Editor’s note: In this first part of a multipart series on quality in education, we will provide an overview of the current state of quality education issues. In addition, a few of the lean practices that are now being adopted by education thought leaders will be shared.
Schools and businesses are more alike than different. Standards of excellence apply to both. There is much finger-pointing at how the U.S. education system is failing to prepare another generation of workers with the requisite skill sets.
Indeed, there are more than six million jobs available in the United States and an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck above 8 percent. These two pieces of information would appear incongruent, yet employers regularly insist that basic needed skills—rudimentary math, reading, and comprehension—are lacking among more than 80 percent of all applicants.
It is impossible to examine the role of preparing a future workforce without looking at early education: All roads lead to elementary education.
The status quo has been permitted to languish for some time in education; the concepts of continuous process improvement and change management are often met with resistance. The result is that children, particularly children attending high-poverty schools, fail to achieve at the functional level needed when entering the workforce.
Sadly, the simple, well-tested practices of lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, and kaizen blitz events until recently have been underutilized in the field of education. But now, strong education thought leaders are beginning to use these long-established techniques and apply them to K-5 instruction. Whether these processes will better prepare the future workforce is still to be determined, but one can reasonably assume that all employers will mandate basic math and reading skills for all job candidates.
More is now known about how children learn than ever before. University researchers and teachers are conducting empirical research using experimental statistical designs to prove more effective pedagogy. These studies are peer-reviewed for reliability and validity. Elementary education is currently developing metrics to evaluate, assess, and guide research-based instructional best practices and how they are delivered.
Schools are developing operating procedures and including quality control to ensure the number of failing students is minimized. Schools call these operating procedures “response to intervention” (RTI). It includes a systems approach to addressing students who are not at grade level and creating mechanisms to trigger an intervention response. Like manufacturing zero-defect products, schools want to achieve zero-failure rates among the student population. Elementary school leaders, most often principals, are documenting and tracking these corrective actions.
Education is starting to recognize that school performance and accountability is tantamount to the director of quality role in every manufacturing plant. Taking their cue from industry, which develops standard operating procedures (SOP) and quality control mechanisms to reduce failure rates of manufactured products, elementary school leaders—most often principals—are documenting the operating procedures of instruction. These are most often seen as an aspect of professional development as well as classroom visitations, and ensure the fidelity of instructional programming. Just as a director of quality in a manufacturing plant must know the standards, research, and data to substantiate best practices, so must an elementary school principal be well versed in techniques, methodologies, and differentiated instruction.
Researchers found that all else being equal, students assigned to the most effective teachers for three years in a row performed 50 percentile points higher—that’s on a 100-point scale—than comparable students assigned to the least effective teachers for three years in a row. (These are standardized assessments. These are not percentages, but normed-references percentiles.) These are low performing students, so it is likely that theys are performing in the lowest quartile (between 0.01–0.25 percentile). So, if John was performing at 0.25 percentile in first grade, after three years and now in fourth grade, he is now scoring as high as the 0.75 percentile.
Several studies have been conducted using a value-added approach. In “Good Teaching Matters... a Lot,” Kati Haycock of The Education Trust reviewed research in Tennessee, Dallas, and Boston. In Boston, Haycock notes that the top third of effective teachers “are producing six times the learning seen in the bottom third.”
Some of this shift is being driven by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Although it was a valiant concept 10 years ago, it is not equally suitable to all learning, all children, or all schools. Nearly two-thirds of all states have requested or received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to measure performance and achievement using metrics most suitable to the desired performance outcomes. President Obama permitted waivers for ten states to date; waivers allow states to redefine the metrics of the No Child Left Behind law, giving them leeway that promises to improve how they prepare and evaluate students. A total of 28 other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have applied for waivers, a sign of just how vast the burdens have become as the act’s 2014 deadline nears.
Critics say the deadline was unrealistic, the law is too rigid and led to teaching to the test, and too many schools are labeled “failures.” Under No Child Left Behind, schools that do not meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, including busing children to higher-performing schools, offering tutoring, and replacing staff or curriculum. As the deadline approaches, more schools are failing to meet requirements under the law, with nearly half failing last year, according to the Center on Education Policy.
Science education is also far behind, and much work remains to ensure that the education system adequately fills an increasingly technology-based workforce. The discussion of the future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education often ignores the elementary education components and quickly becomes a conversation about community colleges and technical school training. Employers complain that qualified workers are needed now. This short-term demand for qualified job applicants drives the focus to short-term solutions (community colleges and technical training programs). Yet the systemic knowledge gaps start before third grade.
A future qualified workforce requires an emphasis on basic learning skills. Children of poverty do not have the same access to technology and the Internet as more affluent students, and this creates a greater disparity of needed skills in the workplace.
Understanding research-based, effective methodologies in education is vital to develop strategies and provide leadership for administering effective schools as well as implementing relevant and rigorous instruction. Children under 10 years of age must be taught skills using technologies, techniques, and methods based on assessments.
Monitoring pupil progression plans, differentiated instruction, and providing leadership for a collaborative team ensures that curriculum and instructional initiatives remain student-focused; these must be constantly evaluated.
Nothing modular, such as ISO certification, has entered the world of elementary education. In fact, only now have a few inventive education thought leaders started to use the nomenclature and vocabulary of lean. One such instance is Kaizen Education Leadership, which expressly places all conditions in the school environment up for review. In the true lean modality, Kaizen Education Leadership allows a well-trained, experienced educator to assess, evaluate, and observe the current state and processes. These are then compared against the desired metrics and target objectives (a gap analysis). In addition to Kaizen Education Leadership, the core principals of lean, including root cause analysis, and tactical and transformational process improvement, apply to elementary education. Ongoing monitoring ensures that no child (or teacher or principal) is left behind.
When apathy, resistance, or stagnancy permeates a school system, recommendations to strengthen instructional programs evaporate; the cost of protecting jobs and the status quo trumps the mission of educating young children to achieve quantifiable excellence. Apathy destroys companies and schools. Emily Calhoun, developer of Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM) advocates “pressure with support.” When a principal applies pressure to teachers to succeed, excuses are eliminated. Buy-in is not needed at the time a new instructional process is introduced. As teachers reach instructional fidelity, and student achievement increases, buy-in is axiomatically accomplished.
Principals must model good teaching, but many principals stop teaching in favor of an administrative position. Just as student achievement must be measured, so must the performance metrics of principals. There is a strong need for planning, designing, and implementing ongoing professional learning and high-quality, structured coaching of principals and assistant principals.
School leaders and school practices must use student achievement data and implement full participation in school improvement teams. This strategic approach is analogous to lean initiatives conducted daily in manufacturing organizations worldwide. Large or small, urban or rural, nearly every school system will have a director of accountability within the next five years. This individual will ensure that parents, teachers, principals, the community-at-large, and, especially, students, will live with high expectations. Only with high expectations are extraordinary results possible. Without the checks and balances, measurement and accountability, the consequences are dire: A child falls behind grade-level skills and will become part of another generation of ill-equipped workers.
Following this initial discussion and big-picture perspective, future quality education articles will include a detailed examination of what specific quality-control monitoring methodologies and mechanisms prove most effective.