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FOR RELEASE
Wednesday
January 21, 2004

Schools can improve the quality of education they offer children if educators use lessons from quality assurance programs carried out by businesses and the medical profession, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

“We want to challenge educators to look outside their own discipline to see if there are valuable lessons to be learned as they adapt to a new culture that stresses greater accountability,” said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist at RAND Education and lead author of the report. “We believe these other experiences have a lot to teach educators.”

RAND Education analysts examined existing quality assurance methods, such as the Toyota Production System, the Malcolm Baldrige business excellence awards, and clinical practice guidelines that are commonplace in the health industry.

The RAND report, titled “Organizational Improvement and Accountability: Lessons for Education from Other Sectors,” was prepared for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

While the strong current focus on high-stakes testing might make students and teachers work harder, researchers warn that this focus can also cause “dysfunctional behaviors,” such as officials setting standards too low, “teaching to the test,” or encouraging some students to skip accountability tests.

The study highlights lessons learned from other sectors that are particularly relevant in improving educational accountability. For example:

  • The Baldrige example highlights the importance of institutional self-assessment as a first step in organizational improvement and offers a systematic and strategic approach for bringing together processes, resources, and data to serve strategic goals. Some schools already have climbed on the quality bandwagon, researchers note. The Chugach School District in Alaska and the Pearl River School District in New York won Baldrige awards in 2001.
  • The Toyota Production System example offers an alternative model in which improvement can arise from within, and it highlights the benefits (and the shortcomings) of a system that empowers workers (teachers, in the case of education) to study and continuously improve their practice.
  • Clinical practice guidelines in medicine — which synthesize best practices for the diagnosis/treatment of particular illnesses — offer “a potentially powerful example for educators to follow in systematizing their pedagogical knowledge base.” Practice guidelines for educators would contribute directly to improving school effectiveness and promote professional accountability in education, similar to the results of practice guidelines in the medical profession.
  • Examples from other sectors, such as job programs for the poor and the health care profession suggest broadening performance measures to include information about both process and performance, and ensuring that performance targets are sensitive to differences in initial abilities of students. For example, school improvement efforts would benefit from information on what is taught as well as how well students perform on tests.
  • The job program and health examples also suggest that the measures used to judge program performance may not be trustworthy in an accountability context. “Educators need to be alert to the possibility that those scores are susceptible to manipulation through coaching, reallocation of instruction, test preparation, and other methods,” the report notes. For example, the report warns that subjects such as music, social studies, and history might be shortchanged while educators zero in on reading and math, the two skills most commonly tested in accountability exams.
  • Health care report cards rating the performance of hospitals, health maintenance organizations, and doctors, show that the public release of performance data can help drive improvements. “Whether consumers exercise choice or not,” says the report, “the report card process generates pressure for self-improvement.” The nation’s elementary and secondary school landscape shifted with passage of the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation of 2001. The law requires that all students, by 2014, be proficient in reading and math based on state-adopted tests.

RAND’s report observes that while “it is not well understood” how the law’s principles will work to eliminate failing schools, private business and services offer significant examples and models for schools to follow, including the widely publicized scorecards that have so far been the law’s most notable achievement.

Other authors of the report are Sheila Kirby and Heather Barney of RAND Education and Marjorie Pearson and Marc Chow of RAND Health.

RAND Education, a unit of RAND, conducts independent research and analysis on a variety of topics, including school reform, educational assessment and accountability, and trends among teachers and teacher training.

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