School & District Management Opinion

Change Education Attitudes, Not Just Management

By Garrison Walters — January 27, 2015 6 min read
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It’s been more than three decades since 1983’s A Nation at Risk report warned Americans about losing their educational advantage in the world. To prevent disaster, the authors said, the United States needed to fix its schools.

So we rushed our management experts to the front lines. Surely, they could do the fixing.

Not so. After a generation of tremendous effort and expense, we’re in many respects worse off than when we started. The track record is so bad our experts are frantically rummaging at the bottom of the management toolbox to see what’s left. All they can find is ranking teachers and firing the lowest-scoring ones. This, plus endless testing, is the accountability agenda.

The management guru W. Edwards Deming must be spinning in his grave.

Deming, whose memory I revere because I’m old enough to recall how dysfunctional cars, appliances, and entire organizations were before he came along, taught us that the way to greater quality and productivity was to ensure that management and the workforce had mutual respect and a common purpose. Deming believed that data were important, but didn’t worship numbers; rather, he emphasized that people’s attitudes were the key. He had complete contempt for management strategies that gave high priority to things like pruning bad workers and only evaluating quality at the end of the line (think: high-stakes testing).

Despite the Japanese conquest of the U.S. automobile market in the late 20th century (which he had a key role in making possible), Deming struggled to get American auto executives to adopt a new strategy. They saw themselves as management scientists and balked at the messy, ill-defined process of engaging with their workers, preferring to use more robots instead. Only when that failed did they come around.

So what haven’t our school management experts considered? How about asking whether the main issue in educational achievement is actually about fixing the schools?

If we look at education in the larger context, we’ll see that the attitudes of individuals about education are what matter most. Schools are certainly very important, and the deprivations caused by poverty remain an important challenge, but it’s the surrounding culture, not how schools are managed, that is the principal driver of educational success.

Studies of international education, as well as those contrasting different ethnic groups, demonstrate that an educationally positive surrounding culture gives young students the conviction that learning is essential for success in life, as well as the belief that, with appropriate effort, everyone can succeed.

An educationally positive surrounding culture gives young students the conviction that learning is essential."

No example from another nation can provide a template, but information from the culturally similar United Kingdom provides some compelling evidence for the United States. The U.K.'s standardized test, the Graduate Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is one that is important not just for those planning to go on to higher education, but also for those directly seeking jobs, since employers typically care about the results.

The GCSE data show serious problems for one large subgroup of students: low-income whites, primarily those from the United Kingdom’s relatively isolated postindustrial regions.

For example, in school year 2011-12, 69.1 percent of low-income whites failed to meet the basic standard of five or more GCSE grades of A* through C, including mathematics and English. (An A* indicates a top grade higher than an A.) Other low-income groups had lower failure rates: Chinese, 31.8 percent; other Asian, 48.2 percent; black, 54.4 percent; and mixed race, 58.7 percent.

By contrast, whites not in the low-income category scored at the average.

Especially in the past decade, British politicians and social scientists have focused on the factors that influence educational achievement in the low-income white group.

As part of an effort called “Inspiring Communities, Changing Behaviour,” researchers eschewed simple polling on educational aspirations (which usually produces very positive results across the board) and instead undertook in-depth interviews with typical middle school students. Researchers supplemented this work with similar interviews with high-achieving students and with community stakeholders.

The list of 10 major barriers to greater educational achievement from the Inspiring Communities study is striking. Three of the factors that stood out are:

Parental passivity or active discouraging: “Mum says it’s not worth it.”

People precedent, or failing to identify with others who are high educational achievers: “I’m not like that, and I don’t know anyone like that [focused on success through education].”

Perceived geography and perceived time/cost to cover distance: “But that’s five miles away!” Interestingly, people saw distance as a barrier differently when it was for everyday activities like shopping, in contrast to something that made them uncomfortable, such as participating in further education.

Eight of the top 10 barriers were psychological. The only exceptions were low-ranking: economic deprivation (“We can’t afford it”) and actual geography (“It costs time and money to ever leave”).

We have many communities in the United States where “active discouraging” and lack of “people precedent” are deep and persistent factors. These include our own postindustrial regions and populations that have suffered systematic denial of opportunity over generations.

Fortunately, some researchers are getting out of the management box and demonstrating that attitudes are powerful factors in educational achievement. Whether called “self-efficacy” (the extent to which you think you’re in control of what happens to you), “character,” “mindset,” “grit,” or “resilience,” these all describe a cultural patrimony. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed last year: “Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders.”

What to do?

First, changing attitudes one individual or even one family at a time won’t work at scale. The gravity of an educationally negative surrounding culture will pull down all but the intrepid few.

Second, we need to resist capitulating to poverty, even though it obviously is a powerful factor in educational culture.

Research does show that deprivation is associated with reduced self-efficacy and belief in one’s ability to learn. But some groups do well despite poverty (see the statistic on the U.K.'s low-income Chinese students above), and even the “bad” schools in low-income areas produce some highly successful students—a fact which should occasion more research on cause and effect.

Third, we need some research and development, with an emphasis on the development, to increase our skill in how to change attitudes. Research in psychology says that fundamental attitudes, like those about self-efficacy, can’t be changed by marketing. Peer-to-peer communication works best. In the South Carolina Higher Education Foundation’s Know2 program, which is designed to create countywide education cultures, a key activity is training “neighborhood ambassadors” in techniques that impart a positive educational mindset. Our three pilot communities, in Cherokee, Marlboro, and Beaufort counties, are making good progress in communication and in other areas.

Fourth, we need to follow Deming and dump the blind worship of “management science” gurus who talk and write as if they’re paid by the syllable. None of the predominantly psychological barriers identified by the British researchers is going to be overcome by more technology, more data, more tests, or a plan to crush teachers’ unions.

Ultimately, educational achievement is an individual, not a governmental, responsibility—a point many Americans often fail to understand.

Who will step up to help our communities look beyond failed school management strategies and rethink our approach to educational success? Individuals need help to embrace the attitudes essential for learning; absent change in the surrounding culture, success at scale will remain elusive. We can’t afford to waste another 30 years.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Dump Management ‘Science,’ And Change Learning Attitudes


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