The world’s productivity is improving. But why aren’t schools?

Over the last four decades, the world has achieved astonishing increases in productivity.

We produce and achieve more for every hour of work than we ever did before. Improved technology, better communications, more information, increasingly effective management, and the incentives of a free economy have led to unprecedented increases in productivity.

Except in the world’s schools. In most developed countries, results have barely improved since the 1960s. That is despite a massive increase in resources; on average, governments employ 40% more teachers than they did five decades ago. So while productivity improved dramatically across the economy, in education, the amount of learning that we produce for every hour of teacher time actually fell, by about one third.

Understanding the changes and forces which have driven improvement in the private sector could provide ideas for transforming the world’s schools.

In particular, seven changes could lead to dramatic improvement:

  1. Rethinking the manpower model: Deploying teachers individually against groups of students without reference to the needs of the students, the abilities of the teachers, or the different types of activities in which they partake, is inefficient; schools needs to develop more flexible and innovative models of staffing which allow them to better deploy human resources against different objectives.  

  2. Creating efficient markets: Neither state-run monopolies nor highly-fragmented markets of individual competing schools provide the incentives and organization for sustained improvement and innovation across the system. The school sector needs to open up to well-regulated competition between organizations large enough to take advantage of scale and leverage innovations effectively.

  3. Developing technology: Much (but not all) teaching in schools can be made more efficient through the use of technology. To date, relatively few solutions exist, and their use is neither widespread nor effective. While most investment in technology in the business sector goes into software and people, the school sector spends mainly on hardware. Stronger investment in developing and deploying e-learning solutions would massively improve efficiency.

  4. Conducting research: Effective teaching and decision making are hindered by a lack of research into critical problems in education. Wal-Mart knows the relationship between the sales of its products and the weather; the school sector has yet to conduct an experimental study into the effect of class size in secondary education. Adopting a more fact-based approach to developing curriculum and education policy would improve effectiveness.

  5. Matching curriculum with the needs of economy and society: Many school curricula are unreformed in decades, despite rapid changes in society and economy. Many focus and are structured more around academic subject areas rather than skills or values, and few have elements that effectively develop leadership, creativity, or other talents prized on which success in the modern world depends.


  6. Competing for talent: Schools do not compete for talented university graduates; partly due to a historical preference for recruiting quantity over quality, partly due to ineffective recruitment, and partly due to a lack of scale and workforce specialization to provide more compelling opportunities. No other sector in the economy fails to recognize that holders of mathematics and science degrees have much higher market values and need to be compensated accordingly. Increasing incoming talent will be critical to transforming performance.

  7. Collecting and using data: Most school systems lack sufficient and relevant data to be able to make critical decisions about improvement; schools needs to collect and use more data about outcomes and inputs in order to inform and manage improvement.


Fenton Whelan