Educators Beware: "Best Practices"


When I’ve helped institutions with project design, integrated planning, evaluation, grants, Guided Pathways, and other related support work, I’ve been asked, “What best practices do you recommend?” I try my best not to show it on the outside, but I cringe on the inside when I hear this term. I offer three reasons why educators should reconsider the term “best practices.”

1. A “best practice” at one organization doesn’t always apply to another
For example, in higher education, I’ve seen faculty-to-student mentoring in one campus produce positive results but not at another campus. Mentoring could be considered a “best practice” but in this case, mentoring was a better fit within the culture of the organization and therefore more effectively implemented compared to the other institution.

In addition, often, it’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference. I enjoy qualitative research. Digging in through interviews and/or focus groups to gain a deeper understanding of why the quantitative data is telling us something isn’t working effectively. For example, I conducted a focus group with students that produced one emerging theme: they didn’t like the receptionist at the counseling center. They offered ample examples of her unkind nature. The “best practice” the institution tried to employ was an early alert system whereby faculty would alert counselors early on in the semester if students were struggling with academic and/or nonacademic issues. Overtime, the institution couldn’t figure out why this “best practice” wasn’t working effectively. It turns out that students had a negative feeling toward this service because the point of entry to it (the receptionist) was an unpleasant experience.

Another example of the littlest things making a big difference is in K-12. If one component of a professional learning community (PLC) includes the expected practice that teacher facilitators be active for an entire academic year to support their grade level teams, but because of logistical or other issues the facilitators end up taking turns facilitating on a monthly basis, that small change in practice implementation may significantly thwart the desired outcome.

An argument can be made that if the practices above were followed exactly how they were intended they could, in fact, work effectively and still be referred to as “best practices.” But there lies part of the problem. Each organization will either interpret, modify, or unwittingly do something to the practice that will essentially redefine it. In addition, the culture of an organization itself could have a significant impact. To return to the mentoring activity, peer-to-peer mentoring worked much better than faculty-to-student mentoring at one campus because faculty members felt better equipped to train, monitor, and coach student peer mentors than to perform the mentoring themselves. Students at this particular institution also felt more comfortable being mentored by peers than by faculty members.

2. Confusion over “evidence-based practice” as a “best practice”
An evidence-based practice should go through a rigorous research study demonstrating a statistically significant outcome, and be published in a highly reputable peer-reviewed journal(s). However, there are two challenges with evidence-based practices: scarcity and replication. There aren't enough evidence-based studies to choose from and any modification to the practice shouldn't be considered evidence-based anymore (e.g., professional learning communities example above). Nonetheless, many educators still refer to “evidence-based” practices as “best practices.” An “evidence-based” practice is…an evidence-based practice. That’s it. It should not be called a “best practice” because “best” denotes that the practice cannot improve (it’s the best!) and/or that it will fit perfectly anywhere it is implemented. Even the most rigorously tested evidence-based model needs continued study, especially in different settings.

If an evidence-based model demonstrates increases in student achievement in high-socioeconomic area schools, should it be considered a “best practice” for low-socioeconomic area schools to implement? If an evidenced-based model produces positive student outcomes in low-socioeconomic schools where there is minimal leadership turnover, should it be considered a “best practice” for low-socioeconomic schools with high leadership turn over?

In higher education, the U.S. Department of Education has encouraged potential grant applicants to implement student interventions from statistically-significant studies. One study recommended was a coaching model for students. The research on this model is solid. I’ve heard many educators call this student coaching model a “best practice” or “high-impact practice.” The problem is that the model consists of an external for-profit entity that provides a proprietary student coaching curriculum primarily for private four-year universities. How are institutions supposed to replicate this “best practice”? They could purchase the service, but the intent of these grant opportunities is for institutions to implement interventions internally that are eventually institutionalized. 

3. So-called “Thought Leaders” who push “best practices” 
A school superintendent shared with me his displeasure when he and a small group of his team attended a conference where a self-proclaimed “thought leader” was pushing a particular product/service as a “best practice.” I, too, have become wary of self-proclaimed or self-described “thought leaders.” I can think of a short list of people I would consider thought leaders. Besides the quality of their work, do you know what they all have in common? They don’t proclaim themselves to be thought leaders! They have every bit of evidence and credibility to call themselves thought leaders, but they refrain from it. Over the years, I have seen too many self-proclaimed and self-descried “thought leaders” come to conferences unprepared to give a quality presentation, and instead push questionable “research-based” practices that they often call “best practices.” Lately, for many of my like-minded colleagues, the litmus test of whether to attend a conference or sign-up for a particular session is whether the presenter is a self-proclaimed or self-described thought leader.

To be fair, we live in a capitalist system that encourages entrepreneurship and revenue goals. I understand and appreciate the system. If an educator develops a product or service that may be useful at a school or college setting, by all means, explain the product/service and let the potential clients decide if it’s a good fit. What has fatigued many on-the-ground educators is that some of these “education celebrities” or self-proclaimed “thought leaders” over the years have contributed to the dilution and often negative connotation of the term “best practice” because their primary motivation has been to sell, sell, sell.

To be clear, there’s no problem with sales per se. However, the word “sales” has become a dirty word in education. For example, a retired superintendent shared with me a couple of years ago that he’s gone to the “dark side” (you know, a reference to the evil side of the Star Wars story). His “dark side” work consisted of business development activities for an education services company. That’s not the first time I’ve heard the business development/sales side of education referred to in a highly negative manner. It speaks volumes about sales in education, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If done with honesty and integrity, if you think of it, selling is a form of teaching. 

My point is that it might be refreshing for educators to experience a conference presenter (or a representative visiting a school or college site) humbled enough to call him or herself an educator. No hype. No buzz words or terms. An educator who can effectively teach us about a promising practice versus selling a “best practice.” In my view, focus on the basics and doing the right thing for clients, and revenue should come from this wholesome and non-groundbreaking approach. (Read my post on what an influential mentor taught me about this subject).

Final thoughts
I’ve been encouraging educators to consider using the term “promising practice” in lieu of “best practice.” A “best practice” gives the impression that it’s a one size fits all approach, often given undue credit by people who interchange “evidenced-based” with “best practices,” and many self-proclaimed “thought leaders” have pushed this term ad nauseam.

If explained with honesty and integrity, a promising practice should inform us of the following:
- That an intervention, practice, activity, framework, process, program, project, etc., was initiated and produced positive results. (Note: While the overall goal is to increase student outcomes, preliminary positive results could be about improved organizational processes, efficiencies, etc.)
- Step-by-step of how the practice was implemented.
- Challenges to implementation and lessons learned.
- Any related research and/or evaluation, if available.

This should give us sufficient information to implement a practice for our unique context without any promises or guarantees that it will produce unrealistic organizational improvements and/or student outcomes. If the practice is in its infancy and has minimal data to support it, perhaps “promising” is too strong a word to describe it. Perhaps consider using “emerging practice.”

Whatever we do, just avoid putting “best” before “practice.”


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2 comments :

  1. Excellent thoughts, Al! It gave me pause to think more about the words I use as I speak with others across higher education. Your blog could easily be used by a group as a starting point for their discussions about their practices for creating, for example, a new program. I like the piece of your blog that focuses on promising practices: "I’ve been encouraging educators to consider using the term “promising practice” in lieu of “best practice.” A “best practice” gives the impression that it’s a one size fits all approach, often given undue credit by people who interchange “evidenced-based” with “best practices,” and many self-proclaimed “thought leaders” have pushed this term ad nauseam."

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