Defining "Waste" in Public Education


One of the most common criticisms of public school systems is that they are filled with waste and inefficiency. Certainly, few who have worked for the Department of Education would describe it as “efficient.” But efficiency, as I pointed out in a recent article for Jacobin, is not an absolute concept. Neither is “waste”: one man’s trash, as we know, is another man’s treasure.

So what is “waste,” from a Schools as Ecosystems perspective? Certainly, I think we have a lot of ideas about what waste isn’t. Waste is not offering courses in arts, foreign languages, music or other “nonessential” subjects, though many cities have drastically cut such offerings. Waste is not employing support staff to help teachers and administrators with book distribution, event supervision, test administration, and other essential school functions, yet again, school districts across the country have laid off thousands of support staff in recent years. Extracurricular programs, special education paraprofessionals, teacher reimbursement for necessary school supplies: none of these are waste, from our perspective, yet all of these appear to be waste as far as the Department of Education is concerned.

I know what wasted time is. When a native Spanish speaker has to take high school Spanish because her school doesn’t have the resources to provide any other foreign languages, that’s waste. When high school seniors have a free period in the middle of the day because the funding for their Advanced Placement class was cut, that’s waste. It’s waste when a student with a speech impairment hides in the back of the class, afraid to talk, because her district fails to provide a speech therapist.

Whatever waste is or isn’t, it’s pretty clear that this is an area where we need clarity. Much of what policy-makers treat as waste, educators view as essential resources. So, how would you define waste?

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