Guest Column

Total Quality: A Gifted Idea May Be Failing

by Joseph Baim and Joseph C. Dimperio

What once was a promising idea for K-12 education now appears to be a total wreck, abandoned on the roadside by those who had viewed it as a vehicle for continuous improvement. What has happened to total quality management and can it be saved?

First, it is important to be reminded of what total quality management is and why it was seen as a promising idea just a decade ago for improving how schools operate. Total quality management or TQM, as a term, first was used in this country in 1985 by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command. The term has come to mean an approach to long-term success by involving all members of an organization in improving processes, services and the work environment. TQM's core principles and methods are captured in the work of the late W. Edwards Deming, among others.

Eclipsed and Exploited

For public education, total quality management typically refers to the process of bringing together, on a regular basis, problem-solving teams of faculty and staff to identify and address opportunities for school improvement. TQM is seen as important because it has at least two significant components:

* involves experienced people who are close to the problem with the opportunity to provide a solution; and
* encourages stronger commitment by participants to implement successful solutions.

What has wrecked—or at the very least derailed—total quality management efforts in schools is the singular focus on the standards movement and its outgrowth of high-stakes testing. However important in this time of heightened accountability, standards and testing have become so consuming an agenda for educators that they have little time left to consider how TQM can be a powerful tool to raise schoolwide student achievement.

Others have exploited total quality management practices to push a personal or organizational agenda. When the commitment to the improvement agenda is not widely shared, the consequences can be disastrous. For example, we know of a building principal who pushed for a total quality management agenda to include an item on student achievement. But a member of the governance team threatened to file a grievance on the grounds that student achievement had nothing to do with total quality management.

This example clearly points to an important lesson. People will buy into TQM only if they are brought into the process at the outset—only if they participate in developing the improvement agenda, not just in problem solving and implementation.

Finally, and the point we would emphasize most, too frequently total quality management teams identified solutions that required no commitment or effort from the team members or faculty proposing the solution. In other words, they would recommend what they think others need to do to effect improvement. In such instances, problem solving for continuous improvement becomes a spectator sport—a reincarnation and polarization of the teacher versus administrator relationship.

This is the classic case of "loading the wagon with no concern for the horse (substitute "the administrator") that would have to pull it." In spite of good intentions, TQM is an approach that guarantees absolute failure if participants fail to communicate effectively or to solve problems in a collaborative way.

Resuscitating TQM

So how can total quality management become a useful tool in continuous school improvement? We think several prerequisites must be satisfied.

First, school district priorities must be identified and understood by all members of the organization. Second, individual and group commitment to those priorities must be absolute. Third, individuals and special-interest groups must subordinate their needs to that of the organization. They must connect their professional success and happiness on the job to continuous school improvement.

Fourth, issues addressed by the total quality management team must be significant. While efforts may focus on department, grade or subject areas, the entire school should benefit from team accomplishments. Finally and foremost, all members of the total quality management team and staff must be willing to be a part of the solution.

For example, if students are misbehaving in the cafeteria because of inadequate supervision, the solution should not always be merely to pressure the principal to be in the cafeteria every second or to hire more cafeteria aides. The answer could involve teachers, perhaps volunteering a part of their lunchtime to work in the cafeteria, to eat lunch with students or to do whatever it takes on their part to resolve the issue. Good solutions should not always point to what someone else can do-or on spending more money!

Total quality management is about work. It is about individual and group commitment. It is about rewarding employee sacrifice for school improvement. We remain convinced that if all school constituencies—students, faculty, staff, parents, principals, central administration, board members and the community—genuinely understand the essential benefits of total quality management, this remarkable initiative could yet contribute to better schools and better students.

Joseph Baim is president of Baim Associates, 974 Wellesley Road, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15206. E-mail: jbaim@earthlink.net. Joseph Dimperio is superintendent of the West Mifflin, Pa., Area School District.