Remember when problem solving was the rage in educational journals and workshops? We all thought that if we could just teach ourselves and kids how to solve problems, our schools and our world would be better places. We produced students and teachers who could generate a multitude of solutions. Regrettably, many of us forgot the importance of problem finding, the critical first step to the problem-solving process.
The quality movement is gaining popularity as a solution. Signals of the pursuit of quality now appear in journals, popular media and a smattering of national organizations ready to train people in the latest solution. While there is mounting evidence that only quality-oriented organizations can survive in the future, unless we go about our business of change in dramatically different fashion from our past attempts, the quality movement in schools will be doomed to the same familiar failings of other annual trends and quick fixes. Well-meaning educators will adopt quality as a solution before spending time articulating the problems it addresses.
Organizational leaders throughout the world are achieving significantly improved results by applying the quality sciences to their organizations. Each leader would tell us that this process is, simply put, hard work. Once understood, the work of Deming, Jurand, Crosby, Glassner and a host of other experts substantially improves organizational culture and outcomes. Often, when these quality science tenets are applied to the educational setting, they are mistakenly seen as quick-fix solutions by superintendents, school boards, teachers and parents, and are not recognized as the core element necessary to restructure our schools.
A commonly used phrase applies here: people who know where they are going are more likely to get there. When going in the direction of quality, educators need to anticipate the formidable obstacles that block the way. This process reveals as much about the deep resistance to change that is present in schools as it does about school improvement. Obstacles block desired paths: they are not reasons to stop movement. Educators who spend the time finding the problems, the obstacles, will have a better understanding of how to achieve quality improvement.
The teacher-librarian is in a unique position to assist with an understanding of the obstacles outside the school system. For too long, schools have not stayed current with changes in the outside world. Teacher-librarians are aware of the increasing pace of change – the amount and type of information available. It is here that the teacher-librarian should assume a leadership role, assisting colleagues in their search for appropriate information, to gain an understanding of the hurdles to quality education.
The word Quality itself
The first hurdle is often the term quality itself, which is seen by many as a platitude, a hollow phrase with no substance or meaning. Regarded as laudable, quality is widely perceived as being unobtainable, as are truth, beauty and justice. The word is used freely by advertisers for everything from sophisticated electronics to second-rate products. As a result, the term has no meaning to people who hear it applied to management theory for the first time.
When applied to organizations, quality is quite difficult to define. Those who understand and apply quality know that slogans and superficiality have no place in a quality setting. To gain educator’s acceptance, we have to move beyond the notion that quality is undefinable and that “we know it when we see it.” The essence of quality is substance. A consensus is now emerging on the definition of quality as a clear system continuous improvement that meets customer needs. Only after training and application do these terms carry their intended meaning.
After displaying an initial interest in quality, many people quickly give up trying to learn more about it once they confront the bulky and difficult-to-understand language – emanating from management writers – that currently describes the quality sciences. Prematurely, many decide that the idea cannot be applied to schools.
Although achieving quality is very hard work, maintaining it is even harder. Workers, whether in schools or corporations, work harder and smarter when the work meets their needs.
Corporate world as the modelReferences
Skeptical of a school improvement model that comes from faltering American corporate structures, educators are reluctant to apply quality to schools. Many of us do not look at corporate life in America as an example of success, either in terms of results or of ethics. On closer examination, however, we find that it is that failing of corporate culture that the theories of W. Edwards Deming and others address (Walton, 1986).
Joel Barker has popularized the work of Thomas Kuhn regarding the importance of paradigms in the way we think about change (Barker, 1989). One of the reasons so many American corporations fail is that they do not recognize that marketplace paradigms have changed (Dobyns, 1992).A generation ago, the company that won was the company that made the most product; now the winning company makes the best product. In conventional marketplaces, the seller retained power over product design and manufacturing. In actuality, the buyer always had the power, and therein lies the paradigm shift. The buyer now expresses that power through the desire to purchase quality. Companies that have understood the paradigm of customer satisfaction – whether a low-technology company such as Lands End or a high-technology company such as Motorola – have achieved remarkable success.
What is the American response to foreign companies that embrace quality first? We bash them. We blame them. We think they are the cause of economic downturns.
Through the direct leadership of W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s, Japanese governmental and corporate leaders adopted the notion of quality and propelled themselves into a leadership position in the world marketplace. At the same time, American corporate leaders rejected Deming’s thinking and concentrated on issues that were tangential to quality. In a classic example of wrong-headed thinking, some American corporate leaders now blame Japan for the failing American corporate structures. This kind of blaming is wrong-headed because limiting the import of quality products will not help the American corporate structure, the economy, or the consumers. Even tax cuts, as psychiatrist William Glasser points out, are not the solution (Glasser, 1991). Given the choice, American consumers will spend their newfound dollars on quality products, thus deepening recessionary trends for countries that do not make the best.
Deming’s ideas work, but they encounter resistance when applied to schools. Some of that resistance resides in the language used by him and other management theorists to explain quality; some of it comes from perceived weakness in the American corporate structure. Much of the resistance, however, resides in two areas: leadership and change.
Leaders of quality organizations must live and breathe the essence of quality. In every action they take, every decision they make, they are role models for the rest of the organization. Although a quality school is not a top-down setting, such a school will not come into being unless the school leader is the champion of quality. In my view, two of Deming’s 14 points are critically important to leaders: constancy of purpose and self-evaluation.
Deming asserts that 94 percent of the problems that exist within an organization are within management’s power to solve. Yet those who occupy leadership positions in our schools are perhaps the single greatest obstacle to implementing a quality approach to the teaching and learning process. School leaders are so overwhelmed by financial, political and statutory constraints on their actions that they perceive themselves as powerless to effect real change in schools.
Over the past decade, schools across the country developed mission statements. Generally in narrative forms and written by broad-based committees, these statements tend to be characterized as a rational link of platitudes. Once written, these well-intentioned efforts often play no continuing roles in schools. Specifically, school and instructional practices remain unexamined for consistency with the mission. In a quality school, constancy of purpose is the critical factor. Whether in Sitka, Alaska; Johnson City, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; or LaJoya, Texas, schools have a constancy of purpose. The leader articulates that purpose endlessly to all internal and external customers.
Early systems of management theory that were based on inspection of workers failed because the inspection model assumed that fear would motivate the workers to higher levels of productivity. Someone was watching, rating and ranking. In a quality school, leaders drive out the fear by eliminating inspection for staff and program evaluation. Collecting information is important to making better decisions, but that information cannot be gathered usefully in a culture characterized by fear and mistrust. To optimize the school’s mission, every aspect of its work should be critically self-evaluated. In schools, the obstacles to a self-evaluation process are considerable, given the public’s concern over student performance and the widespread political pressure for school improvement.
These changes hold interesting consequences for recent initiatives in our profession, such as school-based management. Such efforts at collaborative decision making in schools is good, but take alone, they are short-range, quick fixes without a leadership commitment to constancy of purpose and self-evaluation.
Just another change
We are victims of our own scattered and disjointed attempts to change. We read an article, attend a workshop, or hire a consultant and get excited because we mistakenly think we have found the answer. In reality, all we have found is a short-term solution, one that lasts only until the next workshop. Unless schools shatter the norms that work against quality, we will continue to use impulse reactions to ill-defined problems.
Schools across the country are staffed with educators who we think do not need to change. By conventional measures, their students perform well. Our past successes guarantee us nothing, however, when change occurs (Baker, 1989). Remember that the Swiss are the ones who invented the quartz watch, but because it did not meet their definition of a watch, they gave the patent away to Texas Instruments and Seiko. It is because of this resistance to change that the teacher-librarian must impress upon the staff how thoroughly the world of information has been altered over the last decade. Technology and communication have experienced the most radical changes, and because of this, instruction must change too.
Judy-Arin Krupp and other experts on adult development provide valuable insight into the effects adult development stages have on school culture (Krupp, 1981). Schools that expanded during the growth-oriented era of the 1960s now find themselves with a majority, in some places as high as 75 percent, of teachers over the age of 50. Adult development theorists have a lot to say about how these older professionals approach change: they wait it out. Annually, these teachers experience the unbridled enthusiasm of younger teachers and new administrators who attempt to win support for the latest trend. How often have we seen them greet new ideas with a mellow, seasoned response of “this too will past”. Look at back volumes of educational journals, and you will discover that it is the rhetoric that we frequently associate with change that has caused the skepticism of our senior and experienced faculties.
One year at a time
The conventional planning process for schools have always been limited to a year-to-year basis. Schools everywhere are funded on annual budgets and, therefore, have to justify the existence of programs and changes. State legislatures convene annually and change the bureaucratic requirements that reign over local school systems. Boards of education require annual reports and other rituals based on a year-to-year approach to planning. Even something as pedestrian as a teacher’s planning book contains only enough space for one year.
Partly because of this orientation and a 10-month year, time passes too quickly for teachers. Shortly after the frantic rush of concluding one school year, we begin the frantic rush of preparing for another. The symbolism of this short-range planning is obvious; its effects are disastrous. This pattern of thinking leads well-intentioned people to quick fixes. We mistakenly seek closure as a goal. Remediation and special education practices perpetuate this idea in their emphasis on short-range instructional planning. As quality-oriented educators, we can begin to make improvements in our schools when we drop year-to-year pattern of thinking about our problems.
Think of a goal or want that you achieved recently. What was your immediate reaction? For most people, a void or emptiness follows the short-lived satisfaction. New needs, wants and goals surface. It is this flow of goal/achievement/new goal that characterizes continuous improvement, a long-range approach to planning that is a core concept of quality.
Although similar to elements of strategic planning and other problem-solving models, continuous improvement is a cycle of planning, doing, studying and planning again. The process never stops. It begins with a valid statement of wants that is then filtered through beliefs and profound knowledge before the action planning begins. This plan-do-study approach characterizes the difference between continuous improvement and a blitz of quick fixes.
I know that already
Deming asserts that we need to base decisions on profound knowledge. When first applied to schools, this is interpreted as gathering an understanding of existing research. The teacher-librarian should be the role model for lifelong learning, using the latest retrieval systems and instructing colleagues who are less familiar in their use. The research process itself is modeled by the teacher-librarian, utilizing an information skills structure such as the “Big Six Skills” by Eisenberg and Berkowitz.
Veteran teachers have a wealth of experience that is often overlooked when constructing a knowledge base. Schools need to look inside, as well as outside, when gathering knowledge. Data searches are valuable; but, when consulted and engaged, senior educators can also be excellent resources for the change process.
Collecting the right information and using it to plan and evaluate improvement is essential. Expertise in this area often exists, untapped, in a school’s community. In Newtown, Connecticut, community advisory groups are a regular part of the improvement process. When bringing its mathematics curriculum in line with NCTM standards, the school district contacted area corporations and asked them to nominate to an advisory group people whose jobs required a high degree of mathematical competence. Experts emerged in fields ranging from laser technology to statistics. Once convened, the advisory group validated the need to alter mathematics instruction and assisted the district in making the changes.
“I know that already” is the death knell for change in a school. With information doubling every two to three years (Roberts & Hay. 1989), we can’t possibly “know that already” very often or for much longer. Once we develop experience in basing knowledge and shared values (constancy of purpose), we will move schools forward.
By continuing to model the gathering, synthesizing and evaluation of information from a variety of sources, teacher-librarians will find themselves key players in the restructuring process.
Students don’t value school
In the fashion of Lake Wobegon, many schools throughout the country meet traditional expectations well. However, good enough is no longer good enough. In quality schools, the entire bell-shaped curve shifts to the right, with learners at all levels of performance improving their achievement through the establishment of higher standards once quality is embraced.
Phil Schlechty, president of the Kentucky-based Center for Educational Leadership in School Reform, sends a wake-up call to senior faculties and educational leaders throughout the country when he observes that high schools are places where young people come to watch older people work (Schlechty, 1989). Students, whom Schlechty refers to as knowledge workers, take on a different posture in quality schools. The problem becomes defined as: how do we convince students that learning adds quality to their lives?
To move our students toward a commitment to lifelong learning, it is essential to provide them with the appropriate information skills. The success that students experience in learning will provide the motivation to continue (achievement motivation).
Following the research done by psychiatrist William Glasser in American high schools (Glasser, 1990), the faculty and students of the Newtown, Connecticut, high school surveyed its student body on issues of quality (Freeston, 1992a). Alarmingly, students in Newtown are similar to students in Glasser’s research. Like students everywhere, they know when they produce quality work. Ask them, and they’ll tell you they don’t do it very often, and when they do, it’s on the field or in the orchestra (Table 1). We have not been effective at teaching students that learning adds quality to their lives.
Table 1: Student survey results
Question Student response
How would you characterize the level of effort you normally expend in your class? 6 What level of effort are you capable of maintaining in your class over a marking period? 8 How many students do you know are doing their best possible work most of the time? 4 Looking at other students, how hard do you think most of them are working? 5 In what activity or class is your best effort demonstrated in the present school year? Over 50% cited music/athletics
*scale 0 to 10; 0 is low, 10 is high
Deming asserts that we have to drive the fear out of organizations. One way of driving out fear is to reduce or eliminate inspection-driven, coercive models of evaluation for students and staff, and replace them with the power and validity of self-evaluation.
Recent assessment developments, such as the New Standards Project, will provide more comprehensive measures of student accomplishment, because they call for the student to self-evaluate. Schools that embrace continuous improvement collect information and regularly use it to make better decisions. There is an openness to data, not a fear of it. There is hunger for ever-changing techniques based on new information. Information is not feared, hidden, or manipulated.
It’s not my fault
Educators everywhere in America are bombarded by complaints of diminishing student achievement. These attacks have led many of us to respond in a defensive way by pointing to the changed nature of the learner. The changed nature of the family and the deplorable conditions children live (Table 2) do indeed shatter the American myth of the Norman Rockwell family.
TABLE 2 CHILDREN IN AMERICA
TABLE 2 CHILDREN IN AMERICA Every 26 seconds a child runs away from home. Every 13 seconds a child is reported neglected or abused. About every minute an American teenager has a baby. Every 9 minutes one of our children is arrested for a drug offense. Every 40 minutes one of our children is arrested for drunken driving. Every 3 hours a child is murdered. Every 53 minutes one of our children dies from poverty.
Growing numbers of schools now understand what changes are necessary to restructure. These changes have little or nothing to do with the student or with family or personal problems. We have to see these deplorable social conditions as context, not product. Unless we are truly going to restructure, when we say all children will learn, we probably should add a footnote: unless you happen to come from a broken home. We need to recognize the changed nature of the student and forcibly change the way we teach (Freeston, 1992b). In how many schools do we together openly debate a collective belief system? In how many schools do we publicly commit to the achievement of high-risk, high-stakes standards for all students? In how many schools do we acknowledge that all people, teachers, students and parents choose behavior to meet their basic needs? In how many schools do we meet or exceed those basic needs as the heart of our mission?
A Question of culture?
Introductory economics classes traditionally examine a nation’s or region’s natural resources as a predictor of economic success. In truth, countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland are startling examples of countries with few natural resources that, nevertheless, enjoy enormous worldwide economic success (Dobyns, 1992). That is a paradigm shift, fueled by a focus on quality, which, ironically, is an American perspective.
Popular media commentaries suggest that Japanese workers and American workers come from radically different cultures. These cultural differences, it is often argued, explain the difference in performance between the Japanese and their American counterparts. Although clearly there are cultural differences between America and Japan – as there are between most countries in the world – if we continue to see culture as the reason for differential achievement, we miss the point of the quality sciences. Quality is cross-cultural. The greatest irony in this debate is that we taught the Japanese to produce quality and now we buy it.
Certainly cultural issues bear on motivation. In our culture and many others, internal motivation is a well-documented catalyst for action. Yet, schools still treat people as though external motivation is an effective means of eliciting desired outcomes. Glasser has convinced many leaders that the reason Deming’s 14 points work is that they are actually rooted in what psychologists call “control theory”. Oversimplified, control theory holds that, as individuals, we seek to satisfy wants come from our desire to meet basic human needs as Glasser and others define them. In “stimulus theory,” by contrast, the stimulus sets the standard and is an external focus for change. People and organizations change best when they are internally motivated to do so. Leaders who continue to behave as though stimulus response theory were effective face insurmountable obstacles to quality. They just can’t get there.
Inherent in all these obstacles is the issue of attitude change and the difficulties it poses for school improvement. There is a fundamental resistance to the term customer, common in business, as it applies to schools. Teachers do not readily perceive themselves as suppliers of a service (teaching) or a product (learning) to a customer base.
The customer orientation, although different in schools from business, holds that we do what we do in schools in order to meet someone’s needs. Why else would we teach, if it were not to fill a need, individual or societal? The debate about whether schools have internal or external customers is specious, because we have too many customers. To start the process, pick one. Collect information to determine the needs, collect more information to see if the needs are being met, then identify the areas of improvement to be undertaken. Start.
The ramification this holds for teacher-librarians is great. The change that has occurred from being a keeper of materials toward being a facilitator in a learning laboratory is mammoth. An analysis of the environment will change the way we look at students. They are becoming much more active and involved customers of information. Teacher-librarians must consider how students develop strategies to acquire information; extract appropriate information; use the best information; integrate that information into a presentable form; and evaluate the final product. Teacher-librarians must consider the role technology will play in changing the library resource center. With the appearance of computer local area networks (LANS), it is clear that information may be shared and is not necessarily available only in the library resource center.
We must be prepared to help students become knowledge navigators in a sea of information. The library resource center should be perceived as the information center of the school – the whole school community should be using this resource to cultivate successful users in an information age.
What lies behind the obstacles? Although certainly not a quick fix or panacea, quality management holds answers to questions that are at the center of the school reform debate. By establishing, together, a system of core beliefs, teachers, administrators, students and parents can ask themselves, when faced with difficult choices, “What do we believe?”, and use the answer to make better choices. Through the concept of continuous improvement, schools will less frequently be in a defensive position reacting to external criticism. Instead, educators can work together to establish and maintain a constancy of purpose and break the cultural norms of autonomy and independence that impede collaborative decision making. When educators collect information and understand the statistical importance of variance, they use knowledge and beliefs to make better decisions. Through the establishment of higher student achievement outcomes, which result from a quality orientation, performance increases are more likely for all students.
We must acknowledge the psychological reality of internal motivation and use it as an accelerant for school improvement. When a school system works together to establish a constancy of purpose, openly operates to continuously improve the teaching and learning process, collects information to make decisions and strives daily to meet or exceed the needs of its students, it achieves quality improvement.
Barker, J. (1989). The business of paradigms. [Videotape]. Burnsville, MN: Chart House Learning Corporation.
Crowley, J. (1994). Developing a vision: Strategic planning and the library media specialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Dobyns, L (1992). Quality or else. PBS Special Broadcast.
Freeston, K (1992a). Other people’s theories. Education Week, 10 (23), p. 22.
_____ (1992b). Getting started in TGM. Educational Leadership, 50 (3), 10-13.
Glasser, W. (1984). Control theory. New York: Harper and Row.
_____ (1991, Winter). The quality society: The economics of control theory. Institute for Reality Therapy Newsletter, pp. 3-6.
Hay, L. & Roberts, A. (1989). Curriculum for the millennium: Trends shaping our futures. Southport, CT: Connecticut Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development.
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Schlechty, P. (1990). Schools for the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walton, M. (1986). The Deming management method. New York: Putnam.