As states across the country debate the role of charter schools, a word that comes up a lot is efficiency. Charter advocates say their approach—typically using non-union teachers and a management system modeled on the for-profit world—gets better results for less money than traditional public schools. Opponents say that’s not really true, either because charters’ results aren’t so great or because they actually spend more than their district school counterparts thanks to private donations.
But why does the question of efficiency loom so large in the public conversation about education? What do people mean when they call a school efficient? Those are questions that Canadian education researcher Francine Menashy addressed in a 2007 paper for The Journal of Educational Thought.
Menashy writes that efficiency literally refers to the broad and unobjectionable goal of getting the best results for the least effort. But she notes when we talk about efficiency we tend to think in economic terms—creating the best product for the least money. She quotes a 1962 book by Raymond E. Callahan that raised concerns about a “cult of efficiency” in education devoted the use of business methods to provide a practical education designed to “serve a business society better” by preparing students as workers.
In modern-day Canada, like in the U.S., the drive for efficiency manifests itself in increased corporate sponsorships and partnerships with schools, and in privatization and school choice. At the same time, there’s a growing focus on standardized tests designed to efficiently measure student achievement.
Menashy contrasts this movement toward greater efficiency with John Dewey’s call for education as a means to build a democratic society. In Dewey’s view, students must be able to communicate and associate freely with each other while participating in determining how and what they will learn. A system designed with the needs of the labor market in mind has little room for lessons serving these democratic goals.
Similarly, lessons aimed at improving standardized test scores stand in opposition to teaching critical thinking. Menashy argues that real critical thinking means that students learn not just how to solve problems but also how to question the world around them, including the schools themselves.
Part of the problem is that determining a school’s efficiency depends on having an objective way to measure results, but the kind of understanding Dewey championed is hard to measure. Ultimately, Menashy writes, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing efficiency in education, as long as we’re looking for schools that efficiently promote humanist as well as economic goals.
But, given the influence of business interests in the educational world and the inherent difficulty in measuring democratic socialization and critical thinking, when we see people talking about efficiency in education we can be pretty sure this is not what they’re talking about.