I recently witnessed a fascinating discussion at a conference that has had me thinking ever since. A K-12 support professional stated that it was her responsibility to be as effective as possible when providing services for students in support of their educational goals. A peer immediately responded that he felt that it was his duty to support the educational process as efficiently as possible. What was the difference between these two positions and who was right?

The Google definition of effective is “successful in producing a desired or intended result.” The definition of efficient is “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Two similar adjectives, but two very different concepts in relation to our work.

Effectiveness is a strategic goal; efficiency is a tactical goal.

As budgets crumble, we spend a lot of time in K-12 lately talking about efficiency. But what if we are being efficient at something that is not effective? How does that benefit students?

Some examples of efficiency versus effectiveness include:

  • The national norm is to start high schools on the first tier of bell times because this is the most efficient in terms of busing. But is this effective in terms of a teenager’s learning abilities?
  • We hear “keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible” in practically every budget discussion these days. But do service cuts in the name of efficiency negatively affect a student’s full education experience? And could that possibly impact the effectiveness of their schooling?
  • At my former district there was an open enrollment policy, where children were able to apply to every school in the district. Transportation was provided based on distance eligibility, and it was my job to make sure that this transportation ran as efficiently as possible. But the district never studied whether or not this type of student assignment plan was effective in terms of student achievement.

The single most important characteristic of effectiveness is that it needs to answer the “So what?” question. In the above example, district leadership could boast that a student can attend any school in the district. The follow up to this statement should be, “So what?” Does this lead to higher student achievement? Perhaps so, but without analysis this is just a guess.

The most important “So what?” of K-12 education is student achievement. District leadership needs to be able to measure student achievement by individual characteristics and program types so that the most effective practices can be defined and advanced. Once the decision-makers determine which efforts best support student achievement, then support services can focus on delivering these efforts as efficiently as possible.

True efficiency can only start after true effectiveness is determined. We are just spinning our wheels if we are being efficient at something that is not effective. The clock is always ticking for our students and we can’t afford to be following ineffective practices, no matter how efficiently we can do them. Our students don’t have time for us to be guessing about their future.

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