Schools Getting Swept Up in Current of Business’s ‘Quality’ Movement

By Lynn Olson — March 11, 1992 20 min read
  • More than 20 states either have or are developing state-level quality awards, some of which are open to education.

“These are bad practices,” he thunders, “evil practices.”

The school administrators scribble away furiously. A few tape his every word.

Mr. Deming, a balding 92-year-old whose physical frailty masks a scalding wit, is the most prominent of a group of management gurus who have recently captured educators’ interest.

As little as five years ago, their approach to transforming large, complex organizations--known collectively as Total Quality Management--was virtually unknown in the schools.

Now, education is being swept along by the same current that has already surged through U.S. manufacturing and industry, government agencies, and health-care organizations.

“It’s surfacing all over the place,” said Lewis A. Rhodes, the associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

For example:

  • Last year, the A.A.S.A. created a Total Quality Network to help educators learn more about the concept. It has attracted more than 300 paying members who sign up to receive a newsletter, attend seminars and workshops, and get discounts on Deming videotapes.

  • The National Alliance of Business has launched a project to help apply Total Quality Management to the schools.

The project will chronicle the experiences of companies that have won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award--the nation’s most prestigious industrial honor related to quality management--and attempt to customize the “lessons learned” for educators. It will also describe the work of a handful of school districts that have ventured into the quality arena.

  • More than 20 states either have or are developing state-level quality awards, some of which are open to education.
  • Goal/QPC, a nonprofit organization devoted to Total Quality Management, added an education track in 1989.

“In very short order, we will have volumes of training materials where the jargon and the lingo that applies to industry will be taken out and the school processes will be replaced,” said Susan C. Tucker, the director of education policy for the research and training company.

  • A national survey conducted last summer by Julie E. Horine, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Mississippi, identified 30 school districts that are trying to implement quality management and dozens more that are considering it.

‘A Holistic Approach’

Ranging from the “planning-programming-budgeting system” developed by the Defense Department in the 1960’s to “management by objectives” in the 1980’s, education has frequently fallen prey to new management theories.

But proponents contend that the quality approach to organizational change is uniquely suited to education.

“If we look ahead at the world in which our children will live, it’s clear we have to give a kind of education which is much more thorough and effective than we have now,” said Myron Tribus, an internationally known quality consultant.

“The cost of education has gone up enormously, but the impact on the youngsters is not at all proportionate, and everybody knows that,” he added. “So people are looking around desperately for something to do. ... What has been missing is a holistic approach to the running of a school system.”

Advocates assert that Total Quality Management provides that approach.

Rather than dealing with pieces of the puzzle--like how to reform the math curriculum or downsize the central office--T.Q.M. focuses on systems change.

Although quality gurus differ on specifics, they all embrace a set of core values.

These include a strong focus on customer satisfaction, doing things right the first time, top-level leadership, greater investments in employee education and training, and constant improvements in products and services that are achieved by familiarizing workers with statistical tools and decisionmaking techniques and then empowering them to make changes.

Many of these ideas mesh with the current emphasis in education on site-based management and shared decisionmaking, which also grew out of the corporate sector.

But proponents claim that T.Q.M. gains its power from the marriage of a comprehensive philosophy with a set of sophisticated tools and decisionmaking techniques.

Indeed, many educators view quality management as a broader framework that can help bring some order and rationality to shared decisionmaking. (See related story, page 24.)

A central tenet is that attempting to correct one part of the system, without understanding how it relates to other components, can actually make things worse.

“People are struggling with comprehensive solutions,” said Peggy Siegel, the program director of the center for excellence in education at the National Alliance of Business. “Everybody agrees that we’ve got to build a results-oriented, performance-oriented system, and we don’t know how to do that.”

Quality management is attractive, she added, “because large businesses have been able to transform themselves and show results.”

In 1989, the year after Motorola won the Baldrige award, it claimed an annual savings of $250 million, directly attributable to its quality effort. Xerox, another Baldrige winner, measured a 78 percent decrease in the number of defects per 100 machines over a five-year period, a 40 percent decrease in unscheduled maintenance, and a 27 percent drop in service-response time.

Wartime Roots

Total quality’s roots date back to World War II, when a statistician named Walter A. Shewhart developed techniques to bring industrial processes under what he called “statistical control.”

According to Mr. Shewhart, all processes are subject to random variation. Through statistical control, which helps determine the reasonable limits of such variation for any given activity, employees can know when to leave a process alone and when to make mid-term adjustments.

The goal is to produce a stable system, in which the range of variation is predictable and narrowed as much as possible.

The Defense Department and manufacturers put Mr. Shewhart’s techniques to wide use during the war, but they abandoned them soon after as too costly and time-consuming.

However, Japanese industrialists who were trying to reinvigorate their war-torn industries picked them up. Today, when people talk about the high quality of Japanese products and the productivity of Japanese manufacturing, they almost inevitably credit the widespread adoption of quality-management techniques and theories.

‘Like a Religion’

The notions experienced a revival in this country in 1980, when an NBC documentary called “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” introduced millions of Americans to Mr. Deming.

Mr. Deming is the man most credited with bringing about the turnaround in Japanese industry. A relatively obscure figure in the United States until the past decade, he had four books published about him in 1990 alone.

And he has become the icon of many quality enthusiasts in the schools.

Larrae Rocheleau, the superintendent of Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, recalled: “At 9:30 at night, I’d be getting into bed and putting on a Deming video, and my wife would say, ‘Oh my God, not Deming again.’”

“Deming’s philosophy is like a religion,” Mr. Rhodes of the A.A.S.A. explained, “because it’s based on a belief system.”

Mr. Deming hardly looks like the savior of modern industry. An elderly man with a visible paunch and a wattle like a turkey’s, his blunt criticisms of management have often caused corporate executives to storm from the room during his talks.

At a recent workshop sponsored by the A.A.S.A. in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Deming told his audience: “Evaluation today isn’t worth a hoot.’'

But asked how he would instill public confidence in the schools without evaluations or measurement, he shot back: “I don’t know. I’m not a public-opinion expert or in public relations.”

Despite such confrontations, his humanistic philosophy reverberates for many educators. A growing army of them take his “14 points” for managing change and his “theory of profound knowledge” as their bible.

‘Pride and Joy’

Mr. Deming starts from the assumption that all people naturally want to do well at their job, contribute, and experience “pride and joy” in their work.

The fault lies not with workers, but with the system. He estimates that workers are responsible for only 15 percent of the problems; the system for the other 85 percent.

Mr. Deming and other quality experts are unequivocal in their belief that quality starts from the top. As Mr. Deming likes to say: “Quality cannot be delegated.”

It is management’s responsibility to set a clear aim for the system and ensure that all parts are working together toward that vision.

But a quality system also requires the advice and expertise of workers, who are the best source of ideas and suggestions for how to improve the processes in which they are engaged.

According to Mr. Deming, any system comprises literally thousands of interrelated processes, the health of which determines the health of the organization.

These processes must be constantly monitored, through the use of statistics, to determine when to intervene and when to leave them alone. And they must be improved “constantly and forever,” in collaboration with those who are closest to the task.

The goal is not to find and fix mistakes, but to prevent them from occurring.

The most common vehicle for accomplishing this goal is quality teams that represent everyone affected by a particular process--ranging from the suppliers of the raw materials, to the supervisors and foremen, the workers on the line, and the product’s recipients.

‘Simply Abolish Them’

Mr. Deming derides numerical goals, quotas, and other targets that focus on end results without a method to reach them.

Ranking people, grades in school, pay for performance, exhortations and slogans, short-term thinking, numerical goals: All must go, he argues.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know what to do,” he bellowed at the A.A.S.A. attendees. “Just don’t do it.”

According to Mr. Deming, such practices instill fear in individuals that prevents them from doing their best work. They encourage cheating, fudged numbers, and attempts to look good on paper. And they create barriers between one part of the system and another.

Equally important, he adds, such measures are meaningless. “With no two people alike,’' he stated, “there will always be differences. The question is, what do the differences mean? That requires knowledge.”

“Deming says some things that schoolpeople have believed for a long time and have not had any support for,’' noted Phillip C. Schlecty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky. “Things like merit pay is a mess. Things like, you’ve got to believe in people.’'

What Mr. Deming and the other quality gurus--like Joseph M. Juran and Philip B. Crosby--demand is a fundamentally different relationship between employees and their organization, one that is based on mutual respect, joint problem-solving, and a greater investment in training and education.


But T.Q.M. also requires a fundamentally different view of the “customer"--or the person who receives an organization’s services and products.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of quality organizations is that they are “customer-driven.” Their goal is to stay in business by meeting--or even exceeding--customer demands and anticipating what customers will want in the future.

An organization’s “customers,” however, are not limited to people outside the organization. They also include “internal customers"--or anyone inside the system who relies on the output of another part of the system to do his or her job well.

For schools, the most obvious “external customers” include businesses and institutions of higher education, parents, and other taxpayers.

Within the school system, students might be considered the “internal customers’’ of teachers; 3rd-grade teachers, the customers of 2nd-grade teachers; high schools, the customers of middle schools; and so on.

Among the most common tools used by organizations engaged in T.Q.M. are flow charts that spell out for the system as a whole--or for any given process--who the suppliers are, what the raw materials are, who the customers are, and what the product is.

The effect can be a more clearly defined mission for the schools and a greater understanding of how everyone contributes toward that goal.

“It ties all of our departments into the process of understanding that what they do is important, and how well they do it has a direct impact on what happens in the school,’' said Edward Kelly, the superintendent of the Prince William County Public Schools, one of eight Virginia districts working with the Xerox Corporation and the state department of education to implement a quality system.

It also turns traditional, top-down management on its head: forcing superintendents to ask what principals need to do their job, principals to ask the same of teachers, and so forth.

‘Our First Business’

Proponents of T.Q.M. argue that simply debating such issues has been healthy for schools, which have become accustomed to taking their captive audience for granted.

By looking on students as customers--or as workers who are engaged in a quality process--educators say they have been forced to re-examine the integrity of the work they ask students to do.

“Our first business is to invent schoolwork that engages and keeps kids,” Mr. Schlecty of the Center for Leadership in School Reform said. “If they don’t engage in the work that you’ve got, then there’s no danger of their learning anything.”

In the work that his organization is doing with students, educators have begun to ask youngsters, “When you get a piece of schoolwork you enjoy, what do you like about it?”

William Glasser is a psychiatrist who has attempted to relate quality management to his own ideas about learning. In the February 1990 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, he argued that following Mr. Deming’s principles would require students to evaluate both the quality of the work they are asked to do and the quality of their own performance.

One place where that is occurring is Mount Edgecumbe High School in Alaska, which is widely viewed as one of the educational leaders in the T.Q.M. movement. The school has been applying quality techniques since 1988.

In one instance, students used statistical techniques to discover how teachers spent their time. They found that most of it was spent lecturing, even though teachers thought they were promoting active learning.

The data prompted teachers to give shorter lectures and to incorporate more hands-on experiences. Classes were also rescheduled from seven 50-minute periods to four 90-minute periods to provide more time for experiential learning.

The students, the faculty members, and the administration have also spent time developing a consensus about the purposes of the school. And students help set priorities for purchasing supplies and equipment.

Most students from the small, state-run boarding school come from rural areas and belong to minority groups. But a five-year follow-up study of its graduates found that 47 percent had either completed a postsecondary program or were still enrolled in one. Their unemployment rate was only 2 percent, in a region where the average unemployment rate for that age group is 20 percent.

Superintendent Rocheleau said that, while some faculty members remain ambivalent about the process, “I’ll tell you what, we have pretty near 100 percent buy-in from kids.”

‘A Yearning for Learning’

The focus on quality has also forced some schools to take a harder look at themselves. George Westinghouse Vocational and Technical High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., has almost 1,800 students, 75 percent of whom are black and 23 percent of whom are Hispanic. It has been trying to apply quality principles for slightly more than a year.

In January 1991, the school discovered that 151 students had failed every single subject.

The school began a program to target those students. Parents signed contracts saying they would check on homework. Lunch-hour tutorials were set up for students who worked after school.

Six weeks later, when the next report card came out, the number of students who had failed every single subject had dropped to 91.

“One of the greatest surprises,” said Franklin P. Schargel, the school’s assistant principal, “was the number of parents who said, ‘Gee, this is the first time I’ve heard that failure is unacceptable.”

Other schools engaged in quality management are beginning to ask how schoolwork can help increase students’ self-confidence, make them more willing to take on new and difficult tasks, and foster collaboration.

According to Mr. Deming, “What a school should teach is a yearning for learning.”

“We’ve been successful in crushing out the yearning for learning, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity,’' he adds. “Exactly what we need.”

But while T.Q.M. has generated a lot of talk in schools, it has produced less action. Many of the attempts in education have so far focused on those aspects of schooling that most resemble a business, such as maintenance and custodial services.

The Crawford Central School District in Meadville, Pa., has been involved in T.Q.M. since 1989.

One of the first problems it tackled was the work-order system that handled requests for repairs and replacements. A team set up to monitor the process found that work orders were accumulating in some offices for several days before being forwarded to the maintenance department.

The team members updated the work-order form so that it tracks how quickly things get done.

Superintendent Robert H. Bender also issued a directive that no work would be initiated unless a form was submitted first. The result: “We have had no complaints to speak of from March 1990 to this day,’' he said.

The team is now trying to minimize the amount of down-time on students’ computers, the number of days it takes to respond to a psychological referral for a child, and the amount of time it takes to process purchase orders from teachers.

At George Westinghouse High School, a team tried to apply the same analytical techniques to the problem of class-cutting.

Data revealed that 1,634 of the school’s students were missing more than two classes a week. By examining why students were cutting class and where, the school was able to reduce the absenteeism rate by 39.9 percent in a six-week period.

“It’s still horrendous,” Mr. Schargel, the assistant principal, said. “But ... the process works.”

Help From Business

To help master both the concepts involved in T.Q.M. and the use of statistical tools, most districts have relied on either financial or in-kind support from corporations.

In Texas, where the state education department is encouraging districts to adopt a quality approach, businesses have offered seats to educators in their training sessions. The Ohio Manufacturers Association is working with the department of education there to implement quality management in three school districts. And in Minnesota, eight school systems are working with a subdivision of the 3M Company that provides quality training.

In Tupelo, Miss., meanwhile, the public schools plan to use a recent $75,000 donation from an anonymous local industry to train all the district’s principals and central-office employees in T.Q.M.

But business officials concede that few industries have followed quality principles and techniques zealously enough to make much progress.

“Let’s face it,” said Rusty Marr, the supervisor of a quality-productivity group at A.T.&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, “there aren’t a whole lot of organizations that do well in the Baldrige Award. And there aren’t a whole lot of organizations that have quality fundamentals. They’re still treating it as a fad.”

In 1990, the American Society for Quality Control teamed up with the Gallup Organization to survey 1,237 employees in both manufacturing and service industries. More than half of those who responded said their companies talk a good game, but only 36 percent said their companies back up that promise with solid performance. And only a quarter said their companies really trust employees to make good decisions about quality.

An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal last month by a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, a management-consulting firm, contends that as many as two out of every three quality-management programs in place for more than a couple of years are “stalled: they no longer meet the C.E.O.'s expectations for tangible improvement in product or service quality, customer satisfaction, and operating performance.”

The author goes on to suggest that quality management yields incremental, not dramatic, improvements.

‘School Not a Factory’

Schools are also being bombarded with literature from quality consultants, some of whom promise to fix their problems overnight. In contrast, most experienced chief executives describe quality management as a grueling, longterm effort.

“A lot of people who couldn’t spell T.Q.M. last week are suddenly T.Q.M. experts,’' cautioned Curt W. Reimann, the director of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Charles Melvin is superintendent of the Beloit-Turner School District in Wisconsin, one of five rural districts involved in a quality initiative in that state.

“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get through the mail an awful lot of advertising from consultants who want to come in and, in two or three days, transform my district into a total-quality organization,” he complained. “That could give the effort a bad name.”

According to Mr. Tribus, the consultant, “there are no good educational resources out there.’' So educators must be cautious about how they adapt the concepts for themselves.

“The school is not a factory,” he said. “And you can take over the fundamental ideas of quality management, but they must be changed rather drastically.”

Many of the good consultants are also expensive.

“It is difficult--I’d be inclined to say impossible--to implement quality management in an organization without some consulting,” said Donald R. McAdams, an adjunct consultant at the American Productivity and Quality Center in Houston and a member of the Houston school board. But school systems have a difficult time paying the consulting fees that quality-management consultants can command, he noted.

“It’s very hard to find a quality-management consultant who will deliver a day for less than $1,000,” he said, “and the going rate is $1,500 to $2,000 a day.” His own organization has not ventured into the public-education arena because there has been little demand and even less incentive.

Ignores Monopolies

Other quality enthusiasts are skeptical about the prospects of doing away with teacher evaluations and student grades, as Mr. Deming has suggested.

Schools such as Mount Edgecumbe have started to provide students with “incompletes” at the end of each semester, rather than failing them. But the transition is not easy.

“That causes all kinds of hell, because report cards go to parents ... and they don’t know what that means,” Superintendent Rocheleau said.

“We believe in grades,” added Mr. Schargel of George Westinghouse High School. “We have 50 percent of our kids going on to college. They need them.”

In addition, T.Q.M. is a generic process to help run any business. It can support good curricula, qualified teachers, and improved pedagogy, but it cannot substitute for them.

“If you just went out and did total quality, but you never looked at setting standards and new ways of assessing kids, if you never looked at developing exciting curriculum or how to involve parents, you still wouldn’t get there,” said Norman R. Deets, a Xerox executive currently on loan to the National Center on Education and the Economy to help schools implement quality management.

“But I think if you did those other things ... and then did quality,” he added, “the sum of the whole would be greater.”

Others note the limitations in applying a technique developed for competitive industries to an essentially monopolistic public service.

“T.Q.M. is terrific; very helpful,” said David Osborne, a co-author of Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector, “but it doesn’t go far enough in the public sector, because it doesn’t address the issue of monopolies. It just flat-out ignores it.”

“You have to have a need to change,” Mr. Deets conceded. “We had the advantage that school systems don’t have. We could go out of business.”

Next Week: Several projects are under way at the national level to translate quality standards for education, and more than 20 states either have or are developing state-level quality awards, some of which are open to education.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Schools Getting Swept Up in Current of Business’s ‘Quality’ Movement