Quality-Management Movement Spurs Interest in New Awards for Education

By Lynn Olson — March 18, 1992 9 min read
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In an effort to enhance their economic competitiveness, a growing number of states are creating awards that encourage schools, government agencies, and industries to pursue quality-management techniques.

Total Quality Management is the name given to an approach for running large, complex organizations that has swept through U.S. corporations in the past decade. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

It combines a strong focus on customer satisfaction with a set of statistical tools and decisionmaking techniques that enable workers to constantly improve the processes in which they are engaged.

In 1987, the federal government created the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award to help companies evaluate their quality-improvement efforts and to recognize those with outstanding practices and performance.

Since then, the award has become one of the most hotly debated corporate honors in America--alternately described as “the most important catalyst for transforming American business’’ and as a set of criteria that “have trivialized the quality crusade, perhaps beyond help.’'

Despite the controversy, more than 20 states either have or are developing state-level quality awards modeled closely on the Baldrige criteria. In six states, schools or school districts can qualify for those awards now or may be eligible to do so in the near future.

In addition, several projects are under way at the national level to translate the Baldrige criteria and other quality standards for education.

“I think it’s appropriate,’' said Curt W. Reimann, the director of the Baldrige Award at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “But I would also caution that it’s experimental at this stage.’'

“There’s always what might be called cultural barriers when ideas move from one community into another,’' he said.

Common Standards

In January, members of the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee debated whether they should recommend that the federal government create a Baldrige-like award in education.

Roger Porter, the White House’s domestic-policy adviser, suggested that such an award might help promote “systemic change’’ in schools.

Mr. Reimann said he is “definitely interested’’ in pursuing the idea, but added, “we are extremely cautious.’'

“We want to make sure that such an award would contribute to educational betterment,’' he said, “and that the practitioners would be overwhelmingly in favor of the concept.’'

Expanding the Baldrige to include education would require an act of the Congress.

In May, New York State will present the first of its Governor’s Excelsior Awards, which are open to both the public and private sectors, including education.

Barbara Ann Harms, the director of labor-management affairs at the state department of labor, which administers the award, said part of its purpose “was to recognize that there are common standards of excellence and quality that exist among all three sectors of the economy--the private sector, government, and education--and that it takes all three sectors working together to ensure economic vitality.’'

This year, seven school districts applied for the award, which requires them to meet the same rigorous criteria as large corporations.

‘Seal of Approval’

Minnesota is also planning to create a quality award for education. Eight schools are currently walking through the evaluation procedures now used by manufacturing and industry to see how they need to be modified. The Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation, a private-public partnership, is assisting in that effort.

Zona Sharp-Burk, the executive director of the foundation, said schools view the award as a “way to gain a seal of approval’’ in a state where they must compete for students.

So far, the most difficult requirement for schools has been the use of data to promote continuous quality improvement.

“Our sense is that schools are going to need a lot of training and a lot of preparation to get their data bases up and running,’' Ms. Sharp-Burk said.

In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Council for Quality Inc., a nonprofit agency, will present its first state-level quality awards in October.

Although the award is not sponsored by the state, it has the strong support of both the governor and the Massachusetts Department for Economic Development.

Schools and school districts are eligible to apply under a separate category for nonprofit organizations.

“I’d be surprised if there was much K-12 application for the award at this time,’' said Brendon D. Healey, the executive director of the council. “There isn’t a lot of awareness yet in the education community to Baldrige, and we use the Baldrige criteria.’'

However, the council’s education and training committee is considering opening up its seminars and workshops to K-12 educators.

The Problem of Cost

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Business Committee for Education has also proposed creating a Baldrige-like award for the schools.

Although it is not clear how closely the award would be tied to the state’s existing award for manufacturing and service industries, the same evaluators may be used for both.

One problem is how school systems would pay for the evaluation procedure. It now costs $2,500 for a large firm and $750 for a small firm to apply for the existing North Carolina Quality Leadership Award, and that covers only 40 percent of the actual costs, said William A. Smith, the president of the North Carolina Quality Leadership Foundation.

Texas will soon unveil its own quality award, for which schools can apply. The state has also published a resource guide on Total Quality Management for educators, in cooperation with the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“It’s a governor’s initiative to see that all sectors are engaged in quality as a way to increase our economic development,’' said Betty L. McCormick, an education consultant to Gov. Ann W. Richards, “and we have as big a problem in education as any other state.’'

But New Jersey, which had considered opening up its state quality award to educators, has temporarily backed off.

“Governor [James J.] Florio told us that he wanted education included in the award,’' said Rusty Marr, the supervisor of quality productivity at A.T.&T. Bell Laboratories and a member of Quality New Jersey. “Then, all of a sudden, it became apparent that just training the number of examiners we need to deal with the services and manufacturing component will be horrendous.’'

When the award is open to educators as early as next year, he added, the criteria will be identical to those for industry.

‘The Nuts and Bolts’

In addition to the creation of state-level quality awards, several organizations are working to translate quality-management principles for the schools.

The National Alliance of Business and On Purpose, a nonprofit organization in Michigan, are both working to translate the Baldrige criteria for education.

The American Society for Quality Control in Milwaukee and the National Education Quality Initiative, a network of colleges and universities, are also trying to adapt the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 9000 Series for the schools.

The international organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is made up of the national standards bodies of 91 countries. Its standards on quality assurance--known as the ISO 9000 Series--are designed to establish a quality system that would be acknowledged and accepted worldwide.

According to F. Craig Johnson, a professor of educational research at Florida State University, the standards “are the beginning nuts and bolts of how to build a quality system.’'

In some ways, he suggested, they are a precursor to being positioned to compete for the more ambitious Baldrige Award.

An End in Itself?

One of the rationales for applying the Baldrige Award to education is its emphasis on self-assessment.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology distributed some 240,000 copies of the application form last year. Although only a fraction of those actually applied for the award--106--many more used it to help guide themselves through the quality-management process, Mr. Reimann said.

Those who complete the evaluation receive extensive feedback from the team of judges and examiners.

In addition, Baldrige winners are obligated by law to share their knowledge with others. They have given upward of 5,000 presentations over the years to more than half a million institutions, ranging from government agencies to hospitals.

But many worry that the time and cost associated with such an award make it impractical for educators.

The application process is rigorous. Companies submit applications of up to 75 pages that address 89 separate categories within seven broad areas: leadership, information and analysis, strategic quality planning, human-resource utilization, quality assurance of products and services, quality results, and customer satisfaction.

Teams of trained examiners from industry, academia, and quality-consulting firms grade the applications. A small set of high-scoring applicants are then selected for site visits that last several days, before judges make a final decision.

No more than two awards can be given per year in each of three categories: manufacturing, service, and small business. The fee for applying ranges up to $4,000.

A May 1990 study by the General Accounting Office of 20 companies that had scored well on the award in 1988 or 1989 concluded that there was a positive relationship between the management practices embodied in the Baldrige criteria and corporate performance.

But in recent years, the award has come under sharp criticism. Some suggest that it does not equate well with superior product or service quality. Cadillac won the award in 1990, for example, even though the company’s cars had not received exemplary ratings from consumer magazines.

Other companies--like Motorola--ran into financial difficulties after winning the award.

But some of the harshest criticisms come from quality gurus themselves. Philip B. Crosby, writing in the January/February 1992 issue of the Harvard Business Review, argued that the award does not provide a clear definition of quality, uses criteria that reflect outdated practices, and goes to too few companies to have much of an impact on American business.

W. Edwards Deming, writing in the same issue, asserted that the award is focused “purely on results’’ and does not codify “principles of management of quality.’'

Elsewhere, Mr. Deming, one of the nation’s leading quality consultants, has suggested that the damage done to the U.S. economy from such a “misguided’’ effort is unmeasurable.

“The problem is not an award,’' said Susan Leddick, a consultant with Productivity-Quality Systems Inc., a quality-consulting firm, “but that the award becomes an end in itself. And it reinforces, one more time, extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Quality-Management Movement Spurs Interest in New Awards for Education


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