Andrea Gabor, who is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, is an expert on the life and philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. Deming has been widely credited with reviving the Japanese economy, as well as major American corporations who listened to him.
In this fascinating post, she draws lessons from the work of Deming and shows how they apply to education reform. The “reformers” want the schools to learn from business, but they are pushing the wrong lessons, she says. “Top-down, punitive solutions” don’t work. They demoralize employees. Deming believed in a work environment of collaboration and trust, not fear and blame. When things were not going well, he believed it was wrong to blame the front-line workers. While today’s “reformers” want to find and fire “bad teachers,” Deming insisted: “The responsibility for quality rests with senior management.” He was a dedicated foe of performance pay, as he concluded that it sowed dissension and unhealthy competition among workers who should be working as a team.
Deming’s approach to organizational improvement transformed entire industries in post-war Japan and, later, in the U.S. In the years leading up to his death, in 1993, he began turning his interest to education. He believed that the same principles he advocated for companies—systems thinking, collaborative improvement, understanding statistical variation, creating organizational cultures free of fear and conducive to creative problem-solving—could also transform schools.
Simply put, Deming would be appalled by much of what passes for education reform today…..
Deming’s work has important implications for education: First, it is based on management (everyone from principals to education bureaucrats) recognizing its responsibility for creating a climate conducive to meaningful improvement, including building trust and collaboration, and providing the necessary training; this involves hard work, Deming admonished, not quick-fix gimmicks, incentives or threats.
Second, for many teacher advocates, it means dropping the defensive—education-is-good-enough—posture and embracing a mindset of continuous improvement; it also may mean adopting union contracts that mirror the professional practices of many teachers and are based on more flexible work rules. (Though not the unsustainable sweat-shop hours that are common at many charters.)
Third, by ending the finger-pointing and building a more collaborative approach to improvement, schools and districts could create cultures that are far more rewarding and productive for both children and educators….
Deming invoked the power of statistical theory: If management is doing its job correctly in terms of hiring, developing employees and keeping the system stable, most people will do their best. Of course, there will always be fluctuations—human beings, after all, aren’t automatons. Deming understood that an employee with a sick child, a toothache or some other “special cause” problem may not function at peak performance all the time. However, in a well-designed system, most employees will perform around a mean.
There will also be outliers who perform above or below the mean—though well-run organizations will have the fewest outliers because they’re hiring and training practices will guarantee a consistent level of performance. The work of high performers, Deming believed, should be studied; their work can serve as a model for improving the system.
Low performers, Deming believed, represent a failure of management to perform one of its key functions. Deming believed that hiring represents a moral and contractual obligation. Once hired, it is management’s responsibility to help every employee succeed whether via training or relocation. While it might occasionally be necessary to fire a poor performer, Deming believed this option should be a last resort…..
The lessons for education are clear: Quality improvement must begin with senior management (principals and education bureaucrats) establishing the conditions for collaboration and iterative problem-solving. It requires flexibility and professionalism from both teachers and education leaders. Finally, a climate of fear and finger-pointing will do nothing to improve schools; indeed, it is likely to set back the effort for years to come.
There is much we can learn from Deming. This important post is a must-read.