by JAY MATHEWS

Lewis A. Rhodes notices that when educators talk about this thing called “Baldrige,” there are a lot of puzzled looks. The braver people in the room raise their hands and ask, “What is it?”

Rhodes, an educational consultant who has been immersed in quality management issues for years, admits that the answer takes some time.

Even at a meeting of national organizations committed to the Baldrige process, Rhodes says, many participants admitted to feeling lost in Buzzword Land. “What does it mean for education?” “Why should we tell our members to be ‘advocates’?” “How is this the same or different from other initiatives that have used the same words?”

For Rhodes, the analogy of a hospital works best. In a school, a student sits with other students and absorbs information from a teacher. It is an isolated process with little appreciation of each individual student’s talents and needs. The student gets only occasional clues to whether she is learning what she should, and some of the test results measuring that do not even reach her teacher until weeks later.

In a well-run hospital, each patient’s individual needs are the focus, and a team of professionals cooperate to improve her health. Measures of her progress are recorded daily and different methods are tried, with the patient participating in the process. She has to know what is happening and why and tell the health professionals how she is feeling.

“Interestingly,” says Rhodes, who started a quality network for AASA a decade ago, “no one expects a hospital staff member to function without the organization providing the means to continually monitor and do something about his or her effects on a patient. The hospital, as a total organization, is held accountable for informing and supporting the interactions the individual doctor or nurse manages or contributes to.”

The Baldrige process, he says, requires the school district to act “as a single, coherent, focused system by using systemically the tools and processes of data-driven quality management.” The Baldrige tools, Rhodes adds, “are designed to help individuals and groups fix themselves by better understanding their relationships to the school’s purposes and providing them the data and support they need.”

Of course, there is a lot more to it. So school administrators who are still lost after attending the conferences and reading the reports might contact Rhodes at lewrhodes@aol.com for a translation.

Educators can interact directly with staff from the two Baldrige-cited school districts at the 10th National Quality Education Conference in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. The meeting is co-sponsored by AASA's former Quality Education Network, the Association for Quality and Participation and the American Society for Quality. Details are accessible at nqec.asq.org.