Tuesday, September 18, 2012

U.S. education: can we learn from Starbucks?

- by Whitney Coble

This week, I found the articles about continuous process improvement (CPI) in the realms of healthcare and Starbucks very interesting.  As I was reading, I thought about the teacher's union strike in Chicago and all of the energy and tension around education reform over the past ten years.  I wondered, do education systems have the CPI mindset?  After some research, I came across this policy brief written by Susanna Loeb and David Plank at Stanford regarding California's education system, which I thought you might find interesting.

In the brief, Loeb and David Plank make the following points:
  • "The essential features of a continuously improving system include: clear and specific goals; timely, reliable information; strong capacity; decision-making flexibility; aligned incentives."
  • The key to change is mindset - wanting to learn how to do things better and continuously improve.
  • Collecting data to measure the effectiveness of education policies is imperative.
  • Developing a clear roadmap on how to achieve academic goals is essential.
  • Abandon false confidence that we already know what to do (e.g., reduce class sizes, pay teachers for performance); there are no silver bullets
  • Need an approach to policy implementation that facilitates learning - try out new policies and practices in a sample of classrooms. Don't implement policy everywhere simultaneously.
  • It's important to invest in evaluating policies.  When programs are evaluated, it often happens too late in the game, implementation is uneven across schools, and oftentimes base line data did not previously exist.
  • A continuously improving system would allow educators to learn from each other at an institutional level.
  • Goals must be clear and specific so that "participants have a common vision of what they are trying to accomplish and can align their policies and practices to support success."
  • Requires aligned incentives from educators to policymakers.
  • Requires additional local decision making flexibility.
In this policy brief on improving California's education system, one can observe several parallels to the articles on healthcare and Starbucks, including:
  • In both the Starbucks and healthcare article, improvement was very intentional as evidenced by the success the manager had when focusing on improving the assembly of Mr. Potatohead and the team in Seattle focused on building a new structure that would be optimally efficient.  The authors identified this intentionality of improvement as a common feature lacking in the education system.
  • The authors also made the interesting point that if we are to be successful innovators, we must abandon the notion that we already know what to do.  Despite the Starbucks store manager being confident that they had reached maximum efficiency (with their 25 second drive-thrus!), the store achieved further success when they let go of their preconceived notions and focused on innovative improvements.
  • There was also an emphasis on the idea that different strategies work for different locations in the education, Starbucks, and healthcare articles.  As an added note, I believe this also ties into employee happiness.  Autonomy is crucially important to individuals' happiness and people are fundamentally resistant to be told how to run their lives from a corporate office (or policymakers' office) hundreds of miles away. 
What other areas could particularly benefit from CPI?  Programs like Teach for America are often criticized for "de-humanizing" education and placing too much emphasis on data.  How can educational institutions draw the line between providing proper evaluation and still giving the individual teachers opportunities for flexibility and autonomy in their classrooms?

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