Best Practices in Education • A Back to School Exclusive

Benchmarking the Success & Failure of American Ecucation

Posted In: Politics, State, Local,   From Issue 732   By: Matt deHeus

15th September, 2011     0

If there existed a Hall of Fame for business buzzwords, “benchmarking” would be a legitimate candidate for first ballot entry.  It’s a long word for a straightforward concept – to be the best, compare yourself to the best.  Bandied about in the conference rooms of organizations far and wide, it’s a pretty heady place for a word that began its existence describing the cobbler’s practice of marking the size of a new customer’s foot on his workbench. 

My first exposure to benchmarking was in the mid-80’s, while working at a company called Red Spot Paint and Varnish.   Caught in the full wake of the quality revolution that was shaking up industry, we regularly were exposed to experts and consultants who introduced us to the basic concepts necessary to build a worldclass organization. 

In one such exercise, we brought in a development engineer from Toyota’s emerging Lexus luxury car division.  Lexus famously began its existence by buying dozens of Mecerdes-Benz and BMW sedans, then disassembling them and analyzing every detail of the vehicles.  As obvious as this sounds now, it was a somewhat revolutionary practice at the time and enough for us to pay this particular gentleman a fairly sizeable fee to stop by our plant for an afternoon to describe how it was done.

For many of us in the room, the Japanese engineer was presenting material we were familiar with, novel only in the fact that it was a first person account of the Lexus story.  In all honesty, the day had a pretty mundane feel until one of our managers asked the man what his specific role was and he indicated he was in charge of benchmarking the thread used in stitching together the seats in the German cars – length, diameter, weight, fiber count, etc.

With this information, one of our managers broke out in a chuckle. “We are paying you to be here because you know how to weigh thread?”

The Japanese engineer responded, “Have you ever sat in one of our seats?  They have passion.  It is partly because we took the time to truly know the thread.  You need to understand.  Our cars aren’t better because we are any smarter than our competitors.  Our cars are better because we care more.”
That last statement has stuck with me all these years.  First, it summarized why we were really sitting there in that room together and what lesson he truly had to impart to us that day.  Second, it was delivered with a “you had to be there” sense of drama that would have made Sir Laurence Olivier proud.  And, for reasons that will be clear in a moment, it reminded me of an important conversation I’d had years before.

What Works In Education

Based around the ideal that a shared public education resource would help the nation develop a productive and informed electorate, the American system developed as a hybrid.  Best practices were adopted from education systems around the world.  For the majority of the period that such statistics have been kept, the system has worked, ranking at or near the top of tables that portend to compare the level of excellence of the educational systems of various nations.

But like many indicators of economic clout and intellectual output, America’s rankings in these standings have steadily eroded since the 1970’s.  And everyone has an opinion on why.  It’s “kids these days” or “:unfunded mandates” or Facebook or some other headline worthy trend that is responsible for undermining our entire system.   But these subjective conclusions aren’t always opinions based on fact.  And that brings us back to the potential of benchmarking.

A recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development with the unwieldy title “What the US Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts” and a longer companion piece “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” represent just such an effort. 

Outlined in these papers are ideas that have successfully employed in other developed nations to dramatically improve student performance.  Many of these are obvious - some not so much - but most of the concepts they discuss are at least worth considering.  Following are a sampling of the findings in the report. 

Funding and Equity: Three interesting facts jumped out of the OECD report with respect to educational funding.  First, the US ranks only second to Luxemborg (another “underperformer”) in per pupil spending.  A quick sort of the data will show that there appears to be no direct correlation between educational achievement and the relative portion of a nation’s GDP that is allocated toward its cause. 

Before we jump to too many conclusions on that point, realize this is a comparison across borders.  Other data within the report would indicate that comparative funding levels within a system do make a difference in the outcomes of the pupils it serves.  And this is where the issue of equity arises.

While US school districts have adopted any number of funding models, they still generally result in wealthy districts obtaining more funding per pupil.  The OECD study indicates that the vast majority of the highest performing national systems surveyed reverse the funding equation, with schools in the poorest districts receiving additional funding and staffing.  Also, the best teachers are often given significant incentives to work in areas where the children’s basic circumstances put them at educational risk.

One of the primary goals of the best performing systems is that they make a significant effort to identify and develop their high achievers and ensure they are developed to their full capacity.  Talent and basic intellect would appear to be equally distributed in most demographics and the best funding models allocate resources to ensure the pure potential of all gifted students is realized.  The American system does a reasonable job of accomplishing this, as long as you were born in an affluent area.

The third funding issue is a fairly common theme when assessing the performance of nearly any publicly funded effort.  The US has by far the largest and most costly central education authority in the form of the Department of Education.  It is a bloated bureaucracy that is at the root of many of the missed opportunities, questionable priorities and incomplete solutions that have littered our four-decade slide in educational outcomes.

Socio-economic Factors: The OECD study does make a clear point that socio-economic factors make a significant contribution to the relative achievement of its nation’s students.  There is a level of diversity in American schools – economic, ethnic and other – that does not exist in many, less integrated societies.  It’s also fair to say that the net difference between the “haves” and “have nots” in many countries is not nearly as great as it is here in the US. 

While education can make a difference in a child’s future, it is not going to be very effective in changing their current domestic circumstances.  The school day, however, is unique in that it makes up a fairly large portion of a student’s waking hours.  In nearly all cultures, systems take steps to minimize the socio-economic difference of the students while at school.

From personal experience, I would offer that school uniforms and simplified, common meal programs in which all students participate made a huge difference in this regard.   Both of these practices reduced costs for parents and reduced pressure on students.  On the subject of uniforms, I was always impressed with the comment from the headmistress at our girls school “Wearing a uniform instead of the latest fashion helps them develop a personality and not a persona.”

The Professional and Social Status of Teachers: A final strong conclusion of the OECD study was that the American teacher has seen erosion of both their wages (relative to our national average) and in the public’s view of their profession.  In contrast, in countries where teaching salaries rank relative high (compared to other occupations within their own borders) and where professional educators hold high social standing, the systems seem able to improve outcomes quite quickly and maintain that level of performance.  If one has any belief that education would improve if it ran more like a business, this is a pretty simple capitalist principle – the talent is most often going to follow the money.  In cultures where teaching is a better job, it is easier to recruit and retain better talent.

It was this last point that was perhaps most striking to me, especially given the tone of the education dialogue  as the most recent State budget was prepared.  There was a lot of animosity in the discussion and an awful lot of it was directed at teachers.  “They don’t work full time.”  “They make too much.”  “They should try and make it in the real world.”  And a lot of other things not nearly as nice.

I’m involved in another arm of education, but I know a number of people who work in our K-12 system.  I was talking with an old college friend of mine recently about the subject of public sentiment, interested in his perspective as a High School principal.  When I asked how comments like these affect him and his staff, he tellingly responded, “Some of that stuff is so far from the truth its hard to even fathom how you correct it.  I hate to admit it, but sometimes that kind of criticism is like they hauled off and kicked you right in the ‘want to’.” 

Lessons at My Old School

It was a moment of teenage insolence.  I’d stumped my history teacher with a long forgotten question that was just a little bit deeper than he was planning to go in that day’s lesson.  When he finally gave in, he said, “Look.  I’m a 10th grade History teacher, what exactly do you expect?”  And, to cackles of my classmates, I glibly responded “Someone a little bit smarter than his students.”  He just shook his head and moved on with his original point.

Whatever smugness I felt in the moment shriveled up pretty quickly when the teacher called out for me to stay a minute after class.  He pulled me aside and said, “Matt, I know you thought that was pretty funny.  This might come as a surprise to you, but most of the teachers at this school aren’t here because we are the smartest people in the world.  We are here because we care more than most people.  We know you will probably go off and accomplish more than we have.  That’s our goal.  Just try to remember that when you are formulating your next wisecrack.”

Unlike many times in my life, it didn’t take long for his point to sink in.  In fact, in a fashion typically described in near death experiences, I found images of this teacher flashing through my head – helping me with a report, chaperoning a dance, rooting at JV basketball games, acting in a local musical theater that passed for entertainment on a cold Up North winter evening and even winning accolades from the Lions club. 

It was at that moment that I really understood not only how fully he had embraced his role in our community, but how integrated he had been in my own experience.  And I thought right then I’d be lucky to accomplish anything close to what he had as a real life example of continuity, structure, strength and passion.  Much like the strand of thread described with such vigor in a conference room a few years later.

Here is the best thing about this particular part of the message:  As we enter a new school year budgets are largely outlined and individual citizens can’t have much impact on the financial issues currently facing our schools. 

You probably aren’t convincing anyone to adopt a uniform policy.  But what you can do it offer up some support.  Thank your child’s teacher at the beginning of the year, instead of waiting for the end (if ever).  Better yet, track down one of your old teachers and give them a pat on the “want to” and tell them what they meant to you. 

It’s the least expensive option on the table and, according to most benchmark studies, represents best practice in human behavior.


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