Deming and No Child Left Behind

In the epilogue of my book on discipline and learning, I quote the comic character Dagwood Bumstead when I refer to using a business model for education. His quote: “You know that makes a lot of sense if you don’t think about it.”

The United States is operating under a federal “mandate” entitled, “No Child Left Behind.” The essence of the legislation is to blame schools for their poor performance and uses a negative approach with schools that do not meet the mandate’s requirements. Rather than going into the details of why the legislation is doomed to inevitable collapse, I share with you the famous “Red Bead Experiment” used by W. Edwards Deming. This management guru was the man who introduced quality in the workplace.

To give you an indication of Dr. Deming’s approach, ask yourself if you own any product manufactured by a Japanese company. If you were to choose one adjective that indicates why you do, the word, “quality,” immediately pops up. Some may remember how Japanese products were labeled before World War II. Adjectives such as “cheap” and “shoddy” were apt describers. Today, the highest award given in Japanese manufacturing is the Deming Award. A fundamental approach of Deming was to EMPOWER those involved in any endeavor.

The lack of empowerment and the negative consequences if a school doesn’t ‘measure up are two fundamental defects in the federal legislation.

Dr. Deming used a little experiment to show how the system itself—rather than the people working within it—was the major cause of problems. Here is how Deming conducted his experiment to make his point in his seminars.

Ten attendees are picked and assigned jobs by Deming. Six are what he called willing workers, one was a chief inspector, two were regular inspectors, and one was a recorder.

Deming explained that the company had received orders to make white beads. Unfortunately, the raw materials used in production contained a certain number of defects, or “red beads.”

Both the white and red beads were in a plastic container. The six willing workers were given a paddle with 50 indentations in it and were told to dip the paddle into the container, shake it, and pull it out with each indentation filled with a bead. Then the workers were instructed to take the paddle to the first inspector who counted the red beads or “defects.” The second inspector did the same, and the chief inspector checked their tally, which the recorder then recorded.

A worker who drew out a paddle with 15 red beads received a merit raise.

In the next round, the worker who had six red beads drew out eight, and the worker with 15 drew out 10 .

Deming played the role of the misguided manager who thought he understood what had happened. The worker who received the merit raise was getting sloppy; the raise went to his head. Meanwhile, the worker on probation had been frightened into performing better.

And so it continued—a cycle of reward and punishment in which management failed to understand that defects are built into the system and that workers have very little to do with it.

No one suggests that the public school system has no room for improvement or that schools should not be accountable. But, as Dr. Deming would point out, the system (read legislation) would be much more successful if it were to take  a POSITIVE approach of EMPOWERING—rather than its current negative approach of engendering a climate where superior teachers are leaving education and third grade students are developing anxiety attacks.