Doug Tuthil
Pinellas County, Florida
Education Association

Charting New Frontiers:
Creating High
Performing Schools

New and improved mechanical technologies have dramatically transformed people's lives over the last hundred years. Consider what our typical morning routine might include: blow drying our hair, microwaving a cup of coffee, reading our overnight e-mail messages, checking the day's forecast on the Weather Channel, and making a call on the cellular phone during the drive to work. But while our mechanical technologies have been revolutionized, our organizational technologies have changed little.

Century old command and control management systems still dominate most organizations, and as a consequence, organizational productivity is suffering. Public and private organizations can no longer afford the waste and ineffectiveness caused by these traditional management systems. Nowhere is this more true than in public education. Public schools need new, more effective organizational technologies that improve the delivery of educational services and open the way for human creativity and excellence to flourish.

This pamphlet introduces educators to a new generation of organizational technologies that can improve the effectiveness of schools and classrooms. These technologies are based on management theories popularized by W. Edwards Deming and a set of implementation strategies, called the Baldrige technology, developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Tinker Toy Assembly: An Illustration of the Importance of Systems Thinking

Imagine nine chairs in a neat circle, all facing outward. In eight of the chairs "willing workers" are squirming in their seats, nervously playing with brown paper bags in their laps. In the ninth chair, a stoic inspector waits patiently. Inside the circle, a manager paces. Surrounding the circle, 50 or 60 seminar participants begin to press forward in anticipation. The seminar leader quiets the audience and gives the 10 willing workers their final instructions.

"Remember," the seminar leader says sternly, "we are in the barbell business to make money. The manager is responsible for ensuring that you work fast and efficiently. I don't want any talking or fooling around on the assembly line. Do you understand, manager?" The manager frowns and nods.

"Okay," the seminar leader continues, "the inspector is in charge of quality control. If any of your barbells do not meet specifications, she will yell 'rework' and send the defective barbell around again. I don't want any talking or fooling around on the assembly line. It costs money. Do you willing workers understand?" The willing workers hesitate, then nod nervously.

"Now, when I say begin," the seminar leader adds, "you take a toy part from your bag and pass it to the willing worker on your right. When you receive a part from your left, you either add a piece or take a piece off, then pass it on to your right. And remember, no talking or goofing off. Our production quota is five barbells in three minutes. Ready, begin!"

As the willing workers begin fumbling through the randomly placed toy parts in their paper bags, the manager immediately starts yelling, "Make barbells! Faster! More barbells! Faster!"

One of the many problems the workers face is that only the inspector knows what an acceptable barbell looks like. Consequently, the manager's exhortations are quickly joined by the inspector's shouts of "Rework!" as the workers produce dozens of good, but unacceptable, barbells. Soon a pattern emerges:

The inspector's shouts of "Rework!" cause the manager to shout louder, "Faster! Faster!" This in turn causes the workers to work faster, which causes the inspector to shout, "Rework!" more often, which causes the manager to shout louder, "Make more barbells! Faster!" which causes the workers to work faster. And so on.

Utter Chaos

The assembly line demonstration seldom lasts the full three minutes. Invariably, one of the willing workers turns around and says to the manager, "Shut up!"

This causes the manager to respond, "Be quiet and work faster! " A shouting match ensues and serves as a signal to the seminar leader that it's time to stop the activity.

After a brief cooling off period, the seminar leader guides the entire group through a debriefing process. "Was this process capable of producing five acceptable barbells in three minutes?" the seminar leader asks.

The group, usually led by the former willing workers, responds, "No!"

"Would offering the workers merit pay improve their productivity?"


"Why not?"

"Because the system is not capable of producing five barbells in three minutes, and offering workers merit pay won't change that. If you want to improve productivity, you have to change the system," a participant answers.

Was the manager's 'encouragement' helpful?" the seminar leader asks.


"Why not?"

"His yelling did nothing to help us improve the system."

"Would a kinder, gentler manager have helped?"

"Yes," a former willing worker says, "but it would not have changed the outcome."

"Why not?"

"The system was not capable of producing five acceptable barbells in three minutes, and a kinder, gentler manager would not have helped us improve the system."

"Did the inspector help?"

A former willing worker responds, "No!"

"Why not?"

"Her shouting 'rework' did not let us know what was wrong or how to improve. All she did was increase our frustration. She did nothing to help us improve the system."

"Perhaps the system was underfunded," the seminar leader speculates. Would doubling the number of people on the assembly line have helped?"

"No!" answers a former willing worker. "More people would not have improved the system. In fact, it may have made things worse."

Changing the System

At this point, the seminar leader summarizes the group's conclusions: "So let me get this straight. There is nothing I can do to the workers, inspector, or manager that will improve the workers' ability to make acceptable barbells. The only way to improve productivity is to change the system?"

"Yes!" the group answers confidently.

The seminar leader then asks participants to "...list the changes we need to make in this process to ensure the workers are capable of producing five acceptable barbells in three minutes or less."

The list of process improvements is always the same. They include:

After generating the list, the 10 willing workers are allowed to turn their chairs around, observe the acceptable barbell, design a new process capable of producing five barbells in three minutes, and begin again. The second time, the group always produces five acceptable barbells in 15 seconds or less, and the larger group gives them a much deserved round of applause.

Educational Implications

There's a short distance between the example of the barbell demonstration and most of the nation's classrooms and schools. When the seminar leader asks participants to describe the similarities between the tinker toy exercise and the nation's public school system, some 40 hands go up. Participants generate a list that includes:

Wrap Up

The seminar leader ends this debriefing by asking a series of questions:

"Is it fair to conclude that we will never significantly improve student learning until we significantly improve our educational processes and systems?" The group silently nods yes.

"Will adding 30 days to our current school year improve student learning?"

"Probably not," a few scattered voices answer softly

"Assuming we make no other changes in the system, will hiring more teachers and lowering class sizes 25 percent lead to dramatic gains in student achievement?"

"No," the group answers.

"Will teaching principals and superintendents to be kinder and gentler enhance student learning?"

Everyone laughs and answers, "No!"

The seminar leader then summarizes the key point of the tinker toy exercise. "Most of the production capacity in any organization comes from the organization's systems and processes—not its people. Blaming people did not improve your ability to make barbells, and it will not improve your ability to teach children. The only way to significantly improve student achievement is by significantly improving our public education systems. Everything else is just useless, and often times harmful tinkering."

Identifying Specific Customer Expectations

When asked to redesign the barbell process, the willing workers first asked to see an acceptable barbell. In doing so, they exhibited the first step in creating a high-performing organization: identifying specific customer expectations. This is central to all high-performance organizations.

The inspector's calls of rework taught the willing workers that creating good barbells was not enough. They had to create barbells that met customer expectations. Public school educators face the same dilemma. Before we can improve our education processes, we must first identify our customers' specific expectations.

A School's Customers Are Defined by Its Mission.

A clear mission, usually assigned to schools by their local school board, enables schools to identify their customers and their customers' expectations. If the mission of elementary schools is to prepare students for middle school, for example, then the customers of elementary schools are middle schools. If the mission of middle schools is to prepare students for high school, then the customers of middle schools are high schools. And if the purpose of high schools is to prepare students for college or entry level employment, then the high school's customers are colleges and entry level employers. Schools should avoid broad mission statements such as, "Create an environment that nurtures life-long learners, " because they do not help identify their primary external customers.

Once a school uses a mission statement to identify its external customers, it should determine the expectations of its customers. An elementary school whose mission is to prepare students for middle school must communicate with the middle school to determine what knowledge and skills students must have to be successful at the middle school level.

These expectations should be specific. An expectation that "students will write well" is inappropriate. A better expectation is that "students entering Lincoln Middle School will score five or above on the state writing assessment." Specific customer expectations make process alignment and continual improvement possible. These are two basic features of high-performing schools.

Many educators erroneously assume that their primary external customers are parents and students. Fifth grade students or parents of fifth-graders are not responsible for determining how well the students should read or write in middle school. That's a responsibility of the middle school.

Establishing Strategic Planning Goals

The next step in creating a high-performing school is to establish precise planning goals from the specific customer expectations. To be most effective, these should be stretch goals that go well beyond the school's current achievement capacity but not so high that they discourage employees and students.

When educators first see the goals, they should recognize that reaching the goals will not be possible without significantly improving the school's processes and systems. Florida, for example, has a statewide writing assessment for eighth graders that is evaluated on a six-point scale. The statewide average is 2.5. A good middle school stretch goal is that "every eighth grader at Lincoln Middle School will score a 5 or above on the next state writing assessment. A Florida middle school will not achieve all fives on this writing assessment without significantly changing how students are taught.

As the previous example illustrates, precision is important when developing planning goals. The inspector's cries of rework did not enable the willing workers to be more successful because they lacked a precise model of an appropriate barbell. A goal of "improving student writing" will not lead to significant changes in how teachers teach writing. Without precise, measurable planning goals and a reliable measurement system that lets students, teachers, and parents know how successful the school is in achieving these goals, meaningful school improvement is not possible. Telling elementary school teachers that students entering middle school need to write better is not helpful. Telling these same teachers that students need to score a five on the state's writing assessment and training them to reliably apply the state's writing assessment in their classrooms will make improvement possible.

Improving Processes and Systems

Once the willing workers saw the picture of an appropriate barbell, they designed a process that produced five acceptable barbells in 15 seconds. The key to their success was aligning their processes to meet the specific customer expectations. In high-performing schools, all processes and systems are aligned to the precise strategic goals that derive from the specific customer expectations. If a school's goal is for all fifth graders to achieve a five or above score on the state writing assessment, for example, then every process for teaching writing will be focused on achieving this goal.

In high-performance schools, the processes and systems used to achieve the school's strategic planning goals are guided by four interdependent principles:

  1. alignment — All processes and systems should be clearly designed to achieve the school's strategic planning goals, customer expectations, and mission. Any process that is inconsistent with the school's mission, customer expectations, and planning goals should be aligned or eliminated.
  2. continual improvement — All processes and systems should be continually evaluated and improved.
  3. prevention — improvement is greatest when the improvement efforts enable educators to be successful the first time and avoid having to do remedial work.
  4. managing with facts — Management decisions should be based on facts derived from reliable data and analysis. School and classroom leaders use valid and reliable student learning data to guide their management decisions.

Creating Reliable Measurement Systems in Schools and Classrooms

Just as the inspector's cries of rework did nothing to improve the willing workers' abilities to create appropriate barbells, current state student testing programs generate inspection data that do not help students and teachers meet their customers' expectations. School and classroom leaders cannot use valid and reliable student learning data to guide their management decisions if these data are not available daily in classrooms and schools. Schools must create information systems capable of providing school employees with timely, useful information. They should guide their decisions about what information to collect by the school's strategic goals and should not collect information that does not contribute to achieving these goals.

Transforming state testing programs from centralized inspections systems to decentralized process improvement systems is the single biggest obstacle to the creation of high-performing schools. Alignment, continual improvement, prevention, and management by facts are not possible if reliable and valid measurements do not exist in the classroom.

Improving Supplier Quality

The greatest productivity gains in most high-performing schools come from improving supplier quality. Supplier quality is the quality of services and goods that organizations, systems, and processes receive from their suppliers. The word "quality" in this context does not imply goodness, but a pragmatic system of continual improvement designed to meet and exceed customer expectations. Quality services, therefore, are those services that meet and exceed customer expectations and are continually improving.

The effectiveness of a public school or classroom increases as its supplier quality is enhanced. Middle schools, for example, are better able to meet the expectations of their customers, the high schools, if their suppliers, the elementary schools, meet their needs. As this example suggests, schools are linked in a series of interdependent customer/supplier relationships. Schools are dependent on each other for success, and when one part of the chain breaks down, the entire school system fails.

This same customer/supplier interdependence exists between grade levels within a school. Third grade is a supplier to fourth grade, which is a supplier to fifth grade. Improving supplier quality from third grade will enhance the efforts of fourth grade to meet and exceed the customer expectations of fifth grade. Properly managing the interdependence between schools in a district, and grade levels within a school, is a primary responsibility of leadership in high performing school systems.

Questions and Answers

  1. My superintendent wants our school to start benchmarking. What is benchmarking?

    Benchmarking is identifying and sharing information about best practices. A school that is beginning a schoolwide initiative to improve reading, for example, will benefit from visiting a similar school that is improving its students' reading skills. By examining and, when appropriate, adopting the best practices from other institutions, schools can accelerate their continual improvement process.

  2. Representatives from our elementary school recently visited our local middle school and asked the school staff to identify specific academic expectations. The middle school didn't have any expectations. Now what?

    Without reliable K-12 classroom measurements, teachers have difficulty communicating specific customer expectations. Try proposing specific expectations to the middle school faculty, using the best measurements available. If your state has a reading assessment, for example, propose that all graduating fifth graders achieve a specific level of achievement on this assessment. If possible, choose a state assessment from which a reliable classroom measurement system can be developed. Without reliable classroom measures, most improvement efforts degenerate into random acts of innovation.

  3. Our state Department of Education has no interest in changing our state assessment system from inspection to process improvement, What should we do?

    If the state refuses to develop a reliable K-12 classroom measurement system, your school district will have to develop the system. The task is too complex and time consuming for individual schools to attempt.

  4. Our faculty have become cynical about education reform. How do we deal with this cynicism?

    Acknowledge their cynicism, and let faculty members know that it's justified. Over the last several decades, public school educators have been inundated with "random acts of innovation." The walls go in, the walls come out, the walls go in, the walls come out. Educators are understandably cynical. But they also want to do a good job, and most still maintain their idealistic belief that they can make a difference. If they believe a change will genuinely improve student learning, most educators will be supportive. The key is convincing them that a specific change will improve student learning.

    The most convincing evidence comes from personal experience. Provide faculty members with an opportunity to learn from schools where specific changes have led to measurable improvements in student achievement. Don't focus on schools that claim to be making a difference but have no reliable student achievement data to support their assertions.

  5. Many of our faculty and administrators do not believe that all students can learn at world-class levels and, consequently, do not see the need to change. What do we say to those folks?

    In our current public education system, all students can't learn at world-class levels, and leaders should acknowledge this. But educators are wrong to assume that low-performing students are incapable of meeting high standards. Activities such as the tinker toy exercise illustrate the power of systems thinking and the need to focus on improving systems and not blaming people.

    Many individuals adhere to the erroneous belief that intelligence is a fixed trait and that some students have it and some don't. Sharing current research on human intelligence and motivation will help dissuade some of this myth.

    Finally, encouraging educators to visit schools and classrooms that use Deming's research and the Baldrige technology to create high performing learning environments will enable doubters to see students achieving at levels not possible in traditional settings.

  6. We do not choose the students who come to our elementary school. How are we supposed to improve supplier quality?

    Parents are the suppliers to kindergarten, and elementary schools need to communicate their customer expectations to their future parents. If kindergarten teachers want entering students to know their letters and numbers, then this information needs to be clearly communicated to parents.

    Schools with difficulty identifying future parents should communicate their expectations to the entire community. Ask grocery stores to put the expectations on grocery bags, and list them on donated billboards. If we provide specific expectations to parents, most will respond.

  7. Our school board and district bureaucracy are highly resistant to change. How do we get started?

    Seek out progressive businesses in the community that have initiated continual quality improvement efforts and form a partnership. Talk to leaders of education employee unions about forming partnerships with these businesses. Such partnerships can assist in providing the vision and political support the school board and superintendent need to attempt substantive improvement efforts. If the business community and union agree on a strategy, the school board and superintendent will be more inclined to move forward. If such businesses do not exist in your community, contact national organizations such as the NEA, American Association of School Administrators, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the National Alliance of Business. Ask for information on how to improve organizational effectiveness through the application of quality systems and present this to your system's policymakers and administrators.

  8. What should I do tomorrow?

    Leaders require new knowledge. Begin learning about the new research on high productivity organizations, and the new organizational technologies that are based on this research. Join NEA's electronic discussion group on quality applications in schools. For further information on this and other resources, contact the NEA Learning Laboratories Initiative staff by telephone at 202-822-7907 or through e-mail at

This booklet was written by Doug Tuthil, who has been actively engaged in applying Quality technology in the Pinellas County, Florida local education association, school district and high school classroom where he currently teaches.
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