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Op-Ed: There Is a Difference Between Doing Things Right and Doing the Right Thing

Continuing to invest more time, energy, resources in trying to do things right with Abbott is going to get us more of what we’ve got

richard c. ten eyck
Rich Ten Eyck

For a while now, I've been working on a paper dealing with the relationship between the 40-plus years of work in New Jersey on the development and refinement of curriculum standards, the related investment/development of large-scale assessments, and the persistently flat (with very few exceptions) NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress ) scores over that same span of years. The data seems very clear and the conclusions obvious. If we want to significantly increase student achievement for all kids, we haven't found the correct formula.

I began this project as a result of my reflections on the time I spent serving in the New Jersey Department of Education and the place of that work in the ongoing continuing discussions about education reform.

During this same time, I found myself drawn to the story of Newark. Much like following videos on YouTube, one book led to another… each adding another dimension to the story, none painting pictures of success. I realized there was a connection between what I was reading and the work on my paper; however, identifying that connection was proving maddeningly elusive.

Recently, though, in just one week along came Ms. Laura Waters’ analysis of the Abbott decisions and, from another source, a link to an interview with Russell Ackoff, conducted before his death in 2009. As a regular reader of this site, I needed no introduction to Ms Waters. Ackoff, however, was a new name. A little research revealed that he had a long, varied, and distinguished career, including a time from 1986 until his death as professor emeritus of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In Ackoff's interview he noted that, while we frequently used the terms synonymously, there was a growing recognition that there is a difference between efficiency and effectiveness and that Peter Drucker had captured this by saying that there's a difference between “doing things right” and doing “the right thing.”

Ackoff expands by suggesting that doing things right is about efficiency but doing the right thing is about effectiveness. He makes a strong case for the connection between wisdom and doing/identifying the right things. He notes further that when we try to do things right about the wrong thing, we actually make things worse. Such attempts at improvement actually take us further from both the recognition and accomplishment of the “right thing”.

There it was.

While at the Department of Education, I was proud to work with many good people who worked very hard to do testing right. Yet at no time did we consider the possibility that we were trying to do testing right without considering seriously whether or not it was the right thing. Ten years later, there is increasing (but nonetheless largely ignored) evidence that it was not the right thing. Accompanying this evidence, is the increasing voice of those pointing out the failure of this direction on both the ‘doing things right’ and the ‘right thing’ test.

Assume for sake of discussion that Ackoff was correct when he noted that we learn more from our mistakes than by doing things right. This places us in great shape. We’ve got more than a few mistakes from which to learn. One takeaway seems to be that we can continue to try to do things right or we can invest significant human capital in the exploration and identification of the right thing.

What seems abundantly clear is this: Continuing to invest more time, energy, resources in trying to improve “doing things right” with Abbott, the 40-year cycle of revised standards and assessments, the state takeover of school districts and municipalities, and the like is going to get us more of what we’ve got. It’s time to consider that we have identified the wrong thing and our attempts to do things right are actually taking us further away from any lasting solutions and from the right thing.

From a teacher to superintendent of schools, Richard C. Ten Eyck has spent more than four decades in education. In 2005, he retired from the New Jersey state Department of Education as an assistant commissioner. Since his retirement, he has worked as a senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network. He is co-founder and a partner in R & R Education Consultants.

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