Best Efforts

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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.

References

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.

6 thoughts on “Best Efforts”

  1. Liz,
    I enjoyed reading your article about best efforts in school. Continual improvement is essential to creating change in our school system, however, it seems to be hard to continually improve when schools are “putting out fires.” I am wondering and fearing that if schools don’t make whole systematic change that Deming’s principles fall under our category of best efforts. What level of change will need to be made to create systematic, sustainable change to create positive results?

  2. Liz, great article! I think you made a great point that our education system is not making its best effort as the efforts are not research-based and not focused on continual improvement. Pointing out that other nations are proving our efforts are not effective yet we have not changed. Pointing out that the current efforts are violating Deming’s points goes to show that we should be trying to implement these points. I wonder, what is it going to take to get it to change? Will states have to start requiring school’s follow Deming’s principles or will that work against it if it is required?

  3. Elizabeth Kesterson

    Liz,
    Thank you for posting this article- I enjoyed the read! The foundations for this article connect well to the learning we did with Senge and the discussion and coursework around affecting improvements to an organization. It enforces the idea that best efforts that are not sustainable or supported to success do more harm than good. Working with Baldrige allows organizations to analyze all areas within it and to identify areas of improvement — a starting place for bettering the system as a whole. As future administrators it will be important to ensure the best efforts we put into our organizations are sustainable and will genuinely improve the systems – -and hope those at higher levels will do the same!

  4. So pleased with the depth of this writing. You made so many wonderful connections to create a tapestry of understanding around the topic of “best efforts”not being enough. Well done!

  5. Elli Beardsley

    I throughly enjoyed reading this article. Furthermore, I enjoyed diving into your resources and was fascinated by the comparison of “best efforts” in education between a country such as Finland and the United States. I stand in agreement in which Marzano’s system of best efforts promotes us to focus on the bigger need within the system and work towards purposeful improvement, through an effective and measurable way. Thanks for sharing.

  6. What a fantastic dive into systems thinking and why it’s necessary in education. While I do see other top performing countries being more efficient with their processes and much of what they do could be translated to our own system, do you believe it fair to compare two nations whose student body differ vastly in terms of size, diversity and wealth? I love how you tied in Deming’s 14 points and how our current system is inefficient in creating meaningful growth in teacher’s abilities and overall student learning. When you referenced Langford’s desire to do away with grading, I agree, but wonder what might be proposed instead (SRG/SBG)? Might it not also be a good idea to re-structure the concept of grade levels? It truly is imperative that we share our knowledge and desire for systems thinking and continual improvement with those around us and let it be known that for improvement to occur all stakeholders need take part from students all the way to the legislature.
    This was an absolute pleasure to read!

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