Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.Our local schools are resistant to using technology as a way to measure student performance levels. This seems to be an obvious area where "21st century skills" could be applied to increase productivity - reducing costs while improving student achievement levels. Khan Academy, the brainchild of a smart, ambitious man, does this beautifully.
But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn't pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores.
The same is true of almost all other government services. Mass transit spends more and more every year and yet a much smaller share of Americans use trains and buses today than in past decades. One way that private companies spur productivity is by firing underperforming employees and rewarding excellence. In government employment, tenure for teachers and near lifetime employment for other civil servants shields workers from this basic system of reward and punishment. It is a system that breeds mediocrity, which is what we've gotten.
Teachers and coaches can access all of their students' data. You can get a summary of class performance as a whole or dive into a particular student's profile to figure out exactly which topics are problematic. The class profile lets coaches glance at their dashboard and quickly figure out how to best spend their time teaching.We've put a lot of energy into making sure that the Khan Academy empowers teachers by giving them access to the data they should've had for years. You'll know instantly if a student is struggling in multiplying fractions...or if she hit a streak and is now far ahead of the class.