Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Can Schools Improve?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Can Schools Improve?

Article excerpt

Nearly everyone can point to problems that public schools face, and nearly everyone can offer solutions. So why haven't schools changed more? The authors' analysis leads them to suggest an answer: because they can't.

THE UNITED STATES spends more money on public education than any other country in the world, but problems in our public schools abound. We struggle with variable quality among our country's more than 80,000 schools -- particularly between schools in affluent suburbs and those in economically depressed inner cities. Certainly there are plenty of examples of U.S. schools and students whose performance can compete against the best in the world, but the fact remains that, in the aggregate, we can and should do better.

Everyone can point to different problems and offer different solutions, which is in fact a problem unto itself. Two decades of education reform have resulted in little real change. Chronic underperformance persists. Some will argue that there's a lack of smart people dedicated to the task of educating our children, or that there are too few resources available, or that there are too many complacent teachers who are unwilling to act. We disagree. The sobering truth is that, while the people working in our public schools can change, the institutions don't change because they can't.

Processes: The Primary Driver of Capabilities

Capabilities determine what an organization can do and, more important, what an organization cannot do. Most observers look at an organization's resources to see what it is capable of doing, but capabilities really come from the processes an organization follows to complete key activities. Because processes are resistant to change, they also define an organization's disabilities.

More resources are not the cure for flawed processes. Resources include people, equipment, technology, product designs, brands, information, cash, and relationships with suppliers, distributors, and customers. Resources can be hired and fired, bought and sold. Education's resources include teachers, administrators, buildings, technology, and funding.

Leaders often think they can solve the problems plaguing an organization by acquiring new resources. Investing more money in new technology, better equipment, or better facilities seems to be the easiest and most effective way to influence what an organization is capable of doing. Our research suggests that this approach often has disappointing results.

Consider General Motors' efforts to compete with Toyota. In the early 1980s, American auto manufacturers began facing stiff competition from Toyota, the Japanese company that had developed processes to make higher-quality cars at significantly lower prices. Throughout the mid- 1980s, GM spent $50 billion on a robotics program in an effort to automate its facilities to compete with Toyota's super-efficient production system. Despite this phenomenal investment in new resources, GM was never able to match Toyota and ultimately scrapped its robotics program -- essentially flushing $50 billion down the drain. Throwing more resources into rigid, outdated processes clearly did not enable GM to change its capabilities.

Adding more resources has been a dominant strategy of school reform efforts for years -- more computers, more books, more classrooms, more teachers, more instructional aides, more courses, more class time. Each of these investments promised marked improvements in student achievement, yet as expenditures on public education continue to rise, chronic underperformance persists.

Why do efforts to solve a capability deficiency by throwing resources at it often end in disappointment? It is because the primary driver of an organization's capabilities is its processes. Processes are the patterns of interaction, coordination, communication, and decision making that employees use to transform resources into products and services of greater worth. …

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