Federal Opinion

The Henny Penny Effect

Managing the unintended consequences of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act.
By Raymond V. "Buzz" Bartlett — August 06, 2003 9 min read
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At some point early in the briefing by J.E.B. Stuart High School Principal Mel Riddile on what leaders at his Fairfax County, Va., school were doing to improve student performance, the ghost of recognition began to take shape. This was continuous improvement he was talking about. This was Total Quality Management. These actions were the principles of W. Edwards Deming at work once again, playing out the organizational revolution that has swept this country since Detroit began responding to the invasion of high-quality Japanese automobiles in the early 1980s.

In education, we even have a new law that skirts the edges of TQM, embracing as it does the use of data in the analysis of systems. On the positive side, the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires that we report school performance measured through state assessments, and periodically against a national norm. Those schools in need of improvement will go on a list so labeled and, presumably, the difficult work of reform will begin in earnest in those schools. To their credit, the folks at the U.S. Department of Education have recognized that such a label could prompt a negative reaction, so they have emphasized the glass-is-half- full aspect of the phrase “needs improvement.”

Unfortunately, however, it may take a great deal more than that to counter the top-down pressure to improve that is the antithesis of what I saw at J.E.B. Stuart—and the antithesis, too, of Total Quality Management.

The Falls Church, Va., school is a comprehensive, 9-12 high school with an enrollment of 1,450. To cite its own statistics: The student enrollment is 30 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 12 percent Middle Eastern, and 11 percent black (which includes both Africans and African-Americans). Fifty-four percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; 70 percent were born outside the United States. The mobility rate is 30 percent. This school, in other words, is an embodiment of polyglot America in the 21st century.

In an important respect, however, Stuart High is far from typical. Ninety percent of its students graduate, and last year 99 percent of those graduating went on to two- or four-year colleges—success by anyone’s standards.

What’s most important in this record, though, is that five years ago Stuart was ranked dead last among Fairfax County’s 21 high schools, based on the Virginia Standards of Learning exit exams. Today, the school’s scores surpass those of eight other high schools with far superior socioeconomic demographics.

The first hint that a TQM-related model fueled Stuart’s success was Principal Riddile’s comment in our briefing about his wake-up-call service. If success is measured by the academic achievement of every student, it stands to reason that to achieve success, every student has to be in school. Stuart has devised an effective, one-by-one solution to the problem of tardiness and absenteeism: Every morning, an automated call system phones approximately 75 perennial layabeds to remind them that they really do have to get up and come to school. In other words, once you get information describing a problem, your solution should drive back as far toward the cause as it possibly can. Short of going to the students’ bedrooms and shaking them by the shoulders, calling them seems a reasonable bet. In 1997, Stuart’s attendance rate was 89 percent; today it is 96 percent.

Consider this perhaps oversimplistic explanation: The “warp” of Total Quality Management is a data-driven, problem-solving technique. The “woof” is the role leaders play in making sure that the technique is applied by those closest to the problem, and that all “systems” are aligned to help. You must have both. TQM offers us a way of organizing ourselves to achieve agreed-upon goals, a way that requires us to evaluate our evidence of progress and change how we do things in response. We can apply it to improving attendance, or use it to improve instruction. But we must recognize that it is a process that can be very easily disrupted by authoritarian demands for performance.

Let's call it the Henny Penny effect— irrational reactions by rational people to a false belief that ‘the sky is falling.’

An example I recently encountered illustrates this danger. The principal of a school we shall leave unnamed had instituted a number of TQM-like reforms, not the least of which were formative assessments. Not surprisingly, these assessments were revealing areas of deficiency in student learning that upset the principal and drove him to demand immediate fixes.

This impulse is wrong. Yet we all recognize those management situations in which any news revealing inadequate performance causes some member of the executive team to go nuts. Unfortunately, this is human nature, especially among those driven by competition. Let’s call it the Henny Pennyeffect—irrational reactions by rational people to a false belief that “the sky is falling.” We can all nod our heads in agreement that the syndrome exists, and that the pressure of high-stakes reform exacerbates it.

The trick is to resist authoritarian impulses and instead empower those who are best able to solve problems. Given Stuart High’s large immigrant population, assuring that all students master the basic tools of literacy and numeracy is one of that school’s primary challenges. Stuart also is meeting this challenge at the high school level, which means that students need to develop content knowledge as well, if they are to be prepared for the exams that test student mastery of Virginia’s Standards of Learning. Consequently, the high school has built a cross-disciplinary team that fosters teacher reflection on how to solve these tandem challenges. The process has broken down silos of isolation, forging in their place cohesive organizational teams led by department chairs who are true team leaders.

The trick is to resist authoritarian impulses and instead empower those who are best able to solve problems.

It is, after all, teachers who can best compensate for the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind Act’s data-driven improvement strategies. The challenge that presents itself, as we compare our state-by-state, school-by-school, and even our student-by-student end-of-year data, is that these data are a blunt instrument. Some who recognize this fact decry what the No Child Left Behind legislation is doing to our education system: making us slaves to end-of- course test preparation and forcing us to narrow the focus of curriculum to what is being tested—and what can be easily and cheaply tested at that.

As advocates of a liberal arts education for all children, one made up of the higher-order learning that is the hallmark of success in today’s world, we at the Council for Basic Education certainly share that worry. But the answer is not to throw out assessment. We must recognize the power of assessment and our need to evaluate more, not less. We need to use formative assessments, to go upstream in the learning process and collect rich strands of information on what students are or are not learning in each unit of the curriculum, while there remains an opportunity to fix the problem, to adjust instruction.

Let me offer a personal comparison deriving from my more than 20-year career with the Lockheed Martin Corp. Obviously, this is a story of industry, and for those who object that students are not widgets, classes are not production lines, and schools are not factories, I could not agree more. But there are lessons here that are worth noting, lessons about how to solve complex problems through distributed leadership and data collection.

In the late 1980s, a major portion of the work at what was then Martin Marietta Aero & Naval Systems in Baltimore was the production of thrust reversers for General Electric’s jet engines. Thrust reversers are just what their name suggests—devices found primarily on commercial aircraft that deploy on landing to reverse the engines’ thrust and thereby slow the plane’s landing. GE presented an ultimatum to our management team: Reduce cost on our product by 30 percent or lose our contract. Thus began one of the most intense, exhausting, and exhilarating times in my career in private industry. Facilitated by the president of our little corner of Martin Marietta, we turned the organization upside down, cutting out excess layers of management as we drove responsibility to the front lines of the shop floor, engineering, subcontracting, quality control, and finance.

Integral to our success was the ability to measure our product. Thrust reversers can be as large as 15 feet across, and measuring the final product is a challenge. The reversers are assembled on enormous tools not unlike tailors’ mannequins. When parts don’t fit during final assembly, you must go upstream to determine the root causes of the misfit. And it is there that you create success.

We formed “performance-management teams” among frontline workers to evaluate data and develop ideas for more efficient and effective ways to operate. “Toolbox talks” kicked off every day and served as our formative assessments. We identified and posted the indicators of progress at every workstation.

This is a key factor for any organization seeking to improve: that those ultimately responsible for success—in education, that would include the students themselves—should keep their own data, setting and evaluating their own performance goals. There is nothing quite so exhilarating for a teacher as having a 4th grader review her personal data book, compare her results to the scoring rubrics on a writing project, and say, “I know I can do better.” The child knows what is required to improve—a clearly specified target.

The responsibility of school leadership is to create an environment for learning, putting in place the support structure—the scaffolding—that enables success.

The responsibility of school leadership is to create an environment for learning, putting in place the support structure—the scaffolding—that enables success. Recent education reforms provide some of that scaffolding: standards, curricula aligned to the standards, and assessments that help identify areas for improvement.

By reinforcing these standards, curricula, and assessments while facilitating rich professional development, school leaders can strengthen the scaffold. Ultimately, however, it is the teachers and students who “own” the problem of educational improvement. Only by empowering them can leaders foster standards-based instruction that supports each student’s individual needs.

To finish the Martin Marietta-GE story, we kept the contract. We cut our costs in a Herculean effort that required us to restructure how we did business, how parts were ordered, and how systems were designed. Most important, we pushed responsibility down to where the people who had to live with the decisions worked.

Supervisors became facilitators, and fewer of them were needed. Employees who for generations had been expected to check their brains at the gate became engaged in determining the best way to do things, meeting regularly to plan how to attack problems. The goal of a 30 percent cost reduction was clearly stated and became the benchmark of success; it was the yardstick by which we measured every decision.

Take a trip to J.E.B. Stuart High School to see how it’s done.

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