Total Quality: A Missing Piece for Educational Improvement?

Education has brought American society overall to the highest standard of living "achieved by any nation, any time. And it has been the means by which untold millions of citizens have achieved personal freedom, dignity, and fulfillment" (Cook, 1990, p. 40). However, for an ever-increasing number of citizens, this possibility is becoming slimmer and slimmer. Why is this?

Obvious changes have been occurring and several categories of these changes are influencing American education. One of these includes changes stemming from agrarian to industrial to information-based economies. Another is the emergence of new family structures (the IRS recognizes 13 variations of family) that puts the two-parent, two-child, one working-parent family in the lower percentile of family structures while the current school system was designed for the traditional family that could provide support for children, such family support is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Still another category of change is the growth of our diverse and minority populations with a multiplicity of values that children bring to school, while the schools have been designed for mainstream non-Hispanic white culture. Fragmented efforts of the recent past have not contributed "to curriculum and instructional change that enhances teaching and learning in significant ways for an increasingly diverse U.S. public school population" (Payzant, 1994, p. 203). Nor have efforts accommodated the changing family structure and the new economic era that demands new skills in the workplace.

What is needed, some say, "is not a revolution: That would discount and demean all the triumphs of public education. It is not an evolution: That would require the perpetuation of a system [that some assess as] already obsolete. What is needed is a metamorphosis - a total change of form, which presupposes a total change of substance" (Cook, p. 40). Such a metamorphosis would be based on a new way of thinking that individuals have about educational change and the models for improvement that educational organizations - schools and districts - use.

Improvement in Louisiana

The state of Louisiana has long been engaged in school improvement. In 1979 the Louisiana Department of Education with the support of the state legislature launched a statewide reading improvement effort, SPUR, Louisiana's Special Plan Upgrading Reading. In this effort, eight state-funded regional based technical assistance teams provided on-site assistance and support to participating districts and schools in organizing and planning for change and improvement. In 1989, the effective schools/school improvement process, supported by the state Louisiana Department of Education and eight regional service centers, was made available to schools for planning and implementing improvement.

In order to continue to support schools in their quest for improvement and increased learner outcomes, the Department of Education in the school year 1991-1992 made training in Total Quality Management (TQM) available to schools on a pilot test basis. The experiences of the schools and districts were positive and the Department expanded its training and assistance to more schools. As Louisiana educators learned about and applied TQM to their school improvement endeavors, they found the TQM tenets, or ways of thinking that emanated from the corporate sector, to be useful. What is the new "way of thinking" of TQM?

Models and Ways of Thinking

An individual's way of thinking is grounded in the values and beliefs that the individual adheres to. These values shape the individual's perceptions or views of how the world works and through this set of views or lenses the individual views his or her world and "understands" reality.

Models are created from the shared beliefs and values of a group. Models evolve as the group formulates a vision of reality based on these values and, thus, models guide the actions of groups because they represent the group's collective way of looking at the world. The concept of shared value distinguishes the model of a group from the individual's way of thinking. Ways of thinking and models develop and change over time as human beings observe and experience their world, process their observations and experiences, interact with each other, and organize their thinking - individually and collectively.

Abundant models that address various parts of the educational system have been developed as improvements and are introduced as new programs, practices, processes, and structures. While such efforts that address the various parts of the educational system are underway, reformers exhort schools to think systemically about school change and improvement, taking into account the interconnectedness of all the elements of the system simultaneously. One proposal for thinking system-wide, and a new model, comes from the business community - Total Quality Management (TQM) - whose basic perspective is the system, the interaction of its components, and a process of continuous improvement.

The TQM Model

The first step in the direction of TQM (if that is the desired direction) must be taken by those in leadership positions. Without the commitment of top management, the total quality philosophy cannot be implemented. An equally critical TQM principle is that the people in the organization must be empowered to carry out the total quality philosophy; if they are not, the commitment of management will not matter.

An important tenet of the TQM philosophy espoused by W. Edwards Deming is that leadership and people are keys to organizational success. This point, which distinguishes Deming from other total quality gurus, is frequently overlooked. Another distinguishing characteristic of the model of total quality management is continuous improvement. Leadership, according to this belief system, is responsible for creating systems and empowering others so they can continuously, without ceasing, make necessary improvements to meet and exceed the expectations of the organization's number one priority-those who receive the organization's services or products. The TQM philosophy is constantly concerned with:

  1. the quality of the services and products produced, and
  2. the lives of those who produce the services and products.

Deming offers the leader a theory of transformation as a guide to the journey of shifting to the total quality model. This guide is actually a set of beliefs that Deming calls a system of profound knowledge. It includes

  1. an appreciation for systems,
  2. an understanding of psychology,
  3. a theory of knowledge, and
  4. knowledge about variation.

As Deming points out, it is not necessary for a leader to master each component of the profound knowledge system before the system can be used. With some understanding of each component and value of the system as a whole, the leader can move forward in the transformation process.

The leader who understands that the organization is a whole made up of many separate parts, all of which need to be focused on the same goal, has developed a basic sense of

  1. the systems notion. Appreciation for the systems concept is enhanced when the leader comprehends that the separate parts need to feel linked to each other and jointly responsible for the final product or service. The study of
  2. psychology helps explain what motivates individual and group behavior in an organizational setting. With an understanding of what satisfies needs and motivates people, the leader can create processes that help individuals satisfy their needs while carrying out the goals of the organization. An appreciation of the role of inquiry and the need for divergent thinking is critical to
  3. the leader's theory of knowledge. The leader's and organization's development of knowledge is an ongoing cycle of gathering information, formulating theory about how the information may be used, testing the formulated theory, and revising the theory. Testing theory and building knowledge are activities that guide the development of needed improvements. Knowledge of
  4. exactly what causes variation in the system and of the limits of variation that are to be tolerated is critical to the leader's ability to keep the organization healthy. Profound knowledge guides the leader's understanding of the nature of the organization as a system, of the nature and needs of the people within the organization, of how people learn, and of the ways to handle variation in the system.

The purpose of the transformation journey is to move management out of its current state. To accomplish this transformation, "metamorphosis, not mere patchwork on the present system of management" is required (Deming, 1990, p. 25; Deming, 1992, p. 60). The current model must be analyzed, assessed, and a new model created. The development of a new model means changing the culture of the educational system. If this new model is based on the philosophy of TQM, the new culture will be defined, in part, by the development of

  1. a shared and constant sense of purpose,
  2. a focus on the concept of the client, or receiver of services,
  3. a commitment to continuous improvement, and
  4. the use of data in the problem-solving and decision-making processes that lead to improvement.

These four features are the philosophical bases of TQM.

Having reviewed this brief description of TQM, and considering the multiplicity of available school improvement models, exactly what is it that TQM can uniquely contribute to the process of school improvement?

Value Added by TQM

How can TQM fit into the puzzle of educational change? This question was asked by LEAD Center Directors and SEDL staff as part of their collaborative National LEADership Network Study Group on Restructuring Schools (1993). The group was interested in how TQM concepts fit with those of selected educational initiatives for school improvement and the particular contributions that TQM might make to the process of improvement.

A framework for analyzing the contributions of various educational improvement models came from the conceptual development work by Burnham and Hord (1992) with input from Sashkin and Kiser (1993). The framework provides one means for studying TQM and other initiatives by utilizing key factors that are descriptors of TQM for comparison. They are:

  1. Constancy of purpose,
  2. Customer driven;
  3. Counting,
  4. Culture,
  5. Collegial leadership,
  6. de-Centralized,
  7. Comprehensive, and
  8. Continuous improvement.

Using these descriptors, a brief analysis of the contributions made to the school improvement process by several prominent initiatives follows.

Effective Schools.
Starting with the traditional Effective Schools/School Improvement Process (one of the earliest models articulated for school improvement), an analysis reveals this initiative contributes to five of the key factors. In its early years this model did not focus on the system as a whole (Comprehensive), but on the school as the unit for change. Nor was this model concerned with any need to change the traditional relationships of central office with the campus level (de-Centralized). The model is perceived as giving attention to the improvement of various parts of the system at points in time rather than viewing school improvement as an unending (Continuous) enterprise.

Site-Based Decision Making.
The contributions of Site-Based Decision Making, another of the current initiatives for school improvement, appear limited in terms of the key factors. Identified by analysts as contributing factors are attention to the Culture, Collegial leadership, and de-Centralization.

Strategic Planning.
Another model used by many districts, schools, and other educational organizations is Strategic Planning. Contributions attributed to this initiative are Constancy of purpose, the use of data for studying problems and irregularities (Counting), the involved representation of all constituents (Collegial leadership), and attention to Continuous improvement.

The models cited above offer little attention as a group to Customer- driven service, de-Centralized decision making, Continuous improvement, and only TQM, which addresses all eight factors, employs a Comprehensive perspective. The message here is not to select one innovation or initiative over another, but to consider the possibility of supplementing what is lacking in one with what is prominent in another. Such an approach should not be done in a way as to violate the integrity of any of the models. However, what seems apparent is that some factors are shared by some of the models and other factors are unique or almost uniquely contributed by TQM. How then are Louisiana schools or districts using TQM for school change and improvement?

TQM in Educational Practice

In Louisiana, as noted, some school districts and individual schools have given a good deal of attention to TQM. The Louisiana State Department of Education encouraged this interest by inviting participation in a training program/pilot effort. In this paper, Louisiana educators who have had direct or indirect involvement in the training provide examples of TQM applications in the educational setting - and share their experiences. The diversity of the applications increases the value of each contribution: one example describes the experiences of a particular division of the central office of a large district, a second report is from a smaller district where the high school and other schools are involved, and a third application is in a primary school in a medium-sized district. Their stories follow.

The Instructional Services Division

East Baton Rouge Parish serves 61,000 students in 103 schools. Assistant Superintendent Mary Ellen Jordan, Instructional Services Division, is a visionary person who was interested in how the concepts of Quality (TQM is abbreviated to "Quality" by those involved and using its processes and principles in education) might be applied in her division. When she looked for someone to provide training workshops, she found the price to be out of her budget range. Meanwhile, the state department started its Quality projects, one of which was in an East Baton Rouge school for which Assistant Superintendent Jordan served on the team as central office representative. She attended the state department training and was pleased about what she learned, further reinforcing her interest in obtaining some training for her division's instructional team, made up of 25 to 28 people.

After considering the limited options, Jordan decided that her team, since "they were intelligent people," could do their own self-study, possibly with some help from Dow Chemical. Using an available handbook on Quality, the team would divide into subgroups, and each subgroup would be responsible for teaching one of the chapters of the handbook. This approach worked very well, with each group presenting its portion in its own unique style.

The division spent the spring semester on the self-study and considered it to be very successful. Jordan explained that Quality was not being examined system wide. It appears that the Instructional Services Division is the only unit in central office engaged with the topic. However, at the campus level, several schools have developed Quality projects as a result of the state department initiative.

The Instructional Services team, made up of area supervisors, spends much of its time in schools. In those settings the staff do not "push" for Quality but act as "Quality ambassadors," talking with people about the topic and their experiences with it, giving an overview upon request.

Jordan judges that a major gain has accrued to the Instructional Services team as a result of its members' work with Quality; the team has stayed together as problems have been solved. In a problem-solving meeting, the team will use Quality techniques and tools (fish bone, for example) to identify a solution. Working together as a team - a guiding principle of Quality - was important for this division, since the central office had recently been reorganized. Because of new people in the division, from preschool to adult education, many participants did not know what others were doing, and they were not working closely together to achieve clear goals.

As a result of the study and shared experiences, there is much shared decision making. The typical barriers between high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools have been eliminated as teams of people across all levels work together on issues of common interest and need, such as dyslexia. Staff have been empowered to initiate the development of teams for particular purposes without seeking permission from Jordan; instead, staff share information with her about their actions. They are now data-driven and "don't do anything without looking at the data."

This division has benefited from Jordan's leadership and her introduction of Quality methods. Where it will go from here is not clear. What is clear is that the staff of Instructional Services have made a change - in their case, to a new way of working with each other that increases their level of quality.

A District Focus

Reading educational journals, such as Educational Leadership and The School Administrator, and attending meetings of the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association are two of the ways in which Dr. F. Gary Brewer, superintendent of Beauregard Parish Schools, continues to learn and expand his professional development. That is how he began to learn about "the Quality movement" in business and education.

At this same general time, the Louisiana State Department of Education invited districts to participate in pilot training in Total Quality Management. Beauregard was one of the three parishes selected. The goal was to identify and prepare a Quality team from one of the parish schools (DeRidder High School) that would develop and work through a project as the team participated in the five-session training program, scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays over a five-month period. The team included Dr. Brewer and Dr. Lennie Hanchey, the director of curriculum, both of whom took part in the training.

Prior to participating in the training, a representative of the Boise Cascade paper mill appeared before the board expressing the importance of the Quality process and the change that its implementation had achieved in his workplace. One of the board members, a PPG employee, shared his personal involvement with Quality. The board was unanimous in approving the planned participation for parish schools.

Because of the high school team's excitement and enthusiasm about the training and the project, all thirty-two administrators from the parish's eleven schools and the central office participated in a three-day Quality-training course in the summer, provided by invited trainers and the already-trained DeRidder team members. The goal was to include Quality management and the team concept (teachers, staff, and community on the teams) in each of the eleven schools, modeling DeRidder High School. Boise became partners with the parish in the summer workshops, providing company facilities for the training and sharing change experiences to illustrate how the company's focus on Quality had resulted in improved customer service.

The district already had an established "management plan" wherein each year administrators and teachers at each school reviewed their work and established goals and a school improvement plan for the upcoming year. At the end of the year an audit team was formed to review each school's accomplishments.

As a result of the Quality training, the school leaders realized they "were already performing some of the concepts" but needed to address others to incorporate into their plan, "Quality Management for Effective Schools." After the training, when teams had been established, the superintendent and curriculum director visited each of the schools to hear concerns and monitor programs. Some schools were moving more rapidly than others, depending upon such factors as school leadership and the degree of understanding of the process.

The goal was for the teams to experience the Quality process, and employ appropriate statistical tools as needed. Schools were starting to initiate structures, such as student advisory groups and parental advisory groups as part of the decision-making process. Currently, at the end-of-school audits, Quality concepts as part of the school improvement plan are assessed to note progress. The Chamber of Commerce has supported and encouraged businesses to develop formal and full-scale partnerships - "Partners in Education" - with each school. These partnerships are resulting in the paired partners accomplishing "phenomenal things." The action is not just a one-way street to the school; the schools are contributing significantly to their partners in business and industry.

The schools' involvement has placed them in an international network of "Quality schools" that provides opportunities for global connections and interactions. School leaders have made presentations at conferences both within and outside the state to share what they are doing.

The added-value feature that has resulted from Beauregard's Quality involvement can be summed up as "a paradigm shift," as defined by Brewer. Authority has shifted from top-down management issuing directives to everyone being involved in teaming, open communication, and the decision-making process. Further, decisions are data-based through use of Quality statistical tools to examine areas of concern and understand if perceived problems warrant real exploration.

Monthly superintendent/teacher forums are a reflection of the new shared structures. A student now serves on the school board in an advisory capacity to provide input to the board's deliberations. Before the board meetings the superintendent meets with the schools' student body presidents to keep them informed about issues of interest and concern to them and to assure that they understand board procedures and policies. A goal is to implement Quality concepts and processes in the classrooms. Another goal, now being implemented, is to involve all 1,100 school district employees, no matter what their roles, in the Quality process.

A Primary School

Applying Quality to the school setting is what Gonzales Primary School in Ascension Parish is doing. In this school system, Rosalyn Dutton, central office supervisor, was a key supporter and advisor to Gonzales. School staff in this pilot school attended training delivered by a consultant who was provided by the state department of education. After each training session, the staff worked to transfer what they had learned to their particular school situations.

One of the difficulties was translating the Quality principles and the language of business and industry into educational practice. The team initially found it difficult to understand the business orientation of their Quality work. Dutton reported that relating how Quality principles "fit" with the philosophy and operation of the effective schools process was helpful in "sorting things out." More recently, state department and regional service center people have been delivering the training, and Ascension staff judges this to be a major positive step toward better understanding and application of Quality as a school improvement strategy.

Gonzales developed a Quality project that expanded as it continued into its second year. A team consisting of the principal, two regular education teachers, and one special education teacher led the school in its Quality efforts. This school had been a SPUR model school (SPUR was a program that engaged schools in school improvement, involving all schools in Ascension Parish, as well as many others across the state of Louisiana).

For Ascension Parish, Quality adds elements beyond that of other school improvement processes - for instance, one element is the use of statistical tools. The tools allow school staff to examine data objectively - to analyze a problem, take the emotion out of decision making, and reach a consensus. The "facts speak," so staff do not become contentious as they used to do when expressing what they "thought" the facts might be. Teaming and the movement toward one goal, one vision, appear to be more easily accomplished with Quality tools and techniques. "No one gets their feelings hurt when we point to the data instead of to each other."

The philosophy of Quality rests on teaming and collaboration, and that is the philosophy of Ascension Parish, according to Rosalyn Dutton. "Everything else flows from this - decision making in particular." This underlying collaboration principle allows for no "chiefs and followers;" instead all parties work together to assess needs and share input.

Although only the leadership team has had training, all teachers are applying the principles. However, there is a plan to involve all faculty in training so they can understand why they're doing things the way they're doing them.

Finally, Dutton encourages leaders to enable and support the Quality process and to be very secure in this new role. The principal is the key at the school level, with a major role in effecting change. It is important for principals to embrace teaming and shared decision making. The central office serves as a model and a support to the individual campuses in their quest for Quality.

In Summary

It is not possible in a short briefing paper such as this to communicate fully the richness of the three Quality experiences reported above. Several factors, it seems, are common. One is the inclusion of industrial or corporate partners that have themselves experienced the Quality process. Their support and enthusiasm for "common ground" with the school appear to be significant.

Another factor is involvement of school boards as interested and committed colleagues. That some of the board members were experienced with the Quality process contributed to their enthusiasm - thus providing more common ground on which faculty and board members could meet.

A state department of education that "more than mandates" is another shared characteristic. In this state, the state department, rather than mandating Quality, arranged for training and involved volunteers. The service and support function of the state department was highly visible.

Finally, two Quality concepts in particular have caught the attention of educators: teaming and tools. Teaming has altered the authority and the decision-making structures in the schools. Statistical tools have given the teams what is needed to make sound - or at least, data-based - decisions. Much enthusiasm for teams and the tools of the Quality process has been expressed. There is interest in expanding the influence of Quality to more schools. How and whether this will occur is not certain.

It can be said, however, with some certainty that Quality is alive and well in Louisiana, and that it is viewed as an effective school improvement strategy, although there has not been sufficient time for the collection of hard data in Louisiana schools regarding the use of the Quality process. Perhaps the educators involved in the projects reported here will research their Quality efforts to provide data and to share further their experiences.


  • Burnham, J. & Hord, S. (1992). Total Quality Management: Where Does It Fit in the Instructional Picture? Presentation at the annual conference of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, San Antonio, Texas.
  • Cook, W.J., Jr. (1990). Strategic Planning for America's Schools. American Association of School Administrators.
  • Deming, W.E. (1990). Foundation for Management of Quality in the Western World. An Introduction to Total Quality for Schools. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.
  • Deming, W.E. (1992). A System of Profound Knowledge. The New Economics for Education, Government, Industry. Atlanta, GA:
  • National LEADership Network Study Group on Restructuring Schools. (1993). Toward Quality in Education: The Leader's Odyssey. Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  • Payzant, T.W. (1994). Commentary on the District and School Roles in Curriculum Reform: A Superintendent's Perspective. The Governance of Curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by Shirley M. Hord, Senior Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL and Dr. Betty Jo Monk, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Baylor University.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 3, Number 3, Total Quality: A Missing Piece for Educational Improvement? (1994)