Published Online: April 9, 2008

Lean Education

As in most households where teachers reside, there are many conversations about education policy in our home. My husband and I also discuss the Dilbertesque policies implemented at the major manufacturing firm where he works. Not surprisingly, it’s fairly easy to find some common threads.

Not long ago we began to flesh out an analogy between public school education and “lean manufacturing,” a concept now being pursued by many industries. In general terms, lean manufacturing concentrates on reducing costs by standardizing processes and raw materials. This minimizes waste, including wasted time. Any variation in raw materials or processing requires adjustments to achieve the same output at a consistent cost.

If we look at raw materials as student background, process as teaching methods, and output as graduates, the analogy would be that every variation in student background or teaching methodology requires adjustments in cost in order to produce consistent graduates.

This is very personal to me. Last spring, after the state announced our results on the high-stakes assessment that students must pass to graduate, I sat in my classroom looking around at my wonderful kids and feeling a familiar anger. Once again, we had by far the lowest test scores in our district. Once again, we failed to make adequate yearly progress in several of the categories established by the No Child Left Behind law. Once again, we were labeled as low-performing.

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If I consider the problem through the lens of lean manufacturing, I need to examine my richly diverse raw materials. My school has more than a 50 percent transience rate; fewer than half of the students who start 9th grade here will graduate from my school. Hand in hand with that is a high level of poverty; almost 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Almost 40 percent do not speak English at home. Many have parents who are not literate in any language, and the average student comes to us working significantly below grade level. All of these characteristics separate us from the other high schools in my particular school system.

Lean manufacturing has little tolerance for variation in any aspect of the process, whether it is the skill of workers, the schedule, the tools, or (especially) the raw materials. In fact, the principles of lean manufacturing call for strong controls over the raw materials that are accepted into the process. If variations in raw materials are tightly controlled, then the manufacturing processes can be easily optimized to provide consistently high quality outputs—at a price much below the cost of less efficient manufacturing methods.

In educational terms, if variations in our students’ backgrounds are tightly controlled, then the teaching methods can be easily optimized to provide graduates of consistent quality at a lower price. If the tight control is not possible (as is so often the case in public education), then the cost will be higher.

Consider bread production. If the baker is provided the same quality and quantity of wheat flour, yeast, eggs, butter, and salt, he can expect to turn out loaves of consistent quality on a predictable schedule. If another baker is provided with a more diverse and unpredictable set of ingredients, but is still required to follow the same recipe as the first cook, the results will not be of a similar quality. An excellent baker will still be able to turn out good bread with the variable ingredients, but she will have to be allowed to use different recipes, to spend more time on tailoring the process to accommodate the available ingredients, and to work on a different time schedule. These adjustments will necessarily increase the total cost of the final loaf.

While the diverse population of my school provides a richness of culture, it also presents a complex obstacle to producing “standard” graduates. The word that best describes this obstacle is inequity. When we receive the same funding as a solidly middle-class high school (which until very recently we did), the system might choose to describe that as equal, but it is not equitable. We need more resources (teachers, books, time, training) to level the playing field for our kids and assure the same level and quality of graduates.

Successful business leaders in today’s economy understand that when the manufacturing process needs to be altered to compensate for different raw materials, the cost of producing the end product will increase. Yet some of these same business leaders (and policymakers with business backgrounds) are engaged in school reform initiatives that ignore this fundamental manufacturing principle. They often seem eager to apply the concepts of lean manufacturing to our schools without considering the impossibility of assuring consistent raw materials, which would require us to neutralize the cultural diversity that characterizes public education today.

This approach is not only futile, but wasteful and disrespectful. Rather than punishing and suppressing teachers in highly diverse schools that don’t make AYP, wise policies would increase funding for resources and training that would help educators optimize their use of teaching methods that work best for the students we are asked to teach.

For our part, educators in highly diverse schools must openly acknowledge that diversity creates complexity in education. We must resist the imposition of lean education as public policy. We must urge all educators to unite around the message that there is no single curriculum, strategy, or method that is going to work with every student in every class in every school in every district in our nation.

School reformers can help by advocating for school accountability formulas that factor in such uncontrollable issues as transience, language learning rates for immigrants, and educational background. They can help make sure that accomplished teachers are full partners in the policy development process, so that policies are built on a solid understanding of the complexity of the multicultural classroom.

We need to change the conversation and talk about equity in education rather than equality. Until we make that distinction, we will not make the adjustments necessary to ensure a consistent, quality graduate from every public high school.

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