When we benchmark against other schools, are we focusing on the river or on the banks?
Assessing how well an organization is meeting its mission is a difficult job. Most organizations compare themselves against other similar organizations with similar missions following the logic that measuring against an “average” or a “best in class”, tells us how we might improve.
The problem is this: what if the other organizations, or even the average, in the peer group are not doing as well as you assume? Think about a group of canoes on a river. we want our canoe to be moving as quickly or smoothly or efficiently as the best of the other canoes, so we watch them and compare our canoe against the others. But what if we are focusing on the other canoes and fail to take into account the river that is carrying all of us? If the river is smooth and fast, we all are doing pretty well. Most importantly, what if there is a waterfall ahead that we don’t see? What if we should be watching the shape of the riverbanks and the speed of the river more than we watch the relative motion of the canoes?
To mix my metaphors, chaos theory tells us that a system can be overturned in an instant if it is close to a tipping point. Fish in a pond do not realize the water is getting warmer, until that last final bit when the water becomes uninhabitable, and the fish all die, which is why frogs are more adaptable to big environmental changes than fish are.
I am increasingly concerned that schools are focused on the wrong views, that they are not seeing a coming mutation in the education ecosystem that has already warmed the pond vastly more than most educators imagine. Those schools that build a culture capable of change have a much greater chance of surviving the next twenty years than those that paddle along, hoping to beat the other canoes, ignorant of the waterfalls around the next bend.