Picture Picture

  Performance Improvement    by H. James Harrington

The Business of Education

If there ever was a situation made for process
 reengineering, this is it.

What’s happening in our public school systems?

A recent international study reveals that, of all the students in the countries surveyed, U.S. high school graduates score the poorest in math and science. Another study of students, ages 8 and 12, concludes that, out of the 16 countries analyzed, U.S. students rank 14th in knowledge and applied learning. Meanwhile, the San Francisco school board ponders the correct ratio of minority authors in school libraries instead of addressing why many students are incapable of reading any library books.

   The Nightly Business Report TV program recently pres- ented a roundtable discussion about what the United States should do to encourage engineers and scientists to immigrate here. “We cannot survive without buying brainpower from outside the United States,” said Cisco Systems’ president. The gov-ernment already has implemented special immigration programs to encourage professionals; I know two who have relocated to the United States under this program. Both of them are lawyers. Heaven knows we don’t need more lawyers in the United States.

What has happened to the quality of our education system? The United States spends 6.8 percent of its gross national product on education, compared with Japan’s 6.5 percent and Germany’s 4.7 percent, yet it gets much poorer results. Only 7 percent of our 17-year-olds are prepared for college-level science courses.

Many of us are tempted to blame teachers for the education system’s poor quality. However, I don’t agree with that easy way out. In fact, I believe teachers should be applauded for showing up every day for class. Many of them should get hazardous-duty pay as they try to teach undisciplined students, some of them armed with knives and guns.

We also position U.S. big business as an enemy rather than a contributor to the world’s best living standard. We make heroes of people like Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Madonna, and as a result, they make more money than many corporation presidents. But the country’s true heroes are the Watsons, Fords, Edisons and Bells -- not athletes and pop stars.

The problem isn’t the teachers but the teachers’ customers: U.S. businesses and the public. Most educators, not surprisingly, consider students their customers, so they try to provide customer satisfaction by teaching students want they want to learn. But the truth is that business pays all the educational bills. If U.S. businesses, as customers, aren’t happy about the results they’re getting from the education system, they need to get more involved in defining their customer requirements.

We’ve allowed our classrooms to become entertainment centers rather than learning centers. If we want to change our failing public education system, we need to change two things: the process that transforms information into knowledge, and the process that prepares our children for education experience.

We’re well past the point of Band-Aid fixes such as more computers and smaller class sizes. We need to reengineer the U.S. public education process with the objective of making it at least 30 percent more efficient and 80 percent more effective. School boards and classrooms need to be challenged. If there ever was a situation made for the process reengineering approach, led and financed by the business community, this is it. The process to improve schools already has been developed and used successfully by other countries. We could begin by benchmarking their best practices. This would take care of half the problem.

We’ve made lawyer, doctor and stockbroker careers more desirable than engineering and science careers. We need to help students understand that there can be more personal satisfaction in discovering a new plastic or designing a new bridge than in writing a will. We need to pay people based upon their value-added contributions to the country.

The media, too, need to start living up to their moral obligations by promoting good classroom behavior and highlighting the importance of engineering and science. For starters, they could give as much coverage to the National Science Awards as they do the Academy Awards.

It’s up to all of us to motivate and prepare students to perform. We need to correct U.S. education problems together if we’re going to keep our technological edge, which is the chief reason for our high standard of living. This won’t be easy, but it can be done by applying sound management and quality principles to our schools and our lives.

I don’t have the answer to this problem, but if recognizing it is part of the solution, then this is a start. How do you think it can be resolved?


About the author

H. James Harrington is a principal at Ernst & Young and serves as its international quality advisor. He has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional and is the author of 12 books.

Harrington is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality. He can be reached at 55 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113; telephone (408) 947-6587, fax (408) 947-4971, e-mail jharrington@ His Web site address is


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