Message from the Editor

Message from the Editor

People in all professions — from accountants to artists, from warriors to homemakers — routinely compare inputs and outputs. Expenses and revenues. Costs and benefits. Only then can people justly determine if a course of action is warranted, be it a budget, a masterpiece, a battle, or a feast. Usually, professionals compare the sum of inputs to the sum of outputs.

But public education in America today is being subjected to a narrower kind of accounting. More than ever, policymakers and educators are focusing on a single measure of output: test scores. Since passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, teachers and schools nationwide have been held accountable to high-stakes testing regimes that could determine the fate of public schools in all 50 states. The quest for higher test scores has been enshrined as the law of the land.

Our cover story by Jennifer Sloan McCombs and Stephen Carroll stresses the need to take account of the inputs as well as the outputs. For instance, if the national goal is to raise the level of literacy among adolescents, then the nation must not merely test the students but also allocate the inputs — money, time, curriculum materials, and professional development of teachers —that are necessary to help the students achieve the goal. As the authors point out, “It’s unfair to hold students and schools accountable for success without giving them the resources they need to succeed.”

California is a telling example of an imbalance between inputs and mandated outputs. The authors provide the first full accounting of 27 years of diminishing inputs into public schools in the state, home to 13 percent of the nation’s students. The outputs come as little surprise.

In our story about the arts, Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues assert that arts advocates have focused on a set of outputs that is imprudently narrow. In this case, the outputs are the public benefits of the arts. The authors propose a broader view of these benefits and suggest how arts organizations, local education partnerships, and state arts agencies can boost the benefits.

Our story about nation-building not only offers an accounting of inputs and outputs on a global scale but also compares the balance sheet of the United Nations with that of the United States. James Dobbins explains that the United Nations has steadily crafted an exceptional ability to extract maximum output (or at least moderate output) from only minimum input. For the United States, however, there appear to be only two options: either maximum output from maximum input or minimum output from minimum input.

—John Godges