The Inefficiencies We Need

Charles EvansThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Overall, the 1970s was a disappointing decade for vehicle design. Huge, heavy “boats.” Gas guzzling engines. It was as common for some cars to break down regularly as to run reliably. And they were dangerous, too. Remember the Ford Pinto that would burst into flames when rear-ended?

A car from this era that stands out in my memory was the Plymouth Volare. Sergio Franchi sang the promotional ditty, which was catchy, but the other thing that every Volare I remember had in common was a rusty hood. Like, not underneath the car, but rust on top, right out front!  

In the late 1970s, Chrysler recruited Lee Iacocca to turn the company and its image around. In 1980, Iacocca hired manufacturing genius Dick Dauch away from Volkswagen to increase both the production speed and quality of Chrysler vehicles. And Dauch did just that—with technology. Dauch increased the number of robots on the line and the number of computers guiding their operation by 300%, and by 1987 Chrysler was the top performing American auto company in every category.

To explore the effects of the professionalization trend in faith-based schools, especially in the board-head leadership matrix, I looked at traditional definitions of education-as-ministry, and the impact on “professionalism” in schools. I also have posited that 21st century definitions of professional leadership tend to lean in two complementary directions: 1) individuals exercising executive authority well and 2) efficiency enabled by technology.

The second element—efficiency and productivity—is more complex, and it touches on a wide array of perspectives regarding faith-based schools. Everyone has an opinion, and though the desired outcomes vary, the conversation is ubiquitous.  

Simply put, the overall goal is to design schools that accomplish more educationally with less effort, time, and, crucially, money spent. And most people equate efficiency and productivity with the adoption of technology, as illustrated by the Chrysler story. As I noted in the second post, standard notions of professionalization in the 21st century are indivisible from technology deployment, in schools just like everywhere else.

As usual, schools, and especially faith-based schools, are late to the technology party. Within the past five years, I have worked with schools whose teachers are not yet equipped with school-issued computers. And, more commonly, schools that adopt technology “solutions” (administrative software, websites, communication platforms, etc.) often woefully under support or under utilize them, handicapping the imagined effectiveness. 

But let’s ask a question: From whence comes the pressure for our schools to become more technologically proficient and efficient in the first place? Obviously, our technology-saturated environment dictates the demand. It is faster, easier, and (sometimes) cheaper to do almost anything anymore. Grocery shopping? There’s an app for that. Need a handyman for household repairs? There’s an app for that. Airline reservations? Vacation planning? College degree completion? Need a ride, to know the weather forecast, to check out your child’s grades? Apps for all of it.

And there are consumer reasons, too. The standard expectation is that effective production and use of technology drives costs down. The more we make of something, and the better we get at it, the cheaper it becomes to produce and buy. For a private school parent paying $12,000 in tuition who expects to be paying $18,000 before her child graduates, efficiency that translates into lower cost matters—a lot!

But let’s ask another question: What if a thing or an experience, if done well, exceeding the expectation of the consumer and contributing lifelong value, can only become more inefficient? In fact, we encounter circumstances like this on a regular basis.

Take car-buying, for example. For some segments of the population (whether of necessity or principle), price is the only thing that matters. But for most car shoppers, two other factors matter almost as much as the initial price: 1) reliability (what’s my out of pocket cost after purchase?) and 2) value (when I’m ready to trade or sell, how much can I get?). Not to mention tech features, style, speed, and whether the car is comfortable or fun to drive. Our preferences and sense of overall value often override the initial consideration of price.

Let’s point out one important, easily overlooked reality: To adequately educate a child who is prepared for college or theworkforce requires thirteen years. THIRTEEN YEARS!! Think for a moment about the audacity of that claim. The only equivalence I can think of is another type of education—training for the Olympics or professional sports.

Could we speed up that process? Probably, but by how much? A year? Two or three? Either way, the accumulated cost, whatever the mode employed, would be negligibly affected.  

Apart from society’s (and the law’s) acceptance that children need twelve or thirteen years to fully develop in school, what other inefficiencies exist? The most significant, of course, is manpower. Our educational system, imperfect as it is, relies on thepresence of well-educated, trained professionals with students. In private schools, no matter what the price-point, theconsistently most acute parent expectation is individual attention for their child.

In faith-based schools, especially, the attentiveness focuses on more than academic performance. Teachers are employed to provide moral guidance, to discern children’s personality traits, to give parenting advice, to mediate conflicts, to ensure safety—to nurture. How many little souls can we put in front of one individual and reasonably expect it to happen? Is there an algorithm for that?

The State of Texas spends $2,300 less per public school pupil than 35 other states’ average expenditures. We still spend an average of $10,450 on each student, which, not accounting for annual increases, multiplies to $136,000 K-12. While that cost includes transportation, special education, and a miscellany of other requirements, it also correlates to average class sizes between 5th and 12th grades of more than 30 students—50% more than the typical private school classroom.

So, I’ll weigh in on the big question: Can faith-based schools be both more efficient and productive in the ways that matter most to their missions? In most cases, No.

Technology may be able to make the delivery of some services, academic and customer-oriented, more effective, but it cannot replace the most necessary deliverable—incarnational presence in a child’s life over many years.

If we’re stuck with this inefficiency, it’s the kind we need.

This essay originally appeared in BetterSchools LLC Newsletter as a part of a series on professionalism in schools. Catch up on the conversation about the definition and impact of professionalism and the limitations of executive-oriented leadership in schools.

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