Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Lessons From The Workplace In the Classroom

`Total quality management,' first applied in business, is being adapted for education

AT the Boston University school of management, a transformation is under way. Students will increasingly be graded not only as individuals but also as members of teams.

"For you to succeed, the team must succeed," Dean Louis Lataif tells students. Students must still pass individual proficiency tests, but by next fall, 90 percent of the course work for a master's degree in business administration (MBA) will involve some kind of teaming, Mr. Lataif says.

About these ads

For Lataif, a former vice president of the Ford Motor Company, the growing emphasis on teamwork is part of a broad move to implement the principles of "total quality management."

TQM, long a buzzword among companies struggling to regain their competitive edge, can also work significant changes in America's educational system, Lataif and other educators say.

"I think it's our greatest hope," says Seldon Whitaker, a high school superintendent who for several years has been incorporating TQM concepts into programs in the State College, Pa., school district.

Although the application of these management ideas in the education world is still in its infancy, interest is "growing exponentially; it is just booming," says Jonathan Fife, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, an information resource center at George Washington University in Washington.

If this movement is to transform education, however, several hurdles must be jumped. These include teachers' resistance to change and the time and effort it takes to implement TQM.

The basic elements of the system espoused by W. Edwards Deming and other management experts include a focus on "customer" needs, measuring performance and trying continuously to improve it, and creating a management environment (including pay and promotion policies) in which everyone works toward common goals. (See story, left.) Proponents emphasize teamwork as part of this effort.

To date, efforts to apply these management concepts in education have been aimed mostly at administrative performance, rather than at curriculum, says Lawrence Sherr, professor of business at the University of Kansas and co-author of a recent book, "Quality: Transforming Postsecondary Education" (George Washington University).

About these ads

Many colleges, however, are trying to apply the ideas more broadly, Professor Sherr says. These range from community colleges to elite schools such as Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. A few institutions are trying to implement the quality regime university-wide. These include the University of Michigan, the North Dakota university system, and Pennsylvania State University.

"Nobody has been at it very long," Sherr says, noting that businesses typically pursue TQM for more than three years before results begin to show up. Schools have "just started to scratch the surface," he adds.Among the visible results in educational institutions:

* Many business schools and engineering schools teach the principles of TQM.

* Teachers are being encouraged to view students as "customers." This may lead, for example, to more surveys asking them whether lectures are easy to understand.

* Universities are also viewing students as "inputs" arriving from other systems. "We need to work closely" with the grade schools and high schools, Sherr says. Penn State's engineering program, for example, is working with Pennsylvania high schools to improve student preparation.

* Schools increasingly cooperate with employers. Much of the impetus for TQM in schools has come from business. Sherr's book quotes one executive who warns: "We'll stop recruiting at places that aren't teaching total quality."

The Penn State center was established with business funding, and 10 state high school districts - also aided by local businesses - are eight months into a program to learn quality management. Each district sends its superintendent, the president of the teachers' union, one principal, and one teacher to Penn State for a two-day seminar every month. These small teams will then lead the implementation of TQM in their school districts.

BEFORE this program, Mr. Whitaker's district had already responded to local employers who, when surveyed, said vocational education was not teaching enough teamwork skills.

The involvement of the teachers-union president has "cut through a lot of resistance" to TQM in his school district, Whitaker says.

The same resistance exists at the university level, where professors "are some of the most conservative, nonchanging individuals you'll ever find on the face of this earth," Mr. Fife says.

At Boston University, Lataif is asking professors to work more closely together in their teaching and research. They, as well as the students, will "learn the power of collective minds," the dean says.

Linda Goldstein, a student in the MBA program, says working in teams has revealed how different perspectives - from a foreign student or a "numbers person" - can help solve problems.

Whitaker says that in his high school district, administrators developed a "more collaborative atmosphere" when they did away with a ranking system to determine pay raises. "We still assess [individual] performance, but not on a point system," he says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.