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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

The Quality Revolution In Education

As TQM finds its way into schools, more and more educators are discovering the natural fit that quality principles and practices have with their own aspirations for the continuous improvement of education.

Suddenly, it seems, the name of W. Edwards Deming is everywhere. From relative obscurity in this country a dozen years ago, Deming's name has become synonymous with the movement he calls Quality Management, better known as TQM or Total Quality Management. This movement is spawning a new American revolution, as quality becomes our watchword in every aspect of life. TQM principles and practices are revitalizing businesses, government agencies, hospitals, social organizations, home life—and our own world of education.

The Birth of TQM

The story of TQM, as many of us know, is entwined with the legend of Japan's phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes of World War II. Japanese industrial leaders insist this could not have happened without the help of Deming and his fellow American statistical experts, Joseph M. Juran and Armand Feigenbaum. Deming and Juran lectured throughout Japan in the years following the war, teaching manufacturers how to reverse their well-established reputation for shoddy, cheap goods by designing quality into their work systems. An increasingly sophisticated global marketplace demanded higher quality goods, they proclaimed, and would no longer tolerate Japanese “junk.” At the time, war-ravaged Japan was desperate for foreign trade, the proceeds from which would enable the country to feed its people.
At a decisive meeting in Tokyo in 1950, Deming pledged to the nation's top industrial leaders that, if they would embrace the philosophy of Quality Management, they would “capture markets the world over within five years.” Everyone was incredulous.
Deming's message was familiar to many Japanese industrialists of that era. They had heard lectures on quality control a few years earlier by American statisticians on loan to General MacArthur's staff from Bell Laboratories. It was at Bell Labs where Deming's teachings had their genesis in the work of his mentor, Walter Shewhart. Shewhart's research focused on improving the reliability of telephones by building quality assurance into the entire system of design and manufacture, rather than relying on end-of-the-line inspection to remove defective phones before they entered the marketplace.
Deming's quality crusade in Japan—sponsored by the Allied occupation force and supported by Ichiro Ishikawa, the leading industrialist of Japan's powerful Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organizations)—was virtually unknown in the United States until the 1970s. It was at that time that American manufacturers' bottom lines began to bleed red ink, as customers the world over registered their preference for Japanese goods over American products. The reason for this preference was, in most cases, a simple one: Japanese items had consistently better quality at competitive prices.
It was not until three decades after Deming's first lecture tour of Japan that Americans finally “discovered” our then-octogenarian native son. On June 24, 1980, in what must now be one of the most famous television documentaries of all time. “If Japan Can, Why Can't We?” focused on the growing disparity between U.S. and Japanese industrial competence. This NBC “white paper” introduced Deming as the man whose message had transformed Japan. In the film, Deming advised Americans to resist the temptation to simply copy what the Japanese had done. Quality cannot be applied externally in a Band-Aid fashion, he maintained; it has to be developed. Deming urged Americans to learn how to “work smarter, not harder” by adopting a new quality-focused way of approaching the processes of production, the systems in which those processes take place, and the interaction of people within those processes and systems.

TQM and Education

As leaders in education begin to adopt TQM as their operational philosophy, they are discovering the good news—and the bad news—about TQM. The bad news first: Total Quality Management is neither a Holy Grail nor a magic silver bullet. TQM cannot be successful if it is viewed as the flavor of the month or as “our project for this school year.”
The good news is this: The real rewards begin to emerge when TQM ideas and practices become so embedded in the culture of the organization—the day-to-day work of its people and systems—that it is simply “the way we do things around here.” Its greatest benefits come about as a natural part of the evolutionary process of implementing a program of continuous improvement, over time, in a consistent manner.
The benefits of TQM are tangible: People feel better about themselves and their efforts on the job, and they take greater pride in their work. Relationships among people in the organization are more honest and open. Administrators often feel less isolated, misunderstood, and burdened. Productivity goes up, as work processes are improved continuously. With organizational change come opportunities for personal and professional growth, along with the pride and joy that come with getting better and better every day, and helping others to do the same.
Although the philosophy of Total Quality Management springs from the world of business, it transcends the narrow commercial imperatives of increased productivity and profitability. TQM, at its heart, is dedicated to bringing out the best qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the work we do together. It is, in many ways, a natural fit with the hopes and aspirations of educational leaders in their work to improve schools and communities.

The Four Pillars of Total Quality

  1. The organization must focus, first and foremost, on its suppliers and customers. In a TQM organization, everyone is both a customer and a supplier. It is essential to identify one's roles in the two capacities to better understand the systemic nature of the work in which all are involved. In education, we are particularly prone to personal and departmental isolation. “When I close the classroom door, those kids are mine!” is a notion too narrow to survive in a world in which teamwork and collaboration result in high-quality benefits for the greatest number of people.In the classroom, teacher-student teams are the equivalent of industry's front-line workers. The product of their successful work together is the development of the student's capabilities, interests, and character. In one sense, the student is the teacher's customer, as the recipient of educational services provided for the student's growth and improvement. Viewed in this way, the teacher and the school are suppliers of effective learning tools, environments, and systems to the student, who is the school's primary customer. The school is responsible for providing for the long-term educational welfare of students by teaching them how to learn and communicate in high-quality ways, how to assess quality in their own work and in that of others, and how to invest in their own lifelong and life-wide learning processes by maximizing opportunities for growth in every aspect of daily life.In another sense, the student is also a worker, whose product is essentially his or her own continuous improvement and personal growth. The school's stakeholders and secondary customers—including parents and family, businesses, members of the community, and other taxpayers—have a legitimate right to expect progress in students' competencies, characters, and capabilities for compassionate and responsible citizenship—not for the direct and immediate gain of the stockholders but, rather, for the long-term benefit of the next generation and of generations to come. Total Quality in education, as in life, is essentially generative.Within a Total Quality school setting, administrators work collaboratively with their customers: teachers. Gone are the vestiges of “Scientific Management” popularized early in this century by Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose watchwords were compliance, control, and command. The foundations for this system were fear, intimidation, and an adversarial approach to problem solving. Today it is in our best interest to encourage everyone's potential by dedicating ourselves to the continual improvement of our own abilities and those of the people with whom we work and live. Total Quality is, essentially, a win-win philosophy that works to everyone's ultimate advantage.
  2. Everyone in the organization must be dedicated to continuous improvement, personally and collectively. The Japanese call this ethos kaizen, a societywide covenant of mutual help in the process of getting better and better, day by day.In Japanese companies, employees meet regularly in “quality circles” to discuss ways to do their work better, often by modifying existing processes. Some American companies and schools are also setting aside valuable time for kaizen discussions that foster the collaborative development of a true learning environment. As Peter Senge has suggested, those organizations most capable of surviving and prospering are “learning organizations”—where people, processes, and systems are dedicated to continuous learning and improvement.If schools are to be true learning organizations, they must be afforded the resources, especially time and money, needed for training, quality circles, research, and communication with the school's stakeholders: parents, students, businesses, colleges, community residents, taxpayers, and others. Schools must also rethink practices that focus narrowly on students' limitations rather than their range of innate strengths. Howard Gardner has pointed out the self-defeating nature of a narrow academic focus, encouraging educators to acknowledge the existence of multiple intelligences and potentials within each student and to help students develop their many intelligences more fully day by day.Deming suggests that we “abolish grades (A, B, C, D) in school, from toddlers up through the university. When graded, pupils put emphasis on the grade, not on learning.” True dedication to the continuous improvement of all students will require educators to reexamine current practices of grading and assessment. The bell-shaped curve, still considered the ideal outcome of aggregate assessment in many schools, is ultimately destructive of learning environments and the spirit of mutual improvement. The bell curve (and some other grading systems) has the effect, perhaps unintended, of setting up unnecessary and counterproductive scarcities of student success in competitive, win-lose environments. It doesn't take long for children to find out where they fit in the five pigeonholes of the bell curve, and the students' narrow academic self-image becomes, all too often, intertwined in self-fulfilling prophecies played out throughout life.Educators must examine the wide range of effects that externally imposed assessment has on students' capacities to grow, to learn, and to assess the quality of their own work as well as the work of others. Many schools are already implementing new assessment strategies as part of their Total Quality plan, including process portfolios, exhibitions, and even celebrations of students' progress throughout the year.
  3. The organization must be viewed as a system, and the work people do within the system must be seen as ongoing processes. Deming and others suggest that more than 85 percent of all the things that go wrong in any organization are directly attributable to how the organization's system and processes are set up. Individual teachers and students, then, are less to blame for failure than is the system—the seemingly immutable pattern of expectations, activities, perceptions, resource allocations, power structures, values, and the traditional school culture in general. Therefore, it is the system that deserves our greatest attention.Schools that have adopted TQM principles and practices invest substantial resources to discover new and better ways to help realize everyone's potential. Every system is made up of processes, and the improvements made in the quality of those processes in large part determine the quality of the resulting products. In the new paradigm of education, continual improvement of learning processes will replace the outdated “teach and test” mode of instruction. The quality of teaching/learning processes is mirrored in learning outcomes. Therefore, we must acknowledge that to focus our attention on results is premature or even counterproductive, without a prior and overarching focus on the processes that bring forth desired results.
  4. The success of Total Quality Management is the responsibility of top management. Without concerted, visible, and constant dedication to making TQM principles and practices part of the deep culture of the organization, efforts are doomed to fail. Leaders must, according to the first of Deming's 14 Points, “create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service.” In business, this means that company leaders must establish the context in which the company stays in business and provides jobs through research, innovation, and the continual improvement of products and services. Increased profits are less important than this focus.In education, school leaders must focus on establishing the context in which students can best achieve their potential through the continuous improvement of teachers' and students' work together. Educational leaders who create Total Quality school environments know that improving test scores and assessment symbols is less important than the progress inherent in the learning processes of students, teachers, administrators, and all of the school's stakeholders.

TQM in Action

  • Hungary's first private, teacher-operated secondary school, the Independent High School of Economics in Budapest, is applying TQM and a process orientation to its pioneering work with faculty, students, and the community. The school's efforts to create a new educational context for democratic citizenship has provided a breath of fresh air in a brand-new republic struggling to understand and catch up with the post-industrial world. The school's process of development, in which I have been privileged to participate, focuses on the continuous improvement of all the school community's citizens. Their motto, “We are for the tadpoles!” reflects the school's profound understanding of the inherent value of being the best possible tadpole, before becoming the best possible frog.
  • School leaders in the well-known Total Quality experiment at small public, residential Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, have applied TQM principles and practices not only to the work of teachers and students in the classroom, but also to the establishment of a successful student-operated salmon export business with Japan. In nearby Haines, Alaska, teachers and school board members have also convinced their superintendent to support TQM throughout the district.
  • In Erie, Pennsylvania, leaders of the town and the schools have joined forces to create a communitywide Quality Council to generate a renaissance in all aspects of citizens' lives. Long the butt of jokes about its stodgy image, Erie recently established the World Center for Community Excellence as a helping hand to other communities who would like to implement quality improvement programs.
  • In Glenwood, Maryland, the middle school has instituted New England-style town meetings for the student body. Before attending the meeting, every student works in one or more quality circle “S-Teams” with fellow students. S-Team (or Support Team) is a play on the word esteem. In the teams students discuss how their work, individually and collectively, can be improved. They pledge specific efforts to help bring about the planned results in their “house” or grade, or even the entire school. S-Team projects take the students into the community as well, for public service and town improvement efforts at nursing homes and hospitals, at home to improve family life, and at school for campus beautification.In neighboring Columbia, Maryland, Wilde Lake High School has practiced a philosophy of continuous student progress since its inception more than 20 years ago. There is no failure. Students perfect their school work until they deserve at least a C grade, a practice that gives the school an exemplary reputation among college admissions officers.
  • At Central Park East School in East Harlem, grades are unknown. Student projects, demonstrations of learning progress, and descriptive evaluations of students' work, have—with strong administrative leadership and vision—contributed to the creation of a Total Quality culture in a challenging environment.
  • Redwood Middle School in Napa, California, is solving its problems of an unwieldy (and growing) population and concomitant tendencies toward impersonalization by creating cohort groups of teachers and students. Teachers are given time every day to meet in their groups, to discuss the progress of students, to monitor their individual and collective learning processes, and to plan learning opportunities for students based on analysis of diagnostic data. Learning at Redwood is a team project.
  • In Virginia's Rappahannock County schools, TQM training has paid off in virtually every aspect of the district's functioning. Report cards have been designed by a parent-teacher-student team. Serious disciplinary problems on bus runs have been solved as a result of the efforts of a Quality Improvement Committee, composed of parents, bus drivers, the transportation supervisor, administrators, and students. In addition, results of districtwide customer satisfaction surveys have shown remarkable gains in the three years since the district began implementing Total Quality principles and practices.
  • Quality-conscious companies such as Corning Incorporated are actively supporting Total Quality transformation in the schools in their communities. The Koalaty Kid Program, brainchild of the spirited staff of Carder Elementary School in Corning, New York, is now vigorously supported by Corning Incorporated, the community's chief employer, and by the American Society for Quality Control. The presence of their mascot, the Koala, throughout the school and in assemblies celebrating the continuous improvement of students, is a constant reminder that every kid is a Koalaty Kid. The program, says David Luther of Corning Incorporated, “is based on the assumptions that children want to learn in acceptable ways and will make a real effort to do so if the environment they're in promotes their self-esteem and stimulates their desire to achieve attainable goals.” The program works, adds Luther, because it “is a systematic process for achieving the desired outcome and for continuous improvement.”
  • The Arlington Independent School District in Texas has united the community to recreate their school system as “an open organization that actively listens to customers and employees and then acts positively upon what it learns. Our communication process will be marked by courtesy, responsiveness, and follow-through.” The key to success will be the implementation of a districtwide vision as a “total quality school district permeated with a commitment to continuous improvement throughout the organization.”

Creating Schools of Quality

  • Total Quality is a long-term commitment to a different way of perceiving, thinking, and acting. “Quality First” will become your way of life at work, at home, and in the community. Without such a transformation, TQM will be just another project to do while you wait for the next hot item of salvation to come down the pike.
  • Workers, acting alone, cannot create a Total Quality organization. The top leadership must acquire the resources, inspire the troops (especially when the going gets tough), and, most important, demonstrate openly and decisively an ongoing personal commitment to Total Quality Management and its application to the continuing improvement of schools and their people.
  • Training is essential if the meaning of Total Quality is to transcend the level of buzzwords. Businesses that have experienced success implementing TQM can provide guidance and training. However, their focus and mindsets are often attuned to a world holding different values and practicing different norms than those of educators. Therefore, schools must invest resources in training by educators who can build bridges of linguistic and conceptual understanding between business and education.
  • Know, before you start, that the road to Total Quality in any “learning organization” is not a smooth path. No magic plan, externally applied, will assure an efficient or painless process. Outside experts can show you models, teach you useful tools, and offer encouragement, but they cannot and should not do the work of transformation for you. A “yearning for learning” comes, ultimately, from within the individual and within the organization.
  • Take a pledge, personally and with your colleagues, before you begin your Total Quality transformation, to help and support one another throughout the ongoing process of improvement, no matter what! Make the principle of kaizen one that works in your own life, and help the people with whom you work to do the same. Above all, don't give up! When does it all end? As Deming says: “Forever!”
A decade after the publication of A Nation At Risk, educators today have the opportunity to combine efforts with each other, with business and government leaders, and with all stakeholders in our common future. We must transform our Nation at Risk into a Nation of Quality, beginning with the creation of Schools of Quality.
End Notes

1 Although Feigenbaym never lectured in Japan, his writings were highly influential in the Japanese transformation.

2 M. Walton, (1986). The Deming Management Method (New York: Perigree), p. 14.

3 Walton, p. 19.

5 Professor Jost Reischmann of the University of Tübingen, Germany, shared his concept of life-wide learning with me.

6 P. Senge, (1990), The Fifth Discipline, (New York: Doubleday).

7 P. Senge, (1990), The Fifth Discipline, (New York: Doubleday).

8 P. Senge, (1990), The Fifth Discipline, (New York: Doubleday).

9 P. Senge, (1990), The Fifth Discipline, (New York: Doubleday).

10 J. J. Bonstingl, (1992), “Deming's Fourteen Points Applied to Companies and Schools,” privately published. Also in (April 1992), Resource Guide for Total Quality Management in Texas Schools, (Austin, Tex.: Texas Association of School Administrators), pp. 7–10.

11 J. J. Bonstingl, (1991), Introduction to the Social Sciences, 3rd ed., (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; Prentice Hall). Chapter 10, “The Future.” details the process of S-Teams.

12 (1991), Koalary Kid Manual, (Milwaukee, Wis.: American Society for Quality Control), p. ii.

13 (n.d.), “20/20 Vision: Total Quality School District,” Arlington, Texas, Independent School District, brochure.

John Jay Bonstingl has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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