Recently we were invited to Washington, D.C., to speak at an education conference, sponsored by Fortune magazine, on Deming's role in improving schools. It was a very informative conference and confirmed that we have learned much these last few years, that we might yet turn the corner on school improvement. Yet for all the promising programs we heard about, the most interesting aspect of the summit for us was the apparent failure to "connect the dots," so to speak, to acknowledge that we have learned enough about successful programs to accomplish far more than we have.
The conference ended on a note of only mild encouragement, a reminder that we still lack a unified sense of what to do about schools. We were exhorted to keep working, keep searching. Some of the most passionate advocacy came from people like former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who talked about not what we have learned but about what we are going to learn in the future — from unproven, untested efforts. Alexander and others tended to fix their hopes on the belief that only competition could promote improvement, that only brandnew, "break-the-mold" schools could save us — and that was only possible in a win-lose marketplace.
Several unproven and expensive proposals were celebrated with no reference to the principles they were based on, not even a brief explanation of why they would work. Yet these fledgling efforts, by their advocates' own reckoning, would take years to establish and even more years to evaluate to see if they had anything to offer us. Innovation is essential, but we would do far better to invest our time, effort, and money in what we already know will work and is now working.
Sad to say, this is the way education has always done it. We have embraced novelty at the expense of science. Rather than aggressively codify and then disseminate the best proven practices, we traditionally have opted for what is new and faddish, based not on substantial research but on educational whim or superficial attractiveness.