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Educational policy analysis archives
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Educational policy analysis archives.
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Is water an input to a fish? : problems with the production-function model in education / Steven Hodas.
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1 of 7 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 1 Number 12November 2, 1993ISSN 1068-2341A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal. Editor: Gene V Glass, Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Edu cation, Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411 Copyright 1993, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy any a rticle provided that EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES is credited and copies are not sold.Is Water an Input to a Fish? Problems with the Production-Function Model in Education Steven Hodas University of Washington Abstract: The concept of a production-function as a metaphor of the educational process is critiqued. In particular, Monk's (1992) discussion of the prod uction-function is seen as typical of the final stages of a dying paradigm. When reading David Monk's discussion of the product ion-function in education one is reminded of the behavior Thomas Kuhn describes as t ypical of the end-stages of a paradigm that is about to be replaced (Monk, 1992). The nature of Monk's efforts to recuperate this model in the face of the failings he himself points up leads me to wonder if a crisis of the kind that has been described in the history of every branch of th ought might not be waiting in the wings for economics, at least as it is exemplified by the wri ting of production-functionalists. Monk begins by calling into question the fairness o f using outcome-based approaches as a means of increasing educational productivity. He su ggests that given our ignorance of precisely what factors contribute dependably to deepening the effect of schools, such an "outcomes-as-standards" approach constitutes an unf air abrogation of responsibility on the part of central administration. It allows, indeed encourage s, it to merely sit back and hand out judgements, rewards, and penalties for school outco mes without acknowledging its own proper role in helping school-based agents to achieve succ ess (Ferris, 1992). Monk offers two main explanations for the inabilit y of research to discover reliable production-functions in education: data collected o n an aggregate level that fails to capture important classroom-level effects; and the lack of attention by researchers to the complex nature of school processes which differ from conventional production and hence require a more sophisticated modeling of the production-function. After briefly reviewing some inductive,


2 of 7experimental-design, and process studies he returns in earnest to a critique of the "outcomes-as-standards policy response" which he se es as an outgrowth of the frustration with the production-function approach to yield useful re sults. Monk distinguishes between two versions of the outcomes-as-standards strategy: "Version 1 is consistent with an underlying belief that there is no such thing as a tractable production-function. If there is no suc h thing as a tractable production-function, each schooling situation is hi ghly idiosyncratic. It follows that there is no role for centralized authority in the i mprovement of productivity aside from the setting of targets, the dissemination of i deas that might be tried by teachers, and perhaps efforts to make it easier for teachers to try ideas out. According to this view there is nothing to be learned from another's experience, since there is nothing systematic or regular about education production... Teacher autonomy is the central commitment of this version of the strategy. The tea cher is the only person who can make sense of the instructional reality. No secondguessing from more centralized sources or even from other teachers is desirable. T he key point is that there is nothing to learn from anyone else's experience. It is every teacher for himor herself, and the race goes to the swift. In sharp contrast, A Version 2 approach retains faith in the reality of a tractable production-function a nd sees the outcomes-as-standards strategy as a new means of gaining insight into the function's properties. What this requires is guided experimentation (both personal a nd otherwise) and aggressive dissemination efforts regarding these experiences, including unsuccessful ones. In contrast to Version 1, there is a prominent role to be played by central authorities, and it goes far beyond simply setting targets, moni toring compliance, and acting as judge and jury" (Monk, 1992 pp. 316). I quote this passage at such length because I am st ruck by its tone of petulance and absolutism. The inconsistencies, the limitations an d distortions embodied in this view of the classroom, of 'authority', and (I must take him at his word here) production-function fully inform his subsequent analysis. By addressing them specifi cally I hope to cast some light on this Weltanschauung, a view that betrays the unsuitabili ty of the production-function model. This unsuitability, it seems to me, derives directly fro m the paradigm, not from a lack of refinement, skill, or sophistication in its application but fro m its very heart and nature. In Version 1, Monk deduces from the lack of a tract able production-function a highly idiosyncratic schooling environment. While few woul d disagree with this conclusion, it does not necessarily follow that such idiosyncrasy is either a drawback or identical with literal uniqueness and the entropic random quality that Monk invokes w hen he claims that, "there is nothing to be learned from another's experience, since there is n othing systematic or regular about education production." Perhaps this leap-taking, from differe nce and unpredictability to arbitrary and malignant disorder, necessarily follows from the de finition of production-function: where it is not, chaos must be. If so, it is clear that such a view has little relationship to the experience of classroom teachers or administrators. The fact that classroom outcomes are not completely reducible to systemization or regularization is not at all to say that there is "nothing systematic or regular about education production." Nor would some one who has spent much time working in schools assert that "there is nothing to learn from anyone else's experience." Because I am unable to reliably start my car with a hammer does not mea n that the car can not be started. Similarly, the fact that I am unable to start your car with my key does not mean that the cars have nothing in common, or that I have nothing to learn from watchi ng you start yours. Monk readily acknowledges that the hammer of produc tion-function has failed to start the car of education, but the choice with which he pres ents us is to either build a different, better hammer or give up on any assurance of ever starting cars reliably at all. Apparently it never


3 of 7occurs to him that the battered condition of the ve hicle might be due at least in part to the energetic and repeated applications of this inappro priate tool. Perhaps this is rooted in his belief that, absent a tractable production-function, "ther e is no role for 'centralized authority' in the improvement of productivity aside from the setting of targets, the dissemination of ideas that might be tried by teachers, and perhaps efforts to make it easier for teachers to try ideas out" (emphasis added). What exactly is the problem here? Unless control for its own sake is the goal, this would seem a perfectly reasonable role for cen tral actors. Indeed two paragraphs later, when laying out the more-favored Version 2 one reads tha t "What this requires is guided experimentation (both personal and otherwise) and a ggressive dissemination efforts regarding these experiences, including unsuccessful ones." Ho w this differs from the decadent Version 1 scenario is left to the reader's imagination, as is the manner in which "in contrast to Version 1, there is a prominent role to be played by central a uthorities, and it goes far beyond simply setting targets, monitoring compliance, and acting as judge and jury" At times in this thesis, as here, preserving centra l "authority" seems to have canonical virtue; at other times merely an expedient value, a s in the following passage: "As was pointed out above, if there is no production function there is a much diminished administrative role in efforts to improve productivity. The practical reality is t hat we are already committed to retaining an administrative role. Given this orientation a case can be made for doing all that is possible to make it bear fruit before abandoning it" (ibid, pp. 319). Substituting "heliocentrism" or "flat-earth model" for "administrative role" in this passage il lustrates its nonsensical quality, especially if one asks "Who makes bigger, more consequential mist akes, local or central actors?" Something in Version 1 so distresses Monk that he s eems incapable of remembering the very attributes he ascribes to it. Less than two pa ges after stating that Version 1 would logically allot to administrators only the role of "the disse mination of ideas that might be tried by teachers" (ibid, pp. 316) he claims that "since we are talkin g about Version 1 policies there is no guarantee that the insights gained will be disseminated" (ibi d, pp. 317-318) The attachment to "central authority" pervades the paper, and while Monk clear ly recognizes the limitations of aggregation when it comes to data collection and analysis (inde ed he calls specifically for disaggregation in this process) he seems not to discover any drawback s to the aggregation of implementation (Note 1). He tips his hand when, discussing the "ideal" s cenario (Version 2 policies and a real production-function for education), he rhapsodizes "Once the productionfunction is known, the outcomes-as-standards approach can be abandoned, an d a centralized authority can begin to dictate method" (ibid, pp. 319). Perhaps this is th e crux of the matter, the very thing that drives Monk to continue the hunt even though he knows ever yone who has gone before has failed: " the degree that we grant greater discretion to the teachers and give them freer reign in their classrooms, and to the degree that we conceive of g ood administration as simply getting out of the way of teachers, we will be pursuing policies a t whose core is a fundamental denial of the production-function." (ibid, pp. 319) In Monk's world we have to choose between (an impli citly dangerous) teacher autonomy and a production-function whose validity and useful ness is directly proportional to its opposition to or distance from the local, craft-based skills o f teaching. The only role for teachers outlined in his more-favored scenarios is to implement policies determined by higher-ups (never mind that the costs, opportunity and otherwise, of a teacher or an entire school trying something new and failing at it are far less than those of a centrall y-conceived and implemented failure). A production-function, should it ever be discovered, would therefore serve supervisors rather than instructors. It is a managers' tool, designed for m anagement functions; it has nothing to do with teaching and learning but with the management of te aching and learning This hierarchical factory/industrial model of organization is somethi ng I had thought we were moving away from. Indeed, even as formulated by Monk, who tries to re deem the production-function model by incorporating a few clumsy classroomand teacher-l evel effects into his model, the


4 of 7production-function would seem to make objects of t eachers rather than subjects. It follows in the long tradition of labor de-skilling and attempts to shoe-horn education into a managerial model that misses both the forest and the trees. Learning is first and foremost a social activity, a messy, tumultuous human process with all the shocks that flesh is heir to. As such it is fantastically complex, multivariate, and in a real sense irreducible. Fish swim in water, but it also carries oxygen for them to breathe. It is where they mate and die and feed, and yet they move throu gh it unawares as we do through time, as we do through the social world which is our ocean. Can a prominent place be made for this in a production-function model? If not it will become be a theoretician's bauble, condemned to perpetual misprision by its own irrelevance. Monk repeats several times that if there is no prod uction-function then any improvements will be arbitrary, the result of luck, non-cumulati ve and non-transferable. This is true only if you believe that the only genuine improvements are thos e that can be stamped out identically in infinite number. While he understands that research ers must get down to the classroom level in order to stalk the wild inputs he would have us gat her that data, bring it back to the office, and there attempt to pluck out the heart of its mystery (its social component, its inchoate quantum component, its vanishing-ink component, its dying f ish-out-of-water component), pulverize it, and spray it from the air in district crop-dusters. The result of the application of the production-fun ction methodology to education has been, I believe, to insulate and perpetuating the s tatus quo of the education/policy bureaucracy. For as Monk makes abundantly clear central authorit y and production-function jockeys depend upon one another for survival, as each provides the other's raison d'tre. Whether they benefit education is another matter entirely, one that Monk cannot finesse by setting up straw dogs to clumsily upset or by making courtier's pleas for ex pedience. He fails even to acknowledge, for instance, the divergent interests of school authori ties and teachers, or of central and local school authorities that is well captured by Ferris (Ferris 1992). Finally, though, I suspect the real problem lies no t with Monk's insistence on starting cars with hammers, as it were, but with the notions that undergird the concept of production-function itself. As I suggested in my writings about "domina nt machine metaphors" people have for thousands of years labored to create iconic models of the world in order that they may move from a state of apprehension to one of comprehension. Ar t, religion, and articulated social structure are the most primitive and the most enduring products o f this compulsion. Later as we became more dexterous we began to create machines and models th at, while informed by our glimpses of the workings of the world, had for the first time suffi cient complexity of their own that we could stand back and say "Look, the world--brain, god, so ciety--is just like our machine--a clock, an engine, a computer." In other words, out of a tenta tive and fragmentary experience with the wide, wet world we construct a brittle and impoverished m odel capable of doing a few things with tolerable utility. We then in our hubris turn back to the world and say "You are like our machine." Each age has a machine, a created thing that stamps its mark upon all that age's systemizations, however foolish or inappropriate. F or the nineteenth century, which also saw the invention of the light bulb, the telephone, indoor plumbing and many other useful things, the overwhelming favorite was the engine and its organi zational concomitant, the factory. For this reason, nearly every metaphor used widely during th at time refers to inputs and outputs, drive, regulation, standardization, centralization of cont rol and the like. The great nineteenth century novelists (including Freud and Marx and Darwin) wer e tethered to these machines and incorporated their terms of drives and forces into every aspect of their work. It is not being maintained here that because these systems are anac hronistic they are necessarily wrong, but they are limited in several important aspects. First, since they depend on an analogy to a system of mechanical linkages, they tend to do


5 of 7poorly with systems that lack such direct connectio ns, or where the connections are mitigated by extra-systemic factors. Second, since they are fund amentally about regulation they do not do well with systems that contain significant arbitrariness randomness, or unquantifiable components, and are able to incorporate these terms only under the rubric of "waste" or "inefficiency". Third, and most important for our discussion here, they br eak down, lose confidence in themselves when confronted with what Keats called "negative ca pability" (Note 2). Throughout Monk's article he expresses distaste for a profusion of lo cal experimental initiatives, even though there are no indications that all of these combined would cost more in any terms than even a single one of the large-scale, macro-level, policy-driven fail ures we've seen so often. The notion that there may be some inherent value in a locally-designed an d implemented plan, even one that fails, seems never to enter his mind. No doubt the idiosyn crasy of classrooms has its good points as well as its bad ones, but it seems ludicrous to rec ast this more or less limited and benign variety as demonic unworkability simply because it makes li fe difficult for those who attempt to impose a production-function approach on the classroom. Th e fact that all classrooms are idiosyncratic does not make them unique (and hence unworkable fro m a policy point of view) unless you are attempting to cast idiosyncrasy as a bte noir. The re is a fundamental difference between attempting to discover regularity in disparate situ ations and imagining that what you find and call "regularity" is necessarily transferable to other s ituations. Classrooms are more than just mirrors held up to policy analysts. Lastly (and tentatively) I should like to suggest t hat the production-function model and its corollary, efficiency, as with much else in economi cs, are based on the quintessentially nineteenth century tenets of materiality, scarcity, and non-simultaneity of ownership. The production-function is a corollary of the principle of efficiency. It looks to discover a direct connection (but, as we've seen, not necessarily a s ensible or desirable one) between what goes in and what comes out. (Note that the image is that of the supervisor tinkering with the regulator of the machine while making notes on his clipboard, Ta ylorism applied to schools as factories.) When you are dealing with material inputs and varia bles this makes some sense. But when, as experience seems to show, we need also to talk abou t non-material factors then criteria of efficiency, including production-function, makes mu ch less sense. It is not simply that there are some inputs which are not subject to "scarcity", al though this is true (Ferris, 1992). It is not, as Monk says, that we need to refine our models. It is that this entire model of productivity is based on tangible non-simultaneous possession of material goods. While this may have been a logical way to structure social thought and institutions on e hundred years ago it hasn't aged very well. As we begin to reconceive the world in postindustria l terms the utility of those terms and concepts which require us to think in pre-postmodern syntax will be less and less apparent (Note 3). It is not being claimed here that none of the terms currently employed make sense or that the new ones are a priori better at capturing the truth" of the situation. However, as we begin to reconceive and re-embody the world around us accord ing to a different paradigm (a long process but one that is clearly well underway), terms which had surplus value under the old system simply because they responded to our intuited under standing of the way the world works will have to work harder to earn their keep. Concepts li ke production-function (and, much more subtly and interestingly, efficiency) will no longe r serve as first principles in a deductive framework. Rather they will once again become speci fic tools, useful in some situations, irrelevant in others. NOTES "First, despite the disappointments in the existing empirical research it is not possible to point to this research as a proof that the producti on function does not exist. It may simply be that analysts have not been looking in the right places for the regularities to emerge. We 1.


6 of 7 have not yet discerned the pattern to the results o f previous studies. Future work may reveal regularities that are real but thus far unde tected" (ibid, pp. 319). This sounds like superfluity pleading for continued subsidy. It seem s prudent to ask whether the preservation of central authority is worth the trem endous opportunity costs of continuing under a model that produces the most impoverished r esults imaginable, both for research and for schools."that is, when a man is capable of being in uncerta inties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts or certainties." 2. Information, not authority; networks and pointers, not linkages; inexpensive ubiquity, not dear scarcity; simultaneous possession, not mutuall y-exclusive ownership; instantaneity/time-shifting, not temporality; commu nity of interests, not community of place; distributed horizontality not centralized ve rticality. 3.REFERENCESFerris, J. M. (1992). School-based decision making: A principal-agent perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14(4), 333-346. Monk, D. H. (1992). Education productivity research : An update and assessment of its role in education finance Reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14(4), 307-332.About the AuthorSteven HodasEducational Leadership and Policy StudiesCollege of EducationUniversity of WashingtonCopyright 1993 Horse Horse Lion LionCopyright 1993 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesEPAA can be accessed either by visiting one of its seve ral archived forms or by subscribing to the LISTSERV known as EPAA at (To sub scribe, send an email letter to whose sole contents are SUB EPAA y our-name.) As articles are published by the Archives they are sent immediately to the EPAA subscribers and simultaneously archived in three forms. Articles are archived on EPAA as individual files under the name of the author a nd the Volume and article number. For example, the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Archives can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@a and making the single line in the letter rea d GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to INDEX EPAA F=MAIL, tha t is, send an e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EPAA F=MAIL.The World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is Education Policy Analysis Archives are "gophered" at To receive a publication guide for submitting artic les, see the EPAA World Wide Web site or send an e-mail letter to and include the single l ine GET EPAA PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return e-mail. General questions about ap propriateness of topics or particular articles may be


7 of 7addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, Glass@asu.ed u or reach him at College of Education, Arizona Sta te University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)Editorial Board John CovaleskieSyracuse UniversityAndrew Coulson Alan Davis University of Colorado--DenverMark E. Thomas F. GreenSyracuse Alison I. Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. Aimee Craig B. Howley u56e3@wvnvm.bitnet William Richard M. Jaeger Benjamin Thomas Dewayne Mary P. Les Susan Bobbitt Anne L. Hugh G. Richard C. Anthony G. Rud Dennis Jay Robert Robert T.