Besides just bad philosophy, one of the worst contributors to government growth is our misplaced emphasis on defining success by activity. When you stand on the plains and look to the horizon, a great cloud of dust can be either an army purposefully on the move, or a lone idiot riding his horse in circles.Â
Too often, we are just interested in seeing a great cloud of dust, and not interested enough in the results. In every debate in Austin (and in Washington) the discussion centers too much on “how much we have/are/will spend” and not nearly enough on “what we have/are/will accomplish.”
Public education is emblematic of the problem. Every debate centers around more money. Period. Sometimes there is talk of accountability, but always with the idea of spending more money. We gauge politicians’ commitment to our kids based on how much they are willing to spend on public education. We based our judgment on the legislature’s education agenda based on how much is spent.
So it is no wonder we have tripled public education spending (after inflation and pupil enrollment) in the last several decades, but have seen educational attainment remain stagnant. SAT scores and other outside measures show little to no improvement. At the same time, nearly 50 percent of kids going on to higher education require remediation before being able to do the college-level coursework. But that is to be expected, considering we (taxpayers, parents, voters) are more interested in activities than in results.
Expect, of course, the results on the football field, but that is a different story. Or is it?Â Coach doesn’t perform, coach gets canned — immediately. The team doesn’t win big, everyone demands the 17-year-olds run laps in penance. The minute details of the athletic performance of the players and coaches is known and analyzed, and tweaked. A coach turns around a program, and others schools enter a bidding contest for his services. A kid catches a pass more often than not finds recruiters banging down his door. Results are king. It’s nice to know that the kids on the team worked hard, but everyone only really cares about seeing the win.
Maybe we should treat all of public education — and the rest of government — to the same level of scrutiny to which we assign football. Measuring results, not just activity; spending less time on the appearance of effort, and more time on the achievement of goals.