Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Educational Consequences of W. Edwards Deming

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Educational Consequences of W. Edwards Deming

Article excerpt

Demingism is likely to effect a far more significant improvement in the quality of a school's educational program than the outmoded remedies currently being recommended at the national level, Mr. Holt asserts.

IF ONE HAD to name the single biggest influence on American education during this century, a strong candidate would be not John Dewey but Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of "scientific management." (See a related article by Kenneth Gray on page 370 of this Kappan.) School boards quickly picked up ideas from Taylor's 1895 book, Shop Management, which recommended using product specifications to define standards of output performance. Exactly the same conceptual apparatus animates recent national documents on educational futures. The Taylor doctrine may yet dominate the next century as well.

But the management approach of another American, W. Edwards Deming, challenges this orthodoxy and has displaced it, with advantageous results, in a variety of industrial settings. Most strikingly, the Deming doctrine of generating quality by building it into the process, rather than by inspecting defects out of the end product, has been widely adopted in Japan and has contributed greatly to the Japanese economic miracle.

There is now growing interest in applying Deming's ideas to the educational enterprise, but efforts to establish such a relationship have tended to emphasize, under the term "total quality management" (TQM), the external aspects of Deming's approach.[1] In this article I want to go further and argue that Deming's concepts of quality and improvement cut much deeper. They embody a philosophy of action with implications that challenge current practice in both administration and curriculum.

Thirty years ago, Raymond Callahan deplored the impact of Taylor's theories on school administration, noting that educational questions were "subordinated to business considerations."[2] In curriculum planning, Taylor's influence is very evident in the "Tyler Rationale," still ubiquitous despite the powerful critique offered by Herbert Kliebard in 1970.[3] Ralph Tyler refined the notion of specifying instructional objectives in advance and then using them not only to determine the educational experience but also to evaluate it. As in an industrial process, the course of study becomes an instructional sequence, with each stage being governed by explicit objectives and judged by some assessment of performance. The overall design is determined by defined aims or standards. There is something so eminently reasonable about the model - particularly in a culture where numerical assessment has great appeal and is reinforced by educational psychologists - that its assumptions have largely passed unchallenged.

Consider, for example, the recommendations of three recent education reports. The National Council on Education Standards and Testing declares that "national standards tied to assessments are desirable" in order to "measure and hold students, schools, school districts, states, and the nation accountable for educational performance."[4] The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce pins its hopes on "a new educational performance standard" against which all 16-year-old students will be measured, using "a series of performance-based assessments."[5] And a report by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills asserts that "all American high school students must develop a new set of competencies and foundation skills if they are to enjoy a productive, full, and satisfying life."[6]

Strip away the rhetorical flourishes, and the message is familiar: everything will be fine if we specify an enhanced final product and assess its formation through a series of output measures. The practical result of adopting this attitude will be the usual Tyler model of curriculum specification through goals and objectives, administered through the cognate techniques of management by objectives (MBO). …

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