Bridges, Tunnels, and School Reform: It's the System, Stupid: What Could the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Teach School Leaders about Reform? Exactly What They Need to Know to Succeed, Mr. Kelly Suggests

By Kelly, Thomas F. | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Bridges, Tunnels, and School Reform: It's the System, Stupid: What Could the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Teach School Leaders about Reform? Exactly What They Need to Know to Succeed, Mr. Kelly Suggests


Kelly, Thomas F., Phi Delta Kappan


AFTER ALMOST three decades of school reform, student achievement nationally is about where it was when we started, and student behavior has declined dramatically. Numbers of dropouts, especially in our cities and among the poor and minorities, have gotten much higher. Yet we have spent many billions of dollars; countless professionals have carried out extensive amounts of work; public officials have spawned endless legislation, regulations, and mandates; and everyone has exhibited no end of good intentions. Maybe it's time for something different.

W. Edwards Deming pointed out years ago that persistent problems in organizations stem not from workers but from the system: the structure of the work; systemic practices, policies, and methods; and conventional thinking.(1) The success of Toyota is an outstanding example of how Deming's methods can build a company of excellence that dominates its market.

When I was a young teacher, I lived in New Jersey and worked in the Bronx. Each morning I would drive to the George Washington Bridge and cross the Hudson River. If all went well (no breakdowns, accidents, bad weather), my delay at the bridge usually ran about 30 minutes. In the evening, I retraced my route and spent more time waiting.

As I sat in my car, wasting gas and polluting the air, I frequently cursed the toll takers (blaming the workers). In retrospect, I understand that they could not have improved traffic flow more than a smidgen even if every toll taker operated at 100% efficiency all the time.

Since those days, however, there has been a dramatic improvement in the flow of traffic across the bridge. What has made the difference? The structure of work at the bridge had remained essentially the same for over 50 years. Then one day, someone reconsidered the whole system of toll taking and made a startling observation. If tolls were eliminated on one side of the bridge and doubled on the other, the same amount of revenue would be collected overall, and delays would be cut by more than 50%, since extra toll takers would be transferred to places on the collection side. The change was put into place and delays were significantly reduced; the same amount of revenue was collected; toll-taker productivity increased dramatically; resource use was perhaps even a little less.

If we generalized and did the same thing at all the bridges and tunnels up and down the Hudson, or in all parts of New York State, or all across the United States, we could reduce driver stress and related medical and emotional problems (thereby decreasing health care costs), lessen air pollution, and reduce gasoline consumption. We might even reduce the divorce rate by creating many more peaceful and enjoyable dinners for commuters. Happier drivers. Happier toll takers. Happier families.

This change was actually the second continuous systemic improvement. The first had been the advent of exact-change lanes. This change had also resulted in collection of the same amount of revenue while using fewer resources.

Having made such a simple systemic improvement, the leaders at the bridges and tunnels did not stop. They continued to try to improve the system and, indeed, committed to continuous self-improvement. How did they know what to improve? They also committed to continuous self-assessment of the system to find out. Everyone involved with the system--not just those at higher levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy--is welcome to suggest ways to improve it.

Following Deming's principle of continuous improvement, subsequent changes were made. First was the Easy Pass system, a radio tag that allowed drivers to pass a toll booth without stopping and which again required fewer resources while increasing productivity. …

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Bridges, Tunnels, and School Reform: It's the System, Stupid: What Could the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Teach School Leaders about Reform? Exactly What They Need to Know to Succeed, Mr. Kelly Suggests
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