“… our new transparency measures will use this information so that when we see great practice, great teachers, great school leadership, a school that’s really making a difference we can celebrate that achievement and we can share that best practice ... school by school, this information is vital to making sure we know where best practice is.” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, Press conference, Brisbane, January 19 2010.
“… we are shining a light on excellence and best practice so that it can be shared.” Gillard, St Paul’s College press conference January 20, 2010.
“Our My School website … You can look at your own child’s local school and really powerfully you can compare it to schools around the country that serve similar sorts of kids and that’s going to enable us to identify best practice and share it.”
“… what the website allows, we will see some schools are doing better for those kids, and the best practice in those schools can be shared.” Gillard, radio interview, January 21, 2010.
Quite apart from the question of why the “best practice” discovery process needs to be pursued on a government-supported website instead of through collaborative and peer-reviewed professional processes, there is a worrying aspect to the invocation of the “best practice” mantra.
That worry has been powerfully articulated in the health profession context by an article in the latest New York Review of Books.
Harvard University Chair of Medicine Dr Jerome Groopman examines the options available to the Obama administration in achieving the goals of its current health care legislation. They basically boil down to the choice between “best practice” being mandated or suggested.
He clearly favours the latter, and decries legislative mandate: “Doctors and hospitals that follow ‘best practices,’ as defined by government-approved standards, are to receive more money and favourable public assessments. Those who deviate from federal standards would suffer financial loss and would be designated as providers of poor care.”
He decries it because he has a problem with the concept of “best practice”: “Over the past decade, federal ‘choice architects’ - i.e. doctors and other experts acting for the government and making use of research on comparative effectiveness - have repeatedly identified ‘best practices,’ only to have them shown to be ineffective or even deleterious.”
He should know, because he self-critically includes examples of his own making, among others, showing how “best practice” has proven ineffective or backfired in medical application.
He says one of the reasons for the “repeated failures of expert panels to identify and validate ‘best practice’” is that they “did not distinguish between medical practices that can be standardized and not significantly altered by the condition of the individual patient, and those that must be adapted to a particular person.”
He adds that treatment is “too often inadequate” when we “impose a single ‘best practice’ on a complex malady”.
He goes on to identify three flaws in formulating “best practices”:
- “‘overconfidence bias’ by which we overestimate our ability to analyse information, make accurate estimates, and project outcome”;
- “‘confirmation bias’ - the tendency to discount contradictory data, staying wed to assumptions despite conflicting evidence”;
- “the ‘focussing illusion’ which occurs when, basing our predictions on a single change in the status quo, we mistakenly forecast dramatic effects on an overall condition”.
Is any of this relevant to the pursuit of “best practice” in an Australian educational context?
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