Education Opinion

Quality, Trust, and Redefining Education

By William Glasser M.D. — May 13, 1992 9 min read

On Sunday March 1, 1992, more than 20,000 runners assembled to run the Los Angeles Marathon. Almost all had trained hard, spent a lot of money, and researched health, diet, and physiology to prepare for this event. Year after year, with almost no chance to win, over a half-million marathoners worldwide compete knowing that they will get nothing tangible for their effort. In Los Angeles, seven or eight got a little acclaim and a small amount of prize money. Enduring pain and fatigue, the rest ran because they believe that finishing a marathon increases the quality of their lives.

Few of us run marathons, but almost all of us work hard for something we believe in because this effort adds quality to our lives. In this essay, I will talk a lot about quality because increasing the quality of our lives is, more than anything else, what we all want. While quality is difficult to define precisely, it almost always includes caring for each other, is always useful, has always involved hard work on someone’s part, and when we are involved with it, as either a provider or a receiver, it always feels good. Because it feels so good, I believe all of us carry in our heads a clear idea of what quality is for ourselves. Too many of us, however, especially those of us who manage people, tend to forget how important it is for all of us to experience quality regularly in our lives.

Many people wrongly believe that the problems of our schools are special and very difficult to solve. School problems may be difficult but they are not special. The failure of our industrial managers to persuade more workers to design and build quality products is no different from the failure of teachers (the managers of students) to persuade more students to do quality schoolwork. Managers in both systems suffer severely from the same ailment: They manage as if the quality of the lives of those they manage is not important.

This is a fatal flaw. While most workers (students are the workers of the schools) will do what they are told, very few will expend the effort to do quality work unless they believe that what they are asked to do, as well as how they are asked to do it, will add quality to their lives. Managers in both systems, school and industry, tend to see themselves as bosses whose orders are to be followed without question by those they direct no matter how these orders affect the quality of their lives. If the workers do not do what the manager wants, managers feel free to punish them. Even though this traditional boss approach fails to produce quality everywhere it is employed, it is almost universally supported as the right thing to do.

For example, teachers continue to threaten huge numbers of 9th-grade students to learn algebra that year or risk failing the course yet only a few learn enough to be considered quality algebra students. Huge numbers of students go through the motions and pass, gaining few, if any, usable math skills. A substantial number fail and learn either to hate or fear math with the result that many 9th graders are actually harmed by this experience. We may wail about the failure of our math teaching, but few teachers (or anyone else) question this process. To most it falls well within the framework of what they consider education to be.

The approach to education in most public schools is, “Whether you like it or not, learn and deport yourself the way you are told by a professional, state-licensed school teacher who is your boss.’' We seem little concerned about how the quality of students’ lives is affected by this boss approach. If capable students don’t do as told, and a majority do not, they are both blamed and punished. The prevailing belief is “this is all these lazy students understand.’' While there is no doubt that this coercive way of managing will produce work, we have ample evidence that neither in school (or anywhere else) will it produce the quality work we now need to be competitive.

Managed in this traditional way, students and workers become convinced that managers can’t be trusted because they do not care about creating “a good place to work.’' And while most workers do not spend much time thinking about the quality of their lives, none like to be threatened or punished. If, however, we would question workers in school or industry about how the quality of their lives is affected by the work they are asked to do, almost all would quickly confirm what is stated here: They don’t trust most of the people who manage them. We will work long and hard for managers we trust, but trust means nothing less than we believe that what we are asked to do will increase the quality of our lives.

In education, we have only the bare beginning of Quality Schools where students trust their teachers. We have, however, a whole industrialized country, Japan, that has grown rich by learning to understand how important trust is both to customers and workers. Taught by an American, W. Edwards Deming, to establish a trusting relationship between managers and workers, the Japanese build the quality products everyone now wants. The failure of so many people who manage, both in our schools and industries, to stop bossing and manage as Mr. Deming suggests is staggering.

It is, however, much easier to point out what is wrong with a system than to correct it. If our school systems are to be improved, and better management is the way to do it, first we must make an effort to define, with precision, the purpose of the system we are trying to improve. For example, if the purpose of a school system is to educate students, the word that needs to be precisely defined is education. Managers cannot improve what they do until they have a clear idea of what it is, as nothing can be improved until it is accurately defined.

For example, while both the faults of our school system as well as attempts to improve it are reported almost daily in most newspapers, I have yet to see any writer even make an attempt to define the education they are writing about. This is because all writers, including those who write for educational publications, as well as the educators they are writing about, seem to believe that both they and their readers know exactly what they mean when they use this term. Essentially, they all talk about education as if “education is anything that any educator does.’'

This is a serious mistake. Education is not well-defined by this non-descriptive, circular definition. Education is much more like intoxication. Until we began to specify precise blood-alcohol levels, there was no accurate way to define it. To show that a man was drinking no more proves intoxication than to conclude that, because children attend school, they are getting an education. If we don’t attempt to figure out a much better definition of education, we can’t even talk sensibly about it much less improve it.

To attempt to create some order out of the present educational chaos, and based on the idea that people will only work hard for what will increase the quality of their lives, I would like to offer the following definition to use as a guideline for the definition we may eventually develop:

Education is the process through which we discover that learning adds quality to our lives.

Only students who discover that the quality of their lives is improved by what they learn in school work hard and do quality work. This is exemplified by the work of Jaime Escalante, a calculus teacher trusted by his students and well-depicted in the movie “Stand and Deliver.’'

The change in design from piston- to jet-powered aircraft engines is a close analogy to what we need to do in education. Instead of admitting, as the engine designers did, that the old design limited what they could do, we keep trying to improve a design that cannot be improved. Because our piston-driven “it’s what teachers do’’ circular definition sends a strong message to teachers that whatever they do is education, they will agree to tinker but they have no real incentive to change. The result is obvious. Our schools are much the same as they have been for ages. Until we agree on a realistic “jet age’’ definition of education, nothing will improve.

I do not know what educational system would evolve from the definition I suggest but what I think could happen is described in my 1990 book, The Quality School. As yet there are no Quality Schools, but the staffs of over 65 schools have committed themselves to a five-year process of trying to become these new schools. And, as with the jet engine, when we get a Quality School, I am sure we will be able to recognize that it is a significant improvement over what we have. The purpose of this article, however, is not to explain the Quality School. Rather, it is an attempt to persuade the reader that we must make an effort to redefine education and try to agree on a definition so clear that anyone observing a school classroom could easily see that what is going on is this definition in action.

To support the definition I have offered here, I claim that it is already obvious that many children in the Evergreen School in Cottonwood, Calif., (one of the 65 schools working to become a Quality School) are enthusiastically involved in quality work. It is apparent that they trust their teachers and I believe they also have some awareness that what they are doing is improving the quality of their lives. We do not need expensive research or complicated testing to see that what is going on in this school is the beginning of quality education.

And if we would talk to the workers at the Georgetown, Ky., Toyota plant, where Deming management is in place, they would confirm that they are being managed by people who are concerned about the quality of their lives. Skeptics should be impressed by the report in the Feb. 17, 1992, Louisville Courier-Journal that, in contrast to present state of the industry, this plant is in the process of hiring a thousand new workers.

What we need to do, as soon as possible, is make a national effort to agree on a new definition of education. It is not necessary that this definition be binding, only that it be acceptable. If it were, it would support the large numbers of teachers and administrators who are waiting for the support of such a definition to begin to move to quality education. I suggest a national conference restricted to the single issue of defining public-school education hosted, perhaps, by an impartial sponsor like a major foundation. The majority of the people invited to attend this conference should be (in equal numbers) practicing classroom teachers and interested high-school students.

Educators, whose new ideas are in actual practice in substantial numbers of schools, should be invited to be present. Prior to the conference they would submit their working definition, along with a concise written argument to support it, to all who have registered to attend. At the conference the presenters would have an hour to explain their definition and then another hour to answer selected written questions from those in attendance. After due deliberation, those attending would vote on which definition they thought would work best for them in their schools. There would be no effort to come up with a universal definition, but there is a good chance that there would be more consensus than division.

There are people who will read this article who have the power to call such a conference. If enough of them could be brought together, what we need to get started with real educational reform could become a reality. If you are interested in working on this idea, write me at: The Institute for Reality Therapy, 7301 Medical Center Drive, Suite 104, Canoga Park, Calif. 91307.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1992 edition of Education Week as Quality, Trust, and Redefining Education