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Looking for reform in all the wrong places

A lesson in applying quality standards to education reform
Baruch College journalism professor Andrea Gabor has written extensively on the role of private enterprise in education reform.
Baruch College journalism professor Andrea Gabor has written extensively on the role of private enterprise in education reform.

As an expert on the life and work of W. Edwards Deming, whose quality control strategies revolutionized Japanese and American industry, Andrea Gabor believes American education can draw an important lesson from his legacy.

“The best companies today promote management cultures that are all about collaboration, creative problem solving, flat organizational structures and distributed processing,” she says. “But much of what we associate with education reform is top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control management.”

A journalism professor at Baruch College, Gabor has written extensively on the role of private enterprise in education reform. The focus of her forthcoming book about education (as yet untitled) concerns the applicability of business systems to schools—or more specifically, the lack of applicability of many of the business systems that have been proposed as solutions to the problems of education.

In a recent article, you questioned market-based reforms that “have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes.” Let me play devil’s advocate here: What’s wrong with having people like Jeb Bush and Bill Gates install market-based reforms?

I’m not arguing that all market solutions are wrong. What I’m arguing is that educational reform is being driven by a very small number of very wealthy businesspeople who look at schools through a particular lens that is often inappropriate for schools. And in doing this, very often there’s a reductionism that takes place.

There is very little patience in our society and in our culture. So you end up having a barrage of top-down, half-baked, unsystematic, flavor-of-the-month solutions, market-based or not.

My favorite example is from a school superintendent in Leon County, Florida, who recently estimated that his district endured 21 changes in proficiency standards during the past six years. And just in the five or so years that I’ve been following New York City schools, there have been major changes in the standardized testing regime almost every year.

Schools and companies are both social systems. But schools have very different cultures from corporations which often drive change from the top-down.

One of the things that my book argues is that we’re looking for education reform in all the wrong places. There are lessons that can be learned from the business world—in particular, the collaborative, non-heirarchical approach of systems thinkers, which informs both the open-source and the quality movements. This approach is much more suited to the culture of schools.

There is a lot of grassroots-driven change happening in schools and school districts all around the country, and much of it is under the radar and is not getting attention because it’s not driven by the big power brokers, like the Gates Foundation.

It’s not necessarily charter- and choice-based. It’s not about lots of technology, bells and whistles. It is about doing the hard work on the ground.

Give me an example.

My favorite example of that is Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts. Back in the 1990s, when the state mandated that students had to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, Brockton realized that the majority of its students might not graduate from high school.

It’s a very poor community. A group of teachers got together and decided to put in place a literacy strategy. They said, “We are going to work on literacy in every part of the school. We’re going to work on literacy in English class, in history class, in math class and in physical education.”

There was a literacy component to everything they did. They developed a strategy with almost no outside help and virtually no outside money.

They just kept working on literacy. It’s very unsexy. But, lo and behold, the vast majority of Brockton students now do well on the MCAS and go on to college. About a quarter of them end up with scholarships because this literacy strategy works. It was a grassroots effort.

How did Brockton fly under the radar?

I think all the stars were aligned. Things were really bad back in the ’90s and they were desperate. They were willing to try anything.

They also had the same principal and superintendent for a number of years, so the school was somewhat protected from the usual churning that often adversely impacts schools. In the meantime they kept getting better and better and that protected them.

Importantly, when the principal who started the program retired, her longtime assistant principal, who totally bought into the literacy strategy, became her successor. That’s another management lesson. One of the biggest challenges for any organization—school or corporation—is succession planning.

Speaking of management, you, literally, wrote the book on W. Edwards Deming and the techniques and strategies that he brought to the American auto industry. Which of those strategies can be applied to American public schools?

Well, everything, basically. In fact, it’s really interesting.

I just came back from Texas, where one of the educators in the Leander School District outside Austin, watched the very same documentary about Deming that the Ford execs first saw years earlier. She said, “This would work for schools.”

So, the Leander district has actually been explicitly applying Deming’s ideas to trying to improve classroom teaching, instruction and culture, and so forth, for about 20 years.

For people who are unfamiliar with Deming, give us some background.

Deming was a statistician who brought a scientific approach to understanding processes and systems and how to improve them. At the root of that was the idea that you first have to be able to stabilize the system at whatever its capacity happens to be. And only once you’ve stabilized it can you figure out how to improve it.

Then, it’s the people who are closest to each process in the system who are best able to improve it, so it’s a very bottom-up approach. In the case of schools, that would mean teachers, parents and kids who understand how everything works, from instruction to classroom transitions to after-school programs. They understand both the probems and the opportunities for improvement and can suggest those to management.

The most famous example of this approach is the Toyota production system, where management is in charge of stabilizing the system, and they train people at all levels of the company to understand how to recognize opportunities for improvement and how to actually work on that improvement.

It involves a lot of training, getting ideas from the people who are closest to the system, collaborative problem solving, and this idea of constant improvement. In other words, it’s not about just trying to improve your test scores. It’s about constantly trying to improve what you are doing and how you are doing it.

That’s counter to what often happens when teachers think, “I just better keep my head down and teach.”

Right. It goes back to the old industrial model of an antagonistic relationship between management and labor.

Now, I do think teachers unions are going to have to figure out a different way of operating, because one of the things that the auto industry did under Deming, for example, was to recognize that they were going to have to change some of the work rules.

In a recent editorial about the coming increase of charter schools in New York, you asked, “Is there a point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?” Can you expand on that?

It’s not so much that charter schools are the problem, because the original idea of the charter schools was to create sort of an innovation zone, if you will. But no one has addressed the issue of the tipping point, which is what the editorial is about.

At what point do you turn public schools into a defacto dumping ground for the most challenging children? The reality is that charter schools are virtually unregulated.

They aggressively manage their enrollments. They have fewer poor kids, fewer kids with special needs, fewer kids with English language deficits by a large margin. That means that the kids with the most problems end up in public schools.

We should demand the same level of accountability from charter schools as we do from public schools. And they should be required to teach the same kinds of kids. We can’t afford to have a two-tier system.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If charter schools receive favorable treatment from the public and private sectors, and yet are allowed to turn away the neediest students, those children are doubly disadvantaged.

Absolutely. They are creating dumping schools. We saw it in New Orleans. We saw what happens when you create dumping schools.

As that system got closer to 100 percent charter, you had a large number of kids who were falling between the cracks—suspended, expelled, dropping out of school and winding up out on the streets.

Tim Goral is senior editor.