Best Practices. Huh. Really?

In one of my LinkedIn groups, American Evaluation Association this week, we’ve been discussing the term, “best practices” and how it’s become a term that’s basically been abused so much to be meaningless.

What does the term mean? One of the people in the discussion pointed to the fact that US federal agencies use the term “promising ” when there is some initial evidence of effectiveness, but the studies are not sufficiently numerous or rigorous enough to qualify as “best.” Another talked about the term “promising practices” and rarely uses the term “best practices.”

Another person in the mental health field uses “common practice,” or “standard of care” but discussed how over time, some of these have become anything but good care. Another person provided these questions for determining what best practice is (I’ve simplified them):

  1. Are the expectations of what is termed ‘best practices’ realistic? Are we expecting the “holy grail” when really, this is unrealistic?
  2. How much empirical evidence is there that the method, strategy, or approach is really, truly effective?
  3. Does the research literature over time indicate that the evidence is generalizable to a wide, cross section of institutions and organizations?

One person pointed to a blog post by Larry Cuban, “The Sham of Best Practices.” http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/the-sham-of-best-practices/. Cuban says that the term “best practices” probably originates in the “business sector with management consultants and corporate gurus” … and has “become a buzzword across governmental, educational, and medical organizations.” He also describes how some medical “best practices” have shown to not only be wrong but horribly wrong. In his conclusion, Cuban points out how policymakers implement foolish, faddish reforms in the name of “best practices,” which he calls a sham and a shame.

What do you think about the term “best practices?” The three questions posed for determining best practices? Any thoughts on what I can/should do as Guild research director to aid in these goals?

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