Who’s Afraid of Data in Schools?

It’s hard to have a school-wide faculty meeting, or open an education magazine, without encountering the word “data.”  Once highly idiosyncratic, teaching has rightly become more and more a skill to be learned with outcomes to be measured.  I could not be happier about this move from teaching-as-witchcraft (or worse, merely bad theatre) to teaching-as-skill.

Those opposed to the use of data in schools are legion.  Some teachers say gathering data gets in the way of instruction.  Lots of stakeholders argue that it couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of good schools and teaching.  The most troubling objection is that data isn’t necessary to improvement; it’s somehow just a sideshow for accounting fetishists.

A recent post by Robert Wachter in New York Times puts it like this: “the objections [to using data] became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to ‘look good,’ had led them to turn away from the essence of their work…. The focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

Then, quoting a “hard-nosed scientist” and measurement expert about how to improve the helping professions, Avedis Donabedian, Wachter claims he said on his deathbed: “The secret of quality is love.”

There you have it: love.  Retool, everyone!  Make loving schools and the rest falls into place.

Hardly.  Under the rubric of “love,” lots of pretty awful things happened: low expectations, damning “ability” streaming, corporal punishment, whole-language instruction, and on and on. Yes, teachers should be loving: but we know that because ample meta-analyses suggest that teacher-student relationships have a huge impact on student outcomes.  That’s data.

Why We Should Embrace Data

“Count something.” That’s the advice of Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer, health care reformer.  I am fond of borrowing his ideas, and this is no exception.  We ought to be counting more, not less; we ought to be asking research questions in our own schools and classrooms; we ought to be finding the best evidence about the effectiveness of our individual schools and making decisions based on it.

Ask Yourself: Without “Data” or “Information” or “Evidence”…

… How would you know if your classroom or school is functioning at its best?  Rather than gathering data, would it be better to merely guess?  Or perhaps listen to the loudest teacher complaining in the faculty lounge?

… How can you find improvements?  How do you know if your students are being well-served? How do you know if program changes are aiding student learning or the opposite?

Models of Using Data That Are Likely to Work:

– Validity: Measure what is valued instead of valuing only what can easily be measured

– Balance: Create a balanced scorecard

– Insist on credible, high quality data that are stable and accurate.

– Design and select data that are usable in real time.

– Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement.

(This list is taken from Andy Hargreaves, sometimes quoted as being opposed to the use of data in schools.)

Imagine This

Using the above criteria, I suggest that each school (or department within) embrace as their operating principles – something they just do as a matter of course – a set of measures.

ImagineColleagues getting together to decide, informed by stable accepted research (yes, it does exist) and professional judgment, what things really matter.  A few possibilities to illustrate: student engagement; preparation for the next step; effective instruction; and so on.

Then, consciously asking: how can we collect data – qualitative and quantitative, in valid and practical ways – to figure out how we are collectively doing across these domains?

Then, embracing an ongoing effort to track and discuss the data to improve programming or approaches.

The Scientist in the Room

I’m fond of saying that the best teachers are scientists in the room, looking for data about how the students are doing. That data could come from a lot of different sources: it could come from examining exams after students have written them; it could come from moderated or parity marking with colleagues; it could come from student surveys; it could come from student exit interviews; it could be routine (brief “stop/start/continue” surveys for students at the end of units). The more conscious we are of the information we base decisions on the better our decisions are likely to be.

The important thing is that we count, measure, and gather information, from a variety of sources to paint the most accurate picture of what we’re doing and how well it’s working.  We need to start now.  And we need to make it part of our regular practice.

We need more data, not less.  It needs to be collected efficiently and routinely, used consciously and conscientiously, for the perpetual betterment of our schools.  People have said the use of data harms children; I argue the careful use of data is the best defence against a complacent or dysfunctional approach to schooling.

If we won’t tolerate the random best guesses of heart surgeons, why would we demand any less from those that teach?

(Photo: JD Hancock)

Futurizing Education

I’ve written before about the importance of “getting sober about what schools can do. Schools are places where students learn to do important things they otherwise would not be able to do. Students learn to read and write; to paint; to play sports; to become numerate; to debate; to form argument, use evidence, and join important academic conversations.  Schools do all these things and more.  We should be collectively proud; despite all their failings, the outcomes of schooling rival any other important social enterprise.

Yet, the the current narrative goes something like this: schools are trapped in the 20th century and need to embrace the future.  They need disrupting.  Throw out the old playbook.  Let the streets run red with the blood of the sacred cows of schooling.

Doubt me?  How much effort has been expended on coding in schools?  

http://www.edutopia.org/topic/coding-classroom
A recent screenshot of articles on coding from a leading online teaching publication.

Granting the differences in aesthetics, and the discussion of “growth mindsets,” what are the fundamental differences between the coding craze of the 21st century and this from the 20th?

Disruption Thus Far: What Have The Results Been?

Hard to say, but let’s look at one aspect of futurizing education that we were told would revolutionize schooling: online learning, especially through large-scale, sometimes free MOOCs.  The results have been awful: students performed less well in MOOCs than in traditional classrooms.  And MOOCs seem to be especially hard on students who struggle with traditional classrooms. As I’ve written before, one of the largest studies found that roughly five percent of students completed such online courses.

Of course, schools can and should explore ways to improve practice.  We should, as Atul Gawande says of medicine, we should look for ‘positive deviants – teachers and schools that achieve more than the average – to learn what works and scale it up.  But surely that is where progress is to be made: keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, and slowly ensuring a greater quality of education for all.  

And let’s remember the negative connotations of the word “disrupt,” as well as the commercial interests involved in that project of “throwing into disorder” a schooling system that has better reliability than the industry trying to remodel it.

(Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031434-0006 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Results, Not Hours, Matter

A recent edition of Planet Money addressed a topic near and dear to the hearts of all teachers: the question of long working hours.  In lots of fields, but maybe especially in teaching, we equate long working hours with “doing a good job.” But there are lots of reasons to question this idea.  Steve Henn, a reporter on the show, explains with a story:

One of my favorite economists, Dan Ariely, tells this story about a locksmith. When the locksmith was new at his job, when he was an apprentice, he took a really long time to open a lock. And people saw him working away, struggling, really having a hard time. And often they’d end up giving him a tip. But then when locksmith got better at his job, when he got so good at his job he could open pretty much any lock in just a minute or two, then his customers started complaining. They were like, you want $200 for that? This took you, like, 30 seconds…

Maybe hard work is irrelevant. Maybe what should matter is what we create. Maybe companies should be measuring our output and not keeping track of our input. What would happen if you ran a company based on that idea? What would that look like?

The Scope of the Problem

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you: teaching requires long hours.  

The BBC reports that in Britain, teachers work between 55.2-63.3 hours per week, a number that includes teaching time, in-school non-teaching work, and work that gets taken home.  The Guardian more or less echoes this view, with teachers responding that they frequently work 8-10 hours a day, plus time during evenings and weekends.  And the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and ­Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers makes the case that teachers in that province work an average of 60.8 hours per week, 10 hours more than the general population of professional workers.

Any teacher has probably heard many a humble-brag along these lines.  The comment, “I spent my entire weekend marking…!” serves at once as a complaint, a brag, and a reinforcement of the narrative: good teachers work long hours.

I can recall, early in my career, a senior leader of mine telling me that the only way to teach well is to “skip watching the late show”; if you had an evening to yourself, you couldn’t be a very effective teacher.

What’s to Be Done?

Planet Money offers an interesting, if cautionary, tale.  They profile practices in the tech world where output can be measured, and tentatively conclude that the results of your work matter more than the time spent doing it.  Sounds reasonable, but as I’ve argued before, in many fields – schooling one of them – it is hard to develop an easy measurable metric for the value of a teacher’s work.

That need not mean we abandon the notion of valuing teachers by their results entirely; there are lots of ways we can reward effectiveness and discourage merely “spending time.”

How?  Three Humble Proposals:

1. Let’s change the conversation in schools.  Let’s reduce the number of times we praise faculty for merely being there, and find more and more interesting ways to reward the fruits of their labour.

2. Speaking of which, let’s move towards a more evidence-based practice.  We’re not going to be able to measure lots and lots of important aspects of a teacher’s day, but we can start looking for some.  The challenge of measuring our effectiveness is central to any improvement regime we want to make.  And evidence can come in lots of forms.  Let’s think broadly about this important aspect of perpetual betterment.

3. Let’s focus on what really matters.  I’ve written before about the need for priorities in schooling.  We too often think changing the carpet can achieve results.  The problem: these less-than-effective-efforts all take time.  Imagine we could simply stop doing some of the things that don’t matter much – how much time could we free up? 

Teaching will always be a difficult job – what’s required is infinitely complex.  But surely we can stop thinking that effective teachers are merely the ones who work longest, or who take home the biggest bags of marking.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

Soldier-Scholar-Statesman: The Emotional Lives of Schools

Schools are emotional places.  Any teacher knows that happy and confident students learn more effectively.  Might the same be true for teachers?  

Most reform efforts meant to improve schooling outcomes have focused on technical reforms.  Assessment and evaluation practices come to mind.  Rubrics.  Professional Learning Communities.  And I am a big fan of some of these – I’m particularly fond of the technical improvements in teaching practice – but we do ourselves a favour if we realize these changes go on in an emotional environment.  That is, for teachers to adopt new practice, they need to feel safe, nurtured, celebrated.  Improvements in the technical practices of teaching and learning are necessary to make better the experiences of students; given that teachers are the mechanism by which principals work, it makes sense for school leaders to have front-of-mind the emotional needs of teachers.

Or, put another way…

Another one of the challenges in our large-scale reform efforts right now, which focus on capacity building, is to bring emotions out of the shadows and say ‘this is part of capacity building too’. We have to nurture the way our staff is feeling about their work if we expect them to be resilient and sustain their efforts. The work has to be something that’s meaningful. It needs to feel like we’re making progress, and it needs to be something teachers are confident about being able to do. – Ken Leithwood

The ideal of US military leadership has sometimes been described as soldier-scholar-statesman.  Principals would do well to have something like that model in mind.  They need to be all three (they need to understand what is best; act decisively; and with diplomacy, tact and empathy), but knowing when which role is required takes intelligence, grace, and courage.

Why You Might Not Want An Innovative School for Your Kids

If Hospitals Were Like Schools…

Imagine a visit to the emergency room that went something like this.  Worried you might be having a heart attack, you complain of chest pains.  Instead of using the usual protocols, the attending physician says, “Yes, thousands of other doctors have had good results using what’s tried and true, but it’s not my style.  I’ve developed my own way.”  A savvy patient would be worried; while this doctor’s approach might be better than the existing protocol, it is far more likely to be inferior.  Adopting a new approach in the absence of evidence is dangerous.  Yet, this is exactly what we force teachers to do in our schools – adopt idiosyncratic and untested ideas.

Or rather, it is what many would have us do.  If we are to keep improving our schooling outcomes, we need to keep what is working.  The imperative to innovate in our schools is seductive, but we run the risk of changing what already works in favour of untested hypotheses.  Looking back over the history of schooling, we can see a lot of under-evidenced reforms.  Multiple intelligences come to mind.  As do learning styles.  The history of schooling is too often the frequent adoption of fads unsupported by evidence.  This amounts to the worst of all worlds: ignoring the systematic evidence in favour of the gleaming one-off study.  Or adopting teaching models that have no empirical evidence at all.

Teachers who resist these ideas are often labelled as lazy or troublesome, or worse of all, acting without their students’  best interest in mind.  But educational reformers, consultants, and political actors often label experimental ideas as certain truths.  In fact, teachers are often wise to approach educational innovation with some skepticism.

Isn’t Educational Research Bad? Hardly.

Part of the blame rests in the common wisdom that educational research is bad.  Any field has its share of studies with spurious conclusions and shoddy methodology.  But we should not allow the bad to obscure the research that is productive and helpful.  The best of it examines studies in the same way medical researchers do; while achieving a double-blind study in schooling research is likely impossible, thorough meta-analyses of decades of research approaches the kind of systematic understanding we rely on in health sciences.

This is the view of Canadian-trained New Zealander John Hattie, whose work – most notably, his Visible Learning project – systematically analyzes educational research and provides welcome insight into the sometimes confusing results of studies.  Not unlike nutrition research, individual studies need to be understood as part of a longer story.  Some studies say one thing; others disagree.  Meta-analyses like Hattie’s bring together thousands of research results involving millions of students to provide a good, if provisional, answer to the question: what works best in the classroom?

That language is important.  The question is not: will students learn if a teacher uses a particular model of teaching, but will they learn more using this model than if we had used another?  If there are no gains to be made over existing practice, we harm our students.  By way of small example: Hattie’s work suggests direct instruction – a teacher-centred, traditional version of teaching –  is more effective than most other teaching practices. And yet teachers have been told for at least a generation or two that direct instruction does not work.

Schools Are Already Good, But They Can Get Better

Canadian schooling has excellent outcomes – the OECD PISA results are a testament to that.  This is not to say that improvements cannot be made; they can and should.  (Schooling outcomes for aboriginal Canadians, for example, demand urgent reform.)  But if schooling is to improve further, the answer cannot lie in adopting just any notion, no matter how interesting it seems.  We can hardly afford to scale up ideas that, while different, are not improvements over current practice.  In schooling, as in medicine, what is different should only be adopted if it is demonstrably better.

(Photo: Robb North)

Why Changing the Carpets Will Not Improve Schools

Abbey Lanes https://www.flickr.com/photos/abbylanes/3335173723/

We all want (even) better schools.  But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much.  Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.

“We should have a later start to the school day”

“We have to teach 21st century skills”

“We need more creativity in our classrooms”

… And so on.  Some, or all, might be valuable.  None might be.  But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”

In other words, to use the phrase of John Hattie, which change has the best impact?

Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools.  Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…

one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.

 

Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive.  The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms.  But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn.  “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit.  That’s what you took away?’  The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47.  As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)

I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us.  Our best systematic research efforts are underway.  The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success.  And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher.  These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.

But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools.  We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size.  We have only so much time.

I’m Curious:

How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?  

Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1? 

And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?

What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.

Medicine and Schooling

I am fond of arguing that medicine and teaching have a lot in common.  Of course, they are both helping professions; at their best, they both rely on evidence; they have the capacity to change lives; and they do so within a social framework – all of us learn better from teachers we have relationships with, and medicine is surely the same.

There is no one more able that Atul Gawande to tease out the similarities.  (He has drawn the comparison explicitly in piece “Personal Best” in the New Yorker, which I’ve already written about.)  Gawande represents a helpful mental model of professional practice: he understands the tension between the importance of long-term research projects and the immediate goals of improving practice with existing knowledge; he emphasizes the need for diligence, persistence, and getting results; he thinks practitioners should also approach their work with a scientific mindset.  He is also alive to the human side of practice.  He is able to weave quantitative and qualitative evidence into a satisfying narrative of, in this case, how medicine can improve; but the corollaries to teaching are obvious to anyone.

The following quotations are from his 2007 book, Better.  While he intends none of these to even tangentially relate to schooling, anyone who has spent any time in schools will see the corollary.

I. On the Importance of Diligence

“Betterment is a perpetual labour.” (9)

II. The Data-Improvement Connection

“In medicine, we are used to confronting failure; all doctors have unforeseen deaths and complications.  What were not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers.  I am a surgeon in a department that is, our members like to believe, one of the best in the country.  But the truth is that we have no reliable evidence about whether we’re as good as we think we are.  Baseball teams have win-loss records.  Businesses have quarterly earnings reports.  What about doctors?” (207)

III. High Expectations

“The paradox at the heart of medical care is that it works so well, and yet never well enough.  It routinely gives people years of health that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  Death rates from heart disease have plummeted by almost two-thirds since the 1950s.  Risk of death from stroke has fallen more than 80 percent.  The cancer survival rate is not 70 percent.  But the advances have required drugs and machines and operations and, most of all, decisions that can easily damage people as save them.  It’s precisely because of our enormous success that people are bound to wonder what went wrong when we fail.” (105-6)

IV. On the Superior Value of Applying Current Knowledge vs New Research

“To be sure, we need innovations to expand our knowledge and therapies, whether for CF of childhood lymphoma or heart disease or any of the other countless ways in which the human body fails.  But we have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us.  And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that.  When we’ve made a science of performance, however – as we’ve seen with hand washing, wounded soldiers, child delivery – thousands of lives have been saved.” (233)

V. Applications for Schooling?

Imagine what we could do as a field if teachers adopted this mindset.  Imagine the coherent and purposeful improvements we could make if we, as a field, took on the set of dispositions and assumptions embedded in his words above.  Imagine how we could move from the fairly random collection of hot topics in education towards a “a science of performance.” (233)

Building a Better Teacher (II)

The year 2010 was important to me in a lot of ways: I started a PhD program in educational theory and policy, I started this blog, I moved schools, and I read Elizabeth Green’s Building a  Better Teacher article in the New York Times Magazine.  Such was the importance of that article that I include it in the list above.

Why?  It said just about everything I wanted someone to say.  That schooling could be understood as more than just folk practice; that good teaching techniques could be scaled up and popularized; that with the creation of a shared vocabulary describing effective practice, we could – probably quickly – make big gains in the quality of our schools.  And these ideas – explicit and implicit – all set against the background of the assertion that schooling is important.

It also introduced me to Doug Lemov.

In August of this year, her book-length treatise arrived.  Green captures much of the spirit of our age; an age of insightful non-fiction devoted to ideas, public goods, and private folly.  I see in her Atul Gawande and his insistence that we can improve through carefully guided practice and feedback (as well as the possibility for scaling up good practice); I see in her the insight of the brilliantly scathing piece by Jill Lepore on the silliness of favouring the magic of “disruption” over steady gains; I see a better-evidenced Malcolm Gladwell, touching on broad social themes with an eye for the compelling anecdote.

It holds (at least) these truths:

  1. The best teachers are made.  They are, to use the dichotomy Green attributes to Lemov, strivers.
  2. Continuous improvement is the appropriate model to follow.  Slow, steady, thoughtful adjustments.
  3. Data is key. Either quantitative or qualitative.  But you need to have a measure of what is working.
  4. An interesting and sustainable model for individual improvement is teachers teaching teachers.  With little hierarchy.
  5. The thing that matters is the very specific teaching practices, what Hanushek called the black box of teaching.  What happens in the classroom between teachers and students, and students and their peers, is what schooling’s success rests on.

There are a lot of books written about schooling, but this is one of the few that takes a granular view of the thousands of small decisions teachers need to make to improve student outcomes.  It is not merely the elucidation of one teacher’s view about her teaching practice, but rather a synthesis of the history of a movement to improve schooling (one that does not stretch back too far, actually).  And its conclusions point to a more hopeful future; while the outcomes of schooling rival the other helping professions, we stand at an interesting an exciting point in time, within striking distance of codifying and disseminating the best teaching practices.  Green’s book is a very satisfying (if incomplete) survey of what has been done, what needs to be done, and (at least tentatively) how to do it.

 

Schools as (Cheesecake) Factories

I’ve written before about the truly superb work of Atul Gawande, a surgeon who often appears in the New Yorker. Previously, he has drawn comparisons between schooling and medicine by arguing that in both fields practitioners would benefit from coaching.

Recently, he appeared in the New Yorker touting the benefits of standardization across the medical world. After a visit to a local Cheesecake Factory, he wondered why his meal was more reliably delivered and the quality higher than we could expect from routine surgeries. And he writes with awe about the standardization methods used by the chain – and suggests surgery results could improve with a similar mechanism in medicine.

Of course, the debate about standardization in schooling has been raging for some time. While he can seem glib about the topic, Gawande asks some great questions: why do we expect greater reliability from a restaurant than from our most important institutions?

Gawande in his own words:

It was Saturday night, and I was at the local Cheesecake Factory with my two teen-age daughters and three of their friends. You may know the chain: a hundred and sixty restaurants with a catalogue-like menu that, when I did a count, listed three hundred and eight dinner items (including the forty-nine on the “Skinnylicious” menu), plus a hundred and twenty-four choices of beverage. It’s a linen-napkin-and-tablecloth sort of place, but with something for everyone. There’s wine and wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, but there’s also buffalo wings and Bud Light. The kids ordered mostly comfort food—pot stickers, mini crab cakes, teriyaki chicken, Hawaiian pizza, pasta carbonara. I got a beet salad with goat cheese, white-bean hummus and warm flatbread, and the miso salmon.

The place is huge, but it’s invariably packed, and you can see why. The typical entrée is under fifteen dollars. The décor is fancy, in an accessible, Disney-cruise-ship sort of way: faux Egyptian columns, earth-tone murals, vaulted ceilings. The waiters are efficient and friendly. They wear all white (crisp white oxford shirt, pants, apron, sneakers) and try to make you feel as if it were a special night out. As for the food—can I say this without losing forever my chance of getting a reservation at Per Se?—it was delicious.

The chain serves more than eighty million people per year. I pictured semi-frozen bags of beet salad shipped from Mexico, buckets of precooked pasta and production-line hummus, fish from a box. And yet nothing smacked of mass production. My beets were crisp and fresh, the hummus creamy, the salmon like butter in my mouth. No doubt everything we ordered was sweeter, fattier, and bigger than it had to be. But the Cheesecake Factory knows its customers. The whole table was happy (with the possible exception of Ethan, aged sixteen, who picked the onions out of his Hawaiian pizza).

I wondered how they pulled it off. I asked one of the Cheesecake Factory line cooks how much of the food was premade. He told me that everything’s pretty much made from scratch—except the cheesecake, which actually is from a cheesecake factory, in Calabasas, California.

I’d come from the hospital that day. In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.

It’s easy to mock places like the Cheesecake Factory—restaurants that have brought chain production to complicated sit-down meals. But the “casual dining sector,” as it is known, plays a central role in the ecosystem of eating, providing three-course, fork-and-knife restaurant meals that most people across the country couldn’t previously find or afford. The ideas start out in élite, upscale restaurants in major cities. You could think of them as research restaurants, akin to research hospitals. Some of their enthusiasms—miso salmon, Chianti-braised short ribs, flourless chocolate espresso cake—spread to other high-end restaurants. Then the casual-dining chains reëngineer them for affordable delivery to millions. Does health care need something like this?