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The Bottom Line For Educational Success Focus On the Outputs


In Education Next, Orly Friedman, founder of Red Bridge Education, makes the argument that there are many “reasons for measuring inputs in addition to outputs.” The problem with this statement is that the system traditionally has focused on inputs rather than outputs, with poor results.

Friedman uses the example that if a person hoping to lose weight focuses only on the numerical goal rather than the entire process (i.e. maintaining a healthy diet and workout routine), weight loss tends to be short-lived. She compares this with cramming for tests which is “incentivized by a system whose sole concern is on outputs.”

However, there’s another side of the coin.  Friedman claims that “measur[ing] inputs along with outputs is to facilitate learning about which inputs work.”  The problem is that most schools do not compare educational results based on changes several input parameters.  Rather they tend to fixate on only a single input, seat time, which does not highly correlate to successful education. 

Don Nielsen, Program Chair of the American Center for Transforming Education, notes in Every School that in today’s education system, “learning takes a back seat to time. The clock drives what occurs and, as a consequence, students soon learn that their learning and understanding is secondary to the teacher’s need to cover the material.” Based on graduation requirements which place a heavy premium on seat time, his observation is spot on.  

What drives the seat time requirement is the credit requirement. To receive a diploma after 12-13 years of school, a student needs to collect a certain number of credits (called Carnegie Units). These units only apply to classes taken from the ninth through the twelfth grade. A credit is generally based on having received a passing grade for one year of class time or 9,900 minutes of instruction (55 minutes x 180 days). Half credits are sometimes given for a class lasting only a semester.

Nielsen argues that a credit “is not a measure of learning; it is a measure of time spent in class. Some refer to it as a “seat time” measure. In other words, to graduate from high school requires that a student spend a specific quantity of seat time in school attending specific classes.”

What this boils down to is that seat time, rather than real learning, is the primary measurement used for meeting graduation requirements. Or, as Nielsen puts it, “in public education, measuring input is more important than measuring output.”

The measure of school and teacher effectiveness should be based on the ability to improve student learning and comprehension (outputs) rather than the amount of time spent in a class room earning a credit (inputs). The issue is not having a defined mission of school. Nielsen argues “If the goal of school is to turn out an educated child, then we must define such a child.”

Looked at from the perspective of a business, the production process is the focus of attention. However, before starting the process one first has to define the purpose of the process, typically the customer requirements. In the case of education, the students and their actual learning and comprehension is the goal, not a pre-determined amount of time sitting in the classroom.

In other words, the mission of a school should be, “To serve as the primary partner, with parents, in the total development of their child into a responsible citizen.” A responsible citizen is knowledgeable enough about our country’s history, government, Constitution, and economic system to be an informed voter. Finally, a responsible citizen is an adult capable of being a responsible parent.

Bailey Takacs

Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs serves as program coordinator at Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education. With a passion and drive for reforming education, Bailey’s experience includes managing campaigns for elected officials as well administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.