Best Practices

Jay P. Greene has written about the pitfalls of relying on a best practices approach to crafting education policy in his review of Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.  In a nutshell, the best practices approach is to make education policy recommendations based on imitating the policy choices of high-performing education systems.

The fundamental flaw of a “best practices” approach, as any student in a half-decent research-design course would know, is that it suffers from what is called “selection on the dependent variable.” If you only look at successful organizations, then you have no variation in the dependent variable: they all have good outcomes. When you look at the things that successful organizations are doing, you have no idea whether each one of those things caused the good outcomes, had no effect on success, or was actually an impediment that held organizations back from being even more successful.

Anyone following the Iowa education reform debate in the past year, will recognize this as the Branstad-Reynolds approach to world-class schools: choose policy recommendations imitating some (but not all) of the polices in higher-performing systems such as Finland, Florida, and Massachusetts.

The best practices discussion reminded me of a discussion about “cargo cult education” at kitchen table math.  [Click over and read it for an explanation, including the comments.]  Essentially, we can faithfully imitate features or behaviors of successful systems (or “good readers” or “good writers”) without achieving the desired result if we aren’t careful about understanding why the imitated feature or behavior seems to be working for the higher-performing system, school, reader, or writer.

For example, like Finland, we could be more selective about who enters teacher training programs in Iowa, but if we don’t bother to ask why selectivity seems to be working for Finland, we might have disappointing results.  That is, maybe we can replicate Finland’s success by implementing a 3.0 GPA requirement, but maybe, for starters, we should be asking questions like what preparation do prospective Finnish teachers have prior to applying for teacher training?  How do Finnish teacher training programs differ from Iowa teacher training programs?  Do Finnish teachers have more authority to make decisions about instruction and curriculum in their own classrooms than Iowa teachers do?  If so, is teacher autonomy an essential factor, along with selectivity, in Finnish success?  And so on.

In short, we need to be as appropriately skeptical about best practices as we are with other education research.  See Chris at A Blog About School for more on this topic here and here.