High jump and higher education – the fallacy of continuous improvement

Written By: - Date published: 7:46 am, August 22nd, 2013 - 10 comments
Categories: education - Tags:

They set targets and you meet those targets, so they raise the targets. You meet them again, so they raise them again. If those targets were high jump bars, everyone watching would know you are going to miss the target at some point. That is not a failure. That is just something that is eventually beyond the very limits of your ability. So we celebrate and reward that effort and achievement.

However, if you are a tertiary education teacher we pretend there is no limit. Instead, what we demand is “continuous improvement”, and if you cannot go beyond those limits we punish your institution by cutting their funding.

The government believes we will continue improving, higher and higher targets, more and more students completing and passing our courses. Eventually we will have even more students passing than we have enrolled!

There are two other differences between high jump and teaching.

The first is, it is not you that faces the hurdles and jumps at the end of the day, it is your students. If those students are springy, lean and six foot tall, or shorter, powerful folks more suited to shot put it makes no difference. You face the same target, and that target, the government has decided, is high jump, not shot put.

The second difference is, when you attempt to clear a high-jump bar the result is either success or failure, yes, or no. With education the results are not often so clear.

So, imagine if there was no one watching the high jumping, but instead you had to email in to the government how high your students had jumped. And your manager risked losing funding if your students didn’t jump high enough. What if that manager looked over your shoulder as you were recording those high jump results and pointed out that maybe you were using the wrong type of ruler to measure the height of the bar? Or maybe had you considered putting a trampoline in front of the bar? Or maybe some of your students aren’t actually students at all and should not be measured?

Tertiary educators don’t oppose the government’s efforts to measure outcomes and punish those institutions that fail to reach its targets because they are afraid of high standards. They do not oppose them because, as Stuart Middleton says, “they don’t back themselves”.

They oppose them because they are bad for education. They lower the quality of education that students receive. They pressure institutions to measure, report and obfuscate, rather than teach. They punish the people who try and fail rather than celebrate those who try, and in trying, discover their limits.

Lesley Francey, TEU national president

10 comments on “High jump and higher education – the fallacy of continuous improvement”

  1. Sanctuary 1

    We had one of those high performance seminars here at work where HR show up and bang on about continuous improvement. I asked our workshop leader if she (sadly, they are almost always a she) believed in perpetual motion. When she no, I asked why we shouldn’t think continuous improvement was nothing more than an oxymoronic statement as silly as perpetual motion, and besides it fails to understand that adaptive change is not continuous, but evolutionary.

    I got told we had to do the seminar anyway so just shut up and play along. Modern working life, so much of it is a charade.

  2. Plan B 2

    Weirdly the Soviet Union tried all of these sorts of measurement based approaches/ output driven centrally determined etc and it did not work.
    All of the work arounds, and inventiveness expressed above in the high jump example above come into play. People are amazing at doing all sorts of things that central planning simply cannot cope with. I think it is a little funny that National on the one hand wants this sort of doga driven approach to some of our education but when it comes to Charter Schools- suddenly it is all market driven, and inventiveness etc

  3. r0b 3

    Thank you Lesley (the President of my union) for putting this all so clearly and accessibly.

  4. Phil 4

    As Lesley states the government measure assumes that you can measure educational achievement with some arbitrary blunt instrument. It is an individual thing which may be in some cases simply having sufficient literacy and numeracy to get by in life, being able to read instruction or plans in order to do their job.
    The continuous improvement dogma supposes that their is an infinite improvement capability and that through teaching and learning everyone can do everything. Not so, we should be aiming to help people realise their potential at what ever level that is. The strategy of raising the level that incurs penalties ignores reality and will ultimately result in everybody being in the wrong if it continues unabated. The inconvenient truth is that not all students that enrol have the necessary ability/will to succeed. Life, personality, preconditioning get in the way of many doing well. That is not the tutors fault and in most cases not the students fault. It is not the institutions fault in trying to help people gain capability by taking open entry to learning.

  5. Tracey 5

    Why are these measures not in private schools, or don’t we care about those children?

    To my knowledge the measures don’t account, for example, to a year 1 child with little English being measured against the reading, writing etc scale by end of their first year?

  6. Thanks to the good folks at The Standard for publishing this. Lesley was initially responding to a piece by MIT’s Stuart Middleton but the real targets of her concern are the Ministry of Education, which employs the language of ‘continuous improvement‘, and the Tertiary Education Commission, which sets the ever increasing targets and financial penalties.

  7. Bob 7

    Indeed, we are passing more students now than we did 5 years ago. However, this is only continuous improvement if it is our rate of passing students that is the appropriate measure. We are becoming increasingly able to pass students, our skill at passing students is definitely becoming more developed. Indeed, if the rate at which we pass students increases, I doubt that many will have problems coping with passing more students than ever before. In fact, it has come to the point where I’m finding it difficult to fail a student and often have to have a well developed explanation. A good number of students who fail in the first round of the process are inevitably passed at some oversight stage, because we often forget that people that don’t teach, who are in the education process, are actually better at passing students than we are.

  8. A very thoughtful piece. Of course improvement is only possible once we reach a limit, though there is always dispute about whether the limit has been reached. Since we only use a third of our brain, and those with incomplete brains can have above average intelligence, then I think there is still a lot of untapped potential out there.

    The problem with using retention and success as measurements for achievement is it encourages the institution to simply pass everyone. In some cases institutes have been embarassed by passing students who died mid way through the course! It also encourages institutions to only select people they are sure will pass the course. Often these people already have high ability and don’t actually need to learn. Surely the main idea of teaching is that you take people who can’t do something, and then you teach them until they can.

    Instead the course becomes a cash cow churning out quals that nobody really needs, except in so far as they have to have the piece of paper so employers or regulatory bodies will take them. We really need some sort of institutional assessment of prior learning process so that those with equivalent experience can get the qual without having to go through the expense and time wasting process of taking the course.

  9. red blooded 9

    It’s worth noting that a similar dogma has ruled in the minds of the powers that be with regard to secondary education for a very long time. We are told that increasing rates of students must gain NCEA at all levels (somehow secondary teachers and schools are seen as failing if 20% leave school without gaining Level 2 – never mind the 8o% that DO gain it and the tremendous lengths that teachers and schools go to to get them there). Now the demand is that 85% must gain Level 2. At the same time, the revision of all Achievement Standards has significantly lifted the bar in most subjects.

    Tertiary providers often complain that students arrive expecting flexible deadlines, resubmission opportunities and considerable scaffolding towards assessment tasks. Hey – if the demands keep lifting, the secondary teachers have to keep giving and giving and giving…

  10. Ross 10

    I like the high jump analogy

    Continuous improvement versus breakthrough improvement

    Of course there is a limit, there always is a constraint and thus we had reached that limit a long time ago and so what was the response

    Let us focus on ends only and forget about the means!

    So pass rates and standards achieved as measures of performance and in response has anybody focused on what is the quality. Where are the jobs the placements? Where is the value or more importantly what are the values? Axiology should be part of the curriculum and for that matter what happened to teaching the dialectic?

    Back to the analogy

    At the Mexico Olympics High Jump some dick decided to jump over the bar differently than all the rest.

    What was the response?

    Find out that story, that is what is called a breakthrough improvement!

    Forget about the lot in power and in the ministries. All they are interested in is keeping their jobs, keeping the power!

    Breakthrough improvement comes from the grass roots

    Breakthrough improvement involves collaboration and common unity or really just community!

    Get a copy of Billy Bragg’s “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry” and listen especially to tracks 4 and 7!

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