School & District Management Opinion

Benchmarking: What It Is, How It Works, and Why Educators Desperately Need It

By C. Jackson Grayson Jr. — January 30, 2007 7 min read
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Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer, once observed that cave dwellers froze to death on beds of coal—lying on the very resource that could have saved their lives. But they had no way to find the coal, mine it, or use it. Today, several millennia later, the same phenomenon is happening again—this time, in education.

—Peter Lui


America’s K-12 education system is asleep on beds of best practices. They come from thousands of workable solutions that exist right now—down the hall, across the district, across the nation. Like coal to the cavemen, however, these best practices are hidden, untapped, and unmined. In educator terms, they are not “going to scale.”

The single best way to accelerate the rate of improvement in K-12 education is through widespread benchmarking of these best practices. This is how we can bring to the surface and put to use what works.

I base this belief on 30 years of direct experience with benchmarking in other sectors. At APQC, the American Productivity & Quality Center, a nonprofit education and research group in Houston, I’ve worked with literally thousands of organizations in business, health care, government, and the military.

Almost all the organizations in these sectors do benchmarking. Only a handful in K-12 public education do. It’s urgent that public education do the same if these best practices are to go to scale.

This surely will raise three basic questions in the minds of educators: What do you mean by benchmarking? How do you know which practices are best? And, aren’t we already benchmarking?

What’s “benchmarking”? First, it helps to understand the difference between benchmarking and benchmarks. Benchmarks are outcomes, numbers, metrics, standards. Examples are test scores, cost to hire a teacher, time to design a curriculum. Benchmarking, on the other hand, is a process—an active and disciplined set of steps to determine how a best-practice organization achieved a benchmark, then to learn that, and finally to use it in your own organization. Benchmarks tell you where you can improve. Benchmarking shows you how.

It doesn’t occur to most educators to get help from best practices inside their own organizations. Nor do they have a culture of looking outward for best practices in other sectors.

Systematic and disciplined benchmarking consists of four steps: (1) finding, (2) sharing, (3) transferring, and (4) implementing a best practice in your organization. If only steps 1 and 2 are done—finding and sharing—nothing changes. Hence the common lament, “Why don’t best practices go to scale?”

What is a best practice? There are some who equate “best” only to scientifically based research, requiring control groups, randomized trials, and repeatable events. This “gold standard”—while not a bad ideal—can’t be done on any scale in public education. Variations are arising labeled “mixed methods,” or “promising practices,” meaning getting as much evidence as possible but not calling it best.

Other sectors are not nearly as squeamish over the use of “best.” They, too, want as much evidence as they can get that a practice works, but they accept that what is best now may not be best in the future, and that best may be different for different users, depending on a lot of on-the-ground variables, like context, timing, resources, poverty levels, culture, size, and history.

It’s a shame that these debates over the term “best” have held educators back for fear of being ridiculed, scorned, prohibited, or penalized for using practices that don’t have scientific evidence or research’s blessing. Most educators just want to know “does it work?” and “how?”: What’s the evidence, and will the practice work if I transfer and implement it in my district or school?

Some educators may insist that they are already benchmarking. They confuse benchmarking with going to lots of conferences, meeting people, listening to presentations, and having lunch or dinner together. That’s networking, not benchmarking. Or, they may say, “We read about best practices in high-performing schools and districts in case studies, reports, magazines, and on Web sites.” That’s not benchmarking, either. It’s passive learning that may or may not lead to action. I don’t disparage or discourage networking or individual learning; both are of use. But they are not benchmarking.

If that’s all the educators supposedly benchmarking do, it leads to increases in knowing, but little in doing. The most powerful property of benchmarking is its profound ability to enable implementation and change by involving a cross section of employees in the process.

We have found that involving and empowering employees in the team that does the benchmarking is a critical element in building commitment, and increases the odds of implementation. They are the ones who can best identify how the current process works (or doesn’t work), what they would like to improve, and, therefore, what they would like to learn through benchmarking. By directly learning—in a structured, purposeful way—the benchmarking team can immediately take what its members see and move to the next step, which is turning it into action. This also sets the stage for forming professional learning communities, known in other sectors as “communities of practice.”

Benchmarking has several other benefits. It helps to set higher goals, and to convince skeptics and change blockers, by letting them visit with best-practice sites and see for themselves that the best practice can be achieved (seeing is believing).

There will be some academicians, researchers, and policy people who will be horrified with my recommendation that all 6 million teachers, principals, and administrators be involved and empowered to search for and adopt any best practice that works for them. Their objections are reminiscent of the management terror evoked in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Japanese automobile industry (Toyota in particular) adopted a model that involved assembly-line workers and empowered them to make decisions that would assure quality control. They could literally “stop the line” until a problem was solved—by them.

U.S. managers said, “It won’t work. Those employees don’t have the judgment, skills, or attitudes to make those decisions. They’ll goof off, quality will go down, costs will rise.” But for those firms that followed the empowerment model, the reverse happened. Quality rose and costs fell, because employees were trusted, trained, and treated as competent professionals. The federal No Child Left Behind Act assumes that educators won’t or can’t make the right choices on hiring teachers and choosing teaching practices. Are educators less committed than business employees? I doubt it.

I suggest that we drop the “highly qualified teacher” and “research-based practice” requirements from the law. Accountability mandates would be kept at current high levels, but administrators and teachers would be involved more directly in reaching them, and empowered to search for and implement best practices that work for them. This is a radical proposition, I realize, but our education system is going to fail under its present behaviors and assumptions about how to improve—namely, by setting high goals and then micromanaging key processes. It was a mistake in business, and is a mistake in education.

If benchmarking is so valuable, why don’t more educators do it? One would naturally think that if best practices existed, they would spread like wildfire. They don’t. Why?

In the past, they didn’t have to. The way to improve results was just to add more and more inputs to whatever you were doing. Now, the emphasis is on outcomes. But in this jump, educators overlooked the middle ground between inputs and outcomes—the processes that use the inputs and generate the outcomes. A focus on processes seems so obvious—you can’t change the outcomes unless you change the processes that generate them!

The best time to have started benchmarking would have been more than 20 years ago, with the publication of <i>A Nation at Risk</i>.

Secondly, most educators don’t know how to do benchmarking, process improvement, process innovation, or process management. And it doesn’t occur to most of them to get help from best practices inside their own organizations. Nor do they have a culture of looking outward for best practices in other sectors.

Benchmarking could be the accelerant to start the fire that creates transformative change.

How do you get started?

The superintendent, cabinet, teachers, principals, school board—all should make a visible and vocal commitment to improving one or more processes through benchmarking, coupled with action plans. Get training in benchmarking at all levels of the organization. Form benchmarking and project teams. Set short timetables. Start benchmarking inside and outside. There is no other way than just doing it. Talking about it won’t do it. Knowing about benchmarking won’t do it. Even making a decision to do it isn’t doing it. Only doing it is doing it.

A few districts are already starting. In 2005-06, 23 districts, ranging in size from 10,000 to 180,000 students, joined with APQC in a yearlong study to identify benchmarks in three processes: assessing student achievement, finding and recruiting teachers, and managing information technology. We currently have 31 districts working with us on a benchmarking study to find best practices in professional development.

The best time to have started benchmarking would have been more than 20 years ago, with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The best time to start steadily rising improvement over the next 20 years is today.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Benchmarking: What It Is, How It Works, and Why Educators Desperately Need It


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