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Make Schools More Like Business? (Part 2)

June 8, 2010

Recently, I wrote a blog post about applying business thinking to education.  This post is Part 2, though not the Part 2 I originally intended to post… so stay tuned for Part 3 (now online).

My online wanderings through business reading led me to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a business and manufacturing expert who worked in the U.S. and Japan, and devised the Deming System of Profound Knowledge.  His ideas and reputation are carried forward posthumously through the work of the institute that bears his name.  His resumé bore this description: “W. Edwards Deming has been for forty years a consultant, with practice world wide. His clients include railways, telephone companies, carriers of motor freight, manufacturing companies, consumer research, census methods, hospitals, legal firms, government agencies, research organizations in universities and in industry.”

Among other interesting elements of his work, I found “The 14 Points for Management” – and noticed once again that the supposed lessons of business that are offered to education don’t often enough look like the advice I see in business-to-business advice about managing systems and working effectively with people.  What if the business-minded education reformers took a look at Deming’s suggestions?

I’ve copied the list from the Deming Institute web page, and inserted comments after most points.

The 14 Points for Management

  1. “Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.” —  I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that much of the current education debate breaks down because we haven’t reached consensus about purpose.  What is the mission of American public schools?  Where is the balance between a focus on skills and standards, and focus on creativity, critical thinking, citizenship?
  2. “Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.” — A rather broad point, perhaps more approachable and practicable within the context of other, more specific points below.
  3. “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.” — In our field, this point would suggest that training teachers and improving school resources and climate should be the focus, with the “inspection” becoming an afterthought. Other critics have said of the measurement and testing mania these days that we don’t fatten a pig by weighing it over and over.
  4. “End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.” — When we start talking about suppliers and costs in education, I become leery.  Students from diverse families and backgrounds certainly cannot come from a “single supplier.”  And the correct choice about educating children does not, at first glance, always appear to be the cost-effective choice.  (The follow-up question is, what are the long term costs to a society that fails its educational mission?).  Deming’s advice might work if we envision the community as the supplier, and educational reformers might then consider whether or not quick-fixes and “turnaround models” help to establish these conditions.  (In Oakland, CA, for example, many “persistently low-performing” schools targeted for turnarounds are themselves the “new” schools born from the last turnaround.  What of loyalty and trust?).
  5. “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.” — The aim of continual improvement needs no justification, and the path towards improvement is further suggested in subsequent points.
  6. “Institute training on the job.” — See comment after #13.
  7. “Institute leadership (see Point 12). The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.” — Please pass along this note to your school board, and your favorite media outlets.  Supervision should promote improvement for all, not focus on catching the offenders. We might make progress on that front if we distributed supervision beyond the overworked school principals who too often lack the time to do either type of supervision effectively.
  8. “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” — I trust readers can think of the sources of fear.  This point suggests that it is the job of management to eliminate fear so that people can do their best work for the organization.
  9. “Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.” — In schools, lets create more leadership and administrative functions for teacher leaders, and allow them the time and compensation that goes with those duties.  And while we’re at it, expect administrators to do some work in the classroom in some consistent and systematic way.
  10. “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
    • Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
    • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.”
    — Slogans like, “no child left behind”?  And of course, the idea that every student in the nation would be proficient in the year 2014 was ridiculous.  Furthermore, note that Deming posits responsibility for quality in the system, not the individual worker who lacks the power to create or change the system.  (Of course, I believe that collectively, educators have the power to help drive change, and need to work hard to grow that power).  The misguided focus on numerical goals is all too familiar to educators.  When we object, we’re told we have to operate with business-like accountability.  Dr. Deming apparently would reply, “Substitute leadership.”
  11. “Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.” — See comment after #12.
  12. “Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.” —  Is there any pride in parroting a scripted curriculum?  Any pride in being the administrator whose leadership prerogative has been reduced to enforcing adherence to that script?  And it certainly looks like the “value-added measurement” has no place in Dr. Deming’s business.  In fact, he used a “red bead” experiment to argue what many of us keep saying in education – that there are variables beyond measurement, and certainly beyond control, that will affect measured outcomes in ways beyond the control of the individual within the system.  Thank you, Dr. Deming, and how I wish you could have spent an hour or two with William Sanders.
  13. “Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.” — In this regard, the American school system has a long way to go.  American teachers have precious little time and opportunity to engage in professional learning during their day or week, or even summer.  International comparisons show many countries invest much more in their teachers’ continual training.
  14. “Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.” — I would only add that such a top-to-bottom view of responsibility and accountability should mean that school boards and legislators are included.  If there is ever any school that is so bad it needs to fire half or all of its teachers, then its school board trustees should also resign, and the responsible legislators should answer to the voters.
12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2010 4:53 am

    I first heard of Deming’s work when GM began to study and implement it (however imperfectly) in its management sector over a decade ago. Two of our local school board members were mid-upper level managers at GM, and began asking why we weren’t flattening the hierarchy and driving out all fear in the school organization.

    Surprisingly, the teachers’ union was very suspicious of these ideas–if they were so great, why did the UAW still have to fight for every perk and benefit?–and began the familiar refrain: schools aren’t businesses! It was kind of a schizophrenic response: they strongly aligned teachers (and the bus drivers, aides, office staff, cafeteria workers and custodians who were part of the MEA) with labor, battling management, then asserted that we weren’t a business.

    Here’s the disconnect point, IMO: Schools are not businesses, but they are organizations. And the most comfortable mode of any organization is stasis. Better the devil we know…

    Excellent piece–should be widely read. Every time someone in education disparages “the business model,” it feels like like mushy thinking to me. I’m not sure there is a “business model,” to begin with–and I think there are commonalities in organizations (for-profit and not-for-profit). It benefits schools to regularly look at organizational dynamics and habits. Reflexively rejecting change has gotten many schools to the point where they were vulnerable to the imposition of unhealthy market-driven models.

  2. Karen Packard permalink
    June 12, 2010 1:08 am

    I think Demming got his ideas from Dr. William Glasser who wrote QUALITY SCHOOLS: MANAGING STUDENTS WITHOUT COERCION. I found a couple of his earlier books very helpful years ago—can’t think of the names of them but I think SCHOOLS WITHOUT FAILURE was one.

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