School & District Management Opinion

The Wrong Education Problems Are Being Solved

By Craig D. Hochbein & Bradley Carpenter — October 25, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ty Cobb’s batting average. His batting average was .367.

Beyond the field of education, history provides numerous reminders that relatively high rates of failure often accompany the improvement of performance. Ty Cobb, who holds the record for the highest batting average in baseball history, ended his career with a .367 average and thus failed in nearly two-thirds of his career attempts. One can only imagine the number of flawed dishes that world-class chef Julia Child prepared before naming her boeuf bourguignon one of her signature recipes. Even Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s most beloved authors, rewrote the finale of his masterpiece A Farewell to Arms 39 times before submitting it for publication.

Each of these individuals serves as an example of how disciplined improvement entails both the commencement and termination of actions. In addition to modifications and improvements, successful professionals identify the detrimental practices or behaviors they must extinguish. For instance, batters may abandon the habit of opening their hips early in their swing, chefs may remove what was previously thought of as an essential ingredient from a cherished recipe, and authors may curtail their use of the passive voice. In each scenario, the elimination of a self-inflicted impediment contributes significantly to the improvement of overall performance.

In contrast, the rhetorical association of failure with the performance of education professionals is considered taboo, something teachers and administrators avoid at all costs. Subsequently, discussions and debates about the best means to improve school performance and student achievement dominate the discourse of educators, policymakers, and researchers. Although improvement strategies might indeed yield tangible benefits for students and schools, they can also obscure the learning that occurs through the purposeful examination of failure. Specifically, efforts focused solely on improvement may fail to eliminate the unnecessary and avoidable operations that preclude classroom and school improvements.

Even the most talented educators fail on a daily basis. Meticulously planned lessons focusing on the Battle of Normandy may not engage students. The well-executed chemistry experiment may produce more of a dud than a bang. Pressure to cover a course’s entire scope and sequence in a given grading period may in fact promote disgruntled and disrespectful outbursts from students, rather than excited celebrations of “aha moments.” Failures such as these should be framed as teachable moments, situations from which educators can learn and improve. Professionals must learn from their mistakes through the analysis of their failures, thus devising and adapting strategies that can improve or augment their craft. Yet, the field of education’s bias against failure often prevents educators from adhering to a philosophy that frames failed actions as a critical component of professional learning. Instead, we continually scour the data searching for ways to improve faltering performances, while infrequently investigating the behaviors and actions that may have contributed to the unintended results.

The field of education's bias against failure often prevents educators from adhering to a philosophy that frames failed actions as a critical component of professional learning."

The current focus on turning around persistently low-achieving schools epitomizes the lack of disciplined learning in education. When considering interventions targeting school improvement, too many stakeholders assume unacceptable levels of student performance resulted from the absence of improvement efforts, strategies, or initiatives in persistently low-achieving schools. This dangerous assumption, combined with the abbreviated timetable expected of school turnarounds, often compels education reformers to add more initiatives and responsibilities, rather than revoke ineffective policies and procedures. The pressure to turn around persistently low-achieving schools, when coupled with inaccurate assumptions and increased financial resources, contributes to a situation in which well-meaning educators diligently expend their efforts and resources solving the wrong problems.

Consider the plight and context of many historically low-achieving schools. In addition to poor results on state assessments of literacy and numeracy, these schools often report higher-than-average rates of absenteeism, discipline referrals, and inexperienced educators. Although adding instructors and instructional time could potentially improve testing results, such initiatives in isolation may not curtail the challenges that impede effective teaching and learning. In addition, when supplemental funding and assistance provided by state and federal governments expires, turnaround leaders perceived as successful may not have actually cultivated the organizational capacity necessary to continue or even sustain hard-earned improvements.

Instead of simply adding more resources and initiatives, school leaders must determine which interventions could prevent or discontinue detrimental behavior and decisions, as well as build the internal capacity of the school. For instance, the daily schedule of teachers could be adjusted to increase instructional-planning time. Instead of principals’ burdening teachers with a heavily administrative agenda, perhaps leaders could find creative ways to communicate such information. By discontinuing the administrative takeover of instructional-planning time, master teachers would be provided with more time to mentor their inexperienced or struggling peers. In another example, school leaders might concentrate resources to diminish the causes or triggers of disciplinary infractions. By analyzing student-discipline referrals, administrators may identify certain times of the day as particularly problematic. The leaders could then reduce disruptive behaviors by eliminating flawed procedures during peak referral times, such as class transitions and lunch periods. This discontinuation of unsound policies could potentially curtail disorderly behaviors, decrease discipline referrals, and actually increase the amount of time students spend within a classroom.

Perhaps the common ingredient to the successes of Ty Cobb, Julia Child, and Ernest Hemingway was their ability to discontinue poor practices, as well as make necessary improvements. Obviously, how any educator achieves success in the classroom is far more critical to our society than what may have led to a base hit, tasty dish, or literary masterpiece. Unfortunately, this means that educational failure is also more costly. Stakeholders interested in the improvement of public education can no longer afford to avoid difficult discussions about failure. If educators can begin embracing the meaningful learning that occurs through the disciplined analysis of failure, we can equip ourselves with empirically informed insights, and apply our diligence and expertise to solving the right problems.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Disciplined Improvement


Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management This Principal Says It's Critical to Infuse Students' and Teachers' Days With Joy
Part of a school leader's role is to guard against outside distractions so teachers can focus on kids, says Salome Thomas-EL.
2 min read
051223 Lead Sym Caitlynn jb BS
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week
School & District Management Data Data: How Schools Respond to Student Hunger Over the Summer
The end of pandemic-era flexibility for schools and community organizations has translated into fewer students receiving free summer meals.
1 min read
Children enjoy lunches provided by the Brownsville Independent School District on June 8, 2016, at the Olivera Park gymnasium in Brownsville, Texas. The local school district provides free lunches to any child under 18 who needs a meal, regardless of their status as a student with the school district.
Children enjoy lunches provided by the Brownsville Independent School District on June 8, 2016, at the Olivera Park gymnasium in Brownsville, Texas. School districts and other organizations can sign up as summer meal sites to continue providing meals to students once school is out of session.
Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP
School & District Management Online Training Program to Boost Number of Principals of Color Expands
A New York City education college is the latest to join an online principal training program for educators of color and equity-minded leaders.
4 min read
Business like setting, with Black man on a laptop in a corporate conference room or office collaborating with a Black woman
School & District Management How Can You Tell What Students Need to Succeed at School? Ask Them
Some administrators let students drive purchasing decisions, shape dress code policies, and voice their concerns directly.
4 min read
051223 Lead Sym Mark L jb BS
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week