority, where great attention is given to efficiency and character reports, and attendance at cultural assemblies is mandatory, where it is avowed that all will be administered to each according to his needs and performance required from each according to his abilities, and where those who flee are tracked down, returned, and punished for trying to escape–in short in the milieu of the typical large American secondary school–we attempt to teach “the democratic system”?

Rational people finding ourselves at such a pass might examine our assumptions. It’s as though we wake up from a dream to find ourselves tangled in a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that has become U.S. education—an extremely expensive system producing patchwork results.

What guiding purpose installed such a thing? We can reason our way to it by observing its effects. Take every phrase of the description above, and now forty-plus years later check if its inherent impact still occurs—the impersonal control of students. That we do this so reliably day to day, with the School-to-Prison Pipeline as the ultimate sanction, tells us that our system is highly productive in doing what it is intended to do. We are good at controlling students impersonally.

Another way of isolating the criterion-aim of education is to identify needs it meets. Since students themselves have no power to arrange conditions to meet their own needs and would never conceivably invent the system as it stands today, we turn instead to adults who meet adult needs. Here, a psychological principle operates. The overall design of our actions matches the overall design of our minds. Society is the outcome of what its participants translate from idea-form into concreteness. What we value within cannot help but emerge in our behavior. As the needs of the people managing the system slowly manifest, the system they create matches their assumptions. On this scale, successful education is what pleases the eye of the people who control it.

For that, controlling children undoubtedly ranks high, but we can also observe other ways the system impacts adult lives:

  • Child care (baby-sitting) . The system looks after children while parents work, keeping them safe and occupied for the most part. For this purpose, the system is doing fine. If this need were not so strong, other conditions of education would undoubtedly be freer to change, but we don’t tinker with this factor.
  • Teacher and administrator retirement system. Substantial force is attributable to the momentum of a collection of occupations continuing to do what they do. That they are rewarded (adequately or not is an issue all its own) for what they do means that any changes that redistribute rewards to other people bucks the continuity of this force. Because of it, again, many possible changes cannot be considered. People do what they have long been doing. Don’t tinker with this factor.
  • Pleasing varying constituencies. The content and form of instruction is influenced by what people in the region want and do not want. Educators seldom look forward to telling their customers that their intellectual, cultural, or scientific ideas are anachronistic. Don’t tinker with this factor.
  • Compliance. The commercial world needs graduates who at least follow directions. While those exhibiting intellectual mastery are welcomed onto a faster track into the world of work, for others, the big issue is that they are trainable. The system welcomes convenience store clerks and caregivers who will gladly stay where they are for $8 an hour, and the capacity to do this is evidenced by at least a high school diploma. Since to graduate they need only adhere to minimal checkpoints for assignments and tests, such a scant level of cooperation suggests that they will survive in an entry-level occupation. Top tier students obtain opportunities and others find “a place.” If we really need engineers and scientists, we can always import them from other countries that have better educational systems. No need to tinker with this factor.

Taken together, these points provide us a criterion by which to measure productivity. If we can obtain such channeling of behavior and superficial learning with less money, we achieve the intent of the DOE project. And it is a reasonable surmise that we can. A little more control and a little less learning will scarcely be noticeable. Superficial awareness of knowledge + baby sitting + retirement system + pleasing constituencies + compliant graduates = the system we have now. Since each of these tugs resources in a different direction, it is no wonder that reformers experience stalemate.

We decipher the success of a system, in other words, by noticing how its structure directs its activity toward an outcome. While its idealized purpose may say anything at all, what matters is its activity. What tangible results does its activity inherently produce? Think in terms of a lever, a wedge, or an inclined plane. They point to clearly some outcomes and not to others. Discovering that we have created a system that meets adult needs but not children’s needs, where do we even begin?

One criterion-purpose might be “that all children gain the permanent learning needed for a constructive role in society” Regarding it as a criterion is a key nuance. It means challenging ourselves to remove conditions that obstruct that purpose. Amid all the ways we have tried to please adults with our system design, we want to scrutinize it for the conditions leading students to permanent knowledge. Note the following features of typical instruction and their teleology, their goal-seeking activity, and how they unite structurally:

1. Courses begin and end by plan. Implication: Knowledge comes and goes.

2. No expressed intent to learn a body of knowledge. Implication: Knowledge accumulates by osmosis, by its own momentum.

3. No complete hard copy kept permanently. Implication: The form in which students learn their knowledge is of no further use to them.

4. Teaching of small pieces not integrated. Implication: Students do not need to understand the structure of a subject. An amalgamation of details is enough.

5. Recognition-based tests. Implication: The world will always give clues about what it expects people to know.

6. Personal interest usually irrelevant. Implication: Adults always know better what is good for children than children do.

7. Pretest reviews designed to improve scores. Implication: Schools will always help students appear to know more than they do.

8. Scheduled tests encourage cramming, Implication: The world will always make it easy for students to appear to know something. Knowledge crammed-for is nevertheless valid.

9. “Final” exam declares an end-point to effort. Implication: After the final, students will have no more use for what they studied.

10. Both learning and non-learning equally dismissed. Implication: School purpose is served adequately by determining what students do not know. There is no need to remedy the lacunae in their knowledge.

I refer to these ten points together as the Learn and Lose System. It characterizes U.S. instruction coast to coast, in good classrooms and poor. Its emphasis, its common outcome, is to familiarize students with learning, which is considered enough. For knowledge they need later, they will presumably “know where to find it.” Deepening and elaborating their knowledge into a conscious, internal resource is not at issue. That it occurs haphazardly is okay. Considering these standard conditions as a set, we discern their unifying purposefulness: channeling students’ effort past behavioral checkpoints that please adults and assure superficial, familiarized learning. That is the system we have now.

Alternatively, to cause the organizing principle of education to be actual mastery of knowledge, you begin by saying so. Then you use it as a criterion against which to weigh how you integrate all other needs behind that intent.

Your lead sled dog must know the route. Only then can the others line up behind and pull together.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at