The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness — in Both Public Health and Public Schooling

I published this op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News two years ago, in the early stages of the pandemic.  Here’s a link to the original.

If anything, its relevance is even more apparent now than it was in 2020.  Consider the enormous shipping and trucking backlogs that clogged up our economic system at the tail end of the Covid shutdown, and you see the dire consequences of recent efforts to optimize economic efficiency over organizational effectiveness.  These efficiency measures — just in time inventories, dispersed global supply chains, and decimated local manufacturing — played havoc with public welfare and economic health in the interest of saving a buck.  We could learn from the military the value of preparing for disasters and thus making our systems more resilient.

Read it over and see what you think of the argument.  Then read the addendum to see how I connect this argument to public schooling.


The current covid-19 pandemic has shown a lot of things that are wrong in American society, including terrible leadership, a frail social safety net, and a lack of investment in public goods.  But one that has particularly struck me is the way our socioeconomic structure has been taken over by the logic of efficiency over the logic of effectiveness.  In the name of efficiency, we have focused heavily on keeping costs down in both our economy and our health system.

Industry does this by developing global supply chains that take advantage of cheap third world labor and the low cost of shipping and also by instituting just-in-time delivery of supplies to factories.  The former puts us at the mercy of events on the other side of the world, and the latter leaves us with no inventory to tide us over until supplies resume.  As we have seen, the result is that that production can shut down over night, with no easy way to get it going again any time soon.

There is a similar pattern with health care.  In the interest of cost efficiency, we have reduced the number of hospital beds and the amount of critical care supplies to what is needed during ordinary times.  Excess capacity, in both production and health care, is deemed wastefully inefficient.

The core problem with this strategy is that effectiveness depends on a certain degree of inefficiency.  To be effective, a system of production or medicine needs a cushion of excess capacity in order to tide it over during difficult times.  Both need a store of supplies that is considerably in excess of what is required under more routine circumstances.   And both need a certain amount of redundancy:  multiple suppliers of the same goods, multiple hospitals providing the same service.  For a system of production, health care, or national security to be resilient in the face of extreme demands, we have to be willing to subsidize the kind of excess capacity that we will need in a crisis.

The military has long understood this, so it is continually preparing for war in times of peace.  When a threat emerges, you don’t have time to spend a year of two getting up to speed with training, munitions, transportation, and — yes — hospital beds.  Because of this, we now see naval hospital ships gliding into the harbors of New York and Los Angeles to provide a small assist during our severe shortage of medical capacity.  What have the ships been doing for the last few years?  Preparing for a future emergency.  That’s very inefficient, but it’s also critically important for national survival.

Hospital ship

A healthy society — one with a strong survival instinct — needs to be willing to provide public subsidies for health emergencies that may be infrequent but are totally inevitable.  We need to build up excess capacity in the face of future uncertainty.  Industry already seems to be getting the idea that the fetish of lean productive capacity may be hazardous to the survival of many firms.  It seems likely that in the future firms will recruit multiple suppliers instead of one on the other side of the world and will build up inventory.  They can’t afford another disaster like this one.

What worries me is that our system of health and public welfare may not take the same prudent steps in planning for an uncertain future.  In the last 50 years, our public sector has been hard-wired to the ethic of efficiency, in which prudent capacity building is seen as reckless waste and where major responsibilities of government are outsourced to private providers.

But if we show a little foresight, we might learn the lesson of the current pandemic and shore up our public capacity for withstanding future shocks to our system.

Addendum: Implications for Public Schooling

The same argument, I think, applies to public schooling.  Since the 1983, when the report A Nation at Risk crash-landed into American classrooms, US educational policy had been driven by the standards movement.  And central to the conception of this movement is the demand that schools be held accountable for meeting these curriculum standards by means of steady series of statewide multiple-choice tests to determine the level of student achievement in individual school subjects.  The idea is to compel public education systems to tailor teaching and learning in classrooms to the achievement targets set by state standards.  Test results would show which school systems, which schools, which teachers, and which students were most and least successful at meeting these standards.  The 2002 No Child Left Behind act was set up to enforce this kind of testing at the national level, and OECD’s PISA test sought to enforce it internationally.  

Accountability is the key component of this global reform juggernaut, and its aim is to wring the chronic inefficiencies out of a structure of schooling that arose from its radical decentralization.  The preexisting system ceded control of schooling largely to the local level, which granted enormous de facto autonomy to school districts, schools, and individual teachers.  Teaching and learning — especially in the US — takes place behind the doors of millions of self-contained classrooms, and this drives reformers crazy.  Historians of education have long documented how often past efforts at school reform bounced off the classroom door, thus buffering the process of teaching and learning within from outside influence.  

Outside of classroom door in school hallway.

This local autonomy, which makes education annoyingly inefficient in the eye of policymakers, is essential in the effort to make education effective.  Teaching is not a delivery system for academic content but a fiendishly complex form of professional practice that seeks to induce students to learn in the absence of any efficient mechanism for insuring that they will do so.  Students only learn when and what they choose to learn.  The classroom art is in luring them into making the choice the teacher is aiming for.  And this means that teachers need to have the flexibility to adapt their teaching approaches to the peculiarities of the group of students they find before them and also to the differences in individual students in the class.  The variables that shape this process are legion: school subject, age, sex, class, ethnicity, community, home life, health, hunger, time of day, day of year, weather, and state of mind — to name just a few.  The accountability movement disrupts this teaching and learning process by forcing teachers and students to focus entirely on learning particular subject matter at a particular level measured by the high-stakes test.  It deliberately ties the teacher’s hands, compelling the same pedagogy for every classroom — and that pedagogy is teaching to the test.

Teaching to the test is an efficiency mechanism masquerading as effectiveness.  One problem is that it runs smack into Goodhart’s Law:  Once a measure becomes a target, it is no longer a valid measure.  Initially a student’s test score may capture something about the amount of specific subject matter that student has accumulated.  But once teachers, schools, school systems, and whole countries make raising test scores the object of schooling, the scores become ends in themselves.  Everyone learns quickly how to game the system in order to raise scores with a minimum of real learning.

Another problem with the accountability approach is that it radically narrows the aims of education.  Instead seeing education as an effort to gain a broad array of skills and forms of knowledge, to explore interests, experience personal growth, become a good citizen and a productive worker, it focuses learning on a tiny subset of school subjects that bear only a marginal relationship to these broader goals.

And perhaps most depressing of all, accountability systems are the most efficient tool ever devised to destroy a student’s interest in learning.  It makes school the world deadliest job — where the best strategy is to phone it in, in order to keep school from grinding you down into a grain of sand in the desert of test prep.  In education, as in many other things, efficiency is the death of effectiveness.

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