No one is drawn to mediocrity. Elevate your teaching.

Alternate title: How the Japanese went from making the cheapest junk on the planet to designing and manufacturing the best cars in the world! (What we did for Japan after World War II and why those lessons can affect public education today.)


This is NOT about the Japanese educational system! (I tried to state this positively, but I failed.) I get exhausted reading comparisons of the American system of education to the Japanese system of education. Japanese education is rote. The culture in Japan is drastically different than that in the USA. Students in Japan are not taught to think creatively; they are not taught to think critically; they spend way too much time at school; personal ambition is thwarted and personal exploration is suppressed. Besides, who in America wants a middle school student going to school ten hours a day and on Saturdays? (We’d never find enough teachers to give up their weekends!)

So, this is not a comparison of the Japanese system of education to the American system of education. This is not a chapter guilt-tripping all American students, parents, and educators to perform better on standardized tests so we can look like we are smarter than the Japanese. Finally, this is not a chapter comparing the schools of Kyoto to the schools of Kansas. (Kyoto is a city; Kansas is a state, but the alliteration was unavoidable!) Second, after all those words about what this chapter is NOT, this is the longest entry about public education, so hang in there!

W. Edwards Deming

At the end of World War II, after the United States had annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and accepted unconditional surrender, the USA prepared to make reparations. One of the greatest gifts the USA gave to Japan was a man named W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of the quality movement in business. He transformed Japanese thinking about manufacturing and as a result, Japan began producing better products than the US. Today, all American cars are compared to Toyotas and Hondas to measure quality. Japanese electronics are unsurpassed.

Deming offered the Japanese fourteen key principles for management transforming business effectiveness. His fourteen points are now the basis of quality production all over the world. These fourteen points can be applied to any customer-based industry, and schools can benefit from this as well—schools which truly desire to improve the quality of education among their students.

Of course, schools are not factories manufacturing little replicated students. However, as schools strive to measure the quality of education they offer and the quality of students they produce, they would do well to adapt and adopt Deming’s principles to their administrative management of personnel. (I will state the principles that apply to education and offer some examples of how they may apply. If they do not apply, I will merely state Deming’s principle.)

Constancy of purpose.

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and stay in business….

The “constancy of purpose toward improvement” factor is the key part as schools strive to become better in what they offer and the kind of students they produce. If your school (all the teachers and all the administration) is not willing to change in order to improve writing scores and the quality of writing, there will be no improvement. An atmosphere of improvement must pervade the entire school. Unfortunately, this usually occurs only after teachers, parents, and administration have had enough of status quo. They are not proactive, but reactive. In some cases, this occurs when the feds come in to improve your school for you. The desire to change must happen with a few people, then teachers, then parents, and district administration will follow after they see results.

 New philosophy.

  1. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

Change is the key word here because quality-based education is a new idea. Western management strategies have traditionally been top-down strategies. The model for Deming’s work is flatter. Change is gonna come. Get ready for it.

 Inspect constantly.

  1. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

This is a key aspect of Deming’s work. Before Deming, on an assembly line an inspector checked the final product, even though portions of the final product were impossible to see. In his new model, inspection took place throughout the assembly. Even more novel was the fact that each worker was empowered to stop the assembly line if he or she saw a breach in quality.

Schools check quality with assessments and by means of observations of the teacher by administration either during a set time with a prepared lesson plan or by doing walk-throughs and taking notes about what is seen. Greater quality for a school could be accomplished by peer review and spot observations during the day throughout the week. Collaboration between teachers within departments increases the quality of education. End of year student assessments have their place, but they should assess student work, not teacher performance. Too many other factors are in play for student assessments to be the mitigating factor on performance.

 Rethink textbook practices.

  1. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

The manner of purchasing textbooks for a district wastes more time than me trying to teach an English Language Learner student to read a Harry Potter book. This principle can apply to any materials purchased for the school, but annually, the largest ticket item is textbooks.

The current system is this: A textbook company publishes a book. Then, all the publishers who want their books adopted send their books to various districts, whereupon curriculum councils look at all the books, get input from teachers who look at all the books, pilot all of the series to students who look at all the books, and finally adopt a publisher’s work for use by students. Seldom are districts and teachers fully satisfied. Instead a consensus is reached and the best textbook is chosen. Again, few are satisfied because the process is reactive rather than proactive.

A teacher’s job is to teach. Why do districts take their precious teaching time and create busy work by making teachers analyze textbooks? Teachers have too much to do every day to look at every text and all the support materials. Further, teachers have too much at stake (student learning) to set aside the presently adopted textbook (and their lesson plans) in order to pilot a new series of texts, CD’s, software, support materials, and manipulatives. Does anyone actually believe that this is an effective way to choose a curriculum for a district’s use? Yet, districts persist in this ineffective manner of choosing informational materials which will drive their instruction for the next five to seven years.

A proposed solution.

Instead, districts must become activists. They must work together with like-minded districts. They must band together to form a textbook association. Once the association is formed, they must find a hungry textbook company that’s willing to work—because it will take a little work by the publisher, not the teachers. Administrators survey teachers to gather the needs of teachers related to textbooks. Then, the administrations of like-minded districts meet with the publisher to mold and shape the text they need.

Choose and form the association of districts whose one goal is to get a text with which each district can be satisfied. Search out a textbook publisher with which several districts have been pleased, or better yet: find a publisher that is willing to meet the needs of an association of districts. Meet with the publisher and convince it that they are assured business by a dedicated group of districts if they can deliver a textbook and support materials that meet certain requirements. When this happens, districts get the book they want for the money that they have to spend. A trust is built between an association of districts and a publisher, and the next time textbooks are needed, each publisher left out of the process will be willing to work with you to get your business.

 Improve constantly.

  1. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease cost.

Teachers are used to change. They gripe about it, they bitch about it, they whine about it. But every teacher knows that someone always has something new to be tried. The pendulum swings more in education than in a Poe short story! There’s a simple reason for this: Students change! Teachers will tolerate change if the end result of the change contains an overriding principle of improvement. If a teacher can see improvement in the lives of their students, they will be willing to try it. Why? Because that’s what they do every day. Teachers look for better ways to accomplish their educational goals, but only if there is a greater payoff at the end of the process. Schools are better now in California than they were in 1990. They may not be as much “fun,” but the goal of education is not fun; Disneyland is fun! The goal of education is to prepare students for life.

 Keep training fresh and relevant.

  1. Institute training on the job.

Schools have always been great about training their people. Training is intrinsic to the job. Partly, this is due to all the peripheral businesses that surround public education like vultures on a corpse. But with great variety comes choice. Teachers and administration can choose how they spend their money for training. Teachers like what works!

I spend the equivalent of a Thanksgiving break in in-services. I work in a district that set out from the beginning to train their teachers, and my district obtains some pretty high-level speakers at these training sessions. Not all districts do this. Unless you have some experts in educational trends, teacher-talk + in-services = waste of time. The afternoon grinds on. Boring, boring, boring. Many, many teacher training sessions create an opportunity to catch up on your favorite novel, grade papers, or study sports scores. In-services should be as vital and vibrant as the first day of school.

Some of my colleagues have been teaching for about a century and have seen everything come and go two or three times. Once I asked one of them, “What do you get out of these training times?” He replied, “I just look for one thing that I can apply for the rest of the year.” He is one of the finest teachers in our district because he is constantly trying to improve what he does.

 Find great leaders.

  1. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job.

I have worked for great principals. Every principal has had a love for children, a respect for teachers, and an innate skill for managing people. But I have heard some stories and seen some things in other schools which lead me to believe that my situations have been good ones. Here are my observations.

Principals have a tough task. In the middle of doing that task looms the fact that he or she can be fired at will. A principal who was facing a tough decision that could have impacted her employment once told me, “You have tenure, and I like my job.” Lesson: Principals can get fired.

However, some principals should never have applied for the job. Schools must find principals that are leaders of people with true leadership abilities. Many principals are teachers who have been elevated to positions that exceed their abilities. Leading and managing adults is a different job than educating children. Too many teachers are swayed to become administrators by the numbers on a paycheck. Teachers think that administration is simply the next step up in education. For those of you who think this isn’t true, watch what happens anytime an administrator is hired who doesn’t have a background in education. Teachers love to gripe… but they gripe more about a principal who cannot and will not do the job. Administrators are administrators; teachers are teachers. They are two different skill sets in education.

Solution: If you want to see who gravitates toward leadership and who is drawn to teaching, equalize their compensation. Pay principals the same as teachers or pay teachers the same as principals.

Principals are middle management. They can certainly go up in the hierarchy of administration, but they can seldom go down. Teaching is a different profession than administration. A principal’s job is to run a school. A teacher’s job is to educate children. The jobs are exclusive. Principals, do you come to work each day and take a deep breath before you get out of your car dreading what awaits you at the front door? Do you expect your assistant to inform you of the latest problem instead of greeting you with “Good morning!” Are you being treated for ulcers, migraines, hyper-tension? If you are, the job you are doing isn’t for you. Get out of the office and go back into the classroom where you belong. If you have just read the last sentence and you are thinking, What will my staff think of me going back to being a teacher? then, you are in the wrong job. Leaders don’t think about what people think about them; they think about the task to be accomplished and how they are going to get there.

John Maxwell asks this question of leaders: Do you want to know if you’re a leader? Turn around and see who’s following! A very simple way exists for administrators in school districts to determine who their good leaders are and who their poor leaders are: Ask the teachers.

 Eliminate fear.

  1. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

Fear usually disappears from a teacher’s life as soon as tenure is acquired. However, in order to maintain quality education, a school must become a safe place to work. I’m not talking about metal detectors; I am talking about the absence of administrative superiority. I am talking about a non-hostile work environment. If a principal separates himself from the teaching staff and creates an atmosphere of me and the teachers instead of a climate of teamwork and collaboration, the school is doomed. Teachers will shut down. New ideas will not be expressed. Backbiting will be rampant, and the goal of meeting the needs of students will never be met.

Administrators are not the only ones to blame. Teachers can be vicious, too. Older teachers may feel threatened by the shot of energy new teachers bring. Some veterans will eat the young teachers if given the opportunity. Thinking outside the box is dangerous in education, but necessary, and teachers must be able to experiment without fear of reprisal. Doing something that hasn’t been tried before is usually frowned upon when the staff is an experienced staff. “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?” they sneer. Education tends to be reactive in all it does. When new teachers come aboard, the vets often look with skepticism at their ideas. “We hate adrenaline!” they bitch. This must be eliminated.

No barriers.

  1. Break down barriers between departments. People… must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.

Time should be given at staff meetings for teachers in different grades to interact. This discussion will get rid of such comments as “Why don’t you teach them this?” or “How can you send me kids that don’t know how to read?”

Deming offered five additional principles, but most cannot be applied to education, except 11. The five are listed below:

  1. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships.

Get rid of numerical goals.

 11a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

Every year I get to look at the scores of the students I had last year. I no longer have them in my classes and looking at their scores does nothing for me except tell me how many right answers they chose on a given day on a given week last year. It does nothing to inform my teaching for this year since I have a whole new crop of students with different needs, abilities, and skills. I cannot set goals using these numbers. If I receive the numbers of my present students, it is more helpful, but several factors are now different: the factor of the middle school itself, the peer pressures of middle school, a changing body, a changing brain, establishment of new personality traits, puppy love, real love, drugs and alcohol, social media, bullying, and I could go on for pages. Determining approaches to teaching based on test scores is fruitless.

12a. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
b. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means the abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

Educate teachers.

  1. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.

Most districts do this.

Everybody on campus is an educator.

  1. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s work.

Everyone is responsible for a student’s education. Principal, teacher, aide, proctor, cooks, kitchen workers, custodians, crossing guard, coaches,… everyone!

For more information about Deming, go to:


©2018 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.

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