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Why Cut Muscle When You Can Cut Waste?

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the “new normal” – the need to do more with less. And across the country, districts are doing it. They are cutting waste, becoming more efficient in a number of ways.

While educators can be loath to admit it, according to American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) founder and chairman Jack Grayson, there is a great deal of waste in education. At the APQC Global Education Roundtables yesterday, he shared a list of over 180 examples of waste he has come across in working with school districts.

Of course, some of the “waste” in the system (which Grayson defines as “anything that adds cost without adding value”) neither can nor should be easily eliminated, fiscally. For example, he lists “inadequate professional development” as waste. The best way to address that situation: Assess staff needs and find meaningful professional development experiences that meet them. Ideally, there is no reduction in the budget, just a more effective use of what is there. But things like “food spoilage” (another example) are clearly a fiscal waste…Schools and districts throw money away when disposing of unused food.

Also on the list: “Copier downtime.” At the roundtables, Montgomery County Public Schools’ Michael Perich shared how his district identified and tackled this issue, bringing copier maintenance in-house and saving over $1.1 million dollars. And combined with new central office copying services, they have saved over 39,600 instructional hours – time teachers are not spending at the copy machine, freeing them to do work more beneficial to students.

Another waste item: “Bus accidents.” In the Aldine Independent School District, officials developed a comprehensive project to address the problem. It saved over $100,000 in the 2009 school year alone (not counting the increases in insurance, medical costs or legal liability that could come with an accident, or the lost instructional hours that impact students affected by a bus accident).

How did Montgomery County and Aldine go about cutting this waste? Through process and performance management, a leadership approach that promotes effectiveness and efficiency by linking process measures to outcomes. The key premise? Educational processes – instructional and operational – must change before outcomes can change. School districts (in this case, but the concept comes from the business community and can be implemented by any entity willing to do it) identify an area of concern and something they do to address it. They then develop process maps of that work, which allows them to take stock of the inputs, outputs and outcomes of the processes used and find ways to do them more efficiently. Process maps may reveal carryovers from old methods that are no longer relevant, duplication of effort, or a middleman that can be bypassed. Once the process has been articulated, it can be better managed.

But is the kind of thing you hear about in discussions of education budgets? I don’t. I hear about across-the-board cuts, staff reductions, and furlough days. A recent report from the Campaign for America’s Future and the National Education Association compiled local news reports from five states – Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania – about cuts to K-12 public education budgets, finding that in all five states critical services such as pre-k, full day kindergarten, technical education, and courses such as art, music, foreign language and physical education have been reduced or eliminated.

The PBS NewsHour recently featured a segment on a district in one of these states – Pennsylvania’s rural Mifflin County, which faced a 12% cut in state funding, combined with a declining enrollment. As a result, the district closed a number of schools. They laid off 11% of staff, which increased class sizes seven to ten students, and reduced course offerings, including 25% of the school’s Advanced Placement courses. They managed to save elementary art and physical education, as well as full day kindergarten, for this year.

These types of cuts are of what Grayson call “muscle.” Clearly, they save money. But are they making a district more efficient? No. Are they likely to improve outcomes? No. 

Of course, districts facing budget cuts are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to cut costs, and they have to do it now. Process and performance management takes time.

If only those making the budgets would take that into consideration. When its possible to cut waste, why put districts in a position where they have to cut muscle?

About the Author

Anne O’Brien joined the Learning First Alliance in September 2007. Prior to joining the Alliance, she worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana, helping rebuild the agency after Hurricane Katrina. There she managed first the school-based mentoring program and then enrollment and matching for the agency. She has also consulted on the development of school-run mentoring programs. Anne brings a practitioner’s lens to her work, having taught high school biology, physical science, and remedial math at East St. John High School in Reserve, LA, and serving as a Teach For America corps member in the Greater New Orleans region. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and a Master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. She is also an alumna of the Education Policy Fellowship Program at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

About The Learning First Alliance

The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 leading education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. Alliance members include: the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Association of School Personnel Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, International Society for Technology in Education, Learning Forward (formerly National Staff Development Council), National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Middle School Association, National School Public Relations Association, National PTA, National School Boards Association and Phi Delta Kappa International. The Alliance maintains www.learningfirst.org, a website that features what’s working in public schools and districts across the country.

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