Opinion
Education Teacher Leaders Network

Lean Education

By Kim McClung — April 09, 2008 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP