Word of the Day: Efficiency

The language we use when we talk about schools– or really about anything political– can be confusing. Terms as basic as “innovation”, “success”, and “learning” represent such different things to different people that it’s pretty much impossible to know what they mean within the context of education.

This morning, I’m interested in the word efficiency. The Oxford Dictionaries define “efficient” as a word commonly used in reference to a system or machine that has achieved “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Maximum productivity with minimum waste sounds pretty good. Certainly, when people attack the public schools as inefficient, they’re suggesting that these schools achieve little and waste much. These attacks are often used in support of privatization. The argument is that the private sector operates according to principles of maximum efficiency.

In Chicago, this logic was deployed earlier this year to justify the privatization of public school custodial services. According to The Washington Post, the Chicago Public Schools awarded two contracts totaling $340 million to private companies Aramark and Sodexmagic. The idea was that these companies would keep Chicago school’s cleaner for far less money than the public sector’s inefficient custodial services.

Today, Chicago’s schools are infested with rats, roaches, and garbage, according principals from around the city. Despite this mess, Aramark is now laying off more than 15% of its Chicago school custodians.

There are lots of problems here, but one of them is that companies like Aramark (which, not coincidentally, has a long history of labor abuses) have vastly different conceptions of efficiency than most good-hearted people. In Aramark’s conception, the classic private-sector conception of efficiency, achieving minimum waste means eliminating whatever cost-bearing services it can without exposing itself to legal action, no matter what impact this might have on student learning or the school environment. Exposing students to pests and filth is thus acceptable if this exposure is accompanied by decreased spending on employee compensation.

To those of us who care about the people who spend their days in public schools, productivity with regard to school cleanliness would mean maintaining school environments that are not just bearable, but are actually comfortable. Efficiency would then mean employing enough custodians to achieve this. Unfortunately, as long as the people in charge of our schools and cities subscribe to the private sector definition of efficiency, students and teachers will have to share their classrooms with rats and roaches.

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