Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1993
Vol. 35
No. 2

Creating "Total Quality" Schools

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Does a philosophy of organizational improvement developed by American statisticians and embraced by Japanese businesses hold promise for revitalizing schools? Should schools adopt techniques for ensuring quality that have swept the business world? More and more educators are coming to think so, as they learn about—and begin to apply—the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM).
The name most closely associated with TQM is W. Edwards Deming. Deming taught the Japanese his theories of continuous improvement following World War II, and he is now widely credited with laying the groundwork for Japan's economic boom.
What was Deming's great insight? He believed "the central problem is that we tend to look upon what goes wrong [in an organization] as the fault of individual people," not of the system, explains John Jay Bonstingl, author of ASCD's Schools of Quality: An Introduction to Total Quality Management in Education. According to Deming, 80–90 percent of problems in an organization can be traced to systemic causes—practices, rules, expectations, and traditions—over which individuals have little control. Therefore, when problems arise, management should look for causes in the system and work to remove them, before casting blame on workers.
Other elements of the TQM philosophy—laid out in Deming's now-famous "14 points"—include making continuous improvements to processes; reducing reliance on end-of-the-line inspection; working to satisfy the customer; eliminating rating systems and competition between employees; empowering front-line workers; gathering data to monitor progress; and using statistical tools to guide change.
Continuously improving processes is central to TQM. Instead of scrutinizing outcomes—the products rolling off the end of the line—we should "focus on the integrity of the process leading to the outcomes," says Bonstingl. By refining production processes, we can increase the likelihood that outcomes will be of high quality. We can discover how to refine processes by collecting and analyzing data about how the processes are presently working, using statistical techniques.
Bonstingl, who was a teacher for 17 years, draws the analogy to the classroom.
As a teacher, he says, he followed tradition: He taught a unit, tested the students, reviewed the right answers with them, marked their grades in his grade book, and moved on to the next unit. The focus was on coverage, not mastery, of the material. He now finds it ironic that "the ink in my grade book will last longer than the learning those symbols represent."
What was missing? Once a unit was completed, he and his students never reviewed how it had gone, to find ways to make the next unit more productive, he says. Assessment data were collected to assign grades only—not to improve the system of delivering instruction. As a result, the process of teaching and learning was never refined.
"Why don't we emphasize going back and talking about how [students] did that unit?" he asks. "What worked for them? What didn't? How can we restructure the next unit" so that learning is improved?
Another change that TQM prescribes—one even more radical—is to do away with the grading system. According to Deming, schools should foster students' innate "yearning for learning," Bonstingl says. Grades demoralize many students and create competition between students. The goal should be to continuously improve one's learning, not to earn high marks. "If kids go for the grade, they may not be going for any learning," Bonstingl points out.

Improving Administration

Many schools are having success using TQM to improve their administrative processes. The Crawford Central School District in Meadville, Pa., for example, began its quality initiative over three-and-a-half years ago, after a team from the district received training in quality principles. They call their approach "Total Quality Transformation," or TQT, says former superintendent Robert Bender, who is now a TQM consultant.
How does TQT work? The first step is to select a subsystem for improvement, Bender explains. As their first project, educators in the Crawford district chose the work-order system. They wanted to reduce the number of days school personnel had to wait for repairs to be made.
The next step is to define the system clearly, using tools such as flow charts and cause-and-effect diagrams. "You can't improve something until you've defined it; and the best way to define it is to draw a picture of it," Bender says.
Next, the team should zero in on the aspects of the subsystem they plan to improve. Bender emphasizes that these should be quantifiable factors, such as time. "As long as you can count it, you can improve it."
Then the team must develop a design for gathering relevant data—deciding who will collect the data, what data they will collect, when they will collect them, and so on. When a sufficient sample of data has been collected, the team analyzes it.
Using insights they've gained from the data, the team generates an improvement theory, Bender says. To test their theory, they apply it (perhaps in just one or two schools or classrooms), and then take another data sample. They analyze the new data to determine whether the improvement theory worked. If it did, they act to institutionalize the change.
"We cast it in bronze," Bender emphasizes, "to be sure we don't backslide." And thereafter, "we take data samples forever," he adds. "We never stop monitoring that system."
Who is involved in the work? The nature of the project should drive the selection of the people involved, Bender says: the team should include those who work within the subsystem and those who are responsible for it. (If these groups are large, team members can be representative).
The TQT process is time-consuming, Bender concedes. Therefore, educators must guard against investing more time and energy in a particular subsystem than makes sense. In choosing an area for improvement, they should ask themselves: How significant is the subsystem? What is the potential payoff of working on it?
The Crawford district educators were successful in their first use of TQT: “We greatly improved the work-order process,” Bender reports. Since then, they have used TQT to improve a number of other subsystems, including
  • reducing the amount of time it takes to process psychological referrals. (This is a serious matter, Bender says, because referrals often involve students who are disruptive, and teachers need a system that responds quickly.)
  • reducing the number of days employees have to wait to receive purchases, such as instructional materials for the classroom. "We cut the purchase order time in half," Bender reports, from an average of 34 days to an average of 18 days.
  • conserving energy. A pilot project at the high school has reduced electricity bills by rescheduling certain kitchen tasks that used to be done simultaneously (causing a "spike" that raised the school's rates for the entire eight-hour billing period).
  • decreasing noninstructional time. With the help of local college students, district educators are collecting data to determine common internal and external interruptions during class time. Bender estimates that this project will take at least a year to bear fruit (other projects have taken four to five months).
TQT has worked, Bender believes, because it has helped employees develop a different paradigm—a different "lens through which [they] look at [their] work." They now think in terms of the entire system and its interconnections, he says.

Improving Learning

If TQM has helped schools improve their administrative processes, can it also be used to improve instruction?
Yes—and TQM must be used to improve the teaching-learning process, asserts David Langford, an education consultant from Billings, Mont. "If TQM has anything to offer education, it has to do that."
To date, educators have put too much emphasis on using TQM to improve administrative processes, believes Langford, who spearheaded the TQM initiative at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska—a school that has gained a national reputation for its application of quality principles. If TQM is perceived as a tool that is not relevant to the classroom, "you'll turn off huge groups of teachers," he warns.
Langford is not impressed by the argument that much of what happens in the classroom is intangible and hence not subject to the statistical scrutiny TQM prescribes. "It can all be measured," he maintains. Even affective factors, such as students' self-esteem, can be measured through surveys and other means, he says.
Langford's imagination first became fired by TQM theories while he was a teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe, where he taught science and technology subjects. He drew inspiration from the work of Deming, with whom he struck up a correspondence.
According to Deming, the top management of an organization must subscribe to the TQM philosophy. Langford, however, did not have administrative support when he began to apply quality principles. He was told, "We're already a good school. Why mess with that?" he recalls.
But he forged ahead, reflecting that, as a teacher, he was the top manager of his classroom. He started by introducing quality principles in a small class where he felt comfortable.
Langford asked his students to focus on both the speed and quality of the work they were producing. Both variables are important in the real world, he explained: a client requesting an architect's proposal, for example, wants it to be ready on time and done well.
First, the class focused on speed, using a chart to track whether students completed their work on time. They also tracked the degree of effort exerted. At first, students were not honest in reporting their degree of effort, Langford says, because they feared that admitting they hadn't tried hard would lower their grade. Eventually, however, they realized that his purpose in asking was to improve the system, not to rate them, and their replies became more candid.
After gathering data on the timeliness of work done, Langford asked his students to explain the variation they found. Why were some tasks not completed on time? Some of the reasons students gave were not pleasant for him to hear: "We didn't understand" and "You didn't explain it well" were typical comments. Langford believes his students were sincere (and not merely trying to evade responsibility) because they knew he would make changes in his instruction in response to their feedback.
Langford next had his students consider whether the work they did on time was of good quality. To help students determine this, he discussed standards of quality with them. Then students made judgments about their own work.
"At first they lied like mad," he says—until they saw there was no benefit in overrating their work. This was because Langford had scuttled the grading system: students who met the standard received an `A'; those who did not meet it received an incomplete, which they could then have deleted from their transcript. Removing the emphasis on grading allowed him to concentrate on making the learning experience unforgettable, not on the test, he says. And it evoked his students' "yearning for learning" by "releasing [them] from all that stress of grading and ranking."
Over the four years that Langford used TQM in his classroom, the quality of his students' work improved dramatically. At the beginning of that time, only 5–10 percent of his students were doing `A' work. By the end, 90–95 percent of them were achieving at that level.
Other teachers were "just furious with me," Langford says, when he started giving `A's to 95 percent of his students—even though he could show his colleagues he'd actually raised his standard from what it had been four years before. He asked his fellow teachers to consider what their real purpose was: to produce a nice bell curve or to make sure their students enjoyed learning and wanted to continue learning? Eventually, he won others to his way of thinking. Today, the entire school is dedicated to using quality principles.
Another TQM expert who emphasizes that quality principles must change classroom practice is Randolph Schenkat, facilitator of the Winona (Minn.) Council for Quality. Schenkat is the author of a book on the use of TQM in education that ASCD will publish this spring.
"We have to produce a double change in education," Schenkat asserts: Educators must change the way they manage their organizations and radically redefine their "manufacturing process"—the way they deliver instruction to students. "If schools merely apply TQM to current educational processes—which generally produce low-level learning—and do not change the total curriculum and delivery system," their application of TQM could actually do damage, he believes.
What makes TQM such a potent philosophy for improving education? Collecting data is critical—but more important is the use made of that data. "In education, we never do anything with it. We just look at test data and say, `Oh, we had a good year,'" Langford says. "In the quality world, you do something with the data."

ASCD Resources

ASCD Resources

The November 1992 issue of ASCD's journal, Educational Leadership, is devoted to the topic of “Improving School Quality.” To order, contact ASCD's Order Processing Department at (703) 549-9110.

Schools of Quality: An Introduction to Total Quality Management in Education, by John Jay Bonstingl, introduces educators to the principles of TQM as they apply to education.

ASCD sponsors a network on the topic of “TQM—Education.” For information, contact John Jay Bonstingl, P.O. Box 810, Columbia, MD 21044; Tel. and Fax: (410) 997-7555.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services