Education Opinion

Six Sigma Schooling

By Nancy Flanagan — April 16, 2011 4 min read
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I try very hard not to be a knee-jerk thinker.

In a world full of irresponsible sound bites (82% of schools failing!), it’s hard to distinguish “absolutely true” (every child deserves a great education) from “fits my preconception, so I’ll repeat it” (money does not correlate with student achievement).

Which is the reason I never say “you can’t run a school like you run a business"--even though it’s one of the top-ten education reform clichés. Schools are not profit-making companies, of course, and kids are not products--but there probably many things schools could learn by studying well-run, socially responsible businesses. You know, the kinds of businesses that have a clear mission, great product, satisfied customers and happy, productive employees.

So--when a friend posted this article, I was interested in learning how Six Sigma could “solve issues” in public school systems. Most of what I know about Six Sigma comes from watching 30 Rock, and snarky parodies of overweight corporate titans at GE proudly announcing that they’d just moved up from a green belt to a black belt (which, presumably, now entitles them to use the secret SS handshake). Plus--I once sat through a State Board of Education presentation where two university math professors proposed using the Six Sigma process and materials to teach statistics to high school kids, using rhetoric that seemed overblown to the point of reverence.

I was keeping an open mind. Maybe Six Sigma thinking could help? Then I read the article.

It’s a story from Adams County, Colorado, where a school board member who owns a company that makes granite countertops gave his fellow board members books about Six Sigma and persuaded them to (naturally) hire a Six Sigma consultant and train an assistant principal in the philosophy and techniques. The two of them quickly identified the problem: the H factor, with the H being humans.

Since one of the core principles of Six Sigma is specificity, they quickly specified that the Hs who were most problematic were teachers. They discovered that teachers were “good at jumping to solutions.” Which isn’t surprising given that most teachers’ problem-solving happens--all day long--in front of 30 kids, who might not be inclined to wait politely as teachers go through the five-step Six Sigma process (“DMAIC”--see below) to find the statistically optimum solution.

In spite of the reckless impatience of teachers, they set out to solve some issues, beginning with poor air quality in classrooms, which was leading to (here comes some collected data) increased absences (i.e., loss of productivity). They hired an environmental consultant.

Using the Six Sigma process, they discovered that untended cages of live animals, and teachers who piled books and papers on classroom air vents, were the problem. Which makes me think that the custodians who work in my building are at least green belt-level naturals at Six Sigma, because they “solve issues” all the time. Without consultants! Sometimes, they even move the books and papers themselves.

Next, the Six Sigma acolytes in Adams County went after a real tough issue: misaligned “curriculum” (a term they equated with “textbooks”) in the district’s high schools. This was a problem because of the federal “Leave No Child Behind” (sic) “quality initiative” (sic). Students were not learning precisely the same body of knowledge! Much Six Sigma-ish data analysis, committee-meeting and step-following ensued, but the right solution was eventually determined: requiring the same textbooks for all schools.

With all students literally "on the same page," they would be able to test on a particular core of knowledge. Test results would be quantifiable, and there would be the added benefit of a cost savings. With all the schools buying the same textbooks, a larger discount could be negotiated.

Wow! Thanks, Six Sigma!

The article ends with a display of other semi-inane pronouncements about how Six Sigma could help the clueless folks who run schools. Here’s what I’m wondering--what if Six Sigma were to take on huge, critical problems in education, using their 99.999...% effective process (which tolerates only 3.4 flaws per million products)? Say, the impending collapse of the once well-respected Detroit Public Schools? It’s a complex issue to solve, sure--but with an army of consultants and DMAIC...

Let’s give it a try:
Define the problem, customer, and project goals, specifically.

Kids in Detroit who live in near-universal poverty. Rapidly decreasing “customer” base. Goal: provide a high-quality education, leading to increased opportunity and hope.

Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.

Been there, done that. Plenty of student achievement numbers collected. Plenty of measurements taken. It’s not about lack of data.

Analyze the data to investigate and verify cause-and-effect relationships. Seek out root cause of the defect.

Root cause of defect: decades of rampant poverty and social neglect in Detroit.

Improve or optimize the current process based upon data analysis. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Detroit has tried many “pilot runs"--from magnet schools to scripted curriculums to consolidating. Some show bubbles of success, but are quickly supplanted by the next hot reform du jour as management turns over, neighborhoods clear out, or progress is not fast enough for policy-makers. So far, no sure-fire, sustainable solution has emerged to “solve” poverty in Detroit.

Control the future, ensuring that deviations from target are corrected.

And wouldn’t that be nice?

Could the Six Sigma process solve some issues at your school, or your child’s school?

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.