Guest Post by Liz Schupp, German Teacher, Waukee High School and Educational Leadership Graduate Student of Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University
Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage. (Deming 2000).
Best efforts are essential when they are guided by principles backed in research and focused on continual improvement. When we simply do our best without what Deming refers to as a system of profound knowledge, we aren’t going to make meaningful improvements. We too often see what my colleagues have referred to as the “whack-a-mole” approach to issues in education continuously fail. We may be able to temporarily whack down a problem, but shortly after we will see the same problem pop up again in a different place. If our response to solving problems is to get a bigger hammer, we won’t solve issue of the moles. At the legislative, administrative, and classroom level, best efforts have not led to improvements in education.
When we talk about school improvement efforts, we often come across efforts at school reform. Diane Ravitch argues in her book, Slaying Goliath, that disruption is not reform. She refers to the education reform movements from George Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Barak Obama’s Race to the Top, to Bill Gate’s Common Core to Donald Trump’s push for school choice as failures because they rely on testing, competition, and punishment to improve outcomes for students. She argues that this is a disruption to schooling; it is not a true reform effort. In reality, positive reform would focus on more funding, investing in the quality of teachers, desegregating, and providing smaller class sizes.
Because of federal mandates, schools have spent billions of dollars on testing and reduced time for recess and non-tested subjects. Looking at the results of the PISA tests, American students have been performing mediocre for a long time. Our focus on standardized testing and punishment are clearly not working. The Hechinger Report analyzed the most recent PISA scores and what it tells us about inequality in our schools. We have a widening achievement gap between high and low performing students. Looking at the inequality in schools, they found that in the U.S., 20% of the variation of student performance is between schools, while 80% is inside each school. In the U.S., there is a 93-point difference separating the poorest schools from the wealthiest (about 3 grade levels). This difference between students in the same school at the same grade level is much greater.
And this stands in contrast with other school systems around the world. In Germany, there is much less variation within each school. Test scores are much closer together at each grade level within one building than they are in the U.S. The Hechinger Report looked at the practice of “tracking” as a possible reason for the variation. Looking at the Finnish model of education, there is a focus on improving teacher quality, providing all students with a rigorous interdisciplinary education, and a reduced focus on standardized testing and punishment. And they have one of the highest performing school systems in the world.
If we look at the success of other countries globally, such as Finland, compared to Deming’s 14 points of management, we can see that they operate more optimally from a systems perspective. Areas in which they particularly excel would be instituting education and self-improvement, driving out fear, and eliminating management by objectives. Our best efforts to reform the school system from a legislative perspective have failed to institute these principles of management, and as a result, we are not seeing improvement in our schools.
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), there are two purposes of teacher evaluations – measurement and development (Marzano 2012). In our schools, our system of teacher quality improvement between administrators and teachers happens at our yearly evaluation. We set an arbitrary goal at the beginning of the year (violating Deming point 11: eliminate numerical quotas) and then show evidence of our goal in an end of the year meeting with our assigned administrator. Every few years we are inspected on one day for one class period (violating Deming point 3: cease dependence on mass inspections.)
Marzano’s analysis of systems that focus on development over measurement found that those systems are comprehensive and specific, include a developmental scale, and acknowledge and reward growth. Scales that are efficient and effective for measurement purposes don’t provide guidance to teachers on how to make meaningful improvement.
Lastly, our best efforts as teachers fail when we don’t meet the needs of our students. In the article “Changing Education Systems through Management and Cooperation,” David Langford tells us that grades and judgements, as they are currently used in the education system, do not serve a purpose to the educational process. We have an innate need to improve and learn, and this is hampered when we are rated and judged. Langford argued that change needs to start with grading, as it is a foundation of education.
We absolutely need best efforts if we are going to implement an effective system of continual improvement in education. Too often, however, there is no clear direction to the decisions being made in education, at the legislative, administrative, and classroom levels. Change can’t just happen in one individual, but rather at the systems level.
Barshay, J. (2020, March 30). What 2018 PISA international rankings tell us about U.S. schools. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://hechingerreport.org/what-2018-pisa-international-rankings-tell-us-about-u-s-schools/
Compton, B. & Wagner, T. (2011). The Finland Phenomenon. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhH78NnRpp0
Deming, W. (2000). Out of the crisis (1st MIT Press ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Langford, David P. (2008). Changing Education Systems Through Management and Cooperation. Molt, Mont.: Langford International.
Marzano, Robert J. (2012). The two purposes of teacher evaluation.(differences in teacher evaluation systems). Educational Leadership, 70(3), 14.
Ravitch, D. (2020). Slaying Goliath the passionate resistance to privatization and the fight to save America’s public schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.