Published Online:

Quality Is Job One

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

When Steve Iachini speaks about W. Edwards Deming, his voice takes on the slight tremor of the initiate. But it hasn't always been that way. When Iachini, assistant superintendent for accountability in the Pinellas County (Fla.) School District, first heard about Deming through a seminar, his reaction was anything but positive.

"I remember sitting there feeling defensive at what was being presented,'' he recalls. "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.''

The 92-year-old Deming has a habit of making administrators feel uncomfortable. Merit pay: Malarkey, he scolds. Student grades and the ranking of schools by test scores: Disastrous. Teacher evaluations: Eliminate them.

Instead, what Deming and his fellow management gurus preach is an approach to transforming large, complex organizations known as Total Quality Management. Initially viewed as a way to make big businesses more productive and efficient, in the last decade TQM has been sold as a generic approach that can work for any large-scale organization--including school districts.

Although experts on "quality'' differ on specifics, they all embrace a set of core values. These include a strong focus on customer satisfaction and doing things right the first time, executive-level leadership, and greater investments in employee education and training. In quality companies, empowered workers make decisions based on data that help promote "continuous improvements'' in products and services.

Now, the holistic approach that has already surged through U.S. manufacturing and industry, government agencies, and health care providers is finding its way into the schools. Last year, the American Association of School Administrators created a Total Quality Network, which has attracted more than 300 paying members who sign up to receive a newsletter, attend seminars and workshops, and get discounts on Deming videotapes. The National Alliance of Business has launched a project to help apply TQM to schools. And scores of school districts are either trying to implement quality techniques or are considering doing so.

With nearly 96,000 students, Pinellas County is one of the largest districts to jump into the quality movement. Over the next few years, officials in this balmy Gulf Coast community that includes the city of St. Petersburg have made a commitment to integrate quality principles into all aspects of their school system: from how students are taught to the delivery of maintenance services. Rather than dealing with pieces of the puzzle--like how to reform the curriculum or downsize the central office--TQM focuses on systemic change.

Iachini has gone from a skeptic to spending much of his time trying to sell others on this comprehensive approach. "What we're looking for is the buy-in,'' says Judith Westfall, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

In Pinellas--as elsewhere-- Deming and quality management have become virtually synonymous.

Although advocates of quality include such prominent management consultants as Joseph Juran and Philip Crosby, no one is better known than Deming. It was primarily Deming who taught quality management to the Japanese at the end of World War II. And it is Deming who is widely credited with the turnaround in Japanese industry that so many Americans now wish to emulate. "Deming's philosophy is like a religion,'' says Lewis Rhodes, associate executive director of the AASA, "because it's based on a belief system.''

At the heart of the system is a theory called "statistical control.'' According to Deming, any process is subject to random variation that leads to waste, errors, and faulty products. Statistical control helps determine the reasonable limits of such variation, so that employees know when and where to intervene to make a process better. Although Deming maintains that zero defects are impossible, narrowing the range of variation will lead to improvements in the quality of products and services.

The theory of statistical control was developed by an American named Walter Shewhart and used widely in this country during World War II. But it was abandoned soon after as too costly and time consuming. Under Deming's tutelage, however, the Japanese adopted methods of statistical control with a passion. And Deming developed a holistic philosophy for managing change that, while rooted in statistical techniques and theories, goes far beyond that base.

Deming hardly looks like the savior of modern industry. An elderly man with a wattle like a turkey's, his blunt criticisms of management have often caused corporate executives to storm from the room during his talks. At a recent workshop sponsored by the AASA in Alexandria, Va., and attended by Iachini, Deming told his audience: "Evaluation today isn't worth a hoot.''

But when asked how he would instill public confidence in the schools without evaluations or measurement, he shot back: "I don't know. I'm not a public opinion expert or in public relations.'' Despite such confrontations, his humanistic philosophy reverberates for many educators.

Deming starts from the belief that all people naturally want to do well at their jobs, contribute, and experience "pride and joy'' in their work. The fault lies not with workers, but the system. Deming estimates that workers are responsible for only 15 percent of an organization's problems, the system for the other 85 percent.

It is management's responsibility to institute a quality system; as Deming likes to say, "Quality cannot be delegated.'' But it is workers--working in conjunction with management--who are the best source of ideas and suggestions for how to improve the processes in which they are engaged.

To equip them for this task, TQM emphasizes employee training in a wide range of statistical techniques and decisionmaking tools. It functions largely through the use of decisionmaking teams that represent everyone affected by a particular process--ranging from the suppliers of the raw materials, to the supervisors, the workers on the line, and the product's recipients.

In contrast, practices that create barriers and competition between one part of the system and another--or between people-- are rejected by Deming. Ranking people, grades in school, pay for performance, exhortations, and slogans are counterproductive, he argues. Such practices instill fear in individuals that prevents them from doing their best work. And they encourage fudged numbers and short cuts rather than bona fide improvements.

To Beth Ziecheck, a 1st grade teacher at Ozona Elementary School in Pinellas County, TQM promises a more cooperative, less adversarial approach to bringing about change in schools. "This is a community of learners,'' she remembers thinking, on first reading about Deming's ideas. "This is building respect for individuals, building trust.''

For her administrative colleagues, TQM represents a rational, coherent way of dealing with the changes brought about by school-based decisionmaking. Pinellas began moving toward decentralized school governance in the 1980s. It also 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 school-based management by 1993-94--including substantial parental involvement-- Pinellas officials knew they had to do something to ward off chaos.

Pinellas is the seventh largest school system in Florida. 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 sprawling county spans 24 municipalities, 125 schools, 14,000 employees, and students from a wide range of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

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

The answer, they decided, was TQM: 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.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of quality organizations is that they are "customer driven.'' Their goal is to stay in business by meeting--or even exceeding--customer demands and anticipating what customers will want in the future.

But an organization's "customers'' are not limited to people outside the school system. They also include "internal customers''--or anyone inside the system who relies on another part of the system to do his or her job well. For schools, the most obvious "external customers'' include businesses and institutions of higher education, parents, and other taxpayers. Within the schools, students might be considered the "internal customers'' of teachers; teachers, the customers of principals; high schools, the customers of middle schools; and so on.

Among the most common tools used by quality organizations are flow charts that spell out for the system as a whole--or for any given process--who the suppliers are, what the raw materials are, who the customers are, and what the product is. The effect of thinking through such relationships can be a more clearly defined mission for the schools and a greater understanding of how everyone contributes toward that goal.

"It ties all of our departments into the process of understanding that what they do is important, and how well they do it has a direct impact on what happens in the school,'' says Edward Kelly, superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools, one of eight Virginia districts working with Xerox Corp. and the state department of education to implement a quality system. It also turns traditional, top-down management on its head: forcing superintendents to ask what principals need to do their job, principals to ask the same of teachers, and so forth.

Quality management "combines a theory of internal motivation with a system of decisionmaking that can be useful to both teachers and students,'' says Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "The goal is to create an educational environment that's going to best enable us to prepare children for a 21st-century economy and society. We think that the learning environment that we're creating will also be the work environment of the future.''

By looking on students as customers--or as workers who are engaged in a quality process-- educators like Tuthill say they have been forced to re-examine the integrity of the work they ask students to do.

"What a school should teach,'' Deming says, "is a yearning for learning. We've been successful in crushing out the yearning for learning, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity--exactly what we need.''

In places that are applying TQM, students are taught to evaluate both the quality of the schoolwork they are asked to do and the quality of their own performance. One such place is Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska. Mount Edgecumbe is widely viewed as one of the educational leaders of TQM, having applied quality techniques since 1988.

In one instance, students at the school used statistical techniques to discover how teachers spent their time. They found that most of it was spent lecturing, even though teachers thought they were promoting active learning. The data prompted teachers to lecture less and to use more hands-on experiences. Classes were also rescheduled from seven 50-minute periods to four 90minutes periods to provide more time for experiential learning.

Students, faculty members, and the administration have also worked to develop a consensus about the purposes of the school. And students help set priorities for purchasing supplies and equipment. Some faculty members remain ambivalent about quality management. "[But] I'll tell you what,'' says Superintendent Larrae Rocheleau, "we have pretty near 100 percent buy-in from the kids.''

Although students from the small, state-run boarding school come from rural areas and belong to minority groups, a follow-up study of its graduates found that 47 percent had either completed a postsecondary program or were still enrolled in one. Their unemployment rate was only 2 percent, in a region where the average unemployment rate for that age group is 20 percent.

But the small size of Mount Edgecumbe--it has only 215 students--and its status as a public boarding school make it a hard example to emulate. If a large, urban district the size of Pinellas can make TQM work, the lesson will be more compelling.

Like many districts that have ventured into the quality arena, Pinellas first heard about TQM from an outsider. In the summer of 1991, John Mitcham, chief executive officer of AT&T Paradyne, invited Hinesley and a management team, consisting of his chief cabinet officers and Tuthill of the teachers' union, to come to corporate headquarters for a two-day training session.

"We went there fat, dumb, and happy,'' recalls James Shipley Jr., associate superintendent in the division of planning and management information services. They left, if not apostles, at least no- vitiates.

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 Corp.--the private, nonprofit entity established by American businesspeople last summer, at the urging of President Bush, to provide up to $200million for a massive researchand-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.

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 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,'' explains Shipley.

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

When Rawlings Elementary School opens next fall, its entire staff will be versed in quality management philosophy and techniques. The school will have total control over its budget. It also will serve as the test site for customer surveys and other quality tools, as the school needs them.

Simultaneously, the district's central maintenance department is shifting to the use of quality management techniques and theories. 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 costsaving ideas, which will be researched to determine whether they should be implemented and how. "Historically,'' says Charles Lambeth, 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 longterm problem.''

Outside of Pinellas, many of the attempts to integrate TQM into education have focused on areas like maintenance and custodial services, where the parallels to the corporate sector are most obvious. But the lessons that educators can learn from big business are limited. Corporate officials warn that few industries have applied Total Quality Management zealously enough to make much progress.

In 1990, the American Society for Quality Control teamed up with the Gallup Organization to survey 1,237 employees in both manufacturing and service industries. More than half of those who responded said their companies talked a good game, but only 36 percent said their employers backed up that promise with solid performance. And only a quarter said their companies really trusted employees to make good decisions about quality.

School districts like Pinellas are being bombarded with literature from quality management consultants, some of whom promise to fix their problems overnight. In contrast, most experienced chief executives describe quality management as a grueling, long-term effort.

According to Myron Tribus, an internationally known quality consultant, "there are no good educational resources out there.'' So educators must be cautious about how they adapt the concepts for themselves. "The school is not a factory,'' he says. "You can take over the fundamental ideas of quality management, but they must be changed rather drastically.''

"Motorola does it differently than AT&T Paradyne,'' notes Superintendent Hinesley of Pinellas County. "We will borrow anything anybody legitimately knows how to do. We'll take the best of all of it. But you can't take the total industrial model and apply it directly to education.''

To help support Pinellas's quality initiative, the district is designing what it refers to as "justin-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 Japan's prestigious Deming Award--will provide training in pilot sites. The school 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,'' Westfall says. 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, the district would like to establish a "Quality Academy'' within its professional development center that could become the focus for quality training communitywide.

How quickly Pinellas will be able to move without the NASDC money is uncertain. Donald McAdams, an adjunct consultant at the American Productivity and Quality Center in Houston, who has worked with the district, warns that "it is difficult--I'd be inclined to say impossible--to implement quality management in an organization without some consulting.'' But it's hard to find a quality consultant who will work for less than $1,000 a day, and the going rate is $1,500 to $2,000, a steep price for school districts strapped by the recession and state budget cuts.

For Pinellas, there could hardly be a less auspicious time to launch such a massive effort. The state is facing one of the worst financial crises in its history. In the past two years, the school district has cut $23 million from its budget. This winter, the district slashed another $32 million, cutting 914 positions in the process.

Like many of the corporations that embraced Total Quality Management during the 1980s, Pinellas has its back against the wall. "We don't want people to associate continuous quality improvement with layoffs and retrenchment,'' worries Tuthill. 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.

So far, the reaction from schoolpeople has been mixed. "We have a lot of people who are eager and interested,'' says Clide Cassity, 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 purchasing books, videotapes, and other training materials that it can 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 turned around Philip Wey, an air conditioning instructor at the school and, as he puts it, "probably the most vocal union hothead that you can imagine.'' For the past five years, Wey had refused to serve on school committees because he was convinced they were "do-nothing, impotent.'' But, he adds, "the four committees I'm on now, they're all real powerful.''

At a meeting at Gulfport Elementary School, however, teachers remain wary of the district's sincerity. "What do we do if three years down the road, it's a bomb?'' asks one teacher.

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

Even among the district's converts, there is uncertainty and disagreement about exactly how far to go with Deming's philosophy. At a recent training session about TQM for school principals, Iachini told the audience: "There are a lot of problems with the evaluation process. I think I am supportive of getting rid of evaluations.'' But his supervisor, Shipley, quickly added: "Don't go out of here saying I said that.''

Mary Catheryne Athanson, principal of Rawlings Elementary, next year's pilot school, was openly skeptical about doing away with grades, as Deming has advocated. "For this coming year,'' she says, "we will have grades, and we will have standardized tests.''

For now, Pinellas officials are emphasizing the theoretical underpinnings of Deming's approach to quality management. "We're not going to beat them over the head with statistical tools,'' says Shipley. Sessions like the one for school principals tend to focus on Deming's 14 points for managing change and his overall philosophy.

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, principal at Ozona Elementary School, a pale pink structure at the northern end of the county, says 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 states. "And it's not only evaluating people; it's evaluating goals.

"We looked at test data,'' she adds, "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.''

In corporations that have adopted quality techniques, like Toyota, individual employees, small teams, and larger groups routinely gather data and check and report on progress as measured against daily, weekly, and monthly objectives, notes a recent article in The Executive Educator. But unlike many school "outcomes,'' these goals and targets are often employee-determined, the article states. They represent what is most meaningful and motivating to those closest to the job. Instead of mandating goals, management makes sure the numbers, percentages, and data are routinely discussed--and consistent with the corporation's broader aims.

In Pinellas, it is still too early to tell how such practices will translate to the schools. "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,'' says Iachini, the assistant superintendent for accountability. Instead, he predicts that the focus of his own division will shift from program evaluation to technical assistance for individual schools.

"I think that we will abandon our traditional evaluation schedule,'' the administrator says, "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, but I think gradually we're migrating to that kind of responsibility for the department.''

The district's decision to embrace Total Quality Management parallels a similar move at the state level. Gov. Lawton Chiles has directed the Florida department of administration to make training in Total Quality Management 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 school districts are working with the state department of education and Florida State University to implement a quality system, based on international quality standards. Other state-sponsored initiatives are under way in Ohio and Virginia.

But some observers worry that TQM could become just another educational fad--or that its merits could be oversold. David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector, notes that TQM was developed within the competitive climate of the business community. In contrast, public schools are monopolies. TQM, he says, may not go far enough to address the status-quo nature of such public bureaucracies.

Others caution that TQM is a generic process to help run any business. It can support good curricula, qualified teachers, and improved pedagogy, but it cannot substitute for them. "If you just went out and did total quality, but you never looked at setting standards and new ways of assessing kids, if you never looked at developing exciting curriculum or how to involve parents, you still wouldn't get there,'' says Norman Deets, a Xerox executive on loan to the National Center on Education and the Economy to help schools implement quality management. "But I think if you did those other things, and then did quality,'' he adds, "the sum of the whole would be greater.''

For now, what Pinellas needs is time, argues Hinesley. "I think that's where we need to be on the defensive,'' he notes. "We're not working with widgets, and you've got to give us some time to make this happen.''

Cautions Shipley: "TQM is not the end-all. It's the method by which we're going to approach rational decisionmaking. It will be the common language.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented

MORE EDUCATION JOBS >>