Special Report: Quality in Education on the Move

School Educates Community Through TQM

by Bill Gaslin, Ed.D., and Tom Tapper, Ed.D.

A Minnesota school district uses quality principles
to resolve school-community conflicts.

Much has been written about the application of total quality management to education. In education's attempt to adapt quality concepts to schools, a great deal of focus has been placed on W. Edwards Deming's 14 points. Educators have attempted to rewrite his principles in terms that fit the learning environment.

Unfortunately, such attempts have, all too often, only provided an opportunity for some to find fault with the basic tenets of total quality. They criticize its business origins, lack of applicability and narrow focus on manufacturing and production. A basic understanding of TQM's foundations often gets lost in such arguments.

Putting aside for the purpose of this discussion the importance of TQM's meas-urement elements, the essence of total quality lies not in the ability to rewrite Deming's 14 points to fit every condition in education. Rather, it lies in understanding that total quality places importance on recognizing the individual as an integral part of the organization's success and in developing and implementing processes for participation in decision making. All this increases the likelihood of organizational success.

More important, when that opportunity is afforded in such a way that individuals feel a genuine sense of dignity and respect, and know they have been heard fairly, openly and in a "you make a difference" manner, the organization will not only succeed in its endeavors but will also improve and grow. Within this context, TQM was put to the test in a suburban school district.

The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District serves seven communities lying north and east of St. Paul, Minnesota. Each community is demographically unique. The school district serves about 65,000 residents and has a student population of 10,400. It includes 10 elementary schools, two junior high schools and two high schools. The oldest high school is located in North St. Paul. The original facility, built in 1916, is still in use. The student population has been growing for the last several years, leaving the district short of space. Many facilities badly need repair and/or replacement.

Facing these challenges, the district sought the passage of a $38.5 million bond referendum for the repair and replacement of elementary and junior high facilities and for studying the location of a new senior high facility. Presented to the public, the referendum was defeated, 3,500 to 2,500. The school district conducted a survey seeking feedback for the failure. It found the public was concerned by the lack of a specific plan for the location of a replacement high school.

With that information in mind, the school board and administration set about the task of identifying a location for a new high school and developing a building plan. Within 11 months, the public voted on another bond . This time, the referendum totaled $73.5 million, with various upgrades and plans for an elementary school addition, new elementary/middle-school facilities and a new senior high school located in one of the communities.

In spite of numerous public hearings and volunteer groups working in support of this second referendum, it also failed. This time, 55 percent voted against it. The school district had failed twice in less than a year to pass a bond levy and found itself faced with the difficult questions of how to handle overcrowded school classrooms and deteriorating facilities inadequate to provide quality education.

In response to the defeat, the school board decided to take a third bond levy to the voters. This time, in order to help ensure success, they formed the Blue Ribbon task force. This task force consisted of representatives of previous referendum support groups, community leaders, school personnel and representatives of previous referendum opponent groups. The school board charged the task force "to develop a comprehensive plan that would enable the passage of a bond referendum providing quality facilities for learners in the school district at a cost that was acceptable to the community."

In planning their work, the task force decided that in order to be successful, they would conduct their work utilizing quality applications that would allow all participants to actively involve themselves in the planning process without fear of intimidation. Additionally, the task force would utilize statistical process control tools as the means to develop their plan. The planning process took seven meetings over a period of six weeks to complete the work.

Meeting One: Establishing the culture
The task force consisted of 25 members. The school board and superintendent determined membership. As mentioned earlier, the board made a deliberate attempt to select a cross-representation of community members. With such a diverse group, the task force needed to establish a working environment that would allow all participants to be comfortable, neutralize hostility and promote open communications. To accomplish this, task force members each described a "quality" experience. Individuals shared experiences, leading to the listing of a common set of understandings associated with quality.

With the lists taped to the meeting room walls, task force members then reflected on what they valued in a working relationship. The task force used a proc-ess of small-group and large-group consensus building to obtain the results. After receiving time for individual reflection, the task force divided into four small groups, each containing six task force members. The small groups developed a single set of values that all shared.

Following the small-group discussions, task force members gathered back into the large group and developed a single set of value statements for the entire task force. This resulted in a set of values that served as the guiding principles for all subsequent task force meetings. These value statements were posted on the wall before each meeting. Each member also received a wallet-size copy of the values. This process established the task force's culture. It was referred to from time to time in subsequent meetings when task force interaction became tense. The proc-ess proved to be a very important step in helping members work constructively toward their objective.

Meeting Two: Identifying challenges
In the second meeting, task force members began to look at what they needed to do for the district to be successful in passing a referendum. Members were given an overview of force field analysis and how to use it. The organization's fundamental position was described in terms of having "failed referendums." The desired position the district wanted to be in was described as having "successfully passed" a referendum.

Again, the task force divided into small groups and proceeded to identify those forces that prevented the district from successfully passing a bond referendum. Each group also tried to identify the "positive" forces that, when unleashed, would help the district successfully pass a referendum. Each group reported findings and perceptions to the large group. The results were posted on the meeting room wall.

After members expressed their comments, each received three dot stickers; each a different color with a different point value. Members affixed the dots by the three forces (either positive or negative) that would have the greatest impact on the success of a referendum. Results were tabulated. A Pareto chart identified the primary forces standing in the way of a successful referendum. Also, they identified the positive forces that were perceived to be most effective toward the passage of a referendum.

Meeting Three: Identifying solutions
The third meeting began by talking about cause-and-effect analysis. Members learned how to use this technique to develop solutions to a problem.

Working in their small groups, they used cause-and-effect diagramming to respond to the question of a failed referendum. In this case, the effect to be resolved was a failed referendum. Small-group discussions identified the causes. They then presented results and displayed them on the walls, and grouped and categorized causative factors.

Meeting Four: Listening to the experts
The district had conducted several community surveys, studied facility utilization and consulted state department of education officials. All this information had been thoroughly reviewed by the administration and board. The community had been given an opportunity to examine the research in public meetings. In spite of these efforts, the referendums had failed.
At the fourth meeting, members were provided with whatever information they desired and given the opportunity to question whomever they felt they would like to talk to, regarding any issues related to construction and cost of new facilities. With assistance from school district administration, all materials requested were provided for task force review. A panel of experts associated with previous district efforts was made available for interviews with the task force.
The format for this meeting resembled a press conference. The facilitator served as the moderator. The task force had asked for the superintendent, a representative from the state department of education, a member of the architectural firm assigned to conduct a facility feasibility study and a member of the state fire marshal's office to be panel members. The task force members asked questions of the panel of experts.

The ground rules were simple; questions would be directed at individual panel members, would be straightforward and stated in a nonargumentative fashion. Only one follow-up question was allowed for each questioner. Task force questions focused on the many issues that had been identified through the cause-and-effect diagram exercise and force field analysis.

Meeting Five: Building solutions
In meeting five, participants began the process of building solutions. They first analyzed the results of the cause-and-effect diagrams. They categorized causative factors and placed them on the meeting room wall. Once again, task force members could identify those factors that were most significant to previous failures. A Pareto chart illustrated results.

In addition, task force members listed, through brainstorming, those efforts previously conducted by the district that did not work. With these final two pieces of information, task force members began identifying what the district needed to do to "fix" the system.

Meeting Six: Refining solutions
At this meeting, the small groups were reconstructed from four groups to two. The first group worked on reviewing all of the previously developed solutions, combining similar recommendations and refining all recommendations into a single set for consideration by the entire task force.

The second group worked to ensure that there were no gaps in the planning process. Their task was to develop any new recommendations that they deemed essential to the successful presentation of the bond levy to the public. At the end of this session, the groups presented their findings to the entire task force.

Meeting Seven: Putting the plan together
The task force had one final meeting to put the entire plan together. All proposed solutions were again presented to the entire group. It is important to note that consensus had been used in developing and bringing forward solutions into this final work session.

The set of final solutions was placed on the meeting room walls. Participants spoke to the importance of each, and the group made final refinement of solutions. The task force eliminated any solutions that could not achieve group consensus. The end result was a set of nine recommendations that the task force felt would, if carried out, give the school district the best possible chance for the successful passage of the bond referendum. The task force presented the plan to the administration and the board.

The results
The school district and board accepted the task force's recommendations. They carefully analyzed and implemented each recommendation. Members of the task force became participants in the communitywide effort to pass the referendum. Because of the hard work of the task force, as well as of the school board and administration, a new bond election was held within nine weeks of the previously failed referendum.

The referendum called for the passage of a $62.8 million bond to provide a new high school (on a different site than previously proposed), an elementary/middle-school complex, additions and improvements to existing facilities, and technology upgrades. In contrast to previous elections, little organized opposition for the plan existed. Previous referendum opponents who participated on the task force either supported the new planning effort or stood in support of the task force recommendations. Communitywide ownership in the task force plan was evident. On election day, voters in this suburban school district voted in favor of the levy referendum, 6,250 for and 4,900 against.

What has been learned?
The principles underlying TQM have broad application in education and can yield positive results. Establishing proc-esses involving others, even those with diverse views, helps to promote trust and understanding, leading to successful outcomes. Giving those involved in the proc-ess of building solutions the tools to be successful in their efforts is equally important. And finally, creating an environment that values individual differences and respects the views of others is necessary to a successful outcome.

About the authors
Bill Gaslin, Ed.D., is superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District. He can be contacted at 2055 Larpenteur Ave., Maplewood, MN 55109.

Tom Tapper, Ed.D., is assistant superintendent of schools at Northeast Metro Intermediate District 916 and served as facilitator for the task force. He can be contacted at 3300 Century Ave., White Bear Lake, MN 55110, or by telephoning PlanWise Inc. at (612) 653-4475.