Q U: The Quest for Quality in Education

In his monthly blog, “View from the Q,” ASQ Executive Paul Borawski dreams of a day when the methods of quality improvement will be the norm in improving education outcomes. Paul points to 2010 Baldrige winners, Montgomery County Schools (Maryland), and others. He mentions the Pewauke, Wisconsin, district, where specific strategic plans, objectives, and metrics are used to drive improvement.

As I thought about Paul’s dream, I could not help but think about the current public debate over America’s schools, and the debate about how to “make them better.” Literally down the road from Montgomery County (where I lived in 2008-09), is the District of Columbia. Former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, got nationwide attention for her seemingly “all business” approach to improved outcomes. She famously fired teachers alleged to be “poor performers,” and imposed tough performance measures, based predominantly on student scores from standardized achievement tests. Ms. Rhee declared success, when reported scores went up. But recent investigations now suggest that scores were artificially inflated. Teachers, under threat of losing their jobs if scores did not improve, allegedly erased wrong answers and substituted correct ones on student answer sheets. The morale among teachers, already greatly damaged by the former Chancellor’s “my way or the highway” culture, has taken yet another blow in this apparent scandal.

What can we learn from the masters of BOTH quality improvement, and true, sustained school improvement? Once again, let’s turn to the pioneering teaching of W. Edwards Deming. Deming famously taught leaders to do away with production quotas, slogans, and placing blame on workers rather than on the systems they were handed. By any definition I know, the process of teaching kids in K-12 education, is both technically challenging, and socially complex. Teacher training, not unlike the training of Baldrige examiners, seeks to align, or “calibrate” each new teacher, to the recognized standards of the day. But unlike the award examiners, where we aim for a narrow range of variation in point of view and sense-making, we encourage teachers to innovate and be creative. Moreover, teachers are not responsible for the innate intelligence, or learning styles, of the many students who pass through their classrooms. Add in the factors of home and community, and you have a very complex environment indeed.

So what can we learn from Dr. Deming and others, that can improve educational outcomes in our schools? Deming would certainly advise us to focus on the processes- the systems that comprise our schools, and the entire student experience. When we think about the quality of educational outcomes, are we asking about, and seeking to “constantly and forever” improve the many inter-related systems and processes that impact each student every day?

– books: What is a “high-quality” textbook today? By whose definition, and under what assumptions or givens?

-classrooms: there is much data now on effective classroom design, to optimize student learning. But most schools are not able to spend now on these possible improvements. How can we discover process improvements at the local level, that we can implement with the resources we have?

– teachers: Here, we must learn one of Deming’s most important lessons about sustained improvement. He assured us that at least 80% of the problems we perceive with process outcomes, are caused not by the workers, but by the poor design of the process itself. In most cases, Deming was referring to stable and statistically controllable processes, such as in manufacturing. How much more inappropriate then, to ascribe responsibility for poor results, in the deeply complex process of K-12 classroom education?

-families: In his typically dry humor, Dr. Deming often told leaders “in God we trust, all others bring data.” In schools, there was a study last year that concluded the principal predictive indicator of a young student’s success was neither school nor teacher, but a supportive parental figure in the home environment. Another study last year that got some, but not a lot of publicity, found a significant decline in student motivation. Yet we continue to read about policy-makers, pundits, and others, placing the responsibility for improved student learning outcomes, almost exclusively on the shoulders of teachers.

-technology: Many have noted the seemingly obvious fact that our predominant classroom technologies, the printed textbook, the chalkboard, and the pencil, date back to at least the 19th, if not the 18th century. Yes, computers and the internet have been deployed in many schools. But – again taking a note from the pioneers of the quality movement – what would some of the basic quality tools tell us about the levels of such deployment, or the causal links between available technologies and student outcomes? In the famous improvement cycles of Plan-Do-Check-Act, have we identified and standardized superior process designs?

We could go on, and inquire about other processes affecting student outcomes, such as community, nutrition, exercise, entertainment, and so on. There is much to be done at all levels of the edu-eco-system, and we are significantly constrained by budget and staffing cuts. Still, the most fundamental message I know about quality and process improvement, is the most hopeful for education improvement: IF we focus our attention on the problem and process, IF we invite everyone in the process/system into the discussion of how to make it better, we CAN and we WILL create a better process, even in the most complex of situations. Through fearless exploration of the possible, through deep learning that brings what Deming called “Profound Knowledge,” we can build a culture of sustained process improvement, and better results. The way to do it is easy to learn, and hard to master. But we can, and I believe we must.

For more on successful approaches to sustained improvement in schools, I highly recommend the work of the late Seymour Sarason (on change/improvement in schools); the work of Michael Fullan (proven results in the UK and Canada. See his book “The Six Secrets of Change” for example); and the application of the Positive Deviance method in various school districts, now being done by folks from the Plexus Institute.

Good luck, and thank a teacher today!


Bruce Waltuck, M.A., Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

and, lest we forget… I must tell you I am one of ASQ’s designated “Voices of Influence” bloggers. I get a small compensation for these ASQ-related blog posts. But the ideas expressed here are completely my own.

This entry was posted in ASQ, Change, Complexity, Continuous Process Improvement, Creativity, Education, Innovation, Social Responsibility. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Q U: The Quest for Quality in Education

  1. Ted Bibbes says:

    Kudos Bruce. I agree 110%. thanks for the insights.

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