Moving the Bell Curve To the Right
In Better, Atul Gawande describes the unexciting but immensely powerful impact of improving the performance of doctors. Rather than focus on breakthroughs and new technologies, he says, many more lives can be saved by simply moving the bell curve to the right.
It used to be assumed that differences among hospitals or doctors in a particular specialty were generally insignificant. If you plotted a graph showing the results of all the centers treating cystic fibrosis – or any other disease, for that matter – people expected that the curve would look something like a shark fin, with most places clustered around the very best outcomes.
But the evidence has begun to indicate otherwise. What you tend to find is a bell curve: a handful of teams with disturbingly poor outcomes for their patients, a handful with remarkably good results, and a great undistinguished middle. link (PDF)
In a recent NY Times article, Elizabeth Green sounds a similar note in education reform:
THOMAS KANE, a Harvard economist who studies education… is one of several researchers who told me recently that he now has a more open mind. “I still think tenure review is important,” he said. “It’s just, I don’t think we should throw in our towel on the other things.” There is simply too much potential in improving the vast number of teachers who neither drag their students down nor pull them ahead.
By figuring out what makes the great teachers great, and passing that on to the mass of teachers in the middle, he said, “we could ensure that the average classroom tomorrow was seeing the types of gains that the top quarter of our classrooms see today.” He has made a guess about the effect that change would have. “We could close the gap between the United States and Japan on these international tests within two years.” link
Don’t we typically act as if most educators are outstanding, with a few average teachers and principals mixed in, along with a tiny number of incompetent people who should be exited from the profession? Don’t we assume our performance curve is a shark fin?
The shark fin isn’t coming any time soon, and it doesn’t need to – our best hope is to shift the bell curve to the right.
Kane refers to average teachers who “neither drag their students down nor pull them ahead,” which is reminiscent of my recent characterization of the majority of principals as “warm bodies” who have neither a positive nor a negative impact on student learning.
If we are to consider improving performance to be the fundamental obligation of a school leader, Gawande and Kane’s insights tell us two things:
- We need to continually invest in professional development to move the bell curve to the right. Superstars will not save us.
- We need to do what we can to lop off the extreme lower end of the bell curve, where we’re actually paying people to do harm.