Quality in education
A recent email from the US got me thinking about quality and education. A performance excellence specialist asked: Did I know of any models that might be used to convince a school system in Maryland to 'do something' with the Baldrige education criteria?

Coincidentally I'd just received Baldrige-winning Graniterock's quarterly Construction Update newsletter, with a lead article on public education in California by CEO Bruce W Woolpert.

I recall doing a Business Development Quality Award site visit to a South Island New Zealand high school, years ago, and I've been interested ever since in some of the questions that emerged. Like, just who is the customer in an education system, and is the customer in a pre-school the same as the customer in a high school, or in a university?

In a preschool, where the children are from a few months to five years old, the customer might be the child, the child's parents, the family (collectively), the state (which pays for most of the product that pre-school users consume) in various guises (department of education, social service providers, the courts), or even private co-funders – a business, say.

In a university? Individual students purchase products (course components) which are available from a number of providers. They're customers, no question about that. But what about the state, which co-funds the courses? The state is buying a service, and that makes us all customers, right?. What about future employers, who have an interest in the quality of the product 'sold' to students? Or parents who fund their student children?

And what effect does marketising education have on standards. If you pay a course fee, and you fail the course, should you be able to claim your purchase price back? End-of-course evaluation forms are common these days, but what about the aggressive measurement of customer satisfaction?

Let's extend that line of thought. Which customers' satisfaction matters most? The state wants best price education – the most possible for the least cost; the student wants the easiest possible degree (but with high value in future employment markets). Are those interests contiguous? Whose satisfaction do you measure? What do you do with the results? What's the potential impact on standards? And where's the link to 'quality'?

Back to Bruce W Woolpert. Graniterock takes its citizenship responsibilities seriously – as all Baldrige winners do. Not only is their own employee education process world-class, but soon after winning their award, Graniterock and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education set up a joint venture to help local schools “dramatically improve classroom results.”

According to CEO Woolpert, public education in California has been running down for thirty years – to the stage where it's about as bad as it gets anywhere in the industrialised world. Last year, Graniterock helped sponsor benchmarking trips by Santa Cruz County teachers, principals and teacher-union officials to school districts in Pinellas County, Florida and Brazosport, Texas – both famous in the Baldrige world (but less so in the education world, it seems) because they've whole-heartedly adopted a high-performance approach to educational improvement.

What did they find? Six key lessons:
1. Everything is structured around learning. Sound strange? Surely, you're thinking, what else would a school's mission be? But schools, just like other organisations, are diverted easily from their purpose if it's not continually repeated. Here, the mission is continually repeated.
2. School boards take responsibility for educational outcomes, and “earn the ability to hold everyone else accountable, including principals and teachers.” That's effective governance – a key to success where you work as well.
3. Principals are viewed as school CEOs, not administrators, and drive classroom performance personally. “Teachers who won't make the commitment to educating every child eventually leave”.
4. Mentoring and best-practice benchmarking are common levers for performance improvement.
5. Students are not allowed to fall behind. Additional hours are funded at the end of the school day for individual tutoring by classroom teachers. Quality is not inspected-in at the end of a teaching module, but built-in day by day. Sound familiar?
6. No excuses. “You hear it all the time in Brazosport schools,” Woolpert says, “we tolerate no excuses.” Standards are high, and uncompromising.

So what about results? The approach may be controversial (watch President Bush as he tries to implement a 'Brazosport' approach right across the US, and listen to the protests from the US profession), but it's hard to argue with the results. In Brazosport, only 8% of African-American students reached the Texas math standard in 1993. Now 92% pass. Formerly 33% of Hispanic students passed, now it's 98%.

Woolpert doesn't say so, but I bet the quality champions in Brazosport and Pinellas Counties are pretty clear about who their customers are. About whose 'satisfaction' matters most. And about what quality in education looks like.

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