Best Practice vs. Quality Practice: Sorting Practice Along a Continuum of Excellence

Summary – It’s all about practice – but what do we call a practice when we uncover one we like? Is it a “Best Practice” simply because it seems to be working?    If everything we like is “best” then nothing is.

Do words matter? Does what we call things really matter?

Using a label to describe or qualify what we or others are doing really does matter. And language fails us if every good idea we come across is referred to as a “Best Practice.”

Defining Practice: The “How-To” of a Desired Goal

Practice – on which I believe we should base all policy, regulation and investment – is simply defined as the methods, processes or defined approaches and activities that are applied to address a particular issue or challenge.

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Examples of challenges in the youth workforce development field might include practices that address one of the following questions.

  • How do we better recruit and support young people in our programs?

  • How do we better engage systems-involved youth and young adults in opportunities across systems and programs and ensure their success?

  • How can we better structure opportunities and services to address issues of race and class as well as access and equity for the youth we seek to support?

  • What’s working in other places that we can learn from and apply to the challenges we face in our community?


Precise Definitions Promote Consistency, Replicability and Relevance

Words Matter

There is a disturbing trend to ignore definitional standards in the way we talk about and describe our work. People have become lax with defined indicators of excellence, and that hurts our ability to understand what makes an approach successful, and to select the right practices to promote, replicate or amplify in our communities to address a particular issue.

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As we discover good ideas and uncover proven approaches, it’s important for us to follow these guidelines.

  • Describe practices consistently.
  • Apply a set of standards and quantifiable desired outcomes that help us understand the efficacy of a particular practice.
  • Evaluate a particular practice against these standards and expectations to determine where it is on the road from good to better and best (and remember that road conditions change).
  • Adjust the practice based on the results of regular assessment, reflection and evaluation.

To be able to learn from the approaches and processes that have demonstrated promise or success in addressing a particular issue or challenge, we need a better set of labels that help us sort and understand where these methods currently are in the process of moving along a continuum towards, or away from, being the best.

Best is the Highest Summit, Not a Participation Trophy nor a Marketing Term

But is it a Best Practice simply because it seems to be working?

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Best Practice is used all too frequently to describe:

  • a process or approach that seems to be working

  • a new approach people want to have others adopt or be recognized for doing

  • an approach that is a really, really good idea that everyone is excited about

  • approaches being examined for inclusion in local programming

In reality, there are very few definable best practices, especially in the social services arena.  (the socioeconomic, cultural and political variables involved in getting to a social services best is another conversation entirely) Words matter, and unfortunately “Best Practice” has devolved so that it no longer has meaning.

Webster’s defines best practice as: a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.

A best practice is just that.  The best.  Born out of the Total Quality Management movement of the 1990’s, a best practice is one that has been s been measured and compared to all other practices addressing a particular issue and has demonstrated, through observation, data and experience, that it is the best. Period.

If it’s not “Best” How do I describe a practice by some scale that defines its degree of excellence?

So….what do we call other strategies and approaches that are good ideas that bear consideration for replication, application or recognition?

Over the years, we at New Ways to Work have sought to uncover good ideas and approaches in youth workforce development and career readiness programming, and recommend replication or application of these ideas and approaches to others seeking to address a common issue or challenge.

We have found it helpful to apply the following labels and attendant definitions for different types of practices to help us better understand where it sits on the path towards excellence and how it might be applied in another setting.

pyramid from emerging to best
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    Best Practice: A Practice that has been accepted as superior to any and all others because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by any other means. It has been compared to other practices and produces measurable impacts and can point to data that demonstrate it to be the best.
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    Quality Practice: A Practice that has demonstrated effectiveness, withstood the test of time and produced measurable, desirable results. We know that it’s working and we have data that tells us so.
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    Promising Practice: A Practice that has every indication of being effective through observations of early implementation and early results. It appears to be working and we have good reason to think it will be successful.
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    Emerging Practice: A Practice that is believed will be effective based on prior experience, an understanding of the field, as well as the process that developed the practice. It is a really, really good idea that we believe will work.
Steve Trippe

Steve Trippe

Steve Trippe has led New Ways in all of its youth initiatives and programs, as well as its consulting, training and technical assistance efforts since the mid 1980's. He also served as New Ways' principal author and editor of initiative guides, frameworks, toolkits and process tools. Welcoming long-time Board Member Robert Sainz as Executive Director in January of 2021, Steve now serves as a Senior Fellow to New Ways. He remains committed to the values vision and mission of the organization.