High Reliability in Schools
Variability in instructional quality exists in many schools and the results can be devastating for students. As students pass from grade level to grade level, they are subjected to the “teacher lottery” where some will receive great instruction while others do not simply due to being assigned to certain classrooms. Dr. Timothy Waters, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, teaches that we can learn a great deal from studying high reliability organizations (HROs) that operate in a context where failure is not accepted. The key is recognizing where variability must be reduced and where innovation can occur. HROs, such as those operating the electric power grids that provide the electricity that lights our homes and schools, understand high reliability and the consequences of not operating in that manner. They reduce variability by constantly monitoring the status of power plants to ensure that the right amount of electricity is available at all times. They have “spinning reserves” in non-operational generators that are just waiting to immediately power up to fill in a void should a working generator fail. They know which generators are down for maintenance and know exactly how much each one can produce. They know where they can purchase additional power if needed. In other words, they have a highly reliable operating plan that ensures we won’t be in the dark. Nothing is left to chance.
Schools that operate with a high reliability philosophy recognize the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum. They reduce the instructional variability of the “teacher lottery” by ensuring that teachers have the necessary tools to implement a well-defined and articulated curriculum with integrity. Teachers also have support through professional learning communities (PLCs) and high quality professional development that focuses both on the art and science of teaching. Common assessments occurs often and include informative feedback for students. Teachers and administrators understand the importance of getting students involved in assessing their own work rather than relying entirely on their teachers for evaluative feedback. Administrators and instructional coaches support teachers using well-designed walk-through tools that focus on the impact of instruction with opportunities for affirmation as well as constructive feedback. The school operates much like the electric power grid with all actions (planning, instruction, assessments, support services, etc.) moving efficiently through the school’s operational “grid” while collectively focusing on the ultimate end result…”light.” Implementing high reliability philosophy and structure in schools creates unwavering and exceptional academic results for all students.