Four Ways to Boost Capacity

AFTie One-L raises the issue of capacity in response to the lack of gap closing under NCLB. I think this is clearly right in one sense, namely that our theory of change is long on motivational sticks and much weaker on creating the means to improve practice. But what exactly does it mean to increase capacity, and how might it be done?

I define capacity as the ability of an organization to accomplish an objective, in this case improving student learning. I can see four ways to boost capacity, which can be laid out in the following two by two typology:




Training/prof. dev.

Get better people


External assistance

Learning organizations

Ed School types tend to favor one of the two strategies in the “external” column. In this view, teachers’ skills can be boosted either by revamped training at teacher preparation institutions, or through ongoing professional development that will provide them with the most up to date best practices. This external-individual strategy can be supplemented by an external-collective strategy, whereby outside experts visit failing schools and consult on how to improve practice. It should be noted that teachers themselves are somewhat skeptical of both of these strategies, often seeing one-off professional development workshops as of very little use, and outside “experts” as lacking the on the ground knowledge to deal with their particular problems.

A third view we might label “individual-internal.” It challenges the importance of teacher preparation institutions and professional development, and takes the view that the best way to improve practice is to find better teachers. On this view, teachers are at least as much born as made, and the objective is to recruit better people into teaching through higher or differentiated pay, reduced barriers to licensing, and more non-traditional routes into teaching. There are arguments and evidence for and against this view, but however these are resolved the “better people” strategy is unlikely to help us in the short to medium run, because, as our late Defense Secretary might have said, you go to war with the teaching force you have.

There is a fourth alternative, which has been rarely utilized in education but is gaining increasing attention in other fields and in the organizational literature. We might think of these as “internal-collective” strategies, or to use their catchier names, creating “learning organizations” or “problem-solving organizations.” The idea here is that problems are too frequent and context-specific for one-time general outside expertise to be of much use, and thus that an organization’s most important resource is its ability to identify and address its own problems. It also assumes that problems are better solved by organizations than by individuals, as different kinds of local expertise are brought to bear. The 1990s emphasis on “Total Quality Management” was one example of such a strategy, as a variety of businesses and non-profits sought to use internal data to identify problems and work to address them. Some schools are using frequent internal testing and assessment in a similar fashion today. I was recently at a conference where a national health care expert raved about the internal use of data as the key to the remarkable performance of the Mayo Clinic. But being a problem-solving organization also doesn’t have to take such a business or data-heavy tint – it could be as simple as teachers and a principal getting together to discuss why a group of 3rd graders aren’t learning math, and taking steps to address it.

These strategies are not mutually exclusive, and they could be mixed and matched: external experts could help facilitate problem-solving or offer best practice models from other schools; finding better people would certainly increase schools’ abilities to be learning organizations. Boosting capacity is the key to making progress in improving student learning; we should use all the strategies at our disposal.

— Posted by Guestblogger Jal Mehta

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