Thursday, January 24, 2013

Good and Bad Strategy in Education Reform, Part 1

In his powerful book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (2011), strategy expert Richard Rumelt describes the most common patterns of bad strategy that organizations, both public and private, fall into. These are patterns which regularly cause organizations to fail in their efforts to advance their missions. One of the patterns Rumelt calls “blue sky objectives.” He explains:

"A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action, between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus the objectives should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence. By contrast a blue sky objective is usually a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue of how to get there."

Unfortunately, this describes all too accurately our national education reform efforts over the past decade. The telltale marks of ineffectual blue-sky strategy are right in the names of the programs. President George W. Bush’s program has been labeled “No Child Left Behind.” Left behind what? No goal is clearly defined (51 different ‘proficiency levels’ open to interpretation and change), and the implication is that every child will excel, every child will have top achievement. They will reach the blue sky.

President Barak Obama’s program is labeled “race to the to top.” The top of what? The goal is explained as “career or college ready,” which is still maddeningly vague. There are different academic levels in different colleges, and more importantly a huge variety of skills and skill levels needed for different careers. In any case the goal is still that every child will have “top” achievement. They will all reach the blue sky.

The key to good strategic design is, as Rumelt says, that it provides a bridge between a clearly defined challenge and doable objectives that will meet it. In fact, the current reform efforts have been sparked by two clear challenges. The first challenge has been the low academic achievement of children living in poverty, called the “achievement gap,” and the secondary challenge has been meeting the desire for more people with expertise in science and technology. Instead of focusing on these challenges, and what it would take to meet them, the national conversation has leaped over these real problems to the blue sky goals of NCLB and RTTT, and then has backfilled with a strategy actually unrelated to the original challenge, and based on unrealistic, refutable premises—a strategy that is not succeeding now in meeting the underlying challenges, and won’t succeed in the future.

Let me focus on three doable objectives that already we know will actually help meet the primary challenge of helping poor children, and compare with these three with the current national programs.

The first doable objective—if the political will is there—is to get quality early childhood education to all poor children. Research just keeps confirming that the pre-school years from toddler through kindergarten have a huge impact on children. Clich├ęs such as that you can straighten the sapling but not the tree, or that the hand that rocks the cradle can rule the world are true. If we wanted to be serious about helping poor children, we would be putting much more money into early childhood education.

Part 2

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