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Florida District Vows To Infuse Quality Principles Into Schools

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LARGO, FLA--When Steve Iachini speaks about W. Edwards Deming, his voice takes on the slight tremor of the initiate.

But it has not always been that way.

Mr. Iachini, the assistant superintendent for accountability in the Pinellas County (Fla.) School District, first heard about Total Quality Management through a seminar underwritten by A.T.&.T. Paradyne, a local industry. And his reaction was anything but positive.

"I remember sitting there feeling defensive at what was being presented,'' he recalled. "I felt that it contradicted everything that I had done for the past 20 years as a manager, that I had treated people badly, that I didn't take into account their needs.''

Now, Mr. Iachini spends much of his time trying to sell others on the comprehensive approach to managing change.

Pinellas County officials have made a commitment to integrate quality principles into all aspects of their school system over the next few years.

With the backing of the superintendent and the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, they are trying to spread those ideas among employees, parents, and community leaders who can support their efforts.

"Really, what we're looking for is the buy-in,'' said Judith B. Westfall, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, "the philosophical base that we feel has to be there.''

Meeting a Challenge

Getting that message out will not be easy. Pinellas County is one of the largest districts in the United States to jump into the T.Q.M. movement. It takes more than an hour to drive from one end of the 389-square-mile district to the other, winding over causeways and down streets whose names change with every curve.

The seventh-largest school system in Florida, Pinellas County encompasses 24 municipalities, 125 schools, 14,000 employees, and almost 96,000 students.

During the 1980's, it began moving toward site-based management, created an extensive system of magnet schools, and became a demonstration site for the National Education Association's Learning Laboratories initiative.

But when the state mandated last year that all schools shift to site-based management by 1993-94--including significant parental involvement--Pinellas officials knew that something had to be done to ward off chaos.

"Our teachers and our community want to be empowered to be able to make more decisions,'' said J. Howard Hinesley, the district's superintendent. "But in a system our size ... how do you meet that challenge?''

The answer, they decided, was Total Quality Management: an approach that would encourage schools to make decisions based on data, force everyone to focus more on customer needs, and help create a tighter link between one part of the system and another.

'Fat, Dumb, and Happy'

As is true in many districts, the impetus to look at quality management came from an outsider.

In the summer of 1991, John Mitcham, the chief executive officer of A.T.&.T Paradyne, invited Mr. Hinesley and a management team consisting of his chief cabinet officers and the president of the teachers' union to come to corporate headquarters for a two-day training session.

"We went there fat, dumb, and happy,'' said James C. Shipley Jr., the associate superintendent in the division of planning and management-information services.

They left, if not apostles, at least novitiates.

Since September, a design team of union, school-district, and business representatives has spent hundreds of hours fleshing out a plan for "Total Quality Schools.''

One goal, they acknowledge, is to win funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation--the private, nonprofit corporation established by U.S. businessmen last summer, at the urging of President Bush, to provide up to $200 million for a massive research-and-development effort.

But even without that money, Pinellas officials have pledged to go forward with what they view as a way to make their district more responsive and efficient.

'Total Quality Schools'

Last fall, school officials created a District Quality Council--consisting of the superintendent, the associate superintendent, two deputy superintendents, the president of the parent-teachers association, and the executive director and the president of the teachers' union. The council will integrate existing components of the school system and help drive its quality initiative.

School officials also hope to establish a Community Quality Council, through which businesses, the public sector, and the schools can advance the quality agenda in the entire community.

"Regardless of how far a school gets, if it's not supported by the rest of the system, the whole ecology falls apart,'' Mr. Shipley, the associate superintendent, explained.

Two sites in the district have also been targeted to provide what Superintendent Hinesley refers to as "hard copy'' evidence that the school system is serious about quality:

  • When Rawlings Elementary School opens this fall, its entire staff will be versed in quality-management philosophy and techniques. The school will have total control over its budget. And it will serve as the test site for customer surveys and other quality tools.
  • Simultaneously, the maintenance department is shifting to the use of quality-management theories and techniques. Teams of mechanics, foremen, supervisors, and representatives from other departments are tackling such problems as cost overruns, delays in work orders, and glitches in procurement and inventory control that cause mechanics to spend days waiting for parts, instead of making repairs.

Every foreman has also been asked to turn in a list of cost-saving ideas, which will be researched to determine whether they should be implemented and how.

"Historically,'' said Charles F. Lambeth, the director of maintenance, "we've made decisions based on some crisis situation. But it was not data-based, and it very often created a greater long-term problem.''

'Just in Time' Training

To help support the total-quality initiative, the district is designing what it refers to as "just in time'' training. Beginning this spring, every school will be assessed to determine the type and level of training it needs.

If the district receives funding from NASDC, trainers from Qualtech, a subsidiary of Florida Power and Light--the first American company to win the prestigious Deming Award in Japan--will provide training in pilot sites.

The district is also preparing its own cadre of principals, teachers, parents, and central-office personnel to provide assistance to individual schools and school divisions.

In addition, the division of curriculum and instruction is being reorganized to move "from the managers of the mandates to the facilitators of the change process in schools,'' Ms. Westfall, the associate superintendent, said. Employees within the division--including more than half of those affiliated with federal or state categorical programs--have been paired with individual schools to serve as friendly critics and advisers.

Eventually, district officials hope to establish a "Quality Academy'' within the school system's professional-development center that could become the focus for quality training communitywide.

Fiscal Woes

For Pinellas County, there could hardly be a less auspicious time to launch such a massive effort.

The state is facing one of its worst financial crises ever.

In the past two years, the district has cut $23.1 million from its budget. Two weeks ago, the district slashed another $32 million, eliminating 914 positions in the process.

Like many of the corporations that embraced T.Q.M. during the 1980's, Pinellas County has its back against the wall.

"We don't want people to associate continuous quality improvement with layoffs and retrenchment,'' worried Doug Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Initial plans to integrate quality-management techniques into the collective-bargaining process have been temporarily scrapped. And, although labor and management say their relationship is the closest it has ever been, they are proceeding cautiously.

Skepticism Remains

So far, the reaction from educators and other school employees has been mixed.

"We have a lot of people who are eager and interested,'' said Clide E. Cassity, the director of the Pinellas Technical Education Center. "We have a lot of people who say it will disappear. And then we have a lot of people who just don't care.''

The vocational-education center has been working to implement total-quality ideas on its own since July 1990. A Quality Research Team has spent the past six months buying books, videotapes, and other training materials to share with the rest of the staff. And a school-improvement committee has used quality techniques to improve the efficiency of the program's registration practices and its food-services operation.

The experience has transformed the way Philip E. Wey, an air-conditioning instructor at the school and a union representative, thinks.

"I'm probably the most vocal union hothead that you can imagine,'' he said. For the past five years, he noted, he had refused to serve on school committees because he was convinced they were "do-nothing, impotent.''

"In the four committees I'm on now,'' he added, "they're all real powerful.''

At a meeting at Gulfport Elementary School, however, teachers remained wary of the district's sincerity.

"What do we do if three years down the road, it's a bomb?'' one teacher asked.

"Some people are skeptical,'' Superintendent Hinesley said, "and we've given them no reason not to be skeptical other than to hang with us.''

New Kinds of Data

For now, Pinellas officials are emphasizing the theoretical underpinnings of Mr. Deming's approach to quality management.

"We're not going to beat them over the head with statistical tools,'' Mr. Shipley said.

But there is a growing recognition that quality management will require a much different use of data than the school system now practices.

Mary Ann Sanchez, the principal at Ozona Elementary School, said most of the school system's emphasis, to date, has been on end results.

"Evaluate your teachers at the end of the year; evaluate your students at the end of the year; evaluate yourself at the end of the year,'' she said. "It's not only evaluating people; it's evaluating goals.''

"We looked at test data,'' she added, "but the data we looked at was frequently too narrow. I think we need to look at a wider variety of data, but it's one of those areas I'm not sure of.''

"I think that the statistical techniques are complex enough that many of the people at the school level are not going to want to be involved heavily with them,'' Mr. Iachini, the assistant superintendent, said.

Instead, he predicted that the focus of his own division would shift from program evaluation to technical assistance for the schools.

"I think that we will abandon our traditional evaluation schedule,'' he said, "that we will act as consultants to schools in developing school-improvement plans, help them design studies to improve processes, and develop school-based data.''

"I don't think that we're going to play that role for several years,'' he added, "but I think gradually we're migrating to that kind of responsibility for the department.''

Students, Not Widgets

The district's decision to embrace T.Q.M. parallels a similar move at the state level.

Gov. Lawton Chiles has directed the state department of administration to make training in T.Q.M. available to all state employees. And many of the ideas behind quality management--such as its customer orientation and its focus on decentralized decisionmaking--are reflected in the state's School Improvement and Educational Accountability Act.

In addition, as part of the state's School Year 2000 initiative, seven districts are working with the state department of education and Florida State University to implement a quality system based on international quality standards, known as the ISO 9000 Series.

Now, what the district really needs is time, Mr. Hinesley argued.

"I think that's where we need to be on the defensive,'' he noted. "We're not working with widgets, and you've got to give us some time to make this happen.''

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