The Dangers of Over-the-Fence Decision-Making

Updated: Aug 27

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

I want to talk about a problem that has plagued the education profession for generations – a trend that I like to call “Over-the-Fence Decision-Making” (shoo that’s a lot of hyphens).

Let’s start with a story. Assistant Principal Martin has just been named the new Principal at George Washington Middle School on the other side of the school district. She is excited for this new opportunity and can’t wait to meet her new kiddos. George Washington Middle School, or WashMid as the locals call it, is generally considered to be a good school. They aren’t the highest performing school in the region academically, but their proficiency rates are good, they have lots of extracurricular activities, and outstanding parent and community engagement. Shortly after arriving at WashMid, newly appointed Principal Martin is faced with a predicament – the newest TikTok challenge has swept through the student body leading to constant interruptions and long lasting distractions from learning. What is a new principal to do?!?

Having never been a middle school principal before, Principal Martin begins to search for help. She calls on her principal friends and mentors to ask their advice. She asks the district behavioral interventionist to review the school’s behavior policies. She attends a training hosted by a regional educational organization. In the end, she is still stuck; having received too much conflicting and out-of-context advice. One day while checking her Twitter feed she sees a blog post written by another principal discussing how they addressed this internet challenge in their school. Principal Martin, desperate for a solution, reads the post and implements the solution in her school without a second thought.

This is an example of what I call Over-the-Fence Decision-Making. Principal Martin looked over the proverbial fence and asked herself “hey, what are they doing over there?”. Having been inspired by what she has seen, she implemented a similar intervention in her own school. Will her new intervention be successful? Only time will tell, but it is unlikely that her decision making method has given her the deep understanding she will need to fully implement the intervention with fidelity.

It isn’t Principal Martin’s fault. The education profession is a beg, borrow, and steal profession. We are trained from our earliest days to observe other classrooms, replicate lessons that we liked, and share our interesting tricks with our peers. At the classroom level, this has served us very well. It nurtures teamwork and collaboration, builds practices that are steeped in local context, and supports student learning by creating vertical and horizontal alignment across the school. At the leadership level, however, Over-the-Fence Decision-Making is a haphazard way of driving system level change.

Let’s dissect Principal Martin’s decision a bit further. First, she sought a solution to her problem by searching anywhere and everywhere. This led to increased frustration as she received conflicting advice rooted in personal opinions and experiences. When she found the blog post, she was inspired by the success it described. That inspiration is good, but inspiration is the point of a good blog post. The fact that Principal Martin implemented this intervention after reading the post speaks more highly of the author’s ability to convey their ideas than it does of the impact of the intervention itself.

Principal Martin only knows what the author told her about their experience with the intervention. She doesn’t have the full picture. She doesn’t know the other strategies that the school had in place to support the intervention. She doesn’t know what kind of training the teachers had before, during, and after intervention implementation. She doesn’t know how the new intervention will interact with other established strategies happening in her own school. This mountain of unknowns is likely to lead to less than stellar results in her own school.

Ms. Martin worked with the tools she had to solve an urgent problem. In this post, let’s introduce a new tool; research-driven decision-making.

Research-driven decision-making is a thoughtful and methodical approach to solving problems in a school. There are thousands of schools around the globe with hundreds of years of documented history. While TikTok may be a new phenomenon, maintaining classroom order certainly isn’t. Ms. Martin is certainly not the first principal struggling to deal with a school-wide behavior disruption and she won’t be the last. The research literature is brimming with potential solutions, one only has to seek them out.

While research-driven decision-making may take a little more time and effort, there are many benefits of adopting this approach. Here are five:

1. Research on educational problems of practice is widely available. Fleets of researchers across the globe are frantically working every day to document educational phenomenon and measure the results of potential interventions. This comes from a research culture often referred to as “publish or perish”. While I personally think that mantra is harmful to research professionals, it is extremely helpful to practitioners because it means that we have lots of