Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

The late William Edwards Deming (1900–1993) was an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant. He is widely recognized as the father of the modern quality movement for his groundbreaking work on systems and process management.

One of my favorite Deming quotes is: “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” Don’t mistake Deming’s intent. He is not telling managers to literally stand around and do nothing. The quote relates to the tendency leaders and managers have to TAMPER – or institute “solutions” without understanding what is really going on (often due to a lack of understanding variation).

Tampering is also a failure created by best efforts. Many managers have learned their job is to act, even if they don’t have the knowledge needed to make a rational decision: they don’t just stand there, they do something, even if “something” is wrong!

The tendency to take action often leads to action without reason or research, which has the potential to cause more problems than it fixes.

We see this a lot with the current education reform movement. A major challenge with the reformers’ focus on test-based accountability is its overemphasis on the role of individuals, rather than the interconnected and complex relationships that form the social side of education.

In other words, many reformers believe we must first fix the individuals, and as a result, the system will improve. They have it backwards. In order to cause the type of true change needed in public schools today, we must FIRST address the flawed systemic processes and structures that contribute to lowering the overall functioning of the organization.

Teachers and principals are just two parts of a complex social organization of schools that also includes students, parents, community members, businesses, and policy makers.

I am not implying that individuals within the system don’t make important contributions to the success of the whole. However, it is nearly impossible to accurately measure this impact due to the influence of other social contexts which cannot be controlled by that individual.

This represents the root of the problem with value-added models (VAMs) and associated quantitative measures which seek to isolate the unique value that a teacher brings into a school and community social structure. This was one of the major findings from the American Statistical Association’s (ASA) Statement on Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment from last April.

Specifically, the ASA stated:

VAMs should be viewed within the context of quality improvement, which distinguishes aspects of quality that can be attributed to the system from those that can be attributed to individual teachers, teacher preparation programs, or schools. Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

The reformers who are pushing these models insist that while they are not perfect, they represent an improvement over the previous teacher evaluation systems that relied almost entirely on the subjective judgment of school administrators.

I mean, we have to do something to improve teacher effectiveness, right?

However, the reality is we are wasting valuable time. We can spend millions of dollars improving the quality of our teachers, but if we fail to address the broader systemic factors which affect student achievement (poverty, home factors, school climate, cultural norms, etc.), all we are doing is running faster on a treadmill to nowhere.

We might feel like we are making progress but we’re really just running in place.

The following four-minute video was posted recently on The Shanker Blog. It provides the clearest explanation I have seen about how the current reform movement has gone wrong by focusing on the individual, rather than on the social side of education.

Maybe it is time for us to take a break from the constant barrage of tampering and experimentation on the part of national policy-makers, billionaire philanthropists and corporate entities who seek to disrupt our system of public education by severing the links that make it sustainable.

They are trying to build a new airplane while in flight, but the people at the controls are not pilots, they are lawyers, politicians, and corporate CEOs. And they are flying the plane of public education into the ground.

Maybe it is time to just STOP doing something, and just stand still for a while!  At least until we fully understand what we are really trying to accomplish!

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