Paul Scicchitano

Quality Standards Update

by Paul Scicchitano

Education Reform a la 9000

Implementing ISO 9000 in schools may
help educators produce quality "products."

With gaggles of chatty teenagers and endless rows of cramped metal lockers, the York County Area Vocational-Technical School appears to be a typical suburban high school in every respect. But aside from its emphasis on shop skills, the 1,100-student facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has something that sets it apart from virtually every other public and private secondary school in the nation: an ISO 9002 registration certificate for one of its shop programs.

"We're used to looking at students as being students or kids," explains Ron Arnold, the school's tech prep coordinator. "Now we're looking at them as products. For our teachers, that was a complete turnabout."

The third-party certificate, which was awarded to the school's precision machine shop late last year, is evidence that at least some educators are paying more than lip service to the concept of quality students&emdash;or products, as the case may be.

Any student in the shop program whose grade point average drops below a 2.0 is treated as nonconforming product. This immediately triggers a preventive and/or corrective action request.

Arnold was busy preparing the first of such requests when I visited the school recently. The single-page document resembles something you might find in a sneaker factory, but its relevance to education is obvious.

At the top of the page, labeled "symptom," Arnold summarizes the academic factors that contribute to an out-of-tolerance grade point average. For example, one student ended the first marking period with an average of 1.205. "Corrective action taken" and "verification of effectiveness" comprise other sections of the document.

Arnold planned to meet with the student and his teachers to identify the cause of the unacceptable grades. A decision would be made as to whether the teenager needed a tutor to bring his average back into tolerance.

All of this information fits into the section "corrective action taken." After a few months, the corrective action will be reviewed to determine its effectiveness, and the findings will be reported in the last section. Students who don't improve face not only academic failure but also the threat of suspension from paid off-site training.

York is not the only school that is attempting ISO 9000. Newport University, which offers correspondence/mentoring programs in the United States, recently achieved registration. And Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not far from York, is considering districtwide implementation and possibly registration.

Israel has been at the forefront of ISO 9000 applications in schools. It has a few years' experience under a pilot project initiated by the government.

Recently I visited the Israel Air Force Technological Academy in Haifa, about a two-hour drive from Jerusalem. The school, which has several thousand students, successfully underwent an ISO 9002 registration audit back in June.

One of the newly implemented procedures, as a result of registration, requires school officials to regularly solicit feedback from former students as well as Air Force field units on the curriculum's effectiveness. The school's commandant also now responds to all signed complaints within a few weeks of receiving them.

The greatest challenge for educators is maintaining registration once the initial audit is conducted, according to Iris Kurtz, a lead auditor with the Standards Institution of Israel who specializes in ISO 9000 implementation in schools. As in any educational facility, there are always competing funding priorities.

Some Israeli schools that achieved registration within the past few years have failed to maintain it, either because of a lack of funding or management turnover. Kurtz says she is convinced that ISO 9000 has the potential to institutionalize the best educational practices and to force educators to set measurable academic performance goals.

Halfway around the globe, the York school's registration certificate covers a small part of the facility at this time&emdash;only 16 students&emdash;but the school already plans to spread its ISO 9000 program to other areas. But they may not be included in the third-party registration certificate.

Regardless of the program's success, Arnold concedes that registration probably won't add a fourth "R" to the American education system any time soon. It's not because children wouldn't benefit; it's simply because academicians tend to snub their noses at industry approaches like ISO 9000.

However, with shrinking tax bases and rising educational costs, this may change in the future. Let's face it: The status quo in many parts of the country just doesn't seem to be making the grade anymore.

About the author

Paul Scicchitano is managing editor of Quality Systems Update and QSU's Environmental Management Report, monthly newsletters devoted to ISO 9000, QS-9000 and ISO 14000 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Telephone (703) 591-9008, fax (703) 591-0971 or e-mail