Editor’s note: This is the second article of a multipart series about the role of quality in education and its effect on workforce development. In part one of the series, the role of accountability was detailed and profiled.
The well-established quality control mechanisms and processes used in business for more than two decades are now infiltrating academia. Rather than quality control professionals, accountability directors are assuming the functions of ensuring best practices in schools. Where business refers to continuous process improvement, the education model refers to monitoring.
Based on the voluminous mandates and initiatives from local school districts and state and federal governments as required by No Child Left Behind, schools are attempting to quickly respond with strategies that will improve students’ achievement test scores as well as skill sets in reading and math. Just as industry selects a process strategy, such as lean Six Sigma, education models use similar methods to select and assess the efficacy of their solutions.
Schools have taken a laser-focused approach to identifying problems and applying teaching strategies that affect instruction and improve student achievement. They then monitor the results to determine effectiveness. One example of how continuous improvement has affected schools is in teacher training. Schools have recognized that teachers don’t have all the tools they need after graduating from college, so local districts and state education agencies have adopted models to keep teachers and administrators up to date on recent research. The structure for training has also changed from a “sit and get” didactic model to a more participatory and interactive inquiry. This increases the likelihood that more complex teaching models will move from theory into practice.
Changes to education strategies are often prompted by grants and state funding. Once a strategy has been selected, professional development in the form of an action plan is designed by a school’s leadership team. Such quality action plans include the details of the change, the desired actions, their projected results, and the people responsible for the change, along with an estimated time of completion. Often, strategy leaders outside of education are invited to participate in introducing and monitoring new strategies. This objective third-party participation creates a kaizen element: namely, assisting in the change management process while minimizing resistance and attachment to former ways of teaching. Kaizen consultants can help manage the change needed to create an effective improvement structure.
A new teaching strategy is studied and practiced by each team member in their classrooms until they are proficient. Meanwhile, student data are documented. Each member of the leadership team assumes a dual role: learning the strategy and teaching it to the rest of the staff. This is a parallel technique to a lean initiative team in industry, where each person is responsible in ensuring that the processes are implemented and correctly adopted enterprisewide.
Beverly Showers, author of the article, “Teachers Coaching Teachers,” suggests there are several steps to getting the strategy from theory to practice throughout a school. Theory, demonstrations, practice, and collaboration are the elements required. Successful training includes theory. Teachers must understand the basic tenets of the research; without them strategies are easily abandoned or changed. Theory keeps the strategy grounded. Because most people are visual learners, training also must include opportunities for teachers to observe live or videotaped demonstrations of the strategy in action and its affect on students.
As part of quality professional development, teachers during the implementation cycle have had the opportunity to witness more than 15 demonstrations of the strategy, ask questions, work with other teachers developing lesson plans, and observe other teachers and members of the leadership team who are well-practiced in the process. Once teachers have had several such sessions, the leadership team collects data on teachers’ implementation of the strategy.
When leaders lead better, teachers teach better, which results in students’ achievement levels increasing. Principals should be part of the strategy demonstration because teachers will respect and accept criticism, feedback, and input from principals capable of demonstrating best practices in teaching methods. Traditionally, principals have taken a less active role in implementing strategies into the classroom. Additionally, the notion of collecting teacher implementation data has been ignored by many leadership teams and school leaders. Principals also must be curriculum and instructional leaders to ensure that their schools become successful at increasing student achievement.
In a typical scenario, a formal two-week implementation cycle is introduced throughout a school. Data are collected during the introduction to determine if other professional development is needed to ensure the strategy is executed correctly and consistently. These data are collected in several ways, including observation by leadership team members. Data from teachers’ lesson plans demonstrate that the teaching meets the quality standards, and that there is fidelity in the process—i.e., it closely replicates the research model without changes that may alter its effectiveness. The data serve as quality control mechanisms to ensure that consistent processes are being implemented schoolwide.
An implementation is always driven by student achievement data. The frequency of data collection depends on the model. Simpler teaching models can demonstrate their effect on student achievement after one or two lessons; more complex models may require more time before any student effect is noted. Strategies are gathered, winnowed, and selected based on tested methods that effectively improve students’ learning processes. This is similar to industrial solutions developed as an outcome of a kaizen blitz, where inefficient or wasteful processes are observed. Through this observation, both industry and schools can develop solutions and strategies that best address the challenges.
Recently, a school studied a model for learning advanced vocabulary. The model was based on Isabel Beck’s book, Bringing Words to Life (The Guilford Press, 2002). After the leadership team members read her book and learned the protocol for instruction, they introduced it to the whole staff. Teachers observed lessons on videotape and live demonstrations. Classroom instructors recorded notes and asked questions. Opportunities to plan lessons collaboratively and practice were provided. After three months, an implementation cycle was planned. All teachers gave their detailed lessons to the principal for the leadership team to review and analyze. The team noticed from the plans that teachers demonstrated fidelity with the initial stages of the model but needed additional support with determining effective learning activities with the few students who didn’t understand the new words.
Because the types of learning activities would differ depending on students’ ages, the team decided to divide the teachers into two groups: those who taught the younger students, and those who taught the older. Action plans for professional development were similarly differentiated. Teacher leaders led the training sessions, and teachers were given time to collaborate with other teachers in their grade level to generate additional teaching ideas for struggling students. Through the sharing of ideas and the guidance of a teacher leader, classroom teachers were able to gain skills to help students who struggled to learn advanced vocabulary words.
Teachers administered a before-and-after assessment with every set of new vocabulary words. Results data were collected and organized at each grade level and shared schoolwide. All classrooms showed growth. Additionally, the percentage of students who passed the post-assessment increased with every new set of vocabulary words throughout the year.
Formative assessment data involves the frequent collection of student data to support teachers’ instruction. The Association for Middle Level Education emphasizes that a formative assessment is “part of the instructional process” and goes on to note, “When incorporated into classroom practice, it provides the information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening.” In other words, this is an assessment made during the teaching.
These assessments take different forms, including checklists, anecdotal notes, records, and formal tests. Industry sets up similar quality monitoring practices when new strategies are implemented. In both cases, all data are fed back to the lean initiative team so that continuous improvement processes and practices can be developed.
Interestingly, the cultural shift brought about by these data collection processes requires a team player commitment, both in industry and education. It requires a commitment to be the best school or business possible. Too often, employees fear that formative assessment data are being used to evaluate them in a negative manner. But quality is not about egotism; best schools and businesses are teams of excellence. In a school setting, principals play a vital role in assuaging teachers’ fears about how the data will be used. One way they can do this is by actively participating in teaching the strategies during an implementation cycle, and speaking openly about their learning process, their mistakes, and their professional growth as they become proficient.
Summative data are a snapshot in time of how well a student absorbed the content of new material and mastered the skill required. According to the Association for Middle Level Education, “summative assessments are given periodically to determine at a particular point in time what students know and do not know.” It is the quality control mechanism in education: is the student on grade level? In manufacturing, this would be analogous to "Is the product ready to ship?"
Without monitoring, the fidelity of any process is compromised. Over time, the intrinsic process implemented in a school or industrial operation becomes diluted. To counteract this in a school, the principal conducts walk-throughs, observing the strategy in practice (similar to the gemba walk in manufacturing).
Reading inventory, a monitoring tool, is a reading assessment that allows educators to determine the grade level at which a student is reading and comprehending. The metrics or categories of reading inventory include independent, instructional, and frustration. A student is truly on grade level if he is able to read independently at his grade. A book that is read independently will be easily understood, and the student rarely confronts a word that is totally unfamiliar. At the instructional level, concepts may be slightly more challenging, and higher-level comprehension may not come easily. Students may be occasionally confronted with new vocabulary words that the teacher may need to explore with the student. Books that are determined to be at a frustration level should be avoided. In this category, the student struggles to construct meaning and confronts several words that are deemed too difficult to understand or pronounce.
This segmentation allows teachers to adjust and adapt the teaching strategies to the needs of individual students. When a dip in student achievement is observed through this and other monitoring mechanisms, the leadership team does root cause analysis to find the cause for the lower student scores and assessments. These monitoring devices allow for a schoolwide monitoring strategy. This process helps the leadership team explore and hypothesize why changes are occurring. Is it due to lack of fidelity to the model? Is it due to the time or frequency that teachers are devoting to the model? Perhaps the reasons are demographic in nature, e,g., the attendance rate is low during the time period. If students aren’t in school learning, the data will be affected. The proficiency of a new strategy is rarely diminished during a single school year. The new strategy is fresh in the faculty’s repertoire. Many hours have been invested in learning the new strategy, and loss of fidelity is more likely after the first year.
How to train new staff on the strategy while ensuring that existing staff remains consistent to it remains an ongoing challenge. As with lean Six Sigma initiatives in industry, there are often attrition, fatigue, and diminished rigor by the third year. Principals must be vigilant in training new teachers in the years following a strategy implementation. Leadership teams often address this by integrating new-staff training in the professional development or action plan.
When student performance has stagnated or reached a plateau, members of the leadership team must ask what better methodologies are available. Even monitoring the fidelity of a strategy does not guarantee it will continue to best serve students’ needs. Having a consultant assess, evaluate, and determine the cause of the discrepant performance can be helpful. Fresh eyes and unbiased attitudes can encourage suggestions and approaches to ensure that student performance is continuously improving.
Process improvement is not lean; continuous process improvement is lean. And continuous process improvement requires monitoring.
The third article in this series will look at the role and effect of unions in the school system, and examine the similarities and differences to quality processes in industry.