Edwards Deming meets No Child Left Behind

Current appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the health care debate will not, in fact, go on forever. One of the items on the post-health-care agenda is reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as modified by the No Child Left Behind bill passed in 2002.

One of the striking features about NCLB is the primitive evaluation mechanism it employs. It’s pure defect-finding: measuring the percentages of kids of different types who fail to achieve some standard, as measured by standardized tests. Henry Ford would recognize it. W. Edwards Deming would be appalled by it.

Statistical quality assurance depends on sampling, not census inspection; on paying attention to the entire range of outcomes, not just whether a given outcome meets or fails to meet some standard; and on process. And it is continuous and interactive rather than purely retrospective. In Deming’s world, the purpose of quality assurance is to feed back information about processes and their outcomes to operators so the processes can be changed in real time.

One of the reason Honda and Toyota ate General Motors’s lunch is that the Japanese car companies adopted statistical quality assurance while Detroit was still inspecting every part coming off the assembly line to see whether it was within tolerance. Why are we using those same outdated principles to manage the much more complicated problem of teaching children to read, write, and reckon?

Applying statistical QA to education would involve:

– Selecting a sample of students for high-quality, expensive testing rather than settling for the level of observation we can afford to do on every student.

– Using information about the whole range of performance rather than fixating on an arbitrary cutoff.

– Taking measurements all through the school year, not just at the end, and getting the results back to the teachers promptly.

There’s really no excuse for running our educational system on the management principles of 1920.