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Why This Could Be ‘The Best of Times’ For Education

By C. Jackson Grayson Jr. — September 17, 2010 6 min read
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Thomas Edison’s laboratory was destroyed by fire in December 1914. The next morning, he looked at the ruins and said: “There is a great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew!” Three weeks later, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Edison delivered his first phonograph.

Education needs to do the same: Burn the mistakes and start anew. But many educators think we can’t.

In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, there is the famous opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Many educators focus on “the worst of times,” pointing to drastic budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, and travel restrictions—on top of decades of stagnant student-achievement gains, deplorable dropout rates, and scant progress in closing achievement gaps. They prefer to be reactive, hunker down, cry out for more stimulus funds, and wait to see when the economy recovers.

This is a lose-lose strategy.

Now is “the best of times” to start anew, overcome past mistakes, and create a transformed education system. Dramatic changes are often made possible by the worst of times, as we’ve seen with crises such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods, all of which have offered, even amid ruin, opportunity for transformation and a new future. People begin to realize that some of the circumstances they thought were insoluble and inevitable—constraints impossible to change—suddenly become possible and transformable when they start anew, as Edison did.

Can that be done now in education? Yes. Here are four recommendations for action that can set the path to transformation—starting now.

First, shift to process and performance management. Education, including schools, districts, states, foundations, and the federal government, only focuses on one of these: performance management, or the outcomes. But if the goal is to improve, the system also needs process management.

Why? Outcomes are produced by processes. Therefore, if you want to improve outcomes, you must improve the processes that generate the outcomes. But you can’t manage outcomes for improvement, any more than you can manage test scores by just reporting the scores. You have to manage the processes to get improvement.

The problem—and it is a huge one—is that, as my colleagues and I have found in working with more than 250 school districts over the past five years, most educators don’t know how to manage processes for improvement. They don’t collect process data, don’t map processes, don’t measure processes, and don’t compare processes.

If educators simply can’t manage outcomes for improvement, and they don’t know how to manage processes for improvement, no wonder the nation has had such little improvement in decades. Yet there are hundreds of organizations in business, health care, government, and the military that are using both process and performance management. Education must do the same, or there will be little improvement—and certainly no transformative improvement.

Second, empower all employees. Shift from being primarily top-down organizations to ones that are both top-down and bottom-up.

Education inherited the Industrial Age model built on the belief that those at the top should think and plan, and everyone lower in the hierarchy should do. Over the years, this approach has led not only to inefficiencies, but also to the disillusionment of millions of employees who have grown to feel distrusted and undervalued.

Empower all employees, whether they are teaching a class, being a principal, driving a bus, cleaning a toilet, or serving food. Give them training, time, resources, responsibility, and performance measures. Not only will this prevent errors and save time and costs, it will also serve customers better and provide professional dignity.

Third, place an equal emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness. For a transformation to succeed, it must have both.

It seems incredible that the word “efficiency” is almost nonexistent in education policy. I did a word search of regulations for both the No Child Left Behind Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and among the hundreds of thousands of words in those documents, I found only two or three minor mentions of the word efficiency, and certainly no requirement for it.

Because of this lack of emphasis, the United States has come to have one of the most expensive education systems per child in the world. Money and time are tied up in inefficient, non-value-added, and wasteful activities. For transformation, efficiency and effectiveness must coexist.

Fourth, reduce functional silos. Remember President Ronald Reagan’s words at the Berlin Wall in 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The “walls” in education are the vertical specialized functions in every part of the field: curriculum, instruction, transportation, procurement, human resources, information technology, food service, and others.

Business discovered more than 20 years ago that while some advantages stem from having specialized functions, these functional walls often become disconnected entities—call them silos, castles, chimneys—that breed turf wars, don’t work well together, create delays, waste funds and time on suboptimal results, and do not serve customers.

Almost all of the other sectors have moved, or are moving, to a mixture of both functional and cross-functional processes that save time and money while serving customers better. If education is to transform itself, it needs to do the same.

These four recommendations constitute the basic platform for transformation of any organization. On top of the platform should be added data systems, measurement, benchmarking, analysis, sharing, transfer, training, coaching, implementation, change management, and perhaps some specialized improvement tools. But can these four platform components be the catalyst that starts the transformation process? Absolutely. If some readers are skeptical, I don’t blame them. But there are two reasons I know it will work.

First, I have spent the past 33 years working as the head of a nonprofit organization called APQC, the American Productivity & Quality Center, whose sole purpose is to help all sectors improve their performance and transform the way they operate. We’ve worked with business, health care, government, the military, and, for the past 10 years, public K-12 and higher education. I have created or observed these four powerful methodologies at work in successful transformations in all the other sectors. I have also shown it can be done in education.

Second, I created a yearlong demonstration project in 2009 called the North Star Project to demonstrate that these methods can work in K-12 education as they have in other sectors. I enlisted 11 school districts from around the nation&—districts with enrollments ranging from 9,900 (Jenks, Okla.) to 320,000 (Clark County, Nev.). These North Star districts achieved transformative gains in instruction and operations, saved a total of $17.5 million, and released more than 39,000 hours of time for instruction.

These four recommendations—the platform of transformation—are deceptively simple in concept, yet difficult in implementation because they involve change. But they are transformative and extremely rich in results.

If more of the nation’s school districts followed these recommendations, we wouldn’t have to burn the buildings down to start anew. K-12 would again be the world-class leader in education. If we act now, it will truly be the best of times—and, to borrow from Dickens again, not “the winter of our despair” but “the age of wisdom.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Why This Could Be ‘The Best of Times’ For Education

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