What's the difference between Otolaryngology and Education?

Otolaryngology is easily my favorite medical discipline. Or at least my favorite one to say. You non-medical geeks out there might know otolaryngology by its more common name, the "ear, nose and throat" field.

So what's the difference between this esteemed medical discipline -- or any medical discipline for that matter -- and education? One thing that jumps out is the speed with which research and evidence can swiftly and effectively change practice.

Let me elaborate. In the medical world, research translates very quickly into changes in practice. If a pioneering otolarnygologist develops a new technique that shows great effectiveness in correcting the scourge of pollen allergies, that study would be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, read by other otolarnygologists around the country, and (if truly effective) would be adopted over a 2-3 year period into mainstream medicine.

Let's contrast that with education. There is plenty of significant research (and more coming every day) clearly documenting "what works" in moving the needle on student achievement and improving school performance. Yet the rate at which these insights translate into mainstream education practice is much slower than in other professional fields such as medicine, law, or accounting.

I recently spent the day with a former principal of a comprehensive urban high school in the northeast U.S., and her story illustrates this point. Over a 10 year period, this principal and her staff fundamentally changed the performance of this school, moving it from one of the worst in the state to one of the best. This has led to national recognition for the school, and extensive research from major universities describing in great detail what the staff did to transform student achievement. All of this documentation makes two really important points very clear. First, this was no "flash in the pan" -- achievement has continued a steady upward progression for over 10 years. And second, the strategies -- a school wide focus on literacy achievement and a rigorous focus on implementation- are easily repeatable in other schools and were implemented at extremely low cost.

Yet, despite the national profile of this school and the ease with which these strategies could be repeated, very few other schools across the country have adopted this blueprint. Most notably, not even other schools within the district have adopted these strategies. In fact, the performance of the elementary schools in the district has continued to decline even as the high school continues to have excellent performance.

So why hasn't the heavily documented example of this school caught on like wildfire and translated to mainstream practice? There are numerous reasons for this, but I think some of them include:

  • A pervasive belief that research results are district-specific and aren't able to be easily replicated in "my" school.
  • A lack of "user-friendliness" of educational data findings, and a need for more teachers and leaders to have the data analysis skills necessary to draw insights from research and efficacy studies.
  • A culture in our national education system in which, for many teachers and leaders, a commitment to traditional teaching methods (e.g. "how we've always done it") trumps the power of evidence and research.

None of these issues have quick fixes, but for the quality of education to continue to advance we need to have a national conversation about how we address these issues and speed up the rate at which research and evidence translates into practice.

Photo: kjgarbutt