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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Total Quality Management's Challenge to Urban Schools

Detroit discovered that TQM's success in urban schools depends on how theory is adapted to their unique social and political conditions.

Total Quality Management (TQM) is the latest in a parade of models, recipes, programs, frameworks, and slogans for guiding school change. The Detroit schools have found success with TQM (see box), but we have discovered it cannot be taken simply at face value.
Total Quality Management is not a program or a recipe or a project to be implemented. Instead, Deming's 14 Points are a set of broad principles about the basic culture and norms of practice that should exist in a quality-focused organization. In our work, we discovered that these essential elements of the Total Quality philosophy must be carefully and thoughtfully adapted to the unique ecology of American public education, particularly in urban centers.
Urban schools face some unique conditions and constraints not found in private sector environments where TQM principles have evolved and been validated. To begin with, the context for urban schooling reflects a diversity of social values, and competing interests, seldom found among the customers of private companies. Urban schools are not only accountable to the direct recipients of services but to all the taxpayers who support their operation and to political structures that control their fiscal resources and the standards by which their results will be judged.
In the final analysis, urban schools are responsible to the local communities and, in effect, to the entirety of society in a manner shared by few corporations. Unlike the arenas where TQM principles were originally developed and implemented, public schools typically have far less direct control over their operations than private sector companies. To be sure, new initiatives such as waivers from state rules, school or site-based management, or more radical reforms such as the broad governing authority of Chicago's Local School Councils have increased the degree to which local schools and districts can control their operations. But for the majority of schools and districts, state education departments and state legislatures continue to define and circumscribe what schools are to achieve and the specific strategies they will use.
State-level requirements for minutes (and sometimes methods) of instruction, school calendars, curriculum and graduation requirements, program segregation, and, perhaps most importantly, control over the amount and use of fiscal resources all severely limit the degree of discretion local schools can exercise in comparison with private companies. Schools cannot segment their market, redefine their product mix, or sell off unprofitable or problematic units.
A related, though often overlooked, issue is the degree to which providing a truly high quality education for all children is apparently not a priority interest to the majority of voters. Schools often become the battlegrounds on which wars between competing interest groups and constituencies in the broader society are fought. Elected school boards often carry out the wishes of a political majority that does not necessarily reflect the local community populations and, in some cases, is in confict with their ambitions. In urban and poor districts in particular, racial and class antipathy and conflicts have also hampered the ability of schools to access the resources and support necessary to implement the types of fundamental changes required by a TQM approach.
Many have argued that these kinds of statements are an unwarranted reproach of the motives and values held by the majority of urban voters and political leaders, or that they are simply excuses for the failure of urban schools to successfully educate large segments of their student population. However, we believe that one need only consider the conditions reported, for example, in Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities to recognize the growing inequities among schools—inequities in expectations as well as funding. It is not as much a matter of making judgments about motives or values as it is making observations about behavior and priorities.
This is not to suggest that “customer” satisfaction is not an important element in the equation for redefining and improving educational quality. Instead, the implication is that individual schools, school systems, and the educational community as a whole must provide far more assertive leadership in serving as both a catalyst and a vehicle for developing a broad-based consensus among various customers. In addition, political leadership must become as committed to providing support and recourse for urban schools as for business and industry.
With these caveats in mind, we believe that TQM principles can help city schools face six unique challenges.
Redefine the role, purpose, and responsibilities of schools. Schools should be seen as an investment in society's future, not just as service institutions for students and parents only. The dialogue about educational improvement has too often been limited to those involved with schools as recipients of services or employers of graduates. All of society, however, has a direct stake in the education of young people. Involvement must also go beyond financial support.
Improve schools as a “way of life.” School improvement is not something that can be put on a timeline; it is an ongoing process. Strategies for making fundamental changes in schooling should aim to discover, develop, and focus the attitudes and talents of staff, students, and the community around a broad-based, meaningful vision of all the goals of schooling (educational, personal, and social).
Plan comprehensive leadership training for educators at all levels. Most educational leaders were trained to be managers of what was believed to be a fairly static, hierarchical process. It is unproductive, and even foolish, to simply demand that principals and other leaders do better without ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to do so.
Create staff development that addresses the attitudes and beliefs of school staff. Traditional staff development in instructional strategies and skills is not enough to bring about the quality and depth of changes necessary to restructure urban schools. Usually, it is attitudes and beliefs that guide how people behave, and we must change what people believe to be true about students and communities, their roles and responsibilities in the process, and the rules and relationships that define the process.
Use research- and practice-based information to guide both policy and practice. Too much of current educational practice and policy flies in the face of recent research and exemplary practice. The practice and research base behind all school policies should be explicit, public, and defensible.
Design comprehensive child-development initiatives that cut across a variety of agencies and institutions. The complexity of circumstances facing urban families and children has a major impact on schools. An urban school must adjust to and accommodate all students who arrive at the door on a given day, a number that can vary greatly. Accordingly, a school must develop a more comprehensive and coordinated support network for these children and families than is currently the case in most cities. There may well be a need for additional resources, but schools would see much improvement if all city, state, and district services were guided by a single, comprehensive policy and agenda of priorities that cut across all agencies and governing structures.

No Quick Fix

Our experience suggests that the principles of Total Quality Management can provide an important philosophical and practical basis for restructuring urban schools. But we must be careful not to allow TQM to become the next quick fix for the extraordinarily complex challenges facing our nation's urban schools. There are no simple answers, but the Total Quality Management process, if thoughtfully applied, can move us in the right direction.

Judson Hixson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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