Thursday, May 19, 2005

Is continuous improvement enough in public education?

Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Carolina First Center of Excellence, a program managed by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce to bring continuous quality improvement, including Baldrige principles and practices, to schools in the Greenville County School District.

The superintendent of the Greenville County School District, Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher, along with a principal, a teacher, and a student all made impressive presentations of how applying continuous improvement principles enhanced the quality of education delivered. Everyone involved in this program should be congratulated for making a real difference in classrooms in Greenville County.

But is it enough to meet the needs of all students?

There is a great diversity in how people think and learn. The typical public education classroom is designed to meet the needs of one style of learning. Even in schools where many students are succeeding, a considerable number of students do not match up well with this paradigm. Public schools, for the most part, make an assumption that students come from families who will and can continue the students' learning at home. Drop out rates are high in communities where the families' support at home is not strong.

For these students who are not well served by today's system, public schools doing what they do better may improve their situation but it still won’t solve their problem. The real solution for these students is having a wider diversity in how education is delivered so that students and their parents can find educational alternatives that match up with the students’ ability to learn and the families’ ability to support them.

Continuous improvement is necessary, but not sufficient, to meet the needs of all students. Public education also needs innovation, and innovation is driven by entrepreneurs. What public education needs are entrepreneurial educators. Almost by definition, some entrepreneurs will approach problems differently than they have been approached in the past. And in many cases, in fact in some cases that have the potential to transform how education is delivered, it will not be clear at first whether these experiments will work. The most radical innovations will almost certainly have large numbers of loud naysayers.

A innovative education system that meets the needs of all students must allow entrepreneurial educators to bring innovative alternatives to market. Then for those innovations that do not gain traction, either because they do not find a customer or because they are poorly executed, the system must have a self-correction mechanism so that failed innovations stop. Likewise, the system must have a way for successful innovations to attract additional resources so that they can grow and meet the needs of more consumers.

That is the way free markets work. That is what school choice is all about. Until we design innovation into our public education system, we can spend all the money we want, we can test all we want, and we can have all the continuous improvement that we want, and we will not meets the needs of many students not well served today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Public Education is Ready for Step Change

I'm not sure that innovation is the correct word for the next step in a continuous improvement culture. Step change is usually the next phase and the real payoff. The continuous improvement that is currently acknowledged is a key. In theory, continuous improvement often comes from innovative ideas and comments inside an organization to improve a single area up to 1% - 3%. A continuous improvement culture breeds these incremental improvements.

What may be missing is the leap that can be generated from an already existing continuous improvement culture. After being successful in small percentage improvements over time there are surely hidden step changes that the education system is already lined up to get. Step change results are usually very high at from 30% to 50% gains possible. The missing link is to take the culture to the step change level and reap the real benefit of the culture already based on innovation. Look for what is already set up to be gained and focus an aggressive action plan to get those 30% - 50% gains.