Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Understanding variation

Managing schools is unnecessarily complex
Increasingly schools are expected to be all things to all people. And this involves being able to deal with serious major challenges, many of which have their source well outside of the school and are beyond the capacity of the school to (re)solve.

If there was a sound understanding of variation in schools, governments, school systems and schools may well make much better responses to the challenges involved.

Sources of variation (Deming)
In any system there is always variation
  • some from the system itself ("common cause")
  • some from outside the system ("special cause")
  • some variation is easily managed and/or tolerable
  • other variation is problematic (often described as "a problem")
A well developed stable system (e.g., a well managed school with the right students) has minimal common cause variation and manages the variation it creates easily and well usually through continuous improvement.

The level of 
variation produced in a system increases during periods of change. Therefore it is better to improve the system than to change it (if possible). Continuous change just tends to make things worse over time.

The impact of special cause variation 
Variation from outside the system is likely to be unpredictable and beyond the capacity of the system to immediately manage and resolve: special responses are needed.

In reality much of the work in many schools deals with special cause variations. Examples include the flow-on effects of disabilities, family breakdown, domestic violence, neglect, mental illness, economic downturns, poverty, crime, abuse and trauma, drug and alcohol issues... none of which are produced by the School. 

With few exceptions most special cause variation impacts negatively on standard measures of student performance. Responding to these negative impacts means
  • containing problematic situations
  • repairing the harm done (as much as possible)
  • reducing the likelihood of the problem recurring
This list is a fairly accurate description of much of what many schools and their staff members actually do on a day to day basis, often in quite innovative and heroic ways. 

Student selection and "school performance"
Some schools are able minimise special cause variation by attracting and selecting students who bring with them minimal special cause variation. Students whose exceptional performance can be highlighted to reflect positively on the school are also likely to be attracted with scholarships and selected. Many individual musical performances at Speech Nights fall into this category.

At the same time, schools that are unable to select students must attempt to deal with the special cause variation associated with their students. The more severe the negative impact of this special cause variation the more likely the school will be described as "under-performing". Current standard measures of "school performance focus" on common cause elements and ignore the school's achievements in relation to special causes.

Failure to properly understand variation
In summary, when whole systems fail to understand and manage for special cause variation the result is ill-informed system management, policies gaps and gross injustice to those whose efforts and achievements are not recognised and actively discredited. 
Unfortunately this accurately describes the current situation in which most of the world's children are being educated.