Education Opinion

Run Schools Like Businesses? Sure. Here’s How.

By Nancy Flanagan — August 16, 2013 4 min read
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Guest post from Dale Rogers.

Many of the current education reform trends in America attempt to improve the quality of our public schools by applying various management strategies used in the business world. These model business lessons, heralded as tough, effective reform, don’t always look like the strategies being seen in business-to-business advice about managing systems and working effectively with people, however.

Take, for example, the groundbreaking and very influential work of Edwards Deming. Deming is best known for his 14 points of quality management. Deming and his principles were instrumental in working to improve the quality of Japanese manufacturing after World War II. As companies in the United States began to see the improved quality of Japanese products, they too adopted Deming’s principles.

For some reason, however, the Deming strategies of quality that businesses utilize are all but ignored when trying to improve education in America.

For example, consider Deming’s third point of quality, “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.” In the United States current education reform initiatives seem to be totally ignoring that Deming principle by our insistence of depending on inspection with standardized testing.

What are some examples of changes we could do to “build quality” into education? We could revamp the way teachers are trained. We could utilize the intern model used by the medical profession by having quality internships for new teachers. Doing so would also be honoring Deming’s sixth point; “Institute training on the job.” Instead, in most cases new teachers are given the most difficult teaching assignments and expected to perform alone.

We could “build quality” by questioning the idea of one teacher per classroom. We could “build quality” by redesigning the school year calendar and replacing it with a calendar that recognizes the quality benefits of time for teachers to plan and evaluate student work.

We could “build quality” by developing 21st century techniques of education that aren’t built on a foundation of a standardized curriculum developed by 10 elite men in the 1890’s. We could “build quality” by developing a support system in the education process that would reduce the high percentage of teachers that leave the profession within the first five years.

Another current trend in education is that of developing punitive teacher evaluation systems. While there is a need to evaluate teachers, the current trends seem to be ignoring Deming’s seventh and eighth principles. Number seven being “the aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets do a better job” and number eight being “drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” Instead of using a system to help teachers improve their craft, many new teacher evaluation systems tend to be pitting school administrators against the teachers and putting fear into teachers of losing their job.

In addition, the current teacher evaluation systems violate one of Deming’s “Seven Deadly Diseases” that being “Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance.” Again, if we “built quality” into the teacher development process there would not be such a great need for the current teacher evaluation systems.

Deming’s ninth principal “break down barriers between departments” is also often ignored in the secondary level of schools. Too often curriculum is taught in a vacuum which makes it difficult to provide give meaning to learning and interdisciplinary collaboration between teachers is not encouraged or supported in most schools.

Furthermore, Deming’s ideas included his list of “A Lesser Category of Obstacles”. On that list are many ideas that schools should pay attention to including:
Not relying on technology to solve problems.
• Not seeking examples to follow rather than developing solutions
Not placing blame on workforce (teachers) who are only responsible for 15% of problems where the system designed by management (politicians) is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences.

Deming during his lifetime did not seem to comment much on education but in this one interview he did share his views for reforming and improving education. In that interview he made three particular points that seem to stand out which the people in the education reform movement seem to be overlooking:

• Quality goes down when ranking people.
• Cramming facts into students’ heads is not learning.
• People talk about getting rid of deadwood (bad teachers), but there are only two possible explanations of why the dead wood exists: 1) You hired deadwood in the first place, or, 2) you hired live wood, and then you killed it.

Our country has attempted to fix education with recommendations beginning in 1983 as a reaction to the A Nation At Risk report, then in the 1990’s with Goals 2000, continuing with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and finally in 2009 with the Race To The Top initiative. None of these fixes considered the quality ideas of Edwards Deming . If we continue to ignore such quality ideas such as Deming’s, we will never truly succeed in meeting the challenges of education reforms in the 21st century.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.