Best Efforts on a Sinking Ship

Guest post by Ruthie Russo.


Best efforts are ruining education through their maintenance and acceptance of failure and mediocrity, and through the linear grasp on traditions and lack of innovation (Deming, 1994). Without an awareness of knowledge from outside of the current system, improvement efforts will be in vain and the innate motivation to learn and the joy children have for learning will continue to deteriorate (Deming, 1994). Teachers and students are becoming “victims of the process” (Deming, 1994, p. 169) through state and district leadership’s insinuation that best efforts will be enough and the problem begins with our numerical measurements of the effectiveness of best efforts.

Measurements and Best Efforts

When our education system is not producing the predetermined desired results, there are adjustments made that are meant to increase the performance of students; these are best efforts. This oversimplification of improvement often generates only surface-level change, rarely contributing to systemic change (Safir & Dugan, 2021). Although improvement is necessary, directing best efforts in response to numerical outcomes of previous efforts is not going to change the conditions that caused the results (i.e., the system) (Deming, 1994) because “trying to find the causes of ups and downs in a stable system” (Deming, 1994, p. 182) will only make matters worse. Further, the results that are being measured and the way the results are being measured is a fundamentally flawed process. Measuring student success using standardized testing and grading sends the message “You are not achieving on these measures; therefore, we have to fix you with interventions. By extension, you don’t really belong to this academic community. You are a problem to be solved, a gap to be filled.” (Safir & Dugan, 2021, p. 103). Irony is seeing that the failure of students to meet benchmarks reflects system performance, not student performance and the reactive best efforts treat common cause as special cause (Deming, 1994). Best efforts tied to futile numerical goals will not lead to true improvement (Deming, 1994) and instead miscommunicates what is valuable (Safir & Dugan, 2021).

Linearity Versus Innovation

The present education system that pushes for best efforts is linear. Safir and Dugan (2021) describe linearity as “the governing principle of the Western improvement model” and states that it “seeks simple cause and effect relationships” (p. 75). They explain how this linear model in education portrays each student as if they were a “blank canvas” (p. 92) rather than humans with unique skills and talents. The antidote for insignificant, linear change is innovation, anticipating change, and Profound Knowledge (Deming, 1994). In other words, “We need an approach that fundamentally and radically transforms the experiences of children and families at the margins” (Safir & Dugan 2021, p. 75). This form of transformation is radical but necessary for long-term, systemic change that will foster learning and joy (Deming, 1994).


The pressure to meet the mission of education through best efforts mimics the narrative of Dr. Deming’s (1994) experiment with the red beads. The Willing Worker named Ann describes her insight after participating in the experiment. The message in her words parallels the daunting feeling of many educators in our current system, including myself. She says:

I knew that the system would not allow me to meet the goal, but I still felt that I could. I wished to. I tried so hard. I felt responsible; others dependent on me. My logic and emotions conflicted, and I was frustrated. Logic said that there was no way to succeed. Emotion said that I could by trying. (p. 163)

In my experience as an educator, giving forth my best effort is the only way to remove myself from the feeling of accountability when students do not reach set benchmarks. Although I have found myself as the leader of my classroom, I have yet to be in a leadership position that allows me leverage on the system as a whole. In order to achieve innovative transformation the parts of the system must work together, even to the detriment of individual classrooms or schools (Deming, 1994). Even best efforts that were to reach perfect optimization within my classroom would not bring true improvement because it lacks outside knowledge. “A system can not understand itself. One may learn a lot about ice, yet know very little about water” (Deming, 1994, p. 101)


Our school system feels like a sinking ship, and despite our best efforts to remove the water from the ship, it will continue to sink. Our current state and district leaders think of ways to save the old ship, after all, it is the same ship they have always known. It may be sinking, sure, but it has worked for many. These leaders appear to focus on which method is best for removing the water, then urge teachers to comply with the best method. We comply, because what else are we to do? Our juxtaposition inside the system does not allow us to see through the murky waters, and so we are blind to the holes on the bottom of the ship. Running ourselves ragged with best efforts trying to keep afloat is not a long-term solution. I suppose this is why so many are jumping ship.

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” (Angela Y. Davis, as cited in Safir & Dugan, 2021, p. 210)

Deming, W. E. (1994). The new economics: for industry, government, education (2nd edition). The MIT Press.
Safir, S., Dugan, J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin, SAGE Publications Ltd.

2 thoughts on “Best Efforts on a Sinking Ship”

  1. Well written blog on how systems thinking can solve the problems of the broken education system and achieve learning excellence

  2. Wonderfully insightful thinking and writing! All educators, particularly those in leadership roles as well as legislators should read this!

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