Developing a productivity mindset in education

Richardson and Dixon (2017) were right when they suggested that schools were originally set up as efficient ways to deliver education to more people. They said, “Schools have represented an imperfect construct for learning, one driven by efficiencies rather than effectiveness.” You could argue, however, that those schools were initially both efficient and effective in terms of what they were set up to achieve - to provide schooling to a much greater number of people while also serving up industry’s need for many poorly educated workers who would do just as they were told in low skill and low paid jobs. However, the needs of industry changed and society became more aware of the dehumanising aspects of traditional schooling thanks to the thinking of people like John Dewey and proponents of culturally responsive teaching, for example. As a result, what is expected of schools has changed, and, for some while now, they have been seen as neither efficient nor effective because they no longer serve the needs of society and largely do not deliver what is required educationally and in terms of humanity.

Strongly advocating for this need for change, many argue that today’s schooling must be driven by effectiveness rather than efficiency. While I am in general agreement with the “sentiments” they are expressing, presenting it in terms of the binary of efficiency OR effectiveness is not helpful. A new paradigm of education must embrace both concepts. We need to work in education efficiently – being mindful that resources are scarce – and effectively – doing the right things right. What is needed now more than ever, is a productivity mindset in education. However, as Paludan (2006) points out, “There is no established tradition in education of thinking actively about increased productivity – the negative effects of cutbacks are well-known but specific efforts to increase productivity are rare” p. (4). This is not surprising, given, that for many years now, thinking about efficiency and productivity in education has generally been viewed as bad (Callahan, 1962; Richardson & Dixon, 2017) and as detracting from the ethic of care which is seen to be central to education provision. Referring to the tendency of those in education (and other public services) to be motivated by a “mission-orientation”, Le Grande suggested that, “knightly people may not always be motivated to be very efficient” (e.g. recognize the opportunity cost of the resources they consume)” and may “have their own agenda (e.g. give users what the knights think they need, but not necessarily what the users think they need)"”(Le Grand, 2007, pp 20 – 21).

The reality is that though the expectation is now for every student to leave school as a successful learner, little has really changed in terms of outcomes, in spite of increased expenditure on education over the last twenty years. We, in education, often point to a lack of resourcing as the prime reason education is not producing the results that are needed. Yet, as Paludan (2006) points out, the problem is that there is no natural limit on expenditure in education. No matter how much is spent, there will always be needs that go unmet and there will always be more that we can do. In his droll way, Paludan said, “The English might be ready to describe someone as “too clever by half”, but this is not really possible and one can never learn too much” (p.1). The reality is that education will use up all available resources and still look around hungrily for more. Hence, we must all take responsibility to ensure that the cost of education doesn’t grow beyond all limits. As educators, we cannot just keep asking for more without developing a productivity mindset. We must become much clearer about what outcomes we want, what works, and how to achieve that most efficiently.

I am not in any way advocating for reducing outcomes to only those things that can be easily measured or counted; rather, we must have a rich definition of what those desired outcomes are. However, I am suggesting that in a world where resources are limited, we have a responsibility, as educators, to ensure that we are achieving the best possible value for money spent. This is not to say that we should all become economists or develop formulae for making those decisions, but that as caring and moral human beings we should be concerned about our impact on the world and the environment in terms of the outcomes we produce and the resources we use. As “knights”, we cannot keep spending to achieve the mission without questioning the cost of the mission and questioning whether it is the right mission or whether we even fully understand what the mission is. We should go about our task of “knighting” with a productivity mindset.

 One of the reasons discussion of productivity has almost never entered into the debates about education policy is because there has been little or no consensus about how to define success in education, let alone measure it (Hanuskhek & Ettema, 2015). I believe that having a productivity mindset begins first and foremost with having an absolutely clear agreed upon purpose for education. Currently our policy environment is confusing. There is a wonderful vision for students as confident, connected, lifelong learners in our New Zealand Curriculum document, yet National Standards, which still loom very large, could suggest that the purpose of education is to teach kids to read, write and do maths to a particular standard. We have a progressivist approach to knowledge in the front end of the curriculum and a traditional approach to knowledge in the backend, but nothing that tells us how to marry these two apparently disparate approaches to knowledge together. Our government has created a quasi-voucher funding system, put reading, writing and maths data into the public arena so that the public has information to make choices about schools. In turn, league tables are created that rank schools based on a narrow range of criteria; and then we are expected to develop creative, lateral thinking, confident, agentic young people who are equipped to be successful in a rapidly transforming world. Oh, and who are caring individuals with a social justice mindset. The government continues to tout self-managing schools while, at times, sternly telling schools what to do. Education Council and Communities of Learning are just two examples. It simply does not add up. In a sector where there will never be enough resourcing to do the job required, we are being given confusing messages about what we should focus on and where we should invest our resourcing. As a result, I suspect that many schools are going for the spatter gun effect and potentially not doing any one thing particularly well.

I imagine that this kind of confusing environment is not unusual when the sun is setting on one epoch and we are in the throes of finding out what the next paradigm will be. I also have no doubt that National Standards and other government policies were introduced as an attempt to address productivity in education. However, the sooner we become clear, as a country, about what our purpose for education is, and create a policy environment that aligns with that purpose, the sooner we, as a country, and we, as schools, will be enabled to make more productive decisions about where to invest our time and resources. Perhaps once we are very clear about the outcomes we value, then, we will be able to develop a productivity mindset.

There are other barriers to increasing productivity in education other than a lack of clarity about the “knightly” mission. One of the problems is that the basic job of a teacher has changed so little in many ways. It takes teachers just as long to teach a lesson or mark a piece of writing today as it did one hundred years ago, as an example. Compared with other industries, teaching is still hugely labour intensive. In primary schools, for example, staff are largely generalists and any advantages of specialisation have been little explored. Teachers in New Zealand are very hands on and hold tightly to all the different roles they play and tasks they have traditionally done because of their deeply held belief that they are acting with care for the student. There is currently little appetite for exploring more efficient ways of organising teaching and learning even though it could reduce teacher workload and increase productivity. Recently I was speaking to a high-ranking Ministry of Education official about how much the back end of teaching (the work done outside of actual teaching hours) has increased and become much bigger than the front-end (actual time spent teaching students). I suggested that we could look at things like outsourcing the marking of writing, perhaps to teachers on maternity leave, or even overseas. Her response was the same as most teachers: “But I always found that I learned so much about students when I marked their work.” I agree. However, when the job is getting too big, and it may be inefficient, we have to look at other ways of organising roles and tasks. I pointed out that as the leader of a big “department”, she could not have a finger in every pie, but that she had to rely on receiving accurate reports from others to enable her to make good decisions. The “markers” would need to be trained to provide feedback to teachers on what they are noticing, who is struggling, the trends, patterns and next steps. Teachers would then need to be trained, as managers are, to value that feedback, have the sense of urgency that comes from marking the work themselves and be responsiveness to the feedback in their ongoing planning.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am not necessarily advocating for outsourcing marking, though it is definitely worth thinking about what can be outsourced. My point is that, in education, we need to be prepared to reimagine teachers’ roles, and as we do so, we must do so with a productivity mindset – not to short change students through efficiency, but to ensure that we don’t unnecessarily deplete limited resources. The developments in technology, for example, provide us with a huge opportunity to consider what it is that we, as teachers, bring to the table that is uniquely human and what is best outsourced to technology. This consideration will dramatically change how the role of teacher is conceptualised, how teaching and learning is organised, who does what, and the kinds of skills, dispositions and aptitudes teachers will need. As educators, we need to become strongly evidence-based – always critiquing our impact in terms of the agreed-upon purposes for education. We will need to stop being so defensive about our outputs, and openly and transparently, be willing to analyse them ourselves in relation to the desired outcomes and be quickly responsive to what we are noticing. We also need to stop holding on so tightly to the ways things are done now and consider a way forward that ensures education becomes both effective and efficient while also addressing teacher workload.

The problem we face is a circular one: the educational sector has no tradition of thinking about improving productivity. However, improving productivity is a prerequisite for being able to enter into the next educational paradigm and to developing a sustainable future for education. What is our response to be? I am strongly advocating for clarifying our educational purpose, knowing our impact based on those desired outcomes, and developing a productivity mindset in education.


Callahan, R. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. University of Chicago Press.

Eric A. Hanushek and Elizabeth Ettema, Defining Productivity in Education: Issues and Illustrations December 2015 Hoover Institution Stanford University

Making Money Matter: Financing America’s schools. (1999). Consensus Study Report. National Council of Research.

Le Grande, J. (2007). The other invisible hand: Delivering public services through choice and competition. Princeton University Press.

Paludan, J. (2006). Personalised learning 2025. In: Personalising education.  Paris, France: OECD/CERI Publications. Available at:

Richardson, W., & Dixon, B. (2017). 10 principles for schools of modern learning. A white paper.